I tell my stories and explain my experiences so that other people might gain insight that helps them in their martial art journey. This is the kind of story you don't read very often. It is about one of my teachers, and it is not pleasant. But I think you know by now that I try to keep it real. So here goes.
I first heard of Mark Wasson when he wrote an article for Tai Chi Magazine on his experiences training in the Chen Village. He was about my age (I am now 60 and he may have been 61). In one ten-year span, he made 15 trips to the birthplace of Taijiquan to get down and dirty, sweat, work, train, have bones broken, and to get deep insights into the real art of Taiji. I met him after I had been training for a few years with my first Chen Taiji teachers, Jim and Angela Criscimagna.
Mark Wasson was a deeply troubled man, but a pioneer and trailblazer who introduced a lot of people to Chen Taiji. He passed away over a month ago from complications of Crohn's Disease, which he battled for decades. His death has hardly been mentioned. There was no obituary in the paper. No service was announced. He simply disappeared. It does not surprise me.
As I learned after becoming his student, his physical illness was not as damaging as his internal demons.
Around 2003, I made a business trip to San Francisco to meet with national education reporters on behalf of ACT (I was the Director of Media Relations for the college test company). I had been intriqued by his article in Tai Chi Magazine describing his training in the Chen Village, so I contacted Mark to see if he would give me a private lesson if I drove to his home in Livermore, California. He quickly agreed, so I drove an hour or more to his apartment, parked next to his motorcycle, and we went down the street to a driveway behind a store. He asked me to perform Laojia Yilu, and within two or three moves he stopped me and stepped in to demonstrate.
His instruction was very helpful, and he was nice enough, but he was as serious as a heart attack and rarely smiled. It didn't matter what subject came up, he was obviously an expert, and he never stopped talking.
"How did it go?" Nancy asked me when I returned back to our hotel in San Francisco. I told her it was great, and I learned a lot, but I also told her, "Mark is very good, and he's a good teacher, but something isn't right."
"Your gut feelings about people are always right," she reminded me.
Mark told me he was a disciple of Chen Xiaowang's. He claimed that the Chen family practically adopted him and gave him a nickname -- "Dama." I didn't think to question it, but a few years later, when Chen Xiaowang listed his disciples, Mark's name was not on the list. By that time, he had become very close with Chen Xiaoxing. He was also close to Chen Bing, and when I finally met Chen Bing in Chicago at a Push Hands workshop, I told him I was a student of Dama.
"Dama?" Chen Bing said happily. From that moment, he spent a lot of time working with me during the workshop.
So despite a reservation or two, it wasn't long before I became Mark Wasson's student. I wanted to improve and learn Chen Taiji, and I saw that he had the skill and knowledge to help. In the next 3 years, I learned a lot and took plenty of notes every time I was able to meet with Mark. I flew to California to train, and while he and I practiced on one occasion, Nancy and Mark's wife, Julia (a very nice Chinese girl who was not his first wife) visited together, and we all had dinner before Nancy and I returned to our hotel in San Francisco.
Nancy and I hosted Mark at our school in Bettendorf, Iowa, where we would fly him in and he would do a workshop, then train with me at home. Each visit, my ears would be nearly bleeding as I took him to catch his plane to return home. He usually began speaking and lecturing the moment he arrived and did not stop until he was gone. Nancy and I both recognized it as a possible sign of being bi-polar. We had both known people who had suffered from this condition. They could go from pleasant one moment to violent anger the next. They were very unpredictable. This made me remain cautious.
As a student, I tried to become Mark's friend. He had shot video teaching a "Chen 34 Form" that he designed (and he said had been approved by Chen Xiaowang) and I volunteered to edit the DVD at no charge. I did, and I produced it and burned the copies. He sent them to Tai Chi Magazine to sell in their pages.
I shot and edited another DVD for him on fighting applications, spending many days on the shooting and editing. I helped him set up a PayPal account so he could sell DVDs through his website. It worked, too. He sold DVDs. I charged him nothing. I was happy to help my teacher.
In 2005, Chen Xiaoxing came to America on one of his first visits (he was not an enthusiastic traveler, preferring to stay in Chen Village, but Chen Xiaowang urged him to spread Chen throughout the world). His first stop was Mark's apartment in Livermore. Mark invited me out to spend a day training with Chen Xiaoxing. I jumped at the chance, despite the costs. Nancy supported it all the way. It was a great day of training and corrections. Life was good.
I volunteered to take over Mark's website because I could make changes that he wanted a lot quicker than the person who was doing it at the time. I also had a better ability to look at the site with a marketing perspective. So he would call me with an idea for a change or a photo he wanted to add, or a video, and I would put it up. No problem. I was happy to do it.
Mark was working with Chen Xiaoxing to certify teachers in the United States who would be directly connected to the Chen Village Taijiquan School run by Chen Xiaoxing. I paid the fee -- $350 (there is always a fee in Taiji) -- and was awarded a certificate to put on the wall of my school. I was very proud. I believe I was the first person to receive a certificate in the U.S. certifying me by the Chen Village School.
In early 2006, Mark made his third visit to our home, and he brought Chen Xiaoxing with him. Mark had asked me to sponsor Chen Xiaoxing's visa to do his tour in America because it was an exhausting ordeal and the government required every piece of financial and personal data you had. They did a pretty good check. So I sent Mark all of my personal and financial data -- social security numbers, tax statements -- you name it. I deeply regretted this later, but at the time, it seemed to be the right thing to do.
It helped Chen Xiaoxing get his visa, and in return, he agreed to spend a week at our home. Chen Xiaoxing did a workshop on Laojia Yilu at our school and he trained me in my basement at home. Mark helped interpret at home -- he had a rudimentary understanding of Chinese terms. I had studied Pimsleur CDs on Mandarin for weeks in anticipation, but every time I said something to Chen Xiaoxing he would look at Mark as if asking, "What the HELL is he saying?" It was pretty funny.
Chen Xiaoxing was a no-nonsense kind of guy -- a peasant farmer who had become highly skilled in Taiji but was much more comfortable chain-smoking on the back patio instead of trying to engage in conversation. He did not know a word of English and didn't seem to care. But we did have some great practices, and he giggled like a little boy when Mark, CXX and I played magnetic darts in the basement. I gave him my dart set as a gift when he left.
After they left town, I saw the young Chinese woman who served as the interpreter at the Chen Xiaoxing workshop. She was one of my Taiji students. Mark always talked about how close he and Chen Xiaoxing were, and he did a lot to help CXX. But during the workshop, she heard something else.
"Chen Xiaoxing hates Mark Wasson," she told me at the next class. "Every time Mark explained something to the class, he would ask me what Mark said. When I told him, he said something like, "He doesn't know what the hell he's talking about." She was stunned, but we both learned a lesson -- it doesn't matter what you do to help some Taiji people, they will never appreciate it or give you any credit. It wasn't the first time I had seen Chen Xiaoxing behave in a way that I would not have expected in a master who is placed on a pedestal by so many around the world.
A week after Chen Xiaoxing left town, Mark called and asked if I wanted to be his disciple. Not Chen Xiaowang's disciple, not Chen Xiaoxing's disciple -- Mark Wasson's disciple. He also started referring to himself as a "master," even though up until then, he had been critical of Americans who called themselves by that title.
This was not what I wanted. Despite the questions I had about his mental fitness, I was not looking for a daddy. I didn't need a father figure. I just wanted to learn Taiji.
"Mark, I appreciate the offer, but that really isn't what I'm looking for," I told him. "I just want to learn from you and help you become more successful."
Within two weeks, he went ballistic. He called and was very angry, saying crazy things about me and even about Nancy. Now, I can take a lot of stuff about me, but Nancy bent over backwards -- and it cost her a lot of money, too -- for me to support Mark Wasson.
This went on a couple of phone calls. I was shocked, but I was not about to take that kind of crap, even from my teacher. I told him I was no longer his student and I told him very clearly where he could shove his certificate. And I told him he could make his own DVDs and do his own website. I packed up all his materials, put all the files on CDs and DVDs, and mailed him everything.
Within a month, he sent an email to the Human Resources Director of ACT. Yes, my employer. He told ACT in an email that I had used company computers to hack into his website, and he said Nancy had hit on him when he was visiting our home.
The HR Director called me in to his office. I knew Jim Friel pretty well. He understood I couldn't have used company computers for that purpose, and he knew me well enough to know that this was a mentally disturbed person making the allegations. Mark followed up with a second email, full of more crazy rants.
ACT threatened Mark with legal action if he did not cut it out. Fortunately, he did. At least in that form.
Until sometime in the last year or so, I received long, critical emails from time to time. They were written under phony names and always used email addresses through an anonymous company. I'm pretty good at tracking people down, and none of the people existed. The detail and the language used in the emails was a dead giveaway. It was Mark.
He went onto national martial arts discussion boards under phony names, badmouthing me. I saw them (Google Alerts for your own name are very helpful) and he was even kicked off of a couple of discussion boards when the administrators realized what he was doing as recently as 2011. I sent him occasional emails, telling him that I knew what he was doing, and as I grew more successful and well-known, doesn't he understand it reflects badly on him, as one of my teachers, to badmouth me? Wouldn't it make more sense to have a good relationship? I urged him to settle down and get over it. He never responded.
The harassment stopped a year or so ago, I assume as he became more ill.
And so that is my recollection of Mark Wasson, a talented, devoted Tai Chi student and teacher who could not live up to his potential -- not because of the Crohn's Disease that eventually killed him, but because of the bi-polar, manic condition that alienated people who tried to be his friend or student. I was not his only target. Others have told me that he would talk with John Doe about Jeff Doe, then go tell Jeff all the bad things that John was saying about him. Mark worked to drive wedges between people in Taiji.
There is one more memory. Early this year, Chen Xiaoxing came to Chicago to teach Xinjia Yilu. The big room was full of people from around the country. Suddenly, standing next to me, Mark Wasson observed as I followed Chen Xiaoxing along with the rest of the class. After a couple of minutes, Mark approached me.
"Do the move this way," he said, demonstrating. "Your right arm should be here."
I stopped him cold and stared him straight in the eyes. "Mark, you need to give your advice to someone else," I said in my best Dirty Harry voice. "And you should stay away from me at this workshop."
He backed off, alarmed. "I can do that," he said.
For years, I expected that the next time I saw him, I would challenge him to either apologize or fight. When I saw that he looked near death, pale and thin, those thoughts dissipated. But I was very close.
For the rest of the day, if he was standing on one side of the room, I managed to practice on the other side. That was the last I saw of him.
This is a cautionary tale that you should think about when you meet any new martial arts instructor. The job attracts people who are controlling, egotistical, emotional unstable, and people who want others to see them as powerful and mystical, even supernatural. Don't check your brains at the door, and never, ever put a teacher up on a pedestal.
Mark Wasson was a devoted father of a severely handicapped daughter, with a combination of Cerebral Palsy and autism. His last wife, Julia, was a very nice person who must have withstood a lot. Mark took quite a few people to Chen Village where they could see the real thing in action. He helped the Chen family come to the U.S. and helped our understanding of Taijiquan skyrocket. He helped the Chen family show that mysticism isn't behind Taiji -- it is a tough martial art. He was willing to work hard, suffer injuries, and he developed a lot of skill.
On my road as a martial artist, Mark Wasson was an important milestone, leaving me with more skill than I had before, but with much more understanding of just how controlling and disturbed some people can be who set themselves up as teachers.
And now you know why I have remained "independent" since 2006. I claim no discipleship. I have no interest in a master-slave relationship. Mark Wasson is the reason why. I have not even mentioned him as one of my teachers very often, for fear of triggering a string of negative emails or chat room outbursts.
I am glad his troubled soul has found eternal rest. But it is a shame when your departure from this world lifts a shadow from the lives of others. I am sad because of the lost potential, and sad that a man with such potential died alone.