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.
wújí n. no extremity.
²wújí n. a mind completely devoid of worries, thought, or desiresWuji 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?
No. It is a philosophical concept, independent of any religious concept, although compatible with and co-opted by more than one religion.
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 more about tai chi philosophy, read the essay, “The Warrior’s Peace” by Ian Sinclair