Is Tai Chi Intended to be Spiritual or Religious?
Tai chi can be as spiritual or non-spiritual as a practitioner makes it. It has a heavy sense of good will and absolutely has a sacred feel. Quotes and references abound about the similarities between tai chi and Buddhism/Daoism/Confucianism. Some go as far as to say that Tai Chi is based on Daoism or that it runs parallel to the teachings of the I Ching (Book of Changes).
On the other hand, most of the tai chi masters and practitioners from China that I have met have not shared their religious beliefs feelings and tendencies. They practice, meditate, talk about tai chi endlessly, but never enter into a conversation about God or religion.
I recently returned from China and this distinction was readily apparent. You could spend a day visiting Buddhist temples and then next day hammering through exhaustive workouts with no apparent relationship between the two. Yet, at the end of both days you felt the same groundedness and well-being. I did some research to come to terms with this simultaneous difference/similarity.
This essay is going to stray from the practical to hopefully offer insight for those with spiritual interest. That being said, let’s not get too fluffy. Buddhist references or quotes are thrown around loosely, and why not, the Buddha and Buddhism are attributed to millions of quotes that pertain to life and tai chi. Buddhism offers us some concrete concepts to explain in certain terms how taichi and religion/spirituality have a relationship.
The Dharma Seals
There are three criteria to measure whether something is authentically a Buddhist teaching. No wiggle room here. Thich Nhat Hahn in his book you are here. Does a beautiful job explaining the relationship between Buddhism and life. Let’s lean on his explanation and tie it back to tai chi.
When you look at the nature of all things you discover that they are impermanent. Everything is constantly changing. This is not a negative thing. “If things were not impermanent, growth would not be possible, and manifestation would not be possible. Impermanence is what puts an end to dictatorship. It’s what puts an end to hatred and suffering. We need impermanence to transform them…We must train ourselves to see things as they are.”
We are made of elements called form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. These things are very real but we cannot find any permanence in them. As you progress in tai chi, it is all too easy to get down on yourself and feel as though you are progressing from a position of sucking to sucking less. But this misses one of the most important points that tai chi teaches.
Each time you are practicing you are producing the very best form that you are capable of based on your current state and level of experience.
If you can wrap your mind around this idea it becomes continual joy. The implications for work and life are incredible. This doesn’t mean you don’t get frustrated or don’t want to do better. But every work presentation or new recipe you try for your wife at the very least provides you with satisfaction.
“I am large, I contain multitudes.” Walt Witman
Thick Nhat Hahn uses a beautiful flower metaphor to explain Non-Self. “When we look deeply at a flower, we see all the non-flower elements there, such as earth, sun, minerals, the gardener, and so on…The flower does not need to become the sun, it is the sun. When you achieve this insight, you stop suffering. We suffer because we want to deny ourselves. We want to become something else, and so we never stop running.”
By studying tai chi you are not becoming something else or gaining something new. You are returning to something that is more natural by waking up to what is inherently yours. This is the best part of the Dharma seals I feel. Tai Chi can be performed knowing that you are receiving benefits from the set without having to specifically identify what is going on . This means that newcomers and old-comers can simply do the form without having to concentrate on the specifics.
For teachers out there, sometimes tai chi is a hard sell because it doesn’t have the LOUD feedback that other activities do. You run, you are tired. You do Crossfit, you are sore. Tai chi’s differences are more profound from a health standpoint but definitely more subtle. I have taken to guiding my classes to note the changes. At the beginning of an evening class I ask everyone to rate their perceived level of fatigue. Most people have worked all day and it is now 7 PM. At the end I have them do it again and they are usually more awake. I ask them to question if their sleep is different on practice nights. Before 3 minute standing (zhan zhuang – pole standing in a deep posture) I ask them to rate their body temperature. Without exception it skyrockets after 180 seconds and people are perspiring. Pretty powerful stuff for the amount of perceived effort.
The term Nirvana means extinction. The extinction of all concepts and the pain that concepts cause. Back to Thich Nhat Hahn’s flower metaphor: “The flower is full of all of the elements. It has everything in it and is devoid of only one thing: separate existence.”
Everything that you want to learn from tai chi is already in you. You do not need to gain it from a teacher or reading books. They can guide you back but they are not giving you anything. Tai chi directs you towards natural balance, posture, and health that already exists in you and your body craves. Qi Gong and breathing exercises re-introduce you to autonomic processes and internal energy that moves through your body. Tai chi builds this energy and increases your sensitivity to it but it is already there in everyone.
The Dharma Seals – Taichi style
In one of my first encounters with a Chen Tai Chi master visiting the United States I was participating in a private lesson to have my form corrected. As is typical, I was asked to perform a portion of the form. It is nerve-racking but not meant as a challenge. They just want to ascertain what level you are beginning at that day so they know how to best help you. After completing my routine the interpreter shared my review.
“You are not doing tai chi. That is not tai chi,” he said. I was dumb founded.
About a year of practice and I wasn’t even doing the art? “What was it then?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “Dancing? Choreography?” Wow. The Chinese don’t pull punches. I was ready to quit. Anecdotally, I have heard the same tai chi masters look at a picture or watch live music and say: “That is Tai Chi.” There is some sort of criteria or coming together that they are bearing witness to.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that I had my first encounter with what I think is Tai Chi’s version of the Dharma Seals. Tai Chi has its own rules for what constitutes Tai Chi. It is integrated, powered by the center; balanced. I should not have been so offended. I was being complimented for having taken the time to learn the sequence of movements but my movements were not integrated and I was not using the correct energy to power my movements. Eventually as a practitioner one develops true precepts that inherently feel right and also allow you to help correct someone else that is just beginning. It can be as simple as an incorrect weight shift or correction of poor poster.
Tai Chi is a playground, a practice, for getting this inherent spiritual or ethical sense right so that you can translate it to other parts of your life.
Here is the book I mentioned.