An interesting take on the Tao Te Ching


From “The Archdruid Report” blog:

“The Tao Te Ching has been translated into English more often than any other book, and the title has received nearly an equal diversity of renderings. I’m convinced that most of this diversity comes out of our own culture’s stupidity about systems, for when it’s approached from a systems perspective the title – and indeed the book – becomes immediately clear. Tao comes from a verb meaning “to lead forth,” and in ancient times took on a range of related meanings – “path,” “method,” “teaching,” “art.” The word that most closely captures its meaning, and not incidentally comes from a similar root, is “process.” Te is used for the character, nature, or “insistent particularity” of any given thing; “wholeness” or “integrity” are good English equivalents. Ching is “authoritative text,” perhaps equivalent to “classic” or “scripture” in English, though the capitalized “Book” captures the flavor as well as anything. “The Book of Integral Process” is a good translation of the title.

Replace the early Chinese philosophical terminology with equivalent terms from systems theory and the point of the text becomes equally clear. Here’s chapter I:

A process as described is not the process as it exists;
The terms used to describe it are not the things they describe.
That which evades description is the wholeness of the system;
The act of description is merely a listing of its parts.
Without intentionality, you can experience the whole system;
With intentionality, you can comprehend its effects.
These two approach the same reality in different ways,
And the result appears confusing;
But accepting the apparent confusion
Gives access to the whole system.”

This is applicable to our Tai Chi practice, especially when considering the intentionality aspect of seeing the effects (application) versus the whole system (form).

For the full article (most of it is less relevant to Tai Chi) see:



• Tai Chi and the Art of war

When discussing the Taoist roots of Tai Chi, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching is usually brought up. It’s seen as the defining document of Taoism and the source of the philosophy underlying the principles of Tai Chi. The imagery of flowing water, and softness overcoming the hard, comes from the Tao Te Ching.

But there was another document that came out of the same time period.  Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, like the Tao Te Ching, was first brought to light around the Warring State Period, around 500 BC.

Both Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu might not have existed. Some researchers claim that both are simply the names assigned to compilations of older texts, edited and assembled around the same time. And both texts are aimed at an educated and elite readership.  The Tao Te Ching was written for a prince, as a guide to good leadership. The Art of War was written for generals.

Both texts seem to be drawing from a common pool of wisdom, an oral tradition that predates both texts by possibly a millennia. The I ching, which is commonly attributed to the 2nd millennia BC, first introduced concepts such as yin and yang, trigrams, Bagua , and the basic nature of reality being change and balance.

Both make morality a cornerstone of their work, and adherence to the Way as the most efficient means of achieving one’s goals. They both describe the wise man as someone who has transcended his ego, whose actions are in synch with the natural ways of Nature.

In essence, they both describe how a Taoist “physics” is applied in their respective field, statesmanship and war craft, a sort of unified set of rules that can be applied equally to internal conflicts and external ones, to politics or to enlightenment.

Both authors see these rules as practical guidelines to be applied in daily life. Both describe an inherently virtuous world which has been corrupted by Man’s ignorance of the Way. And here the Way, the Tao, is adherence to the rules of Nature. The lesson is simple; live in accord with the laws of Nature, and Nature will provide you with a life of peace and equity.

It must be remembered that both books were written during the Warring State period, when war and conflict raged across the land. There must have been a strong desire for peace and order, and for a way to understand the events unfolding across the Chinese landscape. But the Warring States demanded a hard-nosed accounting of all facts, of Nature’s bounty and Man’s potential for cruelty.

Thus the tiles of the books: The Tao Te Ching can be translated as “ The Classic of the Way and Power”, and SunTzu’s work can also translated as “The Art of Conflict”. These are not books describing castles in the clouds.

If we turn to Tung Ying-chieh’s  Secret Method we see:

In Tai Chi Chuan the ability to cultivate oneself physically and spiritually, but not to defend oneself, is civil accomplishment. The ability to defend oneself, but not to cultivate oneself, is martial accomplishment. The soft Tai Chi method is the true Tai Chi method. The ability to teach people the art of self-cultivation and self-defense, both cultivation and application, is complete civil and martial Tai Chi.

Here we see the teachings of the Tao Te Ching and the Art of War married together in Tai Chi. Both aspects need to be present in order for the practice to be complete.

• A Workout Hidden in a Meditation Wrapped in a Martial Art

A quick note on studying Taijiquan, and how to get what you want out of it:

Taijiquan, no matter what the style, is a complex and demanding object of study. I tend to think of it a three components nestled inside one another, each component requiring it’s own focus.

The first and most immediate level is that it is a physical exercise. This is the level at which most people engage their practice of Taiji. Senior citizens are told to study it in order to have a low-impact exercise which develops flexibility and balance.

On a deeper level it is a meditative practice, a form of moving meditation and Qi development. It is a perfect introduction into the deeper levels of Taoist practice and philosophy.

And finally it is a martial art. This aspect is less well developed in the current Taiji world, but the applications are there, in the form, ready to be studied.

The important point is that each level needs to be addressed independently. Later on, there will be a synthesis of all the elements. But it is possible to do the form as an exercise, and never tap into the meditative aspect of Taiji. It is possible to go through the form as a meditation, without having a clear sense of the applications. But it is not possible to practice the applications without having grappled with the meditative aspect or the physical training.

The point here is to engage the practice with a clear eye; what is the purpose of the study? Some details are important in a meditative context, but less so if one is exploring applications. Some students are not interested in deeper aspects of the form, or in the martial side. And during the practice itself, the focus and change from meditation to application to exercise, and each run of the form will be slightly different.

And yes, the ultimate goal is synthesis of all three levels, but this will not happen automatically, or magically. The Taoist Sage becomes wise in the ways of the Tao through observation, through active participation in the flow of the Universe. Similarly, one must engage Taijiquan with an active and inquisitive mind. The form will not reveal itself to someone who is not actively engaged with it.

A Last Note On Tai Chi in History – Why Do Tai Chi?

I’ve been asked this question often: Why study Tai Chi? What’s the point of dedicating countless hours to a practice that brings no obvious benefits beyond what you would get from a yoga class or a mild exercise routine.

It’s a fair question. And I think most of us Tai Chi practitioners have poor answers. Most of us would mention that it just FEELS good to do it. But then again, so does yoga, and it has some of the same health benefits without requiring the added hours dedicated to memorizing sequences of movement.

There is also a definite romantic element to it. It’s fun to practice a martial art. Start doing the sword form and tell me years of watching swashbuckling movies don’t come up.  Tai Chi is gentle enough that we can fantasize about the adventures without living the reality of bruises and over-sized egos found in hard martial arts.

But the real reason is, I think, found in the historical crucible that created Tai Chi in the first place.

The principles behind Tai Chi have existed for a very long time. Ancient martial arts like the Long Fist are ancestors of Tai Chi, and have existed for millennia’s. The idea of combining Taoist principles and martial arts is not new to China.  But Tai Chi is the form that suddenly exploded in the Chinese consciousness and stayed there.

If you look at when Tai Chi became famous, the dominant mood in China was fear. The world was changing very fast, and not for the better. The crumbling Qing Dynasty and the invading Western powers were a double blow to Chinese self-esteem and physical safety. China was the Sick Man of Asia, and many must have felt powerless to change the situation.

Tai Chi starts to spread during this period of instability because, in my opinion, it offers a way to regain control over one’s life. To those in turn-of-the-Century China, it reinforced Chinese identity while teaching how to become safe in the face of physical threats. To us in turn-of-the-Century Earth, facing the chaos of a global economic crisis and the acid bath of globalization on cultural identity, it offers a similar safe haven.

Tai Chi washed upon the American shores smack in the middle of the 60s. A young population eager for something different immediately took to it. The 60s in America felt as chaotic as China must have felt. Between Kent State, the Civil Rights marches, the Hippie movement and the Weather Underground, it must have felt like the country was tearing itself apart.

And this new century is not much better, with threats of new extremisms rising from all sides and an economic situation getting more fragile by the day, we are all in dire need of a way to cope.

And that is where Tai Chi comes in.

Tai Chi, by declaring itself a martial art, uses conflict as the main metaphor for our relationship with the outside world. Everything can be understood as two opposing forces meeting at the point of contact: opening a door (your mass vs. the inertia of the door), stepping out of the way on a crowded sidewalk (vectors of force colliding), or even a conversation (ideas, goals, clashing in a dialog).

The next question Tai Chi addresses is therefore, in the face of conflict, what is the best response? And it comes up with two answers.

From the outside view, where other martial arts teach active resistance, Tai Chi teaches flexibility.  In Tai Chi you don’t block, you Roll Back. You don’t impose your will on the other, you flow with him or her, disappear from under the push. And the truth is that in most of our lives, we have very little power to change our circumstances. You cannot use hard martial art principles on your boss, but you can use Tai Chi.

From the inside view, Tai Chi trains us to relax in the middle of the storm. It creates a self-contained center, a core which belongs to us, which cannot be affected by external events, our connection to a greater whole. No matter what happens in the outside world, we connect to our dantian and through it to the vast Oneness of the Universe itself. “Find stillness in the movement, and movement in the stillness” the Tai Chi Classics tell us.

And that’s what makes Tai Chi different than Yoga, or a mild exercise routine. Whether you are conscious of it or not, Tai Chi teaches you tools to cope with the modern world. It creates a set of mental habits that shield you from the daily horror of modern life.

• Tai Chi in History, Part Two

The Cultural Revolution created a massive break in Chinese culture. From then on there was a Before and After when talking about Chinese culture. The last 50 years have been an attempt to rediscover traditional Chinese culture.

Thankfully China has been a literate culture for longer than any other society on Earth. There are plenty of texts dating to the period before the Revolution. The knowledge has been recovered for the most part, but at a cost. The texts and the information has been seen through a modern lens, with a distance created by the Revolution.

In some ways this was inevitable. The living practitioners of the ancient arts (both in medicine and in the martial arts) were mostly dead or in exile. The people reading the ancient texts had only a stunted access to the knowledge.

On top of that, there was also a strong bias within the Chinese establishment towards a western, modern, view of traditional medicine. So traditional techniques like acupuncture were brought into the Chinese hospitals, and taught as a science. The mystical aspects inherent in viewing the body as an energetic field, connected to the Cosmos, were dropped.

Jerry Alan Johnson, in his extensive compendium entitled Chinese Medical Qigong Therapy (vol. 1-5), makes this point clearly. The shamanistic, mystical roots of Taoist medicine have been stripped and sanitized.

The same thing happened with Tai Chi. The people charged with revitalizing Chinese martial arts were part of the Sport Federation. The goal was to create a body of exercises to present to the Chinese public.

The model in this was the Japanese Judo and Karate, sport versions of the more brutal combat techniques that were used by the Japanese Samurai. Tai Chi became more defined, the techniques more rigid. Competitions were established where contestants were judged on the exactitude of their form.  This despite the fact that Tai Chi is supposed to be an INTERNAL martial art, whose subtle workings are invisible to the outside eye.

To those interested in finding the roots of Tai Chi, the first hurdle is the modern view of it. One must first and foremost understand that what we call Tai Chi has almost nothing to do with what a practitioner in pre-Revolution China  would describe as Tai Chi. Only in a few rare forms are the roots preserved.

Similarly, the fall of the Qing Dynasty brought a different distortion. The ancient roots were romanticized in order to prop up an idealized version of Chinese culture.  During the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese martial artists went forth against European fire power fully expecting that their Iron Shirt Qigong would stop bullets, or that the spirits of ancients warriors would rise up from the dead and join in the fight.

What is not in dispute is that Tai Chi was considered a very powerful martial art, tested in the ring and in the street. Yang Luchan taught his Tai Chi to the Imperial Guards, not a group easy to fool on matters of martial prowess. Similarly, Tai Chi is still the go-to practice for health and Qi development. It’s health benefits have been demonstrated scientifically.

What remains today is a mix of old and new, of watered down and simplified, a neutered martial art that still echoes with the power that made it famous 200 years ago. The seeds are still there, ready to blossom if we bring enough attention to it.

• Tai Chi in History

There are many stories on the origins of Tai Chi, most of which try to link the modern forms to some ancient source. But there are a few, more recent, events that are perhaps more relevant.

All modern Tai Chi has been impacted by two major events: The fall of the Qing Dynasty and the Communist Revolution.

By the time Yang Luchan had developed his style of Tai Chi in the 1840s and 50s, the Qing dynasty was already on the way out. The First Opium War of 1839 was a major defeat of the Chinese Navy by the British. The foreign colonial powers had proven that the old Dynasty, and the old Chinese way, were powerless in the face of modern Western technology.

Throughout China, resentment against the Western powers and the religion they were importing, Christianity, was growing. Secret societies dedicated to preserving the old ways developed. Groups like the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists paved the way to the Boxer Rebellion of June 1900. These societies mixed prayers, martial arts, and training in an effort to preserve traditional Chinese values.

Yang Luchan died 30 years before the Boxer Rebellion, but there is no doubt that he had first hand experience of the troubles rocking China at the turn of the century. In the employ of the ethnically Manchu Qing Dynasty, he surely felt the disquiet of the mostly Han population, and the dismay they must have felt at the sight of a rotting empire crumbling before Western invaders.

Yang Style Tai Chi grew within a cauldron of conflicting trends. The need for revitalizing Chinese society was become evident to everyone. In 1861 the government launched the Self-Strengthening Movement, an official policy of national industrialization. In the private sphere, the Chinese adopted the Western ideals of physical health (echoed in the secret societies and the Boxers).

Similarly, Chinese intellectuals delved back into the ancient roots of Chinese culture as a bulwark against the rising pressure of Christianity. Taoism made a come-back. It is easy to see how upper class Manchu would turn to a physical practice with claims to an ancestral Chinese pedigree. Like Tai Chi.

And in turn Tai Chi gained the input of learned Taoist philosophers, who were able to infuse the martial art with a solid Taoist foundation.  Because up until then, most martial arts were developed in rural villages as a means of defending themselves from roaming brigands.  Like Chen style Tai Chi.

What separates Chen style and Yang style Tai Chi is the input of an educated, urban,  Taoist elite.

The Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, leading to a new Republic which promptly fell apart. The chaos of the following years, including civil wars, popular uprisings, the Japanese invasion and World War II, shattered the traditional relationships between master and students. All the social norms which had shaped traditional Chinese martial arts training were gone.

It was small wonder that the Communist Revolution ushered in the Cultural Revolution. The Great Leap Forward was supposed to be a break from a culture that had seemed incapable of standing up to the Western powers.  When pushed, the Empire crumbled. Mao Zedong tried, with disastrous results, to change that.

The Cultural Revolution was a body blow to the traditional Chinese martial arts. It is hard to over-emphasize the damage done to ancient, traditional knowledge. Master Wang Yannian decided to pass on his knowledge of the Yangjia Michuan Style when he saw how few students were left. The knowledge was on the verge of disappearing for good.

In the 60s and 70s the Chinese government tried to repair some of the damage done and created sport academies to teach some of these traditional martial arts. But many of the more esoteric, Taoist aspects were stripped. The health and sport aspect were emphasized. In the case of Tai Chi, it essentially ceased to be a martial art.

Unless the more traditional, pre-Cultural Revolution forms are found and preserved.

• The Four Aspects of Combat

The Chinese divide fighting techniques into four categories: hand attacks (fists, elbows, push…), feet attacks (kicks, knees,…), wrestling (throws, grappling) called Shuai Jiao, and joint locks  (or Qin Na).

These are broad categories that are common to ALL martial arts. It is simply a way to talk about techniques. And some techniques have a mix of two or more categories; kicks that become throws, etc….

Different martial arts have a mix of some or all of the categories. For example, Southern and Northern Chinese martial arts are known for their emphasis on either hand techniques or kicking techniques.

It is very useful to think in those terms when dealing with the Hand Forms in a Tai Chi style. It is possible to find many applications in the form that were “hidden”, or less obvious. A clear example, found in Master Wang’s 2nd Volume, is the punch found in Drag Down as an alternative application.

The Joint Locks and the Wrestling applications are more difficult to find. I think that there is a bias within Tai Chi practitioners against the wrestling moves found in the form. Wrestling tends to be a very physical, forceful practice, at odds with the more gentle, health-oriented practice that most people are familiar with.

They also require a far closer range. There are many techniques in Chinese wrestling that use the armpit as a way to pin an opponent’s arm. Leg throws require you to step into the personal space of your partner.  These are not the arms-length techniques that you find in Push Hands.

But the joint-locks and wrestling moves are everywhere. And sometimes they are the more likely application in a technique. For example, in Single Whip, the usual and somewhat awkward application of the Bird’s Beak hand performing a 1-2 push to the side has been that it is a quick punch to the face of the opponent, with the Talisman hand supporting the wrist. Perhaps. If the finger position is perfect, the Talisman hand MIGHT be a good support for a punch made with an open fist.

But… if the Talisman hand is seen instead as performing a wrist lock, then the application makes perfect sense. The two extended fingers of the Talisman naturally wrap around the fist of the opponent. The three other fingers loosely close around the wrist. The first push brings the Talisman hand vertical, which TWISTS the opponents hand painfully down. The second push shoves the opponent down, the joint lock making it impossible for him/her to resist.

I found it useful to go through the entire form with one category in mind. Find all the hand strikes. All the kicks, all the knee strikes, all the sweeps, the joint locks, the wrestling moves… By being methodical about the four categories, a multiplicity of applications are revealed.

And..that’s the way the originators of Tai Chi would have thought about it.

A Note on Drag Down

It might just be me, but there seems to be some confusion as to what the move Drag Down actually is. It is usually connected to the Chinese term Tsai, and is considered one of the eight basic moves ( or Eight Gates).

But Drag Down is a poor translation of Tsai. First off, Drag Down implies a direction, as if the only way to Tsai is downwards. But that is not the case! You can find Tsai in many other places, in different directions. For example, in Single Whip, there is a Tsai to the side (made with the hand in the Crane Beak position, when the upper body turns to the right).

Tsai can also be translated as Pluck, a short, sharp jerking motion that can be done in any direction.

From now on, I will use Drag Down to describe the move which is found in the 13 Postures: the shifting of the weight, the rising knee, the push with the Tiger’s Mouth. The basic move Tsai will be associated with the idea of Pluck.


The Three Bodies

A core idea of Taoism is the concept of Sancai, or the trinity of the universe. The number three reflects the generating power, the imbalance of forces needed to move forward.

In the Tao Te Ching we see:


The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things.

Chp. 42


So from the Tao (the underlying All) comes the Wuji (Oneness) from which comes the Taiji (the balance of Yin and Yang) which produces the Three, which becomes the Ten Thousand Things (the entire Universe in all its multiplicity)

We see this trinity in daily life, in the way we separate upper, middle and lower, or the past, present and future. In Qigong techniques, you find Posture, Breath and Visualization as the three main tools of Qi development.

Within the body we find the Lower, Middle and Upper Dantian, with the Upper and Lower Dantian (in the head and belly) issuing energies which are transformed within the third Dantian (near the Heart).

The body itself can be seen as a unified trinity, that of the Jing Body, the Qi Body, and the Shen Body. Some traditions define upwards of nine types of bodies, ending with the greatest and more diffuse of our bodies being the Universe itself. But these bodies are not accessible to most people. They require skills that only very experienced meditators have in order to simply be aware of them, let alone have any influence over them.

So the Three Bodies remain the main way to describe ourselves.

The Jing Body is often described as the essence of the body. I find that less than helpful, since the next questions is then: what do you mean by essence? A more useful description would be the Chemical Body, or even the Wet Body. The Jing Body is the sum of the various gooey things within that transmit chemical energy (blood, bile, hormones, …) and kinetic energy (muscles, tendons).

The Qi Body is what it sounds like: the network of Qi channels and meridians that feed the body. Qi is not accepted within Western medical science, but it can be thought of as the sum of the electric impulses that course through our nervous system. It has sometimes being called the Electric Body. I find that definition rather narrow since Qi is more closely related to our vital energy than just nerve impulses, but even if you do not believe or understand the nature of Qi, the idea of the Electrical Body can be useful.

The third body, or Shen Body, is the most diffuse. It is our spirit body, the aspect of ourselves which may survive death (if we have nourished it enough through meditation). There resides our emotions, our “soul”. These are hard concepts to define since every culture has a different definition of what a soul is.

As you can see there is a progression, from the material to the immaterial, from the solid to the ethereal.  In Taoism, the Qi Body is the bridge between the Shen Body and the Jing Body, the connector between the physical body and the spirit body. There is no disconnect between body and spirit in Eastern philosophy. In the West, the body has often been described as a cage for the soul, something vile, negative, which is dragging down the soul. Within Taoism, the spirit needs the body. It would not exist without it.  One is not superior to the other, they are complimentary.

The very history of Eastern martial arts illustrates this. The internal martial arts (which include Taijiquan and Shaolin Gungfu) were developed from exercises used by meditating monks who found their bodies to be wasting away from too much inactivity. The monks needed their bodies in order to continue their spiritual practice.

In Taoism, the Qi is transformed into Shen within the body. With no body, the Shen is ethereal, fragile, and disperses at the moment of death. So the Three Bodies are interrelated, interdependent of each other. Imbalance in one affects the others. The goal is integration and balance of all three.

As we do the Form or the Basic Exercises, we can bring our focus to these different bodies. I find it helpful to ask myself what body is being worked on most by each exercise. Many Basic exercises work on both the Jing and Qi bodies at once. But it is possible to emphasize one or the other body by making minute changes in the exercises.

I find that the Jing Body needs to be worked on first in order to access the Qi Body effectively. So the warm ups have a natural progression, from Jing to Qi. Similarly, the Forms (13 Postures, etc..) can be done with a focus on the Jing (applications, foot position, etc..) or the Qi (breath, Qi flow). Yes, in the best of al possible world all would be integrated, but we are only human, and many details are missed if you try to do too many things at once.

Develop the Jing Body, work on the Qi Body, then integrate.  Then you will be ready to join the Jing, Qi and Shen.