Final Notes on T’ai Chi Classics

Thought I’d end my discussion of Liao’s T’ai Chi classics with a quote and interpretation from the final two classics.

This quotation from The Treatise by Master Wong Chung-yua reminds me of one of my favorite aspects of Buddhism:

After coming to an understanding of the internal power of movement, you can approach the theory of natural awareness. Natural awareness is developed through practice over a long period of time; you cannot reach a sudden understanding of natural awareness without proper practice for an extended length of time.

The T’ai Chi system is based on the natural law of harmony and balance. Through the development of internal power you can obtain a full understanding of its character and properties, which will serve as a bridge to the stage of natural awareness.

According to Master Wong, the important point is that the natural awareness stage requires a long period of practice in T’ai Chi. After proper practice for an extended length of time, even though you may not be able to feel the gradual progression in your conscious mind, the accumulation of internal power will suddenly turn into a higher level of achievement, known as natural awareness. As an analogy, when heating water to its boiling point, it does not boil up gradually, but slowly accumulates heat and then suddenly begins to boil after reaching the proper temperature.

Proper practice means practicing under the supervision of a qualified master; practicing for an extended length of time means continuously practicing without interruption. As in the analogy of heating water to a boiling point, one’s development requires constant, uninterrupted “heat.”

Though I’m sure I’m still a long ways away from the kind of awareness described here, I have found that this kind of meditative movement, when I can’t be outside walking, makes me more aware of my inner feelings. Unexplainably, lately sometimes when I’m out birding, standing still, watching everything else move while I’m standing still, I unconsciously feel like breaking into a T’ai Chi movement.

I can’t remember when I first heard a comment like this one from the Treatise by Master Wu Yu-hsiang,

In T’ai Chi, being very soft and pliable leads to being extremely hard and strong. Command of proper breathing techniques leads to command of free and flexible movement.

In the Tao-te Ching, Lao Tzu (ca. 500 B.C.E.) asks, “Can you dedicate your internal energy, ch’i, and be as pliable and yielding as a baby?”

The only condition for allowing your internal energy to develop, grow, and become strong is that you must relax yourself and yield to the universe. When you become soft and pliable, your internal energy will gradually begin to develop and accumulate. Eventually you will have the ability to become extremely hard and strong, when it is necessary to do so. To make metal into the hardest steel, you must heat the metal, make it as soft and pliable as liquid, and then refine it into the hardest steel.

Freedom and flexibility of movement depend on the flow of internal energy. Internal energy development comes from the proper breathing techniques. A beginner in T’ai Chi should therefore examine and develop these techniques.

but I do remember being rather moved, like grass blowing in the wind, because before that I’d always thought of strength as being steadfast, always standing up for what you believed in, like a mighty Oak. It had never occurred to me that, under those conditions, grass was actually “stronger” than an oak tree.

The First Classic

It seems a little strange to me that a book called T’ai Chi Classics should devote only 36 pages to three classics and most of those 36 pages are devoted to commentary on the classics rather than to the classics themselves.

The first classic is a treatise by Master Chang San-Feng and consists of short, pithy statements like:

The internal energy, ch’i, roots at the feet, then transfers through the legs and is controlled from the waist, moving eventually through the back to the arms and fingertips.

Which, in turn, is followed by a longer, though still short in its own right, commentary from Waysun Liao:

Master Yang Chien-hou (1839-1917), son of Master Yang Lu- chan, liked to remind his disciples of this principle many times during his daily T’ai Chi instruction.

After achieving some success in ch’i awareness practice, the T’ai Chi student should learn how to lower his ch’i feeling down to the ground and then project it upward from his feet through his legs. Therefore, in T’ai Chi practice, always keep your knees bent slightly to allow flexibility; never straighten your legs completely. This will allow the vibration of your internal energy to be transmitted from your feet through your knees to your waist.

Note that the T’ai Chi Classics use the term root, which emphasizes the importance of the feet. Both feet must always stay firmly attached to the ground, as strongly as the roots of a big tree. Also, the feeling of internal cenergy must penetrate deep into the ground, instead of merely being attached to the surface.

After projecting the ch’i upward, your waist serves as a transmitter; it controls, guides, and distributes the direction and amount of internal energy.

Keep your back and your entire torso in a vertical position, to allow the vibrations to travel freely upward through your back to your shoulders. Keep your shoulders completely relaxed to allow the transmission of ch’i down to your elbows and up to your fingertips. Always keep your elbows dropped and relaxed; your wrists are relaxed, but not limp.

It was this idea of “rooting,” of drawing energy from the earth, that first struck me in T’ai Chi and reminded me of Taoism’s roots in shamanism, drawing your power from earth forces. Perhaps that’s why I’ve particularly enjoyed it when T’ai Chi groups have met in the summer to practice in wooded areas.

It’s a practice that seems to have been ignored in Western culture, unless you’ve practiced being a lineman in football or learned how keeping low can help you to react more quickly to your opponent’s movements in basketball.

T’ai Chi Meditation

When I look back I’m a little amazed at how my taste in sports has changed over my lifetime. Until the age of 25, football was the great love of my life. Though my lack of speed and superior arm strength probably made me a natural quarterback, I wanted to be a lineman or linebacker. Most of all, I loved to hit people almost as much as I loved being hit. Unfortunately, I was 6 foot tall but only weighed 155 pounds in high school, which probably explains why my father refused to sign to allow me to play football, even though he had earned All-City honors at the same high school.

By 25, I decided I didn’t really enjoy being in pain every Sunday and had moved on to another sport, basketball, probably better suited for my height and weight. Though that sport was interrupted for three years by torn ligaments in my ankle which required major surgery, I played basketball once or twice a week until I retired at 57 years of age.

Though I never realized it until recently, the one constant in my life has been walking. In high school a neighbor and I would walk seven to ten miles every day, all the while philosophizing about life. Later in life, the best days with my children were spent out hiking. Much later, after I retired, a friend and I would walk up to 100 miles a week in the Columbia Gorge and in the Cascades, talking about Nature and God whenever we stopped to rest or eat.

As I noted before, I also practiced Yoga for years when I couldn’t be outside walking or hiking. I became as addicted to the meditative aspects of yoga as to the physical effort. I still rely on Aum when I need to rock a baby to sleep.

I might have continued yoga if I hadn’t herniated a lower disc, which made some of the earlier poses downright painful. Instead, I turned to T’ai Chi which offered some of the advantages of yoga. Though I originally joined for the physical benefits, I soon found that, like yoga, I was equally drawn to the meditative aspects of the form.

Though the meditative aspect of T’ai Chi is seldom mentioned in the classes I’ve taken, it’s hard to miss it when you practice by yourself. Waysun Liao describes this meditative aspect thusly:

Meditation In T'ai Chi practice, meditation is the only way to become aware of one's ch'i. After assuming either a simple sitting posture or an upright stance, the beginner can easily achieve success in T'ai Chi meditation by following these procedures:

1. Relax the entire body, as if you were asleep, making sure that there is no physical tension at all.

2. Calm your mind and concentrate on the total body, listening to its breath, sensing its pulse, and so on, until you can feel the body's natural rhythm.

3. Bring up your spirit by pushing up your crown point. Imagine an invisible string pulling your crown point from above. Gradually apply deeper breathing and inhale directly into the tan t'ien (an area located approximately three inches below the navel and two and onehalf inches inward).

After weeks or months of practice, you may start to sense a feeling that flows with the rhythm of deep meditation breathing. This is ch'i, the internal energy. As you progress, this feeling grows stronger, and you can begin to sense and control the flow of this energy without the assistance of deep breathing. At this stage, you can use your mind to guide your chi's path of travel inside your body.

Honestly, I’m still not sure that I can feel the Chi, perhaps because intellectually I question if it is even there. Perhaps the closest I’ve come to feeling it came about because I was using Resp@rate to try to lower my blood pressure. The device measures your breathing rate and tries to slow it down to what they consider an “ideal” rate. Strangely, after I had finished my 20 minutes breathing session and went to practice T’ai Chi I found that the movements and the breathing synched perfectly. For thirty some minutes I found myself in a “zone” that I can only occasionally reach while hiking.

T’ai Chi Classics translated by Waysun Liao

Although I’ve been taking Tai Chi classes for nearly four years now, I’ve never been particularly interested in actually reading anything about Tai Chi. All I know about Tai Chi has come from listening to comments by different teachers.

More than once, I’ve remarked to instructors that the principles of T’ai Chi seem remarkably similar to the principles of Taoism, but most of them seem unfamiliar with Taoism and the Tao Te Ching.

I’ll have to admit that I, too, tend to separate the two into entirely different categories: physical exercise and intellectual exercise. That said, I’ve been rather pleasantly surprised while reading T’ai Chi Classics Translated with Commentary by Waysun Liao for it’s nice to see these two aspects of my life joined together.

According to Waysun Liao

T'ai Chi means "the ultimate." It means improving, and progressing toward the unlimited; it means the immense existence and the great eternal. All of the various directions in which T'ai Chi influence was felt were guided by the theory of opposites: the Yin and the Yang, the negative and the positive. This is sometimes called the original principle. It was also believed that all of the various influences of T'ai Chi point in one direction: toward the ultimate.

According to T'ai Chi theory, the abilities of the human body are capable of being developed beyond their commonly conceived potential. Civilization can be improved to the highest levels of achievement. Creativity has no boundaries whatsoever, and the human mind should have no restrictions or barriers placed upon its capabilities.

While this sounds rather New Ageish, the actual practice of T’ai Chi seems anything but. Learning T’ai Chi demands old-fashioned persistence and attention to detail.

Waysun Liao also confirmed my suspicians that T’ai Chi and Taoism were closely related:

For thousands of years, the system of political rule in China was based on brutality and corruption. Those who were dedicated to the truth called themselves Taoists or "mountain men," and they lived a life similar to that of the monk. They carried on the spirit of T'ai Chi philosophy and in no way interfered with the ruling authorities. Since T'ai Chi formed its own independent system and had nothing to do with political structures, it was able to enjoy growth and freedom of development, even if only in small, isolated communities of dedicated men.

I suspect the very fact that Taoism wasn’t an “official” religion spared it much of the ceremony and ritual associated with most religions, making it seem more like a philosophy than a religion, certainly part of its appeal to me.

I’m also drawn to the Taoists’ idea of Yin and Yang, probably because I’ve always been drawn to Hegel’s dialectics, or, at least, my primitive understanding of those concepts

.

THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO, Chinese Taoists, whether from scientific observation, by mere hypothesis, or by obtaining information from sources unknown to us today, formulated the theory that there is an eternal power that moves the universe. They called this ultimate power ch'i. According to the legendary theory of Yin and Yang, ch'i exercises its powers ceaselessly, moving in a balanced manner between the positive (constructive) and negative (destructive) powers.

Because the Yin and Yang powers originate from the ultimate power, ch'i, they are able to move freely without any external limitation, immune from the restrictions of space, time, and even the material manifestations of existence. Because the two powers are always conflicting yet balancing each other, our universe is constantly and indefinitely changing. Everything, even unfilled space, derives its existence from the balanced interaction of these two contrasting forces. Since the powers of Yin and Yang are the origin of everything, they are the ultimate nature of every object in this universe.

I’ve always been a great believer in the idea of living your life according to the “golden mean,” which Confucius probably derived from these same principles, though I haven’t always managed to live up to those beliefs.

Even though I’m happy being an INTP, my first reaction after taking the test was that ideally I’d be dead even in every category, and I was happy to discover that in some tests I actually turned out to be an S rather than a T.

In other words, I suspect I was a Taoist long before I even knew that there were Taoists.

Before I began T’ai Chi, I practiced a version of physical and meditative yoga that I learned from books written in the 70’s long before it became “in” to take yoga at the local gym. The two really seem quite similar in many ways, perhaps because the underlying beliefs are similar.