Wisdom and Power: A Philosophical Approach to T'ai Chi

Chapter 2:
The Roots: A Beginning

The beginnings of T'ai Chi are lost in the mists of time. To try to present an exhaustive history of the Supreme Ultimate Way of Life would be at least as presumptuous as to try to chart the history of language, or of tool-making, or any of the other primordially ancient activities of man. Certainly there were fights for survival and efforts to heal ills before either language or tool-making, and the art of T'ai Chi Ch'uan is but an extenuation and perfection of fighting skills and healing methods learned over thousands upon thousands of years. And as for the philosophy of T'ai Chi, it was fully presented in the I Ching (Chinese Book of Change) over three thousand years ago. How long it existed as an oral tradition before being committed to writing, no one can guess (legend attributes the basic ideas of the I Ching to the emperor Fu Hsi around 3,000 BC).

Accordingly, I will not try to present a purported factual history of the art - it is simply not possible to report with certainty events which occurred thousands of years in the past. Instead, I will rest content to present a conceptual history of the development of what we know today as T'ai Chi - of the ideas and forces that shaped it into the Way of the Supreme Ultimate.

To begin with, let me make a clear distinction between two great streams of tradition in the martial arts which reach us today under the blanket term "Kung-Fu." In T'ai Chi we are concerned with the tradition known as the "internal school" of Kung-Fu, or nei-chia. This school stresses balance, relaxation, non-resistance and the development of Ch'i (intrinsic energy), as compared to the "external school," which emphasizes muscular development, speed, cunning and physical strength. In making this distinction, I do not intend to imply that the external schools are valueless or inferior. Every art and activity of man has its value, and to reject any system is the surest sign of ignorance of one's own art. In point of fact, there are many ways in which the internal and external schools overlap, as they have borrowed from each other's wisdom a great deal over the course of the centuries.

Still, they differ in essential conception and purpose, and it is the conception of the internal school I have chosen to pursue as my personal path. It is glimpses of this path I hope to offer you as a reader of this book.

Over the course of the ages, man's need and propensity to engage in physical combat led to the development of techniques and strategies of fighting. No one can describe the course of this development, but it is reasonable to assume that it was essentially pragmatic. A street-fighter growing up in today's city jungles has no systematic frame of reference on which to base his fighting style, but he learns from experience that a knee to the groin incapacitates his opponent, that a square punch to the nose causes watering and temporary blindness, that someone's arms can be twisted and pulled in certain ways that cause great pain and injury, etc. All fighting skills undoubtedly developed in this way until, at some undetermined time in prehistory, someone got the idea of studying fighting in a systematic way, and put together a body of such pragmatically developed techniques into an integrated fighting method. Such a consciously developed system gave its students a decisive advantage over fighters whose only techniques were isolated and self-discovered.

Different fighters have differing physiques, reflexes and other abilities, and so different "styles" of fighting came into being, each emphasizing the skills that its teachers personally found the most effective. Some were based on wrestling and grappling movements, others on punching and kicking, still others on clawing, poking, breaking or locking tactics.

The culmination of all these various techniques seems to have reached a zenith in China in a northern Buddhist monastery of the Han Dynasty. Known as the "five form fist," or simply Shaolin Temple Boxing, this "style of styles" developed over a thousand years of social and political unrest during which the Temple was burned, rebuilt and burned again. Under the Buddhist influence, the training took on an austere character and began to assimilate philosophical principles as well as merely pragmatic fighting techniques. The Temple became, as well as a religious institution, a center for the training of revolutionary fighters of various factions. These fighters, taking the Shaolin fighting methods and the Buddhist philosophy with them into a social setting filled with drama, battle, strife and insecurity, welded these ideas into the concept of a "Way," a definite method of living in the realities of the world according to an integrated code - the code of the warrior-philosopher.

Away from the parent monastery, each teacher introduced his own modifications, and over the centuries various new styles arose with such diverse names as Sil Lum, Choy Lay Fut, Hung Gar, Mantis, etc. Eventually these systems found their way into Okinawa and Korea, where they blended with native arts and evolved still further. In the early twentieth century, the Okinawan style was exported to Japan, where it developed and came to be known as Karate.

Around the time of the highest development of Shaolin Temple Boxing and the code of the warrior philosopher, a new stream of thought entered the martial arts. Like the Shaolin system, it had both a fighting and a philosophical aspect, but it unified these with the health-building practices of "internal medicine." Internal medicine - at that time already an ancient science, propounded by the "Yellow Emperor" around 2,600 BC - is the technique of balancing and controlling the course of Ch'i flowing through the body with breathing, physical exercises and acupuncture. It studies the relationship between these energies and the Universal patterns of change set forth in the I Ching.

This system, Taoist rather than Buddhist in origin, already possessed the concept of the "Way of Life" according to movement in harmony with the natural cycles of unfoldment in the Universe. When it became evident that the same exercises used to stimulate the flow of Ch'i along the acupuncture meridians could also be used with amazing success for self-defense, the nei-chia were born. Legend ascribes this development to Chang San-feng, a thirteenth century Taoist monk who purportedly conceived the fighting system of strength through non-resistance while watching a snake successfully defend itself against the hard, straight jabs of a stork's beak. In any event, the "soft" fighting system rapidly matured, and the "Way of Life" gained a powerful avenue of physical expression, a superb fighting method and, perhaps most important, a simple (though not easy) training method and entry into the Way.

The internal school has also undergone development and alteration over the years, though with its cohesive philosophical base it has not changed so much nor proliferated so many "styles" as the external. At present there are three well-known internal styles: T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Pa Kua and Hsing I. In addition, the relatively modern art of Aikido also emphasizes non-resistance and the development of Ch'i (in Japanese, KI), and deserves to be included in the internal school.

The particular art of T'ai Chi Ch'uan as we know it today probably originated from the fighting style of Wang Tsung-yueh, a teacher of Honan province in the eighteenth century. The most popular version of T'ai Chi today was developed by Yang Lu-chan, an undefeated boxer and trainer of the Chinese Imperial Palace guards. His art was transmitted through his sons and grandsons, the youngest of which, Yang Cheng-fu, spread the art widely and trained many teachers who have carried it throughout the world, before passing away in 1935.

Since one of the main aims of T'ai Chi is to learn to deal with things as wholes and to avoid being seduced into codified and exclusive systems of thought, I will not make much distinction among styles in this book; but will rather deal with the internal arts as if they were all one unified body of knowledge, as in essence they are.

The roots of this body of knowledge are buried deep in the most ancient philosophies of the Orient, and their development cannot be separated from this philosophical tradition, which is embodied in the I Ching or Book of Change.

The I Ching may be the oldes recorded system of thought in the world. Its oldest text dates back three thousand years or more. Its basic conception is that the entire Universe is a single, continuous whole, and that all of the different things, times, places and events only appear to be separate and isolated when viewed from a narrow vantage point. In reality, everything fits together perfectly like a complicated jigsaw puzzle, and every piece is necessary to the whole.

Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, however, whose pieces are static and remain forever in the same place relative to one another, the basic patterning of the Universe is such that everything is in a constant state of flux or change. Nothing is fixed or permanent as things keep moving: one thing changing into another, matter changing to energy and vice-versa, night becoming day, strength fading to weakness, life relaxing into death and new life springing from death. According to the I Ching, the illusion of permanence is the cause of all strife, for if we resist and try to hold on to things the way they are, or to make them the way we want them to be and then keep them that way, we are opposing the basic nature of reality and will inevitably be swept away by the powerful winds of change.

However, this great flux of the Universe, far from making life perpetually uncertain and insecure as it might at first seem, is the very foundation for a transcendental serenity and security, for change occurs not as a random or senseless movement, but in accord with a definite pattern, a grand scheme of cosmic unfoldment - the Law of Change. If we can come to understand this law, to become One with the nature of change, we can flow with the current instead of opposing it and become "cosmic surfers," so to speak, riding high on the crest of the wave instead of being inundated by it.

As an aid to gaining insight into the pattern of change manifested by the Universe, the I Ching set forth 64 hexagrams, or six-line diagrams, arranged in a cyclic pattern of unfoldment.

Illustration 2.1

Each hexagram represents a basic archetypal event (or "type" of event), and by studying how events and situations of one kind gradually transform themselves into events of another kind (which in turn transform into events of yet another kind), we come to have an intuitive "feel" for the natural flow of change, and learn to fit ourselves harmoniously into the pattern of life instead of getting knocked down by trying to oppose irresistible forces.

It is easy to see how this idea adapts to the martial arts. If I rely only on speed and power in a conflict situation, and I meet someone faster and/or stronger than me, my defeat is assured.

But if I truly understand and can respond to the universal pattern of change, even the strongest opponent will be unable to harm me, because I do not oppose his strength, but flow with it. If he tries to push me down, he finds me already moving backward, and has nothing firm to push. If he tries to pull me forward, he finds me already stepping into him and falls backward himself. If he attacks with speed, I respond with timing. If he attacks with power, I respond with positioning. He tries to make me do what he wants me to do, but I try to let him do exactly what he wants to do - I simply don't resist him. In this way, even the weak and slow can overcome the fast and strong.

One of the great attractions of T'ai Chi is that it does not rely on speed and muscular strength, attributes which fade with age. To the contrary, one's ability in the art increases with age and wisdom, as one learns more and more to relax and follow the natural flow of change. The greatest T'ai Chi masters are old men whose outward appearance would not cause you to guess they could outfight a large mosquito. The husky young assailant wo made that error, whowever, would soon discover the folly of judging a book by its cover.

But then, this is only to be expected from an art whose foundations are laid in a philosophy famous for its recognition of truth in paradox.

As the Tao Te Ching puts it:

A man is supple and weak when living, but hard and stiff when dead. Grass and trees are pliant and fragile when living, but dried and shriveled when dead. Thus the hard and strong are the comerades of death; the supple and weak are the comerades of life.

The "root" ideas of T'ai Chi, then, gradually pieced together over the centuries from a broad base of philosophy, medicine and fighting styles, are: balance, relaxation, and movement in harmony with the Law of Change. The practical application of these ideas results in the expansion of consciousness and the development of Ch'i: wisdom and power.

We will consider each of these ideas over and over again in the examination of T'ai Chi, looking at them now from one angle, now from another, until they cease to be abstract and esoteric ideas and become a delightfully clear, simple and direct way of seeing and living life to the fullest. For this to occur it is necessary to break down the body/mind dichotomy and begin doing T'ai Chi, and I am going to devote the remainder of this chapter to some approaches you can take to begin immediately the training of your body and mind in the discipline of the Supreme Ultimate. First, however, I want to share with you a delightful set of "rules" to follow for success in T'ai Chi which I found in the excellent book "Combat T'ai Chi Ch'uan," by Andrew Lum, and which I reprint here by kind permission of the author.

(Available from Golden Unicorn, Inc., P.O. Box 7592, Honolulu, HI 96825.)


  1. Learn the path of the Grand Ultimate to achieve your goal. Coordinate the mind and spirit so that it is one.

  2. Learn to be sincere. Harmony will take its place in life.

  3. Learn not to criticize other martial arts. Martial arts does not prove a person, but a person proves the martial arts.

  4. There is always a beginning and an ending to everything. Learn to begin and end with courtesy, not in form alone, but in heart, mind and action.

  5. Learn not to be conceited. Nature is boundless. There is good to be learned from others. It is very easy to learn bad ways and hard to learn good ways when you are conceited.

  6. Learn the word respect. Everyone has an "ego." Treat everyone with respect if you want the same in return.

  7. Learn to control your own temper. Do not be angry without thinking. He who is easily angered loses control and courage at important moments.

  8. Learn perseverance, understanding, patience and kindness.

  9. Learn the meaning of firm belief or righteousness. Confucius says, "I have an open clear conscience; I am not afraid to face the enemy of ten thousand men."

  10. Reserved for your own.

It is now time to begin your training program, and the first thing you must undertake to learn is the T'ai Chi Ch'uan form. This slow and flowing sequence of movements is the absolute foundation for the learning of T'ai Chi, and it is impossible to progress in the art without it. At this point I want to suggest as strongly as possible that you find a qualified teacher and enroll under his tutelage. T'ai Chi is unlike many other martial arts in that once you have correctly learned the fundamentals it is possible to continue learning on your own without a teacher. This is because the bulk of progress in the art is attained through work on self-mastery which you must really do "by yourself" even if you are in a class. You can learn the basic ideas and techniques of T'ai Chi in two years or less if you pursue it seriously; and from that point on your involvement with formal teaching is entirely optional, depending on your own self- discipline, your desire to be stimulated by the company of others on the same quest, the ready availability of workout partners, etc. But it is absolutely essential to learn the fundamentals from someone who really knows them; who can show you the correct body placement, point out errors in balance and movement, identify areas of tension and energy-blockage in your postures, etc. You cannot learn the form from a book, because there is no way to grasp the subtle fluidity and continuity of the form through a series of static pictures, no matter how skillful the book's author may be.

Fortunately, the popularity of T'ai Chi has blossomed enormously in recentyears, and finding a qualified teacher no longer presents the extreme difficulty it did only a short time ago. Every large city has one or more T'ai Chi teachers, as do many smaller towns. If it turns out that there is no school within reach of where you live, a second-best approach is to learn the form from a friend or acquaintance who has studied with a qualified teacher. Even though this is obviously not as satisfactory as having the benefit of the depth of understanding of someone who has devoted many years of his life to the directed pursuit of T'ai Chi, it will give you something solid and realistic to work with, and you can have your form corrected by a more knowledgeable teacher when one becomes available to you.

As a last resort, if you find yourself truly isolated from contact with anyone who can teach you the form, you can learn the sequence of movements and transitions from film or videotape. At the end of the bibliography I have listed some well-respected teachers who have made available tapes or films of themselves correctly performing the T'ai Chi form. A dedicated student can learn the basics by diligently imitating the forms of these masters. Should you find it necessary to learn the form in this fashion, however, you should still seek instruction and correction on a personal basis as soon as possible. The precise movements correct for any given individual vary slightly according to body type, center of gravity, etc., and an exact imitation of even a skillful master's form will still not be quite perfect for you.

Whatever your source of instruction, as you practice the T'ai Chi form - and all T'ai Chi exercises - you should keep three principles strongly in mind. These principles are the key to successful T'ai Chi, and if they are neglected, even the most precision-perfect execution of the moves (from a physical point of view) will not yield successful results. These principles are:




To EMPTY YOURSELF means to relax every single muscle of your body which is not directly involved in performing the movement at hand. This takes a great deal of concentration and practice to achieve, and you will know you are doing it correctly when you have the sensation of being extremely light and "hollow." You must move without facial grimacing, tension in your joints, contraction of opposing muscle groups, etc. When your energy is not tied up in maintaining unnecessary tension, you will be astounded at the power you will be able to generate with soft and relaxed motions.

SINKING AND ROOTING refer to consciously directing your Ch'i into your lower body. There is a point in your lower abdomen (a few inches below your navel) called the Tan T'ien. This point is the focus of your psychic energy as well as your physical center of gravity. By consciously willing power to accumulate in your Tan T'ien as you move inward and downward, and consciously directing it out through your extremeties as you move upward and outward, a degree of control over this mysterious vital force is initiated.

Illustration 2.2

Ch'i is something all people have, but few have learned to control consciously. Your first sensory experience with it is likely to be a warm, tingling sensation in your hands and fingertips, after you have been performing the exercises correctly for some period of time. This first rush of Ch'i is quite exhilarating, and you will find yourself hungering for more and more control of this amazing life force.

To SINK, then, is to drop your energy accumulation down from the chest and shoulder region, where modern man usually holds it, to the T'an Tien, where it can gather and circulate. Accompanying this is a straightening of the spine, holding the head erect (but not tense), and a pulling in of the pelvis to eliminate the "sway back." To ROOT is to gently bend your legs and send Ch'i flowing through them to root your stance firmly to the earth, making your stance a strong and supple one.

MOVING WITH NO RESISTANCE is the harmonious flow through patterns of change that I spoke of earlier. In a conflict situation, you must move with your opponent, not against him. Since he has disturbed the natural harmony in the first place by attacking you, he will in time defeat himself with a minimum of assistance if you will but let him do it. If he attacks forward, step back and gently pull him in the direction he is going. If he retreats, stick to him like glue and lend a gentle assistance in the direction of his backward imbalance. In attacking you, the assailant should feel like he is punching at a pillow of air: he encounters no resistance and thus loses his balance. As the T'ai Chi Classics put it, "When my opponent advances on me, he finds the distance between us incredibly long. When he retreats, he finds it exasperatingly short." When doing the T'ai Chi form or solo exercises, it is extremely helpful to visualize an imaginary opponent trying to unbalance you, and to make your movements fluid and non-resistive so as to allow his attacks to slide harmlessly by you.

Most important, you should encounter no resistance from yourself. Any time you find yourself straining awkwardly to make a step, losing balance on a move or trying to put your body through some contortion that seems forced or unnatural, you may be sure that you are performing the move incorrectly. At no point should you encounter any resistance or impedance to the smooth continuity of motion.

In addition to starting to learn the T'ai Chi form (which you should practice for at least fifteen minutes a day, every day, for best results), I would like to suggest a simple meditation exercise you can begin to practice immediately. This exercise will greatly assist you in reaching the requisite level of calm and openness for success in T'ai Chi, and oddly enough, it will also speed your learning of the form itself.

There is a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding about the neture of meditation, its purposes, the best methods of meditating, etc. Meditation is a "journey within" your own consciousness. There is a vast storehouse of wisdom, understanding and information locked away from normal day to day awarenesss which this kind of inner voyage can reveal, as well as many abilities to be gained. The profound state of relaxation which meditation fosters is of enormous benefit to the body, especially the nervous system. It has even been medically shown to cure or alleviate the symptoms of many stress-related illnesses.

But from a psychological or spiritual point of view, the ultimate purpose of meditation is to bring you into a state of continuously and directly experiencing reality by eliminating the incessant mental chatter that distracts you from being completely in the here and now. The meditator who reaches this state experiences the dissolution of the boundaries between subject and object, and - depending on the tradition he is following - is said to have reached "cosmic consciousness," "enlightenment," etc. To live in such awareness is the goal of all spiritual paths, and T'ai Chi is no exception.

However, I so not suggest for now that you try to quiet your mind in this manner, for the simple reason that you will find it completely impossible to even begin doing so. If you doubt this assertion, close your eyes right now and try to think of nothing for only five seconds - no thoughts, no memories, no mental images; just a blank mind for five seconds.

Did you try?

If you succeeded you will be the first person in my experience to have done so. The fact of the matter is that our minds are so undisciplined that we must train them to concentrate on something for a rather lengthy period of time before we can even think of attempting the meditation of "no thought." Therefore, all schoold of meditation begin by training their students to concentrate on something to keep their minds from straying. This may be a particular mental picture, a mental chant (called a "mantra"), counting up and down a series of numbers, or any one of numerous other devices.

In T'ai Chi we have a ready-made focus of attention: the T'ai Chi form itself! Going over the form in your mind not only serves the purpose of a mantra to keep your overactive mind from wandering, but it also improves your ability and understanding of the form, without moving a muscle. This may sound strange, but it is a fact (borne out by university experiments with sports and other physical activities) that your actual ability to do the moves of T'ai Chi will improve merely by going over them in your mind.

To begin your meditation practice, choose a quiet time and a place where you will not be disturbed. Assume a comfortable position, but not one you are likely to fall asleep in. Try to keep your spine straight, for your energies will circulate more freely with an erect spine. The cross-legged and "right seated" postures illustrated below are both quite suitable, and neither is awkward or difficult.

Illustrations 2.3 and 2.4
Cross-legged and right seated postures

Whatever position you choose, you will probably find your legs going to sleep after a few minutes. Try not to let this distract you - they will wake up once you leave the position, and fidgeting will destroy the value of the meditation. In time your circulation will improve and this problem will eliminate itself.

After settling into a comfortable position, close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths, sinking your energy to the Tan T'ien and relaxing your whole body. For a few moments just observe your thoughts, neither trying to control them nor push them away. After a brief span of time, your mind will stop firing so rapidly and chaotically, and that is the time to gently step in and take control. Visualize yourself in your mind's eye preparing to go through the T'ai Chi form. Make th image as real and believable as possible, and examine every facet of it. Look at your skin, your face, the clothes you are wearing. Slip into the mental image and feel your body position, feel the temperature of the surrounding air, feel the earth or floor beneath your feet.

When this image has become very sharp and clear, begin going through the T'ai Chi form in your mind. Direct all of your attention to this performance, exactly as you would if you were practicing in the flesh. Sink and root, maintain your proper body posture, move slowly and fluidly, try to sense your Ch'i flow. If you have not yet learned all of the form, just repeat the moves you have learned several times. Try to keep your attention from wandering. If you do find that you have slipped off and are thinking about something else (an almost certain occurrence to begin with), just recapture the image and pick up where you left off.

Five to ten minutes of this meditation is all you will be able to accomplish before you become too restless to continue, and that is fine. With regular practice, this time will increase and the quality of your concentration will improve.

Later in the book, I will introduce you to some more advanced meditation practices, for which this concentration will prepare you; but this simple exercise is an extremely valuable one and will yield you inestimable benefit in both the physical and spiritual aspects of T'ai Chi if you practive it consistently. Remember, you have all the time in the world, and as long as you are on the right path, you will keep progressing. It is true of many things, but particularly of the quest for expanded consciousness that "the hurrier you go, the behinder you get."

For both the practice of the form and the meditation exercise. it is important to set up a regular daily schedule. Fifteen minutes a day will yield far more beneficial results than two hours once a week.

Our next chapter will be somewhat analytical and philosophical, and may stretch your brain a little. If you find yourself becoming captivated by some of the deeper ideas at the root of T'ai Chi, it is all to the good; but do not forget that T'ai Chi is a way of life, and all the ideas in the worldwill not substitute for regular practice, exercise and meditation to carry you to its mastery. You should set up a regular practice and meditation schedule right now, if you have not already done so, and resolve to follow it faithfully. Only in this way will the seed of T'ai Chi find fertile soil in which to take root and flourish.

With this in mind, let us turn our attention now to the central conception of the Supreme Ultimate, the Law of Change that governs all entities and events in the Universe - the Unifying Principle.

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