Have you ever thought of Tai Chi as a spiritual discipline?
As I sat in the park this morning, reading the newspaper as I sometimes do, a small group of elderly and not so elderly Asian women began practicing their art nearby, their rhythmic movements guided by clipped tonal instructions on a scratchy old tape, Chinese music in the background. I thought it provided an interesting counterpoint to the songs of magpies in the crisp morning air, so quintessentially Aussie, and as I watched them go through their slow dance I was struck by the tranquility it expressed.
When I first dived into the New Age movement, back in the late 80s, most of my friends considered the link between Tai Chi and spirituality to be immediately obvious. It was exotic and eastern. New Agers were the only white people doing it. QED. But it seems that, as with the mainstreaming of so many things, fewer people stop to consider its spiritual dimensions today. As with yoga, because people are no longer alarmed, they’re no longer alert.
Yet the links are there for those with the eyes to see. The very name itself evokes Taoist spirituality. As one writer puts it:
Tai Chi Chuan means “Supreme Ultimate Boxing.” The Supreme Ultimate here refers to the Tao, or more specifically, the framework within which the dualities of Yin and Yang manifest themselves in the field of time. The allusion to the Tai Chi in this context suggests that the art contains within itself (in its movements, shapes and patterns of breathing) all that is necessary for these dynamic forces to interact and be reconciled.
It needs to be noted that eastern religions do not often respect the sacred-secular and mind-body dichotomies that plague religion, as most people know it, in the west. There is no intrinsic incompatibility between martial arts and meditation practice. But if that’s not enough to convince, please consider the reports that the art was reputedly developed by a monk:
Later in the fifteenth century A.D. the purported founder of Tai Chi Chuan, the monk Chang San-feng, was honoured by the Emperor Ying- tsung with the title of chen-jen, or ‘spiritual man who has attained the Tao and is no longer ruled by what he sees, hears or feels.’ This indicates that already at this time there was a close association between the philosophy of Taoism and the practice of Tai Chi.
What is my point? I’m not sure. On the one hand I am merely struck by the paradoxes in the practice, of its development as a fighting discipline out of a spiritual philosophy, only for it now, in some contexts, to now be undertaken as nothing more than a fitness routine. On the other, I wonder about the unpaid bills of the church this points towards, about our need to move beyond spirit-matter dualities. Who knows? I’m still pondering it. But I wonder if you’ll ponder with me.