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

Chapter 3:
The Unifying Principle

Tao in the world is like the river flowing home to the sea. The great Tao flows everywhere. Ten thousand things depend on it. It silently fulfills its purpose: It makes no claim. It nourishes ten thousand things and passes on in constant flow. Passing on, it becomes remote. Having become remote, it returns. It has no aim, it is very small. Ten thousand things return to it, yet it is not their master. It is very great, but does not show greatness. Therefore it is truly great. - Lao Tzu

Nothing in this chapter is true. (Including, of course, this statement.)

I know that sounds like a strange way to begin the discussion of so crucial a topic as the construction of the Universe; but perhaps by so doing, I can avoid the pitfall into which philosophers from time immemorial have fallen. That pitfall is the mistaken notion that reality can be expressed in words. The fact is that it cannot, for a very simple and obvious reason. Reality is everything that is; words (language) constitute a very small part of everything that is.

Now, even a child knows that the part cannot contain the whole; yet for some reason we human beings stubbornly insist on trying to cram the whole of reality into words, and I am no exception to this rule - hence the disclaimer.

As you read through this chapter, you will no doubt catch me in the act of making pompous assertions about reality, infinity, the ultimate basis of existence and similarly unbounded topics which, by their very nature, cannot be pinpointed by so limited a medium as words. In these instances, I hope you will do me the charity of understanding that I do not believe that I am telling the truth, but rather that I am using words to point out directions in which truth may be found. You, however, must discover the truth for yourself.

Actually, no one can really tell the truth about anything - all truth must be directly experienced. If, for example, someone asks you, "What is red?" and you reply, "Red is the color of an apple," you have merely pointed out the direction he should look to find it. In reality, only the experience of seeing red is the truth about red. This is clear enough if you imagine trying to explain red to a blind man.

You may object that there are many things which can be accurately communicated by words alone, in the absence of direct experience. For instance, if you have read the story of Cinderella you will have a perfectly good idea of what a glass slipper is, iven though the odds are strong that you have never seen or touched one. Here again, though, your understanding resolves to direct experience, for you have certainly seen the material "glass" and the footwear "slipper;" and had you not, the phrase "glass slipper" would be meaningless to you. I hope I am not boring you with this discussion, but this is really a most important point to grasp. If you will spend a few minutes by yourself thinking about language and reality, you will surely discover that everything you know is either something you have directly experienced, or is a concept formed from a collection of things you have directly experienced. When you truly understand this it will free you from a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding. Experiencealone is truth.; words can only group experiences or point out the direction one should take to gain experience of a certain kind. To paraphrase Confucius, "No statement is true, including this one."

Now that we have firmly planted our feet on shifty ground, the next step is to - carefully - take a look ate the central conception underlying Oriental philosophy and the T'ai Chi way of life. That conception is that there is, always has been and always will be just one thing "in" the Universe. Matter, energy, space, time, life and thought are not separate things at all, but are merely different aspects of the One Thing. There is not much we can directly say about the Supreme Ultimate, even recognizing the limitations of language, because anything we say about it separates it from what we did not say about it; but it is that, too. As Lao Tzu said, "The name that can be named is not the true name."

The Supreme Ultimate is the Tao, is T'ai Chi, is the omni- present, eternally self-regenerative, holistic/interactive process of unfoldment: being. What is, is that. T'ai Chi "contains" all diversity, all forms, all time, space and experience, but it is not diverse; it is the One Thing.

Without getting too abstract, let me see if I can come up with some meaningful ways of looking at this idea that will make it a little more meaningful. Suppose you and I are facing each other and someone says to us, "look to the left." I will turn my head one way, and you will turn your head in exactly the opposite direction. Which direction is "really" left?

If you live in New York and I live in Louisiana, you may go "south" to West Virginia, while I go "north" to the same place. Is it really north, or is it south?

If I go for a swim in forty-degree weather, I am quite certain that it is "cold," but ice melts at the same temperature because it is too "warm."

It is trivially obvious in these examples that the "opposites" have no reality in themselves. They only acquire meaning when considered from particular pointes of view, and this is equally true of all pairs of opposites. But the Supreme Ultimate contains all points of view; in reality every direction is both up and down, every temperature is both warm and cold. In other words, left and right are really the same thing, they only appear to be different when we choose a particular, limited reference point from which to view them. Since the limitless Universe contains all possible reference points, and every point is equally as "real" as every other point, the notion of opposites loses its objective character.

Another way of looking at the Supreme Ultimate comes. ironically, from modern physics. Ever since Relativity demonstrated that matter and energy are interchangeable, scientists have recognized that the entire physical universe is composed of nothing more than positive and gegative forces arranged in different ways relative to one another (these forces are sometimes called waves, sometimes particles, depending on how you look at them). Since space is a relationship of pieces of matter to one another, and time is a relationship of energy-events to one another, space and time too have no existence apart from positive and negative forces. But since positive wave/particles and negative wave/particles are really the same thing viewed from different reference points, matter energy space and time are really - One Thing. In mathematical physics, the attempt to describe this is known as Unified Field Theory.

To gain some kind of direct experience of this reality, take a walk out to the countryside by yourself and sit somewhere where you will not be distracted by anything. If you gaze quetly about with a calm mind, you will soon have the experience that everything you see is actually inside of you - there is really no "out there" at all. Let's look at this phenomenon in diagram form:

Illustration 3.1

When you see a tree, your eyes apparently puck up a pattern of light reflected from the tree. This light pattern causes chemical changes in the elements of you optic nerve, which in turn transmits this information to your brain, and a picture of the tree pops into your consciousness. Now follow this please - the "tree" that you "see" is in your consciousness, not somewhere "out there." The only knowledge you have of the tree, your only experience of the tree, is in your consciousness. Although it is conventional to do so, it does not add anything to say that there is also a tree out there that "caused" the tree-image to appear in your consciousness, since your experience of "out there" is also in your consciousness. In fact, every experience - hence every reality - is noplace but in your consciousness. All this may sound quite absurd and illogical in verbal form, but it is really simple and obvious if you will take the time to experience it.

What I am suggesting here is the somewhat radical proposition that the entire Universe is within you; that in fact you are the Supreme Ultimate. How this can be, I will leave you to figure out for yourself, but I suggest that you don't try to do it in words.

If this idea attracts you, please pursue it diligently. Both the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching are excellent guides to follow as your own meditation and perseverance carry you toward a realization of this profound simplicity.

Since T'ai Chi is also a practical way of life, however, I want to leave the further edvelopment of this more purely contemplactive aspect of the philosophy to your own curiosity for now, and proceed to the next step in the unfolding cosmology of the Supreme Ultimate. This is the cause of manifested action and the root of the principle of balance: the Yin and the Yang. T'ai Chi contains within itself all pairs of opposites. There are infinitely many pairs of opposites - up and down, in and out, light and dark, male ands female, strong and weak, empty and full, etc. But all pairs of opposites are themselves composed of the two fundamental opposites which are the underlying basis of the manifested Universe.

You will recall that modern physics has come to look at reality as a complex web of positive and negative forces arranged in different ways relative to one another. The ancient Chinese made this same discovery over three thousand years ago, but explained it is slightly different terms. The positive forces they called Yang; the negative, Yin.

I think it is remarkable and exciting that if all the readers of this book had a thorough education in modern physics, most of the philosophy of T'ai Chi could be expressed in mathematical equations that would withstand the most rigorous scientific scrutiny; since that is not likely to be the case, however, I will stick to the original terminlolgy. Remember that words only point to the truth, and that one set of terms is as good as another. If it pleases you to do so, by all means translate Yin and Yang as negative and positive forces, and the interactions between thim as "field phenomena."

The way T'ai Chi explains this idea is as follows:

Out of the great, undifferentiated unity of pure Being, there arise simultaneously two exactly opposite forces or tendencies - Yin, which is constantly expanding from nothingness to infinity, and Yang which is constantly contracting from infinity to nothingness. Since "nothingness" and "infinity" are merely different ways of looking at the same thing (undifferentiated Being), this motion is eternal and circular. That is, the forces of expansion exactly balance the forces of contraction, and the beat goes on.

As these two forces encounter each other, they react in certain orderly and predictable ways, combining, attracting and repelling. This combining and interacting of Yin and Yang gives rise to all the things we perceive in the Universe: stars and planets, sun and moon, trees, love, war, shoelaces and color television are all just Yin and Yang arranged in different patterns of interaction.

The art of T'ai Chi is to understand these patterns of interaction (the Law of Change) and align ourselves with them so that we can keep our balance. Just as the Universe would be destroyed if there were not a perfect balance of Yin and Yang, so and individual is destroyed (or defeated, diseased or depressed) if he is unbalanced with respect to this great cosmic flow. Balance is the name of the game and the orderly interaction between Yin and Yang constitute the rules.

Following this analogy, the "rule-book" of the Supreme Ultimate is the ancient Chinese Book of Change, the I Ching. limited degree of unfoldment that is not beyond the power of the human mind to grasp). In this scheme, a broken line represents a Yin influence, while a solid line indicates the force of Yang.



Combining such lines six at a time results in 64 HEXAGRAMS (six-line diagrams), each of which represents one of the basic possible combinations of Yin and Yang; therefore, one of the basic possible qualities or situations of reality.

An interesting sidelight at this point is that the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching have recently been discovered to be an exact restatement of the 64 "code words" of the DNA genetic code! In both structure and content, the two are identical, and - even though most of the genetic code is still a mystery - the "punctuation codes" of DNA that have been deciphered have the same meanings as the equivalent hexagrams. For example, the genetic "stop" code at the end of each DNA "statement" has the same structure as hexagram 12, "standstill." Does this mean that the ancient sages understood the genetic code, of which modern scientists were unaware until the last few years? Or does it simply mean that they had correctly identified the structural order of life, and therefore the biological life code would only naturally show the same structure? Who knows? But the fact that the scientifically accepted basis for the unfoldment of all life is identical to this ancient document argues convincingly for its universal valitidy.

*For a detailed examination of this fascinating "synchronicity," see The I Ching and the Genetic Code, by Martin Schoenberger (listed in the bibliography).

The images and commentaries attached to each of the 64 hexagrams explain the qualities of that particular combination of Yin and Yang, as well as indicating how the various forces within a hexagram move, change and interact with one another. It is no overstatement to say that all the secrets of the Universe are contained within this remarkable book, and your effor in studying it will be well rewarded.

Unfortunately, it is not the easiest book to understand. While the poetic descriptions and commentaries are beautifully and clearly written, there is no getting around the fact that it takes years of study to begin to really comprehend the Law of Change through the I Ching. As wise a man as Confucius deliberately deferred studying the I Ching until he was fifty years old, because he felt he could not hope to grasp its essence with less maturity (and he spent the rest of his life with it.)

This is one of the reasons that T'ai Chi is such a remarkably valuable discipline - the physical exercises of T'ai Chi will allow you to directly experience much of the hidden meaning contained in the I Ching, in a much shorter period of time than would be possible through reading and meditation alone.

Still, there is good use to which some degree of intellectual understanding of the Law of Change can be put, so I am going to include here a "nutshell statement" of the practical elements of the Unifying principle. This particular formulation was taken from the East-West foundation, an organization in the United States which studies Oriental cosmology.

Seven Principles of the Order of the Universe

  1. All things are differentiated aspects of One Infinity.

  2. Everything changes.

  3. All antagonisms are complementary.

  4. There is nothing identical.

  5. What has a front has a back.

  6. The bigger the front, the bigger the back.

  7. What has a beginning has an end.

Twelve Theorems of the Unifying Principle

  1. One infinity differentiates itself into Yin and Yang, which are the poles that come into operation when the infinite centrifugality arrives at the geometric point of bifurcation.

  2. Yin and Yang result continuously from the infinite centrifugality.

  3. Yin is centrifugal, Yang is centripetal. Yin and Yang together produce energy and all phenomena.

  4. Yin attracts Yang. Yang attracts Yin.

  5. Yin repels Yin. Yang repels Yang.

  6. The force of attraction and repulsion is proportional to the difference of the Yin and Yang components. Yin and Yang combined in various proportions produce energy and all phenomena.

  7. All phenomena are ephemeral, constantly changing their constitution of Yin and Yang components.

  8. Nothing is solely Yin or Yang. Everything involves polarity.

  9. There is nothing neuter. Either Yin or Yang is in excess in every occurrence.

  10. Large Yin attracts small Yin. Large Yang attracts small Yang.

  11. At the extremes, Yin changes to Yang and Yang changes to Yin.

  12. All physical forms and objects are Yang at the center and Yin at the surface.


Tendency expansion contraction
Position outward inward
Structure space time
Direction ascent descent
Color purple red
Temperature cold hot
Weight light heavy
Catalyst water fire
Atomic particle electron proton
Light dark bright
Vibration short wave long wave
Work psychological physiological
Attitude receptive active
Biological vegetable animal
Sex female male
Nerves parasympathetic orthosympathetic
Elements K, O, P, Ca, N H, As, Cl, Na, C
Climate tropical cold
Process entropy organization

Right now, with this incredible array of ideas, "rules" and correspondences before you, let me suggest to you one way of approaching the study of Yin and Yang, and that is to take it slowly and with a large grain of salt. Understanding, not rigid dogma, is the aim of T'ai Chi. If you memorize these principles and theorems and rush out to apply them to your daily life, you will most likely fall flat on your face, get disgusted and give up the whole business.

The process of coming to understand the Law of Change is a lifetime study. Mastery of the way of the Supreme Ultimate is perhaps the highest goal one can aim for in life, and requires a step by step process of experiencing and maturing. Trying to cram too much intellectual understanding into an unprepared vessel can only result in failure. This is why the physical training plays such an important part in T'ai Chi: experiencing these patterns of interaction with your body gives you a direct insight into them that mere contemplation or analysis can never achieve.

For one thing, Yin and Yang are not absolute. Only the Supreme Ultimate itself is absolute; everything else is relative. For example, a literal reading of the classification chart would tell you that a woman is Yin while a man is Yang. But, according to theorem #8, nothing is purely Yin or Yang; the average woman is merely more yin in relation to the average man. In relation to the average stalk of broccoli, however, any woman is extremely Yang.

If this sounds confusing, imagine trying to figure out complex psychological or physical behavior patterns with only academic knowledge of the Unifying Principle. Without intending to be in any way discouraging, it is only fair to say that everyone embarking on this way encounters more than once the experience of having his or her neat conception of the way things "really" are dashed to pieces on the stern reef of disillusionment. These categories should be approached as general indicators of Yin and Yang in relationship; Yin and Yang cannot be quantitatively analyzed and isolated from real world phenomena. They must be appreciated by continuous open-minded attention to the way things and events of different qualities actually do interact with each other in your experience. Just when you have made what you think is some positive identification which will relieve you of the need for further judgment about the way something or other works, some unnoticed little factor will creep in from left field to make you realize your great wisdom is really simplistic and naive.

You must be prepared for this shattering of smug and certain conceptions if you are serious about advancing along the path of T'ai Chi, for that is one of the patterns of learning it requires: intellectual understanding, followed by confusion and disillusionment, out of which grows a kernel of genuine understanding and insight.

In my opinion, the best way to approach Yin and Yang intellectually (as distinguished from the practical exercises and meditiations outlined in this book) is from the point of view of an observer. In other words, don't accept any of the ideas in this chapter, but rather observe th flow of events in your daily life to see if they move in accord with any of these principles.

For example, like poles of magnets repel each other, while unlike poles attract. Is this in accord with any of our theorems?

When you work very hard (Yang), does your energy turn to exhaustion (Yin)? And when you rest (Yin), are you restored and revitalized (Yang)?

"Every action has an equal but opposite reaction." Can this be interpreted by means of Yin and Yang?

Folksy wisdom and old saws often take on an entirely new coherence when viewed though the spectacles of the Supreme Ultimate. Some examples:

"The darkest hour is just before dawn."

"The bigger they come, the harder they fall."

"You always hurt the one you love."

"Pride goeth before a fall."

"There is some good in the worst of us, and some bad in the best of us."

"Work is the curse of the drinking class."

"The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence."

The list is endless, and you will see the principle operative in the most unlikely places if you keep your senses open.

When I first encountered this philosophy, one of the principles that was a great eye-opener for me was, "every front has a back." If you encounter something apparently strong, look for its weaknesses. If you encounter something weak and ineffectual, look for its hidden strength. You will be surprised to discover that outward appearances never tell the whole tale. Every advantage has its price, every struggle has its rewards, and so on.

The gravitational field of the Sun is so great that nothing can escape from its pull. The incredible speed of the Earth in its orbit tries to fling it off into space. Yet the balance between these centrifugal and centripetal forces keeps our sphere comfortably suspended at a pleasant distance from its fiery host.

A cold (Yin) climate produces aggressive (Yang) inhabitants, while a warm (Yang) climate produces realtively more passive (Yin) inhabitants. It is interesting to observe in history that there is a recurrent cycle of people from the northern latitudes sweeping down to conquer and colonize more southern cultures - it rarely happens the other way around. Since extreme Yang turns to Yin, however, the conquerors are often assimilated into the more passive cultures of their southern victims and are in turn preyed upon by the next generation of aggressors.

These rambling observations are just some of the things I have noticed in looking about at the world. The important thing is for you to try to notice what is going on about you, and to see if the idea of Yin and Yang can shed any light on why things are happening the way they are. Try to be flexible in your observations and avoid classifying anything categorically.

The life cycle itself is the most dramatic illustration of the Law of Change. A seed is extremely small, concentrated and Yang. From it grows a sprout, (Yin), which continues to expasnd and shoot up until it reaches the limit of its Yin, at which time it turns to seed (Yang). Life is full of such cycles. So is the environment: the heat of the Sun (Yang) causes water to evaporate and rise (Yin). When it has reached the limit of its ascent it condenses, becomes heavy and falls to earth (Yang.)

See if you can discover similar cycles in business, economics, politics and religious movements. See if you can discover them in your own daily routine, in your biological functioning, in your personal relationships.

The Unifying Principle itself is central to both the oldest spiritual conceptions and the newest scientific discoveries of man. This fact is a key to understanding it.

There are many ways in which this understanding can be put to practical use, other than through the formal discipline of T'ai Chi. In massage, for example, if you encounter a tense, contracted knot of muscular tension (Yang), apply firm pressure (Yang). Since Yang repels Yang, if you maintain the pressure, the knotted tension will have to go away - and does! If you want to get along well with an aggressive boss, listen to him, receive (Yin) his communication. If you're tired of the job, be as aggressive as he is!

Once you have begun to look at things in this way, and have started to discover for yourself that reality actually does unfold in an orderly and comprehensible way, you will have in your possession the most powerful tool imaginable for expanding your consciousness and shaping your own destiny. From the greatest cosmic movement to the most insignifican personal transaction, the Law of Change provides a clear and reliable guide to the nature of the forces involved, and - most importantly - to the kind of energy you should put into any situation in order to assure the outcome you desire. The natural order of change is omni-present and unstoppable; by understanding and aligning yourself with it, your own movements will take on its character: serene certainty and effortless success.

As you practice the movements and exercises of T'ai Chi, your understanding and appreciation of the Unifying Principle will naturally grow, for the T'ai Chi exercises will actually change the way your own vital energy (Ch'i) moves through your body so that it becomes a perfect example of the course of change and energy flow in the Universe as a whole; so that your body becomes a "miniature Universe" open to your direct experience and perception! This direct experience will mesh with the ideas in this chapter in the same way that building a bridge meshes with engineering theory. To use these understandings as you walk through life, for the benefit of yourself and those around you, is the T'ai Chi way of life.

You should treat your expanding understanding of the Law of Change with respect, however, and never consider yourself its master or take it for granted, Regardless of the level of wisdom and power you attain, there will always be more to understand. Remember, you and I are students - the Supreme Ultimate itself is the teacher. It will teach us well, but we must learn to turn down our conceited noise and listen carefully to its sagely whisperings.

"The wise student hears of the Tao
and practices it diligently.
The average student hears of the Tao
and gives it thought now and again.
The foolish student hears of the Tao
and laughs out loud.
If there were no laughter, the Tao
would not be what it is."
- Lao Tzu

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