T’ai Chi Ch’uan — Philosophy and History

T’ai Chi Chu’an’s  connection to Taoism is incontrovertible. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is the embodiment of Taoism.

This ancient Taoist symbol, called the T’ai Chi symbol is found as early as China’s Yin dynasty (1100 – 771 BC). Also known as the Yin/Yang symbol, it represents the notion that phenomena occur because of the intersection of two equal and opposite forces, called Yin and Yang.

The empty circle is called Wuji and represents an undifferentiated state of being, an infinite nothingness, before separating to form Yin and Yang. In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Yin and Yang equal substantial and insubstantial, or full and empty. When one part is empty, there must be fullness elsewhere. Otherwise, the energy will not flow and there will be stasis.

T’ai Chi Chu’an’s  connection to Taoism is incontrovertible. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is the embodiment of philosophical Taoism. Chan (or Zen) Buddhism and Confucianism are also intertwined with T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

Confucionism defines social strata, and is important in this context in that it describes the relationships between people involved in T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Respect for the teacher, or Sifu is primary to the transference of knowledge. Senior sisters and senior brothers impart the knowledge to students who come into the class at a later date, no matter what age they are. Respect is given to anyone who has had more time to practice and develop a deeper understanding of the art.

Clearly, respect for elders is vital to survival when the elder is the holder of knowledge that helps the survival of a clan. In addition, the fact that Sifu can throw her or his younger disciples over easily despite being aged definitely connotes its own special type of respect.  Without respect, the knowledge simply dies.  This is a living art, embodied within individuals. Books and videos are useful as reference material once forms are learned from a Sifu but are not the best method for initial learning.  All kung fu is transferred from person to person, and the people you share it with become like your family, harkening back to its tribal origins.

Tamo and Ch’an Buddhism

Tamo, or Bodhidharma was a wild-eyed hermit from India who emigrated to China in the 5th century CE. The legendary founder of Chan or Zen Buddhism was the 28th patriarch of Guatama Buddha. Tamo traveled for three years to get from India to South China. The Emperor wanted Tamo’s blessings for building temples and promoting Buddhism. Tamo refused to cooperate (no one refuses an Emperor!) because he believed that Buddha nature was not to be found by reciting prayers or building temples.

Tamo fled North, arriving at the Shaolin Temple at Henan, but spent the next nine years wall gazing in a now famous cave. After seven years of this austere regime, he reputedly became infuriated at himself for falling asleep during his meditation and tore off his eyelids.  Further, where he flung them tea bushes grew, producing the tea that helped monks stay awake and alert. This part of the legend makes the creation story of both Ch’an Buddhism and tea seem rather questionable, but in any case, there remain paintings and writings that verify Tamo’s existence. Chinese brush paintings of Tamo depict him floating across a river on a reed or sitting, bug-eyed, back straight as an arrow while meditating. Prints of Tamo often grace the walls of kung fu schools.

Tamo found the Chinese minks to be unfit and in poor health within the temple in the new growth forest known as Shaolin. These scribes of Buddhist texts had grown sickly and weak from lack of exercise. They were also beset by roving bandits and needed to defend the temple. Tamo taught them the exercise forms he had been practicing inside the cave – called Yi Gun Gin, or the Muscle Change Classic, or the Tendon Exchange.

This is considered a point of origin for Kung Fu in China. Fifteen hundred years later, the monks of Shaolin are still renowned for their physical prowess and ferocious fighting forms. Yi Gun Gin remains a part of our kung fu training curriculum today.

This ancient history has come down to us intact because Buddhist monks practiced writing and painting and keeping of records. Ch’an Buddhism’s core ideas are expressed in one of the Buddhist sutras from India. Tamo’s lifework represented the idea that truth is perception, and not scriptural, and perception is more accurate when the perceiver has no attachment to that which is being observed. When Tamo chose to sit in a cave, stare at a wall and experience the infinite, rather than stroll around in his robes at the palace, he expressed his free will and intense fervor for higher consciousness.

Many of the world’s great philosophical principles – the Uncarved Block of Taoism, the Tabula Rasa of Western thinkers, and the Zen state of moment to moment awareness all lead to the same conclusion – living in the past is counter-productive, as it blocks creativity and discovery, while being spontaneous and open to everything around is a state of enlightenment. At face value, this notion contradicts the concept of learning from experience, but in fact Tamo achieved his enlightened state after the accumulation of many hours of rigorous meditation.

There is a famous story about a painter in the Emperor’s court who practiced the stroke representing a bird thousands of times. One day, he went outside and looked at a real bird. No matter how much we are told about life, we must learn directly from our own experiences.

In the same sense, pushing hands is the expression of form training, and tests whether or not the student understands how to use the form for something more than meditation and healthy exercise. Doing Push Hands, the student will learn more about real challenges – how to respond rather than react, how to be relaxed but alert in close quarters, how to step in and move around, how to respond to pressure or threat – than with just T’ai Chi practice alone. T’ai Chi cannot become T’ai Chi Ch’uan unless push hands is part of the practice, and conversely, push hands alone cannot facilitate T’ai Chi Ch’an unless good forms are trained over a long time span. They are inter-dependent.

Following the original Buddhist tradition, Tamo represents the notion that each individual is responsible for her or his own destiny and is free to chose a path in life not predestined by social status. Meditation is the method for staying on that path of awareness. At face value, Zen Buddhism’s credo of living in the now and letting go of the past implies a rejection of learning from experience. The opposite is true.

During meditation, the past is often re-experienced as memories float to the surface. The stillness allows what is already there to come into the foreground. This process allows the meditator to go forward with new experiences free from past associations.

The debate about learning from the immediacy of perception versus learning from training forms is ongoing in the martial arts. Bruce Lee’s famous rejection of dogma, which he expressed as disdain for The Classical Mess, can be likened to Tamo’s rejection of scriptural teachings in favor of pure meditation and immediate, instinctive perception.

Others (Ng Nui, Wang Xianzhai) have also deconstructed the complex variety of forms and systems down to what they perceived of as the core notions, the barest necessities for maximum results. However, in my humble opinion, this doesn’t leave the student with much to practice and work on, and requires the most austere of mentalities. The simplicity of  Yi Ch’uan (mind intent fist) does not rely on a myriad of complex techniques, but rather pure energy and thought, and is very effective for pure self-defense and fajin.

Forms inform the body how to protect itself when attacked with the most efficient use of energy and motion. Memorization of lots of forms gives the practitioner many options — a wide range of movements from which to chose from at any given moment, with different ranges of motion and timing.

Seated meditation has a singularly proper form for maintaining an alert state of mind – a straight back, resting squarely over the sitz bones, with legs folded in front. The lower half is merely there to support the mind, and pretty much goes numb like a squished pretzel. The emphasis is on the mind.

If the meditation is done while standing, the feet are like the sitz bones, hips stacked squarely over the feet, while the legs sink into gravity with a hollow torso floating on-top. Standing meditation represents a much more body-centric approach to meditation. Below the waist is merely a prop for an alert spine, but in the case of T’ai Chi Ch’uan,  the energy comes from the mind directing the waist and the waist moving the arms and legs.

The two states of being — the Chan Buddhist empty mind and the Taoist state of Wuji have some common qualities, but ultimately have fundamental differences. Both seated and standing meditation empty and calm the mind, lower blood pressure, and moderate desire. Seated meditation’s concentration is much more purely mental and spiritual, while standing meditation both clears the mind and integrates the body into an energetic, meditative state.

Buddhism and Taoism were such an integral part of Chinese culture that Buddha and Lao Tze (the legendary old master who wrote the Tao Te Ching, a collection of around eighty poetic verses expressing wise and cryptic truths about people and nature) were thought to have been the same figure. For centuries, Taoist masters left their villages for self-imposed retreats (much like the ascetics of India) to huts and caves in the mountains where they gathered medicinal herbs, practiced different forms, and meditated.

These ancient Chinese masters sought to restore that which had been lost with the rise of civilization, and took their inspiration from the natural world and wildlife. When we recreate and seek to renew our senses by leaving technology behind to walk through the forest and climb in the mountains, we catch a glimpse of the ancients, except that these masters spent their whole lives in nature, experimenting with plants, meditating and exercising.

Animals, with their keen senses of smell, hearing and sight, are natural examples of the open senses theory of Chan Buddhism. Various creatures native to China, some imaginary and fanciful (unicorns and dragons) and some real (egrets, monkeys, tigers) provided the models for many Kung Fu movements. Close observation of animals fighting each other inspired different styles and schools, each one channeling animal instincts into a fierce but artful fighting forms.

Most ancient cultures have retained some of their traditional healing practices. The Chinese Barefoot Doctors treated illnesses with herbs, healing foods and kung fu exercises.  We reap the benefits of those wise ancients who lived in, and observed nature, and experimented with plants to learn of their properties.

T’ai Chi is thus a synthesis of Zen and Tao. It is a naturalistic way to experience each instant, moment to moment. The Zen Buddhist concept of experiencing the Now is exemplified by push hands, in which the practitioner seeks heightened awareness of each movement as it occurs. Taoist notions of Yin and Yang correspond to T’ai Chi body mechanics, such as weightless and weighted leg, heavy on the bottom and light on the top, and especially, balanced integration of the mind and the body.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a relative newcomer in the long time line of Chinese martial arts history and physical culture. Written records describing T’ai Chi Ch’uan places its emergence in the fifteenth century, at least one thousand years after the recorded birth of Shaolin Kung Fu and many thousands of years after Qigong.

The earliest  T’ai Chi Ch’uan was called Cotton Fist and still exists as the third most popular style of T’ai Chi today — Chen style. Chen style has low, wide stances and is very energetic and martial, with frequent outbursts of fast movements.

Yang Lu-ch’an

T’ai Chi Ch’uan (boxing, or fist) was given its name after a scholar in the Imperial Court witnessed a demonstration match in which the famed martial arts master, Yang Lu-chan (1799 –1872), bested other great martial artists of his era with tremendous deference and aplomb. Yang Lu-ch’an’s legacy represents the most profound concepts in the world of T’ai Chi Ch’uan today – that the soft overcomes hard, and loss is gain. Loss is gain can be interpreted as the learning from experience, although in stricter T’ai Chi Ch’uan terms it means that you gain force from your opponent’s expenditure of force.

Yang Lu-ch’an’s Original Yang form represents an important bridge between Chen and Yang styles, and between the attitude that you must beat and hurt others to defend yourself, to the attitude that you can control your own movements and therefore, another person’s movements, without force and malice.

Original Yang form is a centerpiece of my training and what I teach.   This form was the sole reason Grandmaster Peter Kwok sought out Sifu Kuo Lien Ying in the mid-twentieth century. Peter had a full kung fu background, already well-practiced since his childhood, and sought Kuo out for this form alone. He understood that this form was a vital connection to the balance between hard and soft, (yin and yang) — the power-centric form contained within the  ideal of no-force.

Yang Lu-ch’an was loyal to the Ching Dynasty, as was his son, Yang Ban-hou, who was forced by the conquering Manchus to teach his art to the new regime’s royal court in order to insure their potent lineage. With typical subterfuge and intrigue of some Chinese masters, seeking to die with their secrets passed on to only a trusted few, Ban-hou taught a softer, less martial version of his form within the royal house, and this is the Yang style that still prevails to this day.

Yang Ban-ho taught Wang Jiao-yu the original hard/soft form. Jiao-yu, though not a Yang family member (like Lu-chan was not a Chen family member), was taught because he showed devotion and discipline. When Jiao-yu was over one-hundred years old, he passed this form along to my teacher, Kuo Lien Ying, who brought it to American in the mid-1960s.

Wu is the polar opposite of Chen, appearing very sedate and self-contained. Stances are often narrow and arm movements small. Wu Ch’uan-yu trained under Lu-ch’an and his son, Yang Pan-hou. His soft, relaxed interpretation of Yang style was the beginning of the second most popular system of today — Wu style.  The Wu clan widely disseminated their style, advocating that less is more, and it is better to receive (force) than to give. Pushing with a good Wu stylist is the most mysterious of all.

The idea of force prevails in physics and especially politics, in terms of conquest and domination. We can see what is happening in the world today, where over-reaching militarization (too Yang!) by our country in other countries is dissipating its vitality. T’ai Chi practice and philosophy offer a more balanced lifestyle in which we take only what we need and use what we have, respect and conserve nature, and preserve the wellness of all people.

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