Updated: Mar 29
©Kenneth S. Cohen
Photo: Paul Gallagher and Ken Cohen practicing Tai Chi Push Hands ca. 1980
My mind and heart are filled with thoughts of one of my oldest and dearest friends, Paul Gallagher (1944-2023). May his memory and the teachings he shared with so many be a blessing.
“Who is this rude young man?” Probably not how you would expect me to be greeted! Well, it was not said out loud but rather a thought in the mind of the great Tai Chi Master Paul Gallagher when he first saw me. Let me explain.
It was 1974. I was teaching my very first Tai Chi workshop at the New England Center for Personal Development in the Berkshire Mountains outside of Amherst, Massachusetts. Several students told me of a mysterious Taoist recluse, an American Tai Chi Master, who like me spoke Chinese and lived not far away, in Hadley. I was in my early twenties at the time; he was an “old guy,” just turned 30. I got his address, and when the workshop was over, I went out to the main road, stuck out my thumb and hitch-hiked. Only took three rides to get there.
When I arrived, I saw the Tai Chi studio attached to his home, beautiful spacious hardwood floors, wall to wall mirrors and Chinese calligraphies hanging here and there. Paul was in the midst of practicing the Yang Style Long Form, which he had learned as a senior student of T.T. Liang. I was stopped in my tracks, stunned. This is Tai Chi. Smooth and flowing like a great river, its power hidden in its depths. Flawless precision. So slow that he would never catch up to a turtle. Not wanting to disturb the Master I, perhaps rudely, opened the door, sat cross-legged on the floor and patiently watched until he finished. We laughed later when Paul told me what he thought during that peripheral vision first impression.
I stood up and we shook hands. When old friends meet for the first time, they continue a conversation that began who-knows-when. They met, meet, and will meet beyond time.
Our conversations could probably qualify us as members of the Qing Tan 清談, Pure Conversation School of third century Taoism, deep thoughts expressed with the least words necessary, and always with a dash of humor. It took me years to fill in some of the personal life-history details that are the foundation for most conversations.
Paul had been a professor of Russian at Harvard. I guess this language attracted him more than the French or Greek which he also knew. He had not yet learned Chinese. One day he was walking behind two colleagues from the Slavic Languages Department who seemed lost in a very heady conversation. As Paul caught up to them, he thought of the absurdity of nit-picking academia in which one may devote years of one’s life figuring out why an unusual syllable appeared in a word found in a boring ancient text. Paul called out the name of the Professor, no answer. He called the other by name, still no answer. They didn’t hear him because they were lost in a haze of linguistic irrelevancy, a “cloud of unknowing,” and not in the Christian mystical sense.
Paul decided then and there to leave Harvard. Not long thereafter, a life-changing decision was made for him. He was in a terrible car crash and told he would be partially paralyzed for life, confined to a wheel chair. Yet through a combination of meditation, diet (macrobiotics), basic qigong, and later, Tai Chi, he repaired the severed nerves, and years later you would never know about the earlier trauma but for the slight crick and tilt in his neck.
In the 1960s Paul began studying Wu Style Tai Chi with Sophia Delza (1903-1996), the dancer, choreographer, and Tai Chi Master who from 1948-1951 had trained in Shanghai, China with the legendary Wu Style Master Ma Yueliang. Sophia wrote the first book on Tai Chi in English, T’ai-Chi Ch’üan: Body and Mind in Harmony. In 2022 Paul confided that of all the wonderful teachers he had, Sophia was the “most luminous.” I guess it was contagious.
It was also during the 60s that Paul began to study the Chinese language, with an emphasis on classical Chinese, so he could fulfill his dream of reading Taoist and Buddhist texts as well as Chinese poetry in their original language. Throughout his life he took great delight in both practicing and reading about the classical Chinese contemplative lifestyle. He and I both felt a special affinity with the Taoist hermits of Mount Hua, the sacred peak in western China. One might wonder if Paul was a reincarnated Lao Tao, Old Taoist. I don’t think he was a reincarnated Lao Tao; I think he was a Lao Tao, even if the form reflected back to him in the mirror was Caucasian.
With Wu Style Tai Chi as a foundation, Paul continued his training with T.T. Liang, a name that in the Tai Chi realm needs no introduction, at least not any more than the Dalai Lama to a Tibetan Buddhist. Liang had an impeccable lineage and level of perfection in numerous martial arts, though his greatest love remained Tai Chi. The book that Paul co-wrote with his teacher T'ai Chi Ch'uan for Health and Self-Defense is a treasure. Through Paul I had the honor of meeting Liang in the 1980s, and when he agreed to push-hands with me, I realized how a person could be a mountain and a feather at the same time. If he wished to hold his ground, I could not budge this 80 year old, but if he decided to blend (hua 化) with my moves, my push would land on empty space.
Backtracking a bit, in the mid 70s Paul and I became students of another great, B.P. Chan, Taoist Qigong and Martial Arts Master from Fujian. Although we were never in the same class with him at the same time—both of us concentrating on private instruction—we shared notes and practices based on Bagua Zhang, Xingyi Quan, Qigong, and other arts.
Paul hosted me to teach workshops many times at his Wu-Ming Valley House in Massachusetts, later called the Deer Mountain Taoist Academy. I may have had an unsavory (or is it savory) influence on him. He was rather rigid in his ultra-veggie organic dietary requirements, after all it may have made the difference between being wheel-chair bound or mobile. But one day, after I had finished guest teaching a class, we took a walk and he saw me eyeing some extraordinary cakes and desserts in a bakery window. Complying with the obvious wish of his guest and friend, he graciously opened the door and we went inside. To my surprise and nervous dismay, Paul also got a piece of cake a la mode. From that point on he told me that decided to practice “strategic impurity,” letting go of the rules of purity in order to lessen the danger of sudden death from a whiff of car exhaust! His students thanked me for my influence on their teacher’s greater flexibility.
I also brought Paul to Colorado where students were impressed by his knowledge of Chinese dietary therapy and Chinese culture. I still remember a striking example he used to explain the yin and yang properties of food. “Do you know how the Mongols survived crossing the Gobi Desert on horseback on their way to the conquest of China?” No response. “They would open a vein in their horse’s leg and drink the blood. This gave them extra nutrition and more aggressive yang qi for battle.” Yes, Paul was a natural story-teller, a trait made clear in the marvelous Taoist Tales recounted in his book Drawing Silk. You will see one of those stories dedicated to me.
We shared many stories over the years. We lived geographically far apart so our visits were far too few. Phone calls helped a bit and always left me with much to ponder. In the last year, when he suffered from various pains and ills, I realized that friendship and joy of life were the best medicines. I brushed up on my repertoire of jokes, and we never failed to end the conversation by saying, “I love you.” Like the time when we first met, so many years ago, our conversation is still continuing.