T’ai Chi Philosophy

The basic three – Taoism, Buddhism and Confucionism – are the ancient philosophies that have melded together to inform T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

The ancient Taoist symbol, called the T’ai Chi symbol is found as early as China’s Yin dynasty (1100 – 771 BC). Also known as the Yin/Yang symbol, it represents the notion that phenomena occur because of the intersection of two equal and opposite forces, called Yin and Yang.

The empty circle is called Wuji and represents an undifferentiated state of being, an infinite nothingness, before separating to form Yin and Yang. In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Yin and Yang equal substantial and insubstantial, or full and empty. When one part is empty, there must be fullness elsewhere. Otherwise, the energy will not flow and there will be stasis.

T’ai Chi Chu’an’s connection to Taoism is incontrovertible. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is the embodiment of philosophical Taoism. Ch’an (or Zen) Buddhism and Confucianism are also intertwined with T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

Confucianism defines social strata, and is important in that it describes the relationships between people involved in T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Respect for the teacher, or Sifu, is primary to the transference of knowledge. Senior sisters and senior brothers impart the knowledge to students who come into the class at a later date, no matter what age they are. Of primary importance is the idea that respect is given to anyone who has had more time to practice and develop a deeper understanding of the art.

Respect and obedience to a master of the art encourages devotion to practice, which is the only way the art can live on. Clearly, respect for elders is vital to survival when the elder is the holder of knowledge that helps the survival of a clan. In addition, the fact that Sifu can throw younger disciples over easily despite being aged definitely connotes its own special type of respect.

Without respect, the knowledge simply dies.  This is a living art embodied by people. It is transferred person to person, and the people you share it with become like your family, harkening back to its tribal origins.


Tamo, or Bodhidharma was a wild-eyed (those wild eyes might be a Chinese depiction of the foreigner’s non-Asian eyes, and he also reputedly ripped off his eyelids in a moment of pique after falling asleep during a meditation) hermit from India who immigrated to China in the 5th century CE. The legendary founder of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism was the 28th patriarch of Guatama Buddha.

Tamo traveled for three years to get from India to South China. The Emperor wanted Tamo’s blessings for building temples and promoting Buddhism. Tamo refused to cooperate (no one refuses an Emperor!) because he believed that Buddha nature was not to be found by reciting prayers or building temples.

Tamo fled north, arriving at the Shaolin Temple, but spent the next nine years wall gazing in a now famous cave. After seven years, he reputedly became infuriated at himself for falling asleep during meditation and tore off his eyelids.  Further, where he flung them tea bushes grew, producing tea that helped monks stay awake and alert. Chinese brush paintings of Tamo depict him floating across a river on a reed, or meditating, gazing straight ahead intently, back straight as an arrow.

Tamo found the Chinese monks to be unfit and in poor health within the temple in the new growth forest known as Shaolin. These scribes of Buddhist texts had grown sickly and weak from lack of exercise. They were also beset by roving bandits and needed to defend the temple. Tamo taught them the Yogic exercise and breathing form he had been practicing inside the cave. This exercises persists to this day and is called Yi Gun Gin, or Muscle Change Classic, or Tendon Exchange.

This is considered a point of origin for Kung Fu in China. Fifteen hundred years later, the monks of Shaolin are still renowned for their physical prowess and ferocious fighting forms, and we practice Yi Gun Gin as part of our kung fu training curriculum.

This ancient history has come down to us intact because Buddhist monks practiced writing and painting and keeping of records. For example, Tamo’s first disciple, Huike is said to have chopped off his left arm, after standing all night in the snow, to prove his sincerity.

There were only four disciples of Tamo — Tao-fu, Tsung-chih (aka Princess Minglain, a woman and an emperor’s daughter), Tao-yu and Huike. Huike was a one-armed monk. Two legends surround that loss – that he chopped it off himself to prove the depth of his commitment to learning from Tamo, and that it was chopped off later by a rival monk’s henchman out of jealousy.

When Tamo asked what they had learned from him, all but Huike answered with profound and revelatory statements. Then Tamo told them that they had respectively gained his skin, flesh, bone and marrow. This would imply that Huike (who bowed silently and had no verbal answer) had attained the deepest level.

Although Ch’an Buddhism’s core ideas are expressed in one of the Buddhist sutras from India, Tamo’s lifework represented the idea that truth is perception, and not scriptural. When Tamo chose to sit in a cave, stare at a wall and experience the infinite, rather than stroll around in his robes at the palace, he expressed his free will and intense fervor for higher consciousness.

Ch’an Buddhism

Many of the world’s great philosophical principles – the Uncarved Block of Taoism, the Tabula Rasa of Western thinkers, and the Zen state of moment to moment awareness all lead to the same conclusion – living in the past is counter-productive, as it blocks creativity and discovery, while being spontaneous and open to everything around is a state of enlightenment. At face value, this notion contradicts the concept of learning from experience, but in fact Tamo achieved his enlightened state after experiencing an accumulation of many hours of rigorous meditation.

There is a famous story about a painter in the Emperor’s court. He practiced the stroke representing a bird over and over thousands of times, and then one day, he went outside and actually looked at a real bird. No matter how much we are told about life, we must learn directly from our own experiences.

In the same sense, pushing hands is the expression of form training, and tests whether or not the student understands how to use the form for something more than meditation and healthy exercise. Doing Push Hands, the student will learn more about real challenges – how to respond rather than react, how to be relaxed but alert in close quarters, how to step in and move around, how to respond to pressure or threat – than with just T’ai Chi practice alone. T’ai Chi cannot become T’ai Chi Ch’uan unless Push Hands is part of the practice, and conversely, Push Hands alone cannot facilitate T’ai Chi Ch’an unless good forms are learned and practiced.

Following the original Buddhist tradition, Tamo represents the notion that each individual is responsible for her or his own destiny. Every person can chose a path in life not predestined by social status, or even what has happened to him or her up till choosing to meditate. Meditation is the method for staying on that path of awareness. However, Zen Buddhism’s credo of living in the now and letting go of the past seems, at face value, to reject learning from experience so as to avoid mistakes.

The debate about learning from the immediacy of perception versus learning from training forms is ongoing in the martial arts. Bruce Lee’s famous rejection of dogma, which he expressed as disdain for what he referred to as the classical mess, can be likened to Tamo’s rejection of scriptural teachings in favor of pure meditation and immediate, instinctive perception.

Forms inform the body how to protect itself when attacked with the most efficient use of energy and motion. The whole body is challenged with entirely new co-ordinations. Meditation has a proper form for maintaining an alert state of mind – a straight back, resting squarely over the sitz bones, with legs folded in front. Below the waist is merely a prop for an alert spine, while with T’ai Chi Ch’uan, below the waist is where all the energy comes from.

The two states of being — the Chan Buddhist empty mind and the Taoist state of Wuji have some common qualities, but ultimately have fundamental differences. Meditation for the former discipline is practiced seated, while the latter is practiced standing. Both seated and standing meditation empty and calm the mind, lower blood pressure, moderate desire. Seated meditation’s concentration is more purely mental and spiritual, relative to standing meditation, which integrates the body/mind into a calm, reflective state that is very conducive to the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

Buddhism and Taoism were such an integral part of Chinese culture that Buddha and Lao Tze were thought to have been the same figure. For centuries, Taoist masters left their villages for self-imposed retreats (much like the ascetics of India) to huts and caves in the mountains where they gathered medicinal herbs, practiced different forms and meditated. These ancient Chinese masters sought to restore that which had been lost with the rise of (relatively ancient) civilization, and took their inspiration from the natural world and wildlife. Animals, with their keen senses of smell, hearing and sight, are natural examples of the open senses theory of Chan Buddhism.

Various creatures native to China, some imaginary and fanciful (unicorns and dragons) and some real (egrets, monkeys, tigers) provided the models for many Kung Fu movements. Close observation of animals fighting each other inspired different styles and schools, each one channeling animal instincts into a fierce but artful fighting forms.

Most ancient cultures have retained some of their traditional healing practices. Chinese Barefoot Doctors treated illnesses with herbs, healing foods and kung fu exercises.  We reap the benefits of those wise ancients who lived in and observed nature, and experimented with plants to learn of their properties.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan is thus a synthesis of Zen and Tao. It is a naturalistic way to experience each instant, moment to moment. The Zen Buddhist concept of experiencing the Now is exemplified by Push Hands, in which the practitioner seeks heightened awareness of each movement as it occurs. Taoist notions of Yin and Yang correspond to T’ai Chi body mechanics, such as weightless and weighted leg, heavy on the bottom and light on the top, and especially, balanced integration of the mind and the body.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan (boxing, or fist) was given its name after a scholar in the Imperial Court witnessed a demonstration match in which the famed martial arts master, Yang Lu-chan (1799 –1872), bested other great martial artists of his era with tremendous deference and aplomb. Yang Lu-ch’an’s legacy represents the most profound concepts in the world of T’ai Chi Ch’uan today – that soft overcomes hard, and loss is gain. (Loss is gain can be interpreted as the learning from experience, although in stricter T’ai Chi Ch’uan terms it means that you gain force from your opponent’s expenditure of force).

The idea of force prevails in physics and especially politics, in terms of conquest and domination. We can see what is happening in the world today, where over-reaching militarization (too Yang!) by our country in other countries is dissipating its vitality.            T’ai Chi practice and philosophy balances and centers our bodies, and gives us empathy for others so that we take only what we need, and use what we have for the greater good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *