Tai Chi and Buddhism

(Cave of the Cold Mountain hermit)

Official policy in the People’s Republic of China holds that Tai Chi does not have a spiritual element but is concerned exclusively with health and (maybe) self defence. In part, this policy of the government is probably a response to the destabilizing effects of certain of the Chinese qigong-based ‘new religions’, such as Falun Da Fa. But it also falls in line with the Communist regime’s intermittent efforts to suppress religious and spiritual expression in China since the 1949 Revolution.

We read in The Taijiquan Classics and in Yang Cheng Fu that Tai Chi has both a martial and a civil aspect. Today the latter is generally assumed to refer to Tai Chi’s role as a health therapy. But it seems clear, from references in The Classics (eg. that of Wang Zong Yue) and in the Forty Documents of the Yang and Wu Families (which were revealed to the world by the Yang's and Wu's in 1979) that originally the civil function of Tai Chi was considered to be spiritual and that the ultimate goal of one's practice was enlightenment (shen-men). In his 1979 introduction to The Forty, Wu Kung Cho references both the Dao De Jing and the Buddhist Heart Sutra.

Enlightenment can be considered in different ways according to the various schools of Buddhism. All are however agreed on one point - that the world we see around us is in a sense an illusion. While we see around us an ordinary world, analysis reveals that what we see and how we understand it depends upon our conditioning, our preferences, our individual colour vision, sense of smell, gender, age and abilities, personality, beliefs, etc. Something that is attractive, threatening, or bizarre to one person is not to another. This being the case, does an objective reality exist?

We can deal with these issues by positing three general levels of reality:

1. The seeming world of materiality which we apprehend through the confines of our five senses: the realm of time, mortality and space.

2. A hidden or transcendent spiritual reality of immortality, cosmic energy and awareness.

3. An absolute non-dualistic reality that defies all definition.

Spiritual enlightenment consists of opening our minds and hearts to the transcendent or absolute levels of reality. The material world of our senses is seen as exoteric; the other worlds are considered esoteric. They are obscured by our being trapped in the illusion. Enlightenment can be seen as a mode of conduct where, motivated by wisdom and compassion, we dissolve the obscurations which confine us. At an advanced level, it is understood that we are already enlightened, but our inherent enlightenment is obscured from us by the ‘red dust’ of the material world which we must sweep off in order to realize our true natures and to see paradise.

The initial effort to align Taijiquan with Daoism seems to have originated around Gwangping in the 1870’s and is particularly associated with the origins of the traditional Yang family 108 perfected by Yang Chen Fu. The Chan San Feng origin account reflects the ideals and the ethnic nationalism of the ‘Self Strengthening’ movement and the desire for a native Han cultural narrative. This element is enunciated in The Taijiquan Classics and The Forty Documents of the Yang family (For an account of the evolution and elaboration of this legend see Barbara Davis' The Taijiquan Classics with her translation of a commentary by Chen Wei-ming.) However, older Tai Chi forms, such as that of the Chen family and the Old Yang family middle-frame form of the 1800’s, are more influenced by Buddhism.

The metaphysics of Indian Buddhism had a great impact upon Chinese Daoism. As far back as the Tang dynasty, elements of the two religions were combined by practitioners such as 'Cold Mountain', the hermit after whom our club is named. Twentieth C. Tai Chi writings, such as those of Wu Kung Cho, conflate Buddhist and Daoist doctrine and principles.

In Beijing in the later years of the Empire the Yangs were closely associated with the Qing court and Manchu bodyguard brigade - all of whom were practitioners of tantric Tibetan Buddhism. The Yangs taught their martial art at the Yellow Banner Encampment outside the capital and in the palaces of certain members of the Qing imperial family such as Prince Sweh Fang. Small wonder then that one way of practising the Old Yang qigong and form is as a series of tantric ritual empowerments and purifications of a sort that would have been familiar to them. (The temple in the above photo is an imperial palace in Beijing which was given by the Qing to a tantric Buddhist monastic order.)

Tantra is distinguished by a belief that worldly activities such as art, embroidery, dusting, tattooing, cooking, sex, flower arrangement, family relations, martial arts -- can all constitute legitimate paths to enlightenment if engaged in with correct motivation, selflessness, and absorptive concentration. Tai Chi can be one such 'skillful means', as can meditation. In fact Tai Chi ideally is a meditation, a ritual dance invoking spiritual energy.

One feature of Buddhist religious iconography is the use of mudras. A mudra (from Sanskrit) is a hand position which is expressive of a certain kind of power. In translations from Chinese to English, the term is often ‘seal’ as in the ‘sword seal’ of Taijijian. It is also sometimes translated as 'secret. The basic hand positions in the various styles of Tai Chi express the inner energetic quality of each style. The 'secret sword' or 'sword seal' of Taijijian is another example.


Another religious feature specific to tantric Buddhism is the mandala. A mandala is a form of labyrinth (not a maze) usually depicted as a city with four gates which are guarded by various deities. The gates and passages of this labyrinth lead one to the god at the centre, a being who represents one’s own ultimately purified and enlightened self. In essence, the tantric mandala is a depiction of a perfectly enlightened mind. This is an apt metaphor for the Tai Chi long form with its turnings, recapitulations, elaborations of skills, and centering quality. Initially the long form is like a maze and we easily get lost. But the purpose of the mental mandala of the long form is not to get us lost, but to get us found. Following it, we come to the centre where we are brought face to face with our more perfected being.

Tai Chi is grounded in combat. But the practice of Tai Chi, in civil terms, can be seen as a skillful method of spiritual development. The spiritual destination toward which Tai Chi practice leads is the centre of a mystery into which we have been initiated by a teacher and which we hold in our mind – the Tai Chi long form.

We seek the point where, emancipated from fear and anger, we are capable of mindfully partaking in all aspects of existence. We seek to attain a state where we are not bound by the chains of anger or fear, but are hopefully better equipped to confront the world (and our opponent) with compassion and understanding.

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