tai chi, the philosophy

the Tao

Excerpts from Tew Bunnag’s book “The Art of T’ai Chi Ch’ouan, Meditation in Movement, the Lao Tze and Chouang Tze.

The art of T’ai Chi is rooted in the philosophy of the Tao.

Tao means the Way and refers to the immanent principle that lies behind all phenomena and affects all levels of existence, from the seasonal changes to the shifting state of human affairs.

Yet the Tao cannot be defined as the Taoist Classic Texts state. Any attempt to do so leads us further from understanding.

It is only when we can give up conditioned modes of perceiving the world and let go of projecting onto our environment dualistic beliefs and values that we can begin to sense the Tao and glimpse its workings.

Many of the Taoist texts are devoted to bringing about this very shift in our approach to life and nature, away from linear logical thinking to a more open ended vision.

“We look for it but do not see it;
we name it “subtle.”
We listen for it but do not hear it;
we name it “rare.”
We grope for it but do not grasp it;
we name it “serene.”
These three cannot be fully fathomed,
They are bound together to make unity.
Of unity,
its top is not distant,
its bottom is not blurred.
Infinitely extended
and unnameable,
it returns to nonentity.
This is called
“the form of the formless,
the image of nonentity.”
This is called “the amorphous.”
Following behind it,
you cannot see its back;
Approaching it from the front,
you cannot see its head.

“There was something featureless yet complete,
born before heaven and earth;
silent – amorphous –
it stood alone and unchanging.
We may regard it as the mother of heaven and earth.
Not knowing its name,
I style it the “Way”.
If forced to give it a name,
I would call it “great”.”

“The Way is empty,
yet never refills with use;
Bottomless it is,
Like the forefather of the myriad creatures.
It files away sharp points,
unravels tangles,
diffuses light,
mingles with the dust.
Submerged it lies,
seeming barely to subsist.
I know not whose child it is,
Only that it resembles the predecessor of God.”

      patterns himself on earth,
      patterns itself on heaven,
      patterns itself on the Way,
The Way
      patterns itself on nature.”

“A good rider doesn’t set forth recklessly
A good warrior doesn’t loose his temper.
A good general wins without battle.
A good minister governs modestly.
This is called peaceful power
And only this can rebuild the world.
This is the power of the Tao.”

“Goodness, like water,
Approaches quietly everything that is disregarded.
Doesn’t the Tao do the same?”

Yin and Yang

The original meaning of the character for Yin was the shaded side of the mountain, and for Yang the side that was lit by the sunlight. Then they took on the meaning of “female” and “male”. Gradually they became general terms for the fundamental complimentary forces that are discernable in the natural world.

The roots of the characters encompass the original vision, the basic recognition that where there is light there is bound to be shadow, that neither is a fixed state, that both have the possibility and the potential of becoming the other. This is represented in the T’ai Chi design by the presence of light  in the dark area and vice versa. This seed of the opposite and complimentary describes the interdependent quality of the Yin and Yang energies. There is no rigid separation between them; instead, a curve that denotes movement, change and transformation.

The common factor throughout all Taoist and Taoist influenced literature is not only the affirmation of the principle of Yin and Yang but the confidence that man, through observation, study and meditation can become familiar with the Way and learn how to live in accordance with it. He is not a victim of inexplicable forces beyond his control but has the means to understand the workings of the energies that are within his own body and which shape his environment and circumstances .

This understanding makes use of the intellect but has to go deeper and include intuitive awareness, the capacity of listening to what is going on within and without that is direct, immediate and spontaneous. By developing this sensitivity he will be able to read the signs of change and recognize the dynamic interplay of the Yin and Yang energies. In this way the principles of the Tao gradually become a living experience that furnishes us with the perceptions and insights needed to live, work and relate to the world ina creative, loving way.

“When all under heaven know beauty as beauty,
already there is ugliness;
When everyone knows goodness,
this accounts for badness.
Being and nonbeing give birth to each other,
Difficult and easy complete each other,
Long and short form each other,
Hight and low fulfill each other,
Front and back follow each other –
It is ever thus.”

“Heavy is the root of light;
Calm is the ruler of haste.”

“Some march forward, others follow behind;
some are utterly  silent, others are all puffed up;
some are strong, other are meek;
some pile up, others collapse.
For these reasons,
Rejects extremes,
Rejects excess,
Rejects extravagance.”

“When you wish to contact something,
you must momentarily expand it;
when you wish to weaken something,
you must momentarily strengthen it;
when you wish to reject something,
you must momentarily joint with it;
when you wish to seize something,
you must momentarily give it up.”

“Reversal is the movement if the Way;
Weakness is the usage of the Way.
All creatures under heaven are born from being;
Being is born from nonbeing.”


the energy of life

Another notion that is inseparable from any discussion about T’ai Chi is the notion of Ch’i. It has been translated as energy and, vague as the word is, it has to do although it does not capture the rich connotation of the Chinese character which includes the meaing of vital breath in both the spiritual as well as the organic sense. It is both the impersonal pulsation of life that we share with the trees, plants, water, and thunder, and the energy that flows through our body.

Again, as with the Tao, it is impossible to define it or conceptualize it in abstraction. But what we can do is to observe and describe some of its functions and effects.

“The myriad creatures bear yin on their backs
and embrace yang in their bosoms.
They neutralize these vapors
and thereby achieve harmony.”

“He who embodies the fullness of integrity
is like a ruby infant.
Wasps, spiders, scorpions, and snakes
will not sting or bite him;
Rapacious birds and fierce beasts
will not seize him.
His bones are weak his sinews soft,
yet his grip is tight.
He knows not the joining of male and female,
yet his penis is aroused.
His essence has reached a peak.
He screams the hole day without becoming hoarse;
His harmony has reached perfection.
Harmony implies constancy;
Constancy requires insight.
Striving to increase one’s life is ominous;
To control the vital breath with one’s mind entails force.”

the Sage

ideals - encourangments

“The sage dwells in affairs of non action,
carries out a doctrine without words.
He lets the myriad creatures rise up
but does not instigate them;
He acts but does not presume;
He completes his work
but does not dwell on it.”

“The sage withdraws himself
but comes to the fore,
alienates himself
but it always present.”

“While you cultivate the soul and embrace unity,
can you keep them from separating?
Focus your vital breath until is supremely soft,
can you be like a baby?
Cleanse the mirror of mysteries,
can you make it free of blemish?
Love the people and enliven the state,
can you do so without cunning?
Open and close the gate of heaven,
can you play the part of the female?
Reach out with clarity in all directions,
can you refrain from action?
It gives birth to them and nurtures them,
it gives birth to them but does not possess them,
it rears them but does not control them.
This is called “mysterious integrity”.”

“To be sparing of speech is natural.
A whirlwind does not last the whole morning,
a downpour does not last the whole day.
Who causes them?
If even heaven and earth cannot cause them to persist,
How much less can human beings?”

“Know masculinity,
maintain femininity,
and be a ravine for all under heaven.
By being a ravine for all under heaven,
eternal integrity never deserts you,
you will return to the state of infancy.
Know you are innocent,
remain steadfast when insulted,
and be a valley for all under heaven.
By being a valley for all under heaven,
eternal integrity will suffice.
If eternal integrity suffices,
you will return to the simplicity of a log.
Know whiteness, maintain blackness,
and be a model for all under heaven.
By being a model for all under heaven,
eternal integrity will not err.
If eternal integrity does not err,
you will return to infinity.”

“Understanding others is knowledge,
understanding oneself is enlightenment;
conquering others is power;
conquering oneself is strength;
contentment is wealth,
forceful conduct is willfulness;
not losing one’s rightful place is to endure,
to die but not be forgotten is longevity.”

“Hold fast to the great image
and all under heaven will come;
they will come but not be harmed,
rest in safety and peace;”

“The person of superior integrity
does not insist upon his integrity;
for this reason, he has integrity.
The person of inferior integrity
Never loses sight of his integrity;
For this reason, he lacks integrity.
The person of superior integrity takes no action,
nor has he a purpose for acting.”

“Without going out-of-doors,
one may know all under heaven;
without peering through windows,
one may know the Way of heaven.
The farther one goes, the less one knows.
For this reason,
The sage knows without journeying,
understands, without looking,
accomplishes without acting.”

“Those who apply themselves to learning
gain something every day,
those who apply themselves to the Dao
lose something every day;
they go on losing and losing
until they reach the point
where there is nothing to deem;
they deem nothing and yet there is nothing
which they do not do.”

“Nothing under heaven is softer or weaker than water,
and yet nothing is better
for attacking what is hard and strong,
because of its immutability.
The defeat of the hard by the soft,
the defeat of the strong by the weak –
this is known to all under heaven.”

“To realize that you do not understand is a virtue;
not to realize that you do not understand is a defect.
The reason why
The sage has no defects,
Is because he treats defects as defects.
He has no defects.”

“The Way of heaven benefits but does not harm,
the Way of man acts but does not contend.”