Origins interview with Peter Ralston

The following is adapted from a 1978 interview in which Peter Ralston spoke about some significant events in his history.


“I first started martial arts in Singapore when I was nine, I started Judo with some friends, but at that time it was simply another form of play. I didn’t really get serious about it until I was almost sixteen.

As I progressed in my studies of martial arts, I isolated myself more and more from the rest of the world. My point was never to blindly believe something somebody said, never to adopt someone else’s structure or beliefs. My point was simply to be good.

As a teenager I wanted to be the best fighter in the world, an attitude that I think was very important to my success. A lot of people want to learn something, so they simply study from someone who tells them what to do, and that’s legitimate. It’s good to be open, however, to the fact that the teacher may not be accurate, and often is simply teaching what he has heard or learned or believes. In any case, I wanted to make the art mine. In order for it to be mine, “I” had to have the ability. I had to discover and understand it. It didn’t do me any good if somebody said something and I believed it; only if I understood it, only when it became my experience and ability, was it useful.”

A New Direction

“I read theTao Te Ching and got into Zen for the same reason: to further my study in martial arts. Then, by and by, it turned around and my martial arts furthered my study of that – of discovery. Essentially, I was into understanding the fundamental nature of my own event; I just turned it around so that instead of studying my own event for the sake of martial arts, I began to use martial arts to study my event.”

A Few Years Later

“One day I was playing with a friend and I said to myself, “This is it! This is what has been missing.” It wasn’t even in words. It was something communicated about the real play and the real relationship. It was in that situation where I first learned to drop fear. Not the fear of getting hurt, but the fear of losing. It had never occurred to me. I fought so often, and out of a hundred blows exchanged with anybody, they would always hit me at least a few times, and I didn’t like that. I wanted to be perfect. I didn’t want any blows in and I was striving for that. This time, however, I noticed that if I wasn’t afraid of getting hit, or of winning or losing, it was easy. I wouldn’t get hit! That was the first time I was able to never get hit, 100% — because I didn’t care. What that did was open up my perception to what was really happening, because I didn’t have any investment in it.

I had several black belts in different arts and had studied sword, staff, fencing at the University, tournament judo, aikido, western boxing, muay thai, and others. Around my early twenties I really started to isolate myself, so I didn’t accomplish more “badges” of any kind. I didn’t care about that anymore and I pulled myself away. I didn’t care if anybody knew what I knew. I didn’t realize at the time, however, that later on this would create a gap between me and my communication to others.

Around that time I was living in a shack, studying. Although I had taught for a while, even when I was a teenager, I had given up teaching at this point. Looking back, I can see that I had a great deal of what people would call discipline. I can only see it by looking back because it was all I knew then, and it was simply normal life for me. There was an incredible amount of time, concentration, and energy put into my study that most people never know. I worked day and night on it, not just physically, but through contemplation and writing. I wrote because it served me in my study, not writing to anybody in particular, or maybe to somebody, someday. I was just writing what I learned day-to-day, my insights and realizations.

I would physically train for a minimum of five hours a day, and then I would sometimes teach on top of that. The rest of the time, my friends and I would hang out, practicing in the courtyard, studying and talking. Later I would write and contemplate. The good part about this isolation was the amount of discipline, contemplation, and concentration on my work. While I was doing that, I didn’t notice that it was anything not to be done. It was just simply what I did.”


“One day I was sitting in my back yard and a man came up to me. He had run into somebody who knew me and said that he would like me to teach him martial arts. I told him that I wasn’t doing that any more, but he was really persistent, so I began to teach again. Later he said he really wanted me to do some intensive contemplation work. I was twenty one. He said, “I can see that you’re ready and I really want you to do this.” I said no. At the time, I couldn’t see how anything significant could be brought about in only three days of intensive contemplation.

However, I realized that some of my decision not to participate was a result of cowardice. Overcoming this barrier, I later went with him to a five-day contemplation Intensive held in Santa Rosa. I sat right down, working on the question “Who am I?” and on the first day, the first exercise, what I was getting just blew me away. I didn’t have a direct experience of the truth right then, but I did encounter the type of phenomena common to intense contemplation. The room changed. It got bright, I saw colors, and the sense of myself was quite different. I felt expanded somehow. Just working on this question, a whole different thing started to happen for me.

At the end of five days, I felt more joy than I had ever felt in my life. I was really happy – I hadn’t noticed that I hadn’t been. It was beautiful. Two weeks later, I went up to a place in the mountains and did my second Intensive, working on “What am I?”

I spent the entire time willfully and dynamically going for a direct experience of the very nature of my being. I threw everything I had into it for three solid days, every moment. I didn’t let up – I didn’t notice I let up, anyway. I did it like I did most other things at the time: with just so much drive, so much energy, so much attention in every moment. Thinking back, I don’t know if I could do it like that anymore.

Even so, I didn’t “get” it — I didn’t directly experience my true nature. I didn’t have an enlightenment experience. I thought that I never failed at these things! It can not happen! It hadn’t even dawned on me that it might not happen. Three days and I didn’t have a direct experience of the nature of my own Being.

I had to wait for a ride back with the man who brought me, so I stayed overnight and hung around the next day. It was really nice, we were in no hurry. He was talking with some people, and so I found a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and read it that morning. I was hanging out doing things like sitting in the loft at the top of a ladder, trying to get to the bottom without moving my body. I was trying to do the Livingston Seagull thing, right? I was really trying to do it! I still didn’t believe that I couldn’t do anything.

Late that afternoon, I was sitting up against a wall in an L-shaped room. Some people were around the corner talking. I was just sitting there feeling good, not doing anything, not contemplating in particular, and I had an enlightenment experience of the nature of my being. It was a major breakthrough, the nature of which was completely outside of my previous experience. It was somehow not of the domain of “experience” and, at the same time, absolutely transformed my experience. It was profoundly and perfectly the case. It changed my whole life and the structure in which I held reality. It was fabulous!

Suddenly, I was aware that I was Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I directly experienced my true nature, not as thingness in any way, shape or form. The possibility that I wasn’t any thing had not existed for me. Through the whole Intensive I had been every thing, every conceptualization, every movement, every sense, every effort. It had never occurred to me that I wasn’t anything. In the enlightenment, I was just . . . no thing, no where, no substance whatsoever. No intellectual understanding of the matter can ever come close to a direct enlightenment. Although I had several others later, this first was probably the most significant enlightenment experience I ever had.

At home a week later, I had an enlightenment experience of the nature of an other. I became conscious that what others are is exactly the same as what I am. I am nothing and I occupy no space, no location. Given that I don’t occupy a location and they don’t occupy a location, I became conscious that we are not separate — we are the same one.”

New Abilities

“It was after those enlightenment experiences that abilities like being able to read someone’s disposition accurately started to come. I was able to see what people were going to do before they did it. As a result, when somebody was going to hit me, I would finish the situation before they were able to, and that was it.

Sometimes in class people would ask, “How would you deal with a situation where someone is going to hit you?” I’d say, “Hit me.” And the moment they would think to hit me and start to motivate their body, I’d stop them. That’s it. Handled. I suppose in one sense you could say I noticed their mind. I was seeing where they were coming from, the source of where the action arose. Seeing the bottom of the motivation of their thought and actions through knowing what I am and what they are. I knew where they were coming from and would watch them spring from there: that appeared to me, not visually, but it touched me before their body moved. Since it’s a process for them in which they have to manifest intent, and then turn that into action, I can act before they arrive at their action.

I was just dealing with the situation in a more real sense, dealing with what was true. That ability happened because it is aligned to what is true. I hadn’t noticed that the ability was something I could develop, or was something that somebody didn’t have but could develop. At that time, Cheng Hsin was still on the horizon, and I was just beginning to clarify what was later to be known as the Principles of Body-Being, an alignment to which allows for great functional capacity.”

More Contemplation

“Sometime later I did a 14-Day Intensive led by Charles Berner. A lot of interesting people and a lot of “old hands” were there. It was incredibly tough sometimes, and yet it was very powerful. On the fourteenth day, I hadn’t gotten it. I was working on “What is Life?” or more accurately, “What is Existence?” On the last exercise of the last day, during the last ten minutes, I had an enlightenment experience. The first enlightenment experience I had was the most significant, but this one was the deepest or most profound.

It was the last exercise, and I thought if I hadn’t gotten it in fourteen days what difference could this one exercise make? So, I was just enjoying myself. For some reason, I decided to go up out the top of my head a distance that felt like several feet above me. It felt like I would go up there and meet my diad partner, Neil, like we joined up there. And then, quite to my surprise, I had an experience of what the Zen people call the Void. That of Absolute Existence. There was no distance, no time, no space . . . nothing.

I guess my appearance changed dramatically at the time, since, after we were done with the exercise, Neil started jumping up and down and pointing, exclaiming how different my face looked, saying, “You should look in a mirror!” I hadn’t looked in a mirror for fourteen days. When I got home, I walked up to a full-length mirror and looked at myself and it was a deep shock to my body. It was a shock because I saw a body that I had known before, and it wasn’t me! Not that my appearance had changed. The familiarity is what shocked me. In some sense, I had forgotten that I had a body. It’s like the body reflected my history, my character, my ideas, my personality, all the things I had thought I was. All the things I had been being. Without thinking about it, I guess I really expected my reflection not to show up.

I recognize now that I didn’t have a context in which to hold that experience. I had experienced the Absolute Nature of existence, yet when I was back in “life,” I just noticed that everybody lied. That everything said and everything done was a lie. It was not the truth, and it started to become intolerable. Then I noticed that everything I said was a lie. That I wasn’t able to speak the Truth. I started to go crazy, so I isolated myself for two weeks and wouldn’t speak. I didn’t know what to do with it. I realized it would be valuable to have a context in which to hold such an enlightenment experience. This realization was one of my motivations for creating much of the Cheng Hsin work that was to come.”

More New Abilities

“New abilities started to arise. I told you of the ability to read someone before they moved. This one started to arise: I didn’t have to be cognizant of any movement on their part, psychic or otherwise, to know what to do – I just knew. It blew me away. I didn’t have to perceive a thing. The former ability had been perceiving the beginning. With this I wasn’t perceiving anything!”

The World Tournament

“After all of that, the World Championship was easy. I did that because . . . . well, for one thing, I had given up martial arts in a sense, and I’d never been recognized for what I had accomplished. I knew I was good. This World Tournament was the second and possibly the last. In 1928, the first big tournament was held in mainland China. It was very dangerous; lots of people were killed or injured. The officials finally stopped the 1928 Nanking Tournament at the last thirteen people because they didn’t want them to kill themselves off. There have been others since then. For a time there was an annual tradition called the Asian Martial Arts tournament, though I suppose anyone could have entered. Finally, they called it the World Tournament and invited all countries to participate. When I was there in 1978, there were Japanese, Thais, French, Saudi Arabians, Australians, other people from the United States and many other countries, but most were Chinese and it was usually won by Chinese. I was the first non-Asian ever to win.

I did it for two reasons. One was to complete something for me. I was no longer going to be involved with the competitive aspect of martial arts and I wanted recognition. The other fundamental reason that I did it is that I’m quite radically different in the world of martial arts; I ask people to do “uncommon” things, to take on apparently unrelated inquiries, and I demand a very deep level of understanding. I want people to listen to me, to open up to what I’m saying. Winning this World tournament was done so that I could say: “I did it. What I’m teaching you is functional. It works.” Now they’ll consider it. People listen to me now who wouldn’t have before, although I’m saying the same thing.”

A Simple Message

“One evening around 1973, I came up with a phrase. I was standing out in my back yard in the pine trees. I had walked out there with an uneasy sense that somebody was around. It was very dark, and I had some apprehension, wondering, “Am I going to have to fight somebody, a burglar or something?” As I was standing there in the yard, I truly opened up to the possibility of that event, and suddenly everything became safe. I guess that’s the only way I can say it. The realization at the time – what I said aloud into the yard was: There is no such thing as a fight. There never was and there never will be.

This level of understanding is very difficult to reach without some ontological work (by that I mean contemplative or in-depth considerations into the nature of “being”). It occurred to me that I first had to make it clear to others that fighting is a relationship. People just didn’t understand that. Simply establish an appropriate and responsive relationship with the opponent in every moment. I have had martial artists – kung fu people, boxers, karate people, internal martial artists and others — come and play with me and say that I’m good; and I think: it’s not good, it’s just simple. And they simply don’t understand.”