Taoism and Tai Chi Chuan
Outside of Confucianism, Taoism is probably the most important and influential school of thought native to China.
In almost direct contrast to the solemn gravity and social responsibilities endemic to Confucian ideals, where the rectification of human actions and interactions is paramount, the Taoists prize contemplation of the natural world. In this world, man is not a central but almost an incidental figure. The Taoist often forsakes society and worldly affairs in order to embrace the Tao or "Way," to bring himself better into harmony with the flow of nature and to pierce through the veils of illusion and artifice that human civilizations, with their many facets and complexities, seem to constantly weave.
These two schools of thought then, Confucianism and Taoism, stand in opposition to one another. Each expresses a different aspect of the Chinese psyche. While Confucius would have us dwell in the orderly world of mundane human intercourse, the Taoists offer us a more mystical and transcendental world of the spirit and promise us a deeper insight into the principles that underlie the very operation of the universe itself. Taoism stresses harmonizing the mind and body in order to attune oneself to the natural order.
Lao Tzu, the legendary founder of Taoism, was an older contemporary of Confucius. Anecdotal stories tell of at least one meeting between the two philosophical giants with Confucius coming away perplexed and somewhat in awe of his elder, comparing Lao Tzu to a "Dragon who flies among the clouds." Not much is known of Lao Tzu concretely, but there are many legends and stories concerning him. It is said that at age 160, he decided to resign his position as keeper of the archives for the court of Chou at Loyang and retire to peace, solitude and contemplation. As he departed, a gatekeeper implored the sage to please compose a book coalescing his teachings so that they would not perish when Lao Tzu withdrew from the world. It was then that Lao Tzu wrote the 5000 character classic and central treatise of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching. A short, highly mystical work, it consists of only 81 verse chapters.
Tao Te Ching
The teachings of Lao Tzu are based on a great underlying principle, the Tao or "Way," which is the source of all being. Through the understanding of this principle, all the contradictions, divisions and distinctions of our existence are ultimately resolved. This principle can only be understood intuitively. Grasping the Tao intellectually or through some rationally derived procedure is pointless. The Tao is and must always remain essentially beyond the human ability to describe it and can only be fully understood through a kind of mystical and internal transformation. This intuitive transformation simply removes the obstacles clouding our consciousness and connects us once again to our original insight which allows us to see clearly and understand the workings and wonders of the cosmos. Taoism then, does not seek to advance man to some new state of being, merely to return him to his original and natural consciousness. The way of life which one achieves after union with the Tao is often hallmarked by a kind of yielding passivity, an absence of strife and coercion and a manner of acting which is completely effortless, free of artifice and spontaneous.
Taoism and Tai Chi Chuan
The origins of both Taoism and Tai Chi Chuan are shrouded in mystery. Were Chang San- Feng, the legendary creator of Tai Chi and Lao Tzu , the founder of Taoism, mythical figures or real historical personages? Did they exist and create as singular geniuses or were their respective arts and legacies the result of a combined effort by many talented and insightful people whose collective endeavors, over time, came to be assigned a more grandiose origin? Though we may never be able to answer fully such questions, throughout the years one thing is certain: much has been made of Tai Chi Chuan's connection with Taoist philosophy.
Many of the greatest contributors to the development of Tai Chi Chuan were simple men, not necessarily well-versed in the various philosophical schools and literature of their times. Most probably lacked the requisite literacy to read the salient texts of Taoism and the voluminous commentaries on them. Yet, Tai Chi Chuan has perhaps the greatest literary tradition associated with any martial practice to date. This paradox is resolved by the eventual adoption of the art by more scholarly figures as time progressed. It is known that Tai Chi Chuan was held in high esteem at the royal court (perhaps due to the efforts of the Yang family Tai Chi patriarch Yang Lu Chan). It is reasonable to assume that the Chinese literati were both entranced and impressed by the art's effortless perfection. These more scholarly practitioners might have easily concluded that the principles underlying Tai Chi were in perfect accord with the Tao Te Ching. Examples are numerous. The Tao Te Ching seems to reflect philosophically the physical movements and skills which underscore the art of Tai Chi. It almost seems a primer in itself as one reads through the text:
Therefore the ancients say, "Yield and overcome."
Is that an empty saying?
The softest thing in the universe
Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
The hard and strong will fall
The soft and weak will overcome them.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff.
Under heaven everyone knows this,
Yet no one puts it into practice.
These verses illustrate the central principle of Tai Chi Chuan : yielding to the opponent's force. Another verse (26) states:
The heavy is the root of the light;
The still is the master of unrest.
To be light is to lose one's root.
To be restless is to lose one's control.
A warning concerning root and balance as well as a strategy, this is sound advice for the Tai Chi Chuan adept. These concepts find their mirror in the Song of the 13 Postures:
Being still, when attacked by the opponent
Be tranquil and move in stillness
My changes caused by the opponent fill him with wonder
Verse 36 of the Tao offers us:
That which shrinks/ Must first expand.
That which fails/ Must first be strong.
That which is cast down
Must first be raised
Wu Yu-hsiang's Expositions of Insights Into the Practice of the 13 Postures relates:
First seek extension, then contraction; then it (the movements) can be fine and subtle.
The reference to the use of excessive, hard muscular strength (li) equating with failure of one's technique are also common in Tai Chi literature. The Tao Te Ching illustrates this concept with the lines (Verses 30 and 55): "Force is followed by loss of strength" and "If too much energy is used, exhaustion follows." Obviously these are references to hard and inflexible force the use of which does not equate with the dexterous and lively chi energies cultivated by the Tai Chi Chuan practitioner.
In regard to strategy, the Taoist axiom "That which is cast down must first be raised," equates with the lifting up or severing of the opponent's root before discharging energy against him during applications. Verse 15 asks us: "Who can remain still until the moment of action?" This causes Wu Yu-hsiang to reflect in Expositions: "It is said, 'If others don't move, I don't move. If others move slightly, I move first.'" How should one's footwork be structured during combat? Verse 41 of the Tao suggests: "Going forward seems like retreat," while Master Cheng explains in The Song of Form and Function: "When the foot wants to advance/First shift it backwards." In its application as an attacking gesture, the posture "Step Back and Repulse Monkey" epitomizes this "advancing while apparently retreating" method of footwork.
What about the highest level of the art of Tai Chi Chuan? Verse 41 of the Tao states: "The greatest form has no shape." For the Tai Chi practitioner this could be said to be the ultimate goal: a state in which the underlying principles are so deeply ingrained that form itself becomes unimportant. Where the mind leads, the energy will naturally manifest itself in a spontaneous and proper way. In the Tai Chi Chuan Ching by Chang San-Feng he says simply:
Up or down
Front or back
Left or right, one all the same.
A more contemporary master, Cheng Man Ching in his Song of Form and Function offers us:
Not neutralizing, it naturally neutralizes,
Not yielding, it naturally yields…
In push hands…/The whole body is a hand
And the hand is not a hand.
But the mind must stay
In the place it should be.
Tai Chi Chuan and Taoism are inexorably linked together. Tai Chi is a physical representation of Taoist ideals, the ungraspable made graspable through physical principles whose very movement reflects the motion of the Tao itself.
Sources:Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu, a new translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. © 1972 Vintage Books.
The Essence of Tai Chi Chuan: The Literary Tradition by Lo, Inn, Amacker and Foe.© 1979 North Atlantic Books.
James Leporati, L. Ac. is a certified instructor of Patience T'ai Chi Association and one of Sifu William C. Phillip's senior students. He began his studies with Sifu Phillips in 1981, and has won numerous medals in tournament. Sifu Leporati is also a Licensed Acupuncturist in private practice.