Tai chi and Buddhism – Limitations of Having a Teacher


“Not for one moment did I doubt that you were the Buddha, that you have reached the highest goal…  You have done so by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment.  You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings.  To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teaching what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment…”

Siddhartha’s conversation with Gotama- the Buddha when he decides to go alone. (Siddhartha, p.33-34, 1971 edition)

What I am about to share will either cause utter frustration or liberation.  For those that have pondered how they progress in the martial arts, you know the answer is both.

Anyone who has made substantial progress in their internal or martial development spends a lot of time working alone.

Tai chi and BuddhismThere is Ueshiba, Bodhidharma, Itosu, Chen Faké,  Otávio Mitsuyo Maeda, etc.  Never  Great Teacher + _____.  Maybe Laurel & Hardy, but that is the one exception to greatness.

Yes you can argue that Carlos Gracie learned from Maeda and went on to teach his brothers.  Or that Chen- Xiaowang, -Zhenglei, -Wang Xi’an, and –Tiancai were collectively pupils of Chen Zhaopi.  But, each independently transform the art they were practicing in profound ways.

Why this should make you happy

  • You, yes you, are capable of making great progress in tai chi and buddhism.
  • You do not need to live in a martial arts mecca to achieve great results.
  • Your progress depends on incorporating your abilities into your life, not undertaking an independent hobby.

Why this may make you sad

  • You love the community you are in and respect your teacher.
  • It is easier to think that you can be told what to do and follow that path.
  • It is a lonely pursuit to be working out and meditating alone.

How to make progress more rapidly in tai chi and Buddhism

Tai chi and Buddhism

1.  Seek short, highly technical instruction followed by ample time to practice.

Technology and travel allow all of us to make tangible progress that is greater and faster than we think.   I believe that conferences and workshops offer this perfect type of environment.  We are now in an era where many highly skilled individuals are traveling or presenting webinars.  Also, members of your community are willing to mix it up with you or have you attend an infrequent class.   There is a cost associated with this style of learning but the payoff in catapulting people forward is huge.  Workshops can cost $150-$300 for a full weekend (16 hours).  That’s $25/hour for top level instruction.  The most successful people attend with a buddy and commit to practicing what was presented afterwards.

2.   Interact with peers outside of your specific group.

We need to interact with people who have the same desires as us and are near or above our ability.  This causes comradery and we see people similar to us make gains.  This is possible in a class but we need to interact with others who drink different Kool-Aid.

 For Students what does this look like?

Tai chi and BuddhismThis does not mean that you abandon your school or your community (It might though).  Eastern Pursuits (all internal studies and martial arts) are intended to have a meaningful impact on your life and eventually pervade everything else you do.

  • Your yoga breathing techniques should kick in during that stressful meeting
  • Your increase in flexibility allows for more outdoors time with your grandchild
  • Your hours on the mat without injury give you insight into how to talk to your cross-fit friend about better posture.

What this means to students

Your teacher is more skilled than you and has a lot to share.  But understand that accepting a teacher represents a false ceiling being placed on your own progress.  You connect greatness with their current level of development, not your own potential.

For Teachers what does this look like?

Taichi and BuddhismAs teachers we keep on teaching.  But what percentage of your students only practice when they are in your dojo or classroom?  Are you encouraging them to take up study outside of class?

Studies* have shown that people are most successful:

1.  When they come up with what they think is doable and then cut it in half.

Think about dieting or working out.  People are highly motivated at the beginning of a change.  So they begin working out or eating in a way every day that is not sustainable.  One party or skipped day and the progress begins to unravel.  Instead, ask them for something meager such as 3 minutes of standing meditation, 2x/week.  Increase the amount only after their schedule has become accustomed to this.

2)  When they can sustain the change for 30 days.

Consistency has to occur for a long enough period for a habit to form.   A person needs to practice sustaining the new behavior throughout every life scenario (bills, a party, sickness, lack of sleep) and a month presents us with most of the average challenges.  *(Duhigg, C., The Power of Habit).

Examples for what to share with students

Note these are intentionally small and not always physical:

  • “Do these 5 movements of the form each day.  Let me time you.  Ok, that was 22 seconds.  Can you do that every day for seven days?”
  • Read this passage before next class
  • Stand (Zhan Zhong) for 3 minutes 5 days this week while your coffee is brewing or while you are waiting for the bus.
  • Watch this video before next class.
  • Walk outside at lunch once this week without speaking.

The Solution

As students and teachers, we need to learn from each other and those with greater abilities but remember that they too are developing on their path.  Seek others who are also developing.

As teachers we need to speak in terms such as “where we are at this point in our development,”  not absolutes.  We need to engage with our community, encourage our students to do so,  and not be afraid to have students attend “other” martial events.  This takes a dose of courage, faith in yourself, and humility.

“Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom.  One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it…in every truth the opposite is equally true…Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth; it lacks totality, completeness, unity.” …”

(Hesse H. Siddhartha, p.141-142, 1971 edition).

Resources mentioned in this post:

power of habit book - Copy sidhartha book - Copy

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

8 thoughts on “Tai chi and Buddhism – Limitations of Having a Teacher

  1. Another good one Scott! Keep up the good work.

    I don’t find meditating alone a or working out alone a “lonely pursuit,” and I prefer detachment to “more progress rapidly.”

    I think its ‘COMARADERIE.”

    You made strong points. Thanks!

  2. Excellent article, especially in light of the rash of all the mindfulness teachings/teachers nowadays.

  3. There is 108 moves in Tai Chi Set.(1+0+8 = 9)
    Here is a discussion of number 108.

    Some say that 1 stands for God or higher Truth, 0 stands for emptiness or completeness in spiritual practice, and 8 stands for infinity or eternity.
    108 represents the ultimate reality of the universe as being (seemingly paradoxically) simultaneously One, emptiness, and infinite.

    In Hinduism:
    Hindu deities have 108 names, while in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, there are 108 gopis of Vrindavan. Recital of these names, often accompanied by counting of 108-beaded Mala, is considered sacred and often done during religious ceremonies. The recital is called namajapa. Accordingly, a mala usually has beads for 108 repetitions of a mantra.

    The distance of the Sun from the Earth divided by the diameter of the Sun and the distance of the Moon from the Earth divided by the diameter of the Moon is approximately equal to 108. It is claimed that the great sires of Vedanta knew this relationship and thus 108 is a very important number in Vedantic chantings.

    108 Gopis {consorts} of Lord Krishna
    108 Holy places for Vaishnavas
    108 beads on the Japa maalaa {rosary}
    108 Upanishads
    108 Divyadeshes – Divine or Sacred Tirtha throughout India and Nepal
    108 sacred water taps in Muktinath – Nepal

    Martial Arts:
    Many East Asian martial arts trace their roots back to Buddhism, specifically, to the Buddhist Shaolin Temple. Because of their ties to Buddhism, 108 has become an important symbolic number in a number of martial arts styles.
    • According to Marma Adi and Ayurveda, there are 108 pressure points in the body, where consciousness and flesh intersect to give life to the living being.
    • The Chinese school of martial arts agrees with the South Indian school of martial arts on the principle of 108 pressure points.
    • 108 number also figures prominently in the symbolism associated with karate, particularly the Gōjū-ryū discipline. The ultimate Gōjū-ryū kata, Suparinpei, literally translates to 108. Suparinpei is the Chinese pronunciation of the number 108, while gojūshi of Gojūshiho is the Japanese pronunciation of the number 54. The other Gōjū-ryū kata, Sanseru (meaning “36”) and Seipai (“18”) are factors of the number 108.
    • The 108 moves of the Yang Taijiquan long form and 108 moves in the Wing Chun wooden dummy form, taught by Yip Man, are noted in this regard.
    • Paek Pal Ki Hyung, the 7th form taught in the art of Kuk Sool Won, translates literally to “108 technique” form. It is also frequently referred to as the “eliminate 108 torments” form. Each motion corresponds with one of the 108 Buddhist torments or defilements

    And for math buffs:
    One hundred eight (or nine dozen) is an abundant number and a semiperfect number. It is a tetranacci number.
    It is the hyperfactorial of 3 since it is of the form
    108 is a number that is divisible by the value of its φ function, which is 36.
    108 is also divisible by the total number of its divisors (12), hence it is a refactorable number.
    In Euclidean space, the interior angles of a regular pentagon measure 108 degrees each.
    There are 108 free polyominoes of order 7.
    In base 10, it is a Harshad number and a self number.
    9 x 1 = 9
    9 x 2 = 18 (8+1 = 9)
    9 x 3 = 27 (7+2 = 9)
    ………
    9 x 12 = 108 (1+0+8 = 9)
    General.
    The chakras are the intersections of energy lines, and there are said to be a total of 108 energy lines converging to form the heart chakra. One of them, sushumna leads to the crown chakra, and is said to be the path to Self-realization.
    Some say there are 108 feelings, with 36 related to the past, 36 related to the present, and 36 related to the future.

    1. This is a lot of really insightful information. Thank you for taking the time sharing. I just released the post The Importance of the Number 9 and this is worthy of its on essay on “the importance of 108.” I will link back to this comment from that post too. I am always amazed at how analytical one can be with the information that the forms convey compared to the general reputation of being “out there” or esoteric.

      1. Sprath,
        my intension was to post it to your The importance of the Number 9, which I read and found the post interesting. I dont know what I did to place my comment in this section.Would have been possible to transfer my comment to a “Number 9” post?
        Thank you and appologize for this oops

        1. Hi Nero Wolfe,
          I republished it under the “9” post and credited to you. Thanks for the post.

          Happy New Year,
          Scott

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