Philosophy of Tai Chi
太極 (太极) “Taiji” or “Tai Chi” (literally “supreme polarity”) refers to the philosophy of yin and yang.
拳 “Quan” or “Chuan” means “fist”, “exercise routine” or “martial art style”
The Taiji (T’ai Chi) Symbol (太極圖) (taijitu or t’ai chi t’u) commonly known in the West as the “yin-yang” diagram, is a graphical reference to the dualistic nature of the Universe as described in many Eastern philosophies.
The Taiji (Tai Chi) symbol.
The Tai Chi symbol (“Taiji tu”) as it is commonly depicted, represents the dualistic nature of the phenomenal universe defined by two complimentary and mutually dependent principles, “Yin” and “Yang.”
The diagram shows yin (represented by black) and yang (represented by white) and the designation between the two (energy). Extremes of either yin or yang contain aspects of the other, and each flow into the other. Yin increases until it becomes yang. Yang increases until it becomes yin.
The phenomenal universe (that aspect of the Universe in which things and actions exist) is built on the designation of yin and yang. But nothing is either yin or yang if it does not have its complement.
Up does not exist without down. Masculine only exists relative to feminine. The past does not exist without the future. The present moment only exists as the designation between those two.
There is another concept which is tied to Taiji. For yin and yang are only separate when they move. Only then is there a designation between one thing and another. When yin and yang are still, they combine. This is known as “Wuji” or “No-polarity.”
wújí n. no extremity.
²wújí n. a mind completely devoid of worries, thought, or desires
Wuji means “no extremity” and refers to what is often called “emptiness” or “the void.” This is the “infinite nothingness from which all things come.” Wuji is the fundamental unchanging singular reality.
Wuji is a term also associated with a state of consciousness in which the observer is not distinguishable from the observed. Not only is the observer indistinguishable, but all that is observed is undifferentiated. This is the experience of being “One with the Universe.” This state of consciousness is usually achieved through disciplined practice and training of the mind. But spontaneous experiences of this state of consciousness may happen on occasion.
Any science, philosophy, psychology, or religion that discusses the nature of reality will eventually arrive at an impassable point in the conversation. Some things are unknown, others are unknowable, and other things are knowable but un-nameable. The very attempt to describe them takes the listener away from the truth.
This is a long standing joke in Daoist philosophy. The Daodejing, one of the first books in the Daoist canon, was written by an author identified as Laozi (Lao Tzu). Laozi starts the book with the words, “The Dao that can be spoken of is not the true Dao.” He then proceeds to talk about it for 88 chapters.
Essential Yin and Yang concepts
• Everything in the phenomenal Universe can be described as both Yin and Yang.
• The concepts of Yin and Yang originate in ancient Chinese philosophy and metaphysics, which describes two primal opposing, complementary, and mutually dependent principles defining all things in the universe.
Examples of Yin and yang:
- up – down
- yes – no
- north – south
- existing – non existing
- hot – cold
- Masculine – feminine
- high – low
All forces in nature can be described as having Yin and Yang aspects.
In Western culture, Yin and Yang are sometimes inaccurately portrayed as corresponding to “evil” and “good” respectively.
Whether a thing can be described as either yin or yang depends entirely upon what it is being compared to and upon the context of the comparison.
- Hot is yang relative to cold, and tall is yang relative to short. But it would be inappropriate to say that hot is yang relative to short.
- A rock is hard and a balloon is soft, in this respect the rock is yang relative to the balloon. But the balloon may be bigger or higher than the rock, and in the altitude of the balloon is yang relative to the rock.
So, yin and yang refer to aspects, qualities, or perspectives on a thing, but not the thing itself. Understanding this will inevitably lead to a widely accepted conclusion about the nature of reality found in Oriental philosophy. That is that anything that can be described, can only be described relative to something else, and that which can be described is only an aspect or nature in principle. Nothing that can be described has any inherent existence. This understanding is at the core of much philosophy and psychology, and as such is a concept found in many religions. The principle itself is, however, not a religious one, but a logical one.
The dualistic nature of things is therefore an illusion. What we perceive as reality is only reality as it is perceived. The entire phenomenal universe does not exist except as an aspect of that which cannot be described. This is where the concept of a non-dualistic source of all things comes into play.
- Neither Yin nor Yang are absolute.
- No one thing is completely Yin or completely Yang. Each contains the seed of its opposite. “what goes up must come down”.
- Yin and Yang are mutually dependent.
- Day does not exist without night. Light does not exist without darkness. Death is defined by Life.
- Yin and Yang each contain Taiji.
- Any Yin or Yang aspect is infinitely divisible into Yin and Yang. Anything that can be measured can be divided.
- Yin and Yang each consume and produce the other.
- Yin and Yang are usually held in balance: as one increases, the other decreases.
- Yin and Yang can each become the other.
- At a particular stage, Yin can transform into Yang and vice versa. For example, night changes into day; warmth cools. This transformation is also relative.
- Part of Yin is in Yang and part of Yang is in Yin.
- As indicated by the two dots in the taijitu, yin and yang each contain aspects of the other. For example: the vulnerability of an infant inspires great compassion and protective instincts in others, the softness of grass contributes to its survival, the height of a tall tree makes it more vulnerable to wind and lightning.
Is Tai Chi a Religion?
Tai chi is a philosophical concept, independent of any religious concept, although compatible with and co-opted by more than one religion. The tai chi philosophy gave its name to the martial art called tai chi chuan. But that was long after the art had developed. And while both the martial art called “tai chi chuan” and the philosophical principle called “tai chi” share some history and elements of daoist thought with Daoist religion, practising one does not mean that you practise the other.
To say that someone who practices Tai chi chuan must be a Daoist, is like saying that someone who plays cricket must be an Anglican, that someone who studies astronomy must be an Arab, or that a musician performing Handel’s Messiah is an imperialist Christian.
The philosophy of yin and yang is an ancient method of describing the dualistic nature of the universe. This philosophical description has been used by intellectuals of all religions, and by those with no religion.
The yin yang symbol is also an expression of the ideal harmonious relationships that humans can have with each other and with the natural world. It also describes the dynamic that maintains homeostasis within the human body. When yin and yang are balanced and flow naturally, the system is healthy and harmonious.
For centuries, the term “Dao” was used by philosophers of many different groups, including Buddhists, Daoists, Confucianists, doctors, politicians, military strategists, and martial artists.
By the 12th century C.E., religious forms of Daoism were beginning to co-opt the term Dao. Today the term Dao and the yin yang symbol are often used outside of the religious context, and are referred to in many streams of thought in Asia and around the world. A version of the yin yang symbol is even seen on the Korean flag.
Yin and Yang in Martial Arts
The philosophy of yin and yang is applied to tai chi in the same way that it is applied to many martial arts.
On a basic level, it teaches us to be like water, yielding to the most subtle force, yet as powerful and irresistible as the ocean. When the opponent uses force, we use softness. Where there is an opening, we flow right through. If they push, we pull. If they pull, we follow. If they miss, we don’t resist.
As a principle, we seek internal balance, and modify our position relative to the opponent’s force in a way that helps to improve our balance. We move at right angles to the opponent’s force, rather than resisting it or surrendering to it. In this way we allow the opponent’s own aggression to disarm them.
Understanding the nature of yin and yang allows us to see our own contribution to the opponent’s attack. It also allows us to find the strengths in our own weaknesses and the weaknesses in the opponent’s strength.
We learn that when the opponent’s offensive energy increases, his/her defensive energy decreases. We also see how the same is true for ourselves.
This leads us to a level of skill which requires balancing attack and defence, and finally eliminating attack and defence as absolutes. Attack and defence become one with each other as we achieve “emptiness. This leads to a state of being and a method of engaging that involves attacking without attacking, and defending without defending. Awareness and “structure” allow us to transcend technique.
This state of emptiness, an internal stillness that exists when the ego and individual emotions are set aside, is what some call being “one with the Universe.” In this state there is no enemy. The opponent defeats themselves by the nature of their own attack.
When you learn the physical skills that are used in combat, you progresses in stages:
- First you learn the basic techniques that are used when the opponent already has you at a disadvantage.
- Next you learn to intercept such attacks and prevent the opponent from getting you at a disadvantage.
- Then you learn to prevent the attack from forming.
- Finally, you learn to prevent the conflict altogether.
The final stage is a level of achievement called “no enemy.” When you reach this level you experience a level of rapport with all things. You understand their needs and fears, and deal with them as if they were your own. Active compassion prevents conflict.
Until you have achieved this highest level of skill, you may need to use lower level techniques. But the point to remember is that the purpose of training is to seek peace and harmony. To attach one’s goals to conflict guarantees defeat.
The most notable military strategist in history was Sunzi, the author of “The Art of War,” who lived in the 6th century BC. His strategies are still studied by military planners today and are still applied in war. He wrote that since no battle is without loss, it is a bad strategy to engage in battle, even when you are victorious 100% of the time. The only true victory is the one that is achieved without engaging in bloody combat.
For another view of tai chi philosophy, read the following essay, “The Warrior’s Peace” by Ian Sinclair
The Warrior’s Peace
– by Ian Sinclair
“I am not a pacifist. I don’t believe in passive anything.”- Mahatma Gandhi
When I tell people that I teach “martial arts – not violence,” it becomes clear that few people truly understand the nature of martial arts, just as few understand the real nature of peace.
It doesn’t help that the particular martial art that I specialize in is one of the most misunderstood. Taijiquan (Tai chi chuan, or “Tai chi” for short) is one of the most famous martial arts in the world. There are innumerable stories about tai chi masters who, in spite of their size, age, or gender, have defeated opponents who were seemingly more formidable than they. But to many people today, Tai chi seems like “old people sneaking up on trees”. The most recognizable element of the art – the slow, graceful movements – may seem relaxing, and there is growing scientific evidence of the health benefits. Yet even some people who practice taijiquan cannot conceive of it being effective for self defense.
Tai chi chuan belongs to a category of Chinese martial arts called “internal martial arts”. It includes a physical workout that can be adapted for any age or fitness level. But the primary focus is on the harmonious cultivation of mind, body, and spirit through the refinement of subtle internal alignment, the co-ordination of deep tissue, and the cultivation of qi (internal energy). Other traditional martial arts, such as karate, train these aspects also.
But the order in which “internal” and “external” aspects are taught is different. (I must note that don’t believe that there is such a thing as a superior martial art, only superior martial artists.)
To practice any traditional martial art is to constantly seek balance and harmony within an inherently violent world. To create peace in our daily lives requires constant effort, and great skill. As long as we think, feel and breathe, then balance and peace will be elusive. We must seek them constantly or lose ourselves to war and death. When we wait for times of war to struggle for peace, it is like starting to dig a well when we are already thirsty. Likewise, if we wait until someone attacks us before we seek balance, we have already lost.
A physical attack is someone trying to upset our balance, by striking us, throwing us, or killing us. Balance cannot be maintained if it doesn’t exist in the first place. So, the martial artist cultivates physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual balance; and learns that these are all one and the same. When balance is strong, defending it is easy.
If, out of fear, we attack an enemy that we don’t understand, and abandon our principles to do so, then we will have lost the war before we fire a shot. We will have sacrificed our balance to attack the person who threatens it. This is like a nation suspending human rights in order to “protect freedom”.
Learning techniques to defend yourself is pointless if you don’t feel worth defending. Likewise, it makes no sense for a country to spend all its money on a military defence of its way of life, while not investing in that way of life. Yet people and nations often fight to avoid their own internal problems.
A martial art is not a method of becoming violent. Violence is much easier than that. In fact, all we need to do to increase the violence in the world is do nothing. The inherent self-destructive tendency of any closed system, family, society, or geopolitical entity will inevitably prevail unless energy is administered for the maintaining of balance, peace, health, expression, and continued creation.
I once asked a student of mine (a beleaguered Physics student at UBC) how things were going. Her desperate reply was, “Entropy is winning.”
We don’t create wars. We allow them to happen by not actively creating peace. Violence, whether international war, or a dispute between two neighbours, happens after a considerable time is spent being complacent about our neighbours’ well being, and about our own inner peace.
If, through our cowardice, we choose to bathe in our own opulence, or obsess about our own hardships, then we are not actively engaging the World. We cannot see how our own selfish actions offend our family, friends, neighbours, allies, or enemies. We will be the victims of terrorism who cannot fathom what we did to provoke an attack. In fact, we will have done nothing, and that is precisely the problem. The guilt of the terrorism is clearly on the heads of the terrorists. But the responsibility for the state of the world lies with each and every one of us.
No one deserves pain. But that is irrelevant. Retribution will come surely to any who do not take responsibility for the happiness of their enemies. We are all responsible for the world being the way it is. And we must each accept total responsibility for actions or inaction that will affect people around the world today. We might not know how our actions affect the movements of the planets. But ignorance is not innocence, nor is it bliss.
Our own ignorance is the cause of our own misery. Martial artists must develop a profound awareness of their World, and of the oneness of mind, body, and spirit. With practice they will realize that there is no separation between thought, emotion, and action. They will also see the separation of people and things as an illusion created by the ego.
Every thought we have, no matter how subtle, creates an emotional response. And every emotional response has a physical effect. Knowing this enables a martial artist to seemingly read an opponents mind; and helps us understand how close friends or lovers are able to know what the other is thinking. This is also behind a lot of other so-called “mystical” abilities.
Have you ever experienced a relationship that was so harmonious that both people would finish each others’ sentences, or sigh at the same time. Have you ever thought of someone just as they phoned you? Can you have that kind of rapport with your enemy? For that matter, can you have that kind of relationship with yourself? I often tell my students that, if you want to be able to read your opponent’s mind, you should practise by reading your own. If you can be aware of the subtle workings of your own mind, you will find that it is relatively easy to know the intent and motivations of others.
Every successful military strategist will tell you that it is essential to know your enemy and to know What few of them bother to mention, however, is that you can never learn anything about anyone by hating them.
Our unconscious actions can cause others to hate us, or cause hatred to become anger. Anger is the hatred of hatred. If we do not understand the anger of our enemy, it is because we are not aware of our own hatred towards them. We might say, “I don’t hate them. I don’t even think about them.” But there is no easier hatred than indifference. If our awareness is limited, and our actions are self-serving, then we are certain to become the targets of malice.
To be able to know how an enemy is going to attack requires sensitivity, awareness and understanding. To respond appropriately to the attack requires wisdom, hope, and compassion. These qualities: sensitivity, awareness, understanding, wisdom, hope, and compassion are all expressions of love, the opposite of fear, and the fundamental attributes of a master warrior.
Courage is not an attribute of a master warrior, though it is often a useful tool for fighters. Courage is an aspect of fear. It is a coping mechanism which heightens our short-term awareness and gives us the energy to fight or flee. When a person is afraid, then the back tightens around the kidneys and adrenal glands. This pulls the shoulders and head back, affecting balance. The chest is then automatically forced to bravely stick out as a counterbalance. If there is fear with no courage, then there is no balance. However, fear continues to destabilize the person whether it is balanced by courage or not. Courage may balance fear temporarily, but it does not truly stabilize the person.
Master warriors do not fear death or life; and they desire neither life nor death. They do not wish for the past to change, or hate the enemy for trying to destroy them. They do not cling to anger or regret.
Master warriors wage peace constantly; seeking the divine in every moment, every place, every person, and every thing. They understand that true victory only comes through the disciplined, compassionate, unrelenting search for the ultimate point of balance that can only be attained through the perfection of unconditional Love.
copyright © 2003, Ian Sinclair