Philosophy, spirituality and tai chi

Look through enough tai chi blogs or read enough tai chi texts and you’ll run across references to the “bagua,” the “Eight Trigrams” of the I Ching.  It’s represented in the diagram below.

A very simplified version of the Bagua symbol.  Most are far more complicated.

Without going into needless detail, this symbol is a representation of Chinese cosmology. Each of the eight symbols or “trigrams” around the yin-yang are emblematical of compass points, seasons and stages or aspects of human life.  They are discussed in the I Ching, which is one of the oldest books still in use (it’s older than most of the Bible).  This book discusses not merely the way the Chinese view the universe and how humanity fits in, it also serves as the basis for a form of divination – not quite fortune-telling, although that’s what some Westerners think it is.  Any further elaboration would be getting more “up in the weeds” than is necessary.  If you want to learn more, start with the Wikipedia entry on it – it’s pretty good.  Or ask me after class – I usually have my own copy in my car.

Combine this symbol and its interpretation with the “Wu Xing” or “five elements” of traditional Chinese philosophy (Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal), and you have as full a grasp of how the Chinese throughout history see the world and their place in it as any Westerner really needs.

In modern tai chi writing you’ll see references to the “eight energies” and “five steps,” comparing them to the eight trigrams and five elements mentioned above.  This formulation was first written down by Grandmaster Yang Banhou sometime around 1875.  At least, that’s the first such document anyone knows about outside the Yang family.  You’ll also see discussions of Daoism/Taoism and (far less often) Buddhism in modern writing about tai chi.

What follows is only speculation on my part, but it’s informed speculation.  It’s my belief that when Yang Banhou made these comparisons, he was doing so simply as an aid-to-memory or at most as an allegory.  In other words, it’s safe to assume he didn’t think tai chi was inherently Daoist or Buddhist. 

This assertion on my part is at odds with many accomplished tai chi teachers.  Why would Yang Banhou make such a comparison if he wasn’t a Daoist or a Buddhist, and why shouldn’t tai chi be considered a Daoist or Buddhist martial art?  I say it shouldn’t be thought of as such, any more than Western boxing or Greco-Roman wrestling are thought of as Judeo-Christian martial arts. 

We have no reason to believe that Banhou was a Daoist or Buddhist scholar, though he was brought up in the Imperial Household and had what by Qing dynasty standards would be a classical education.  Likewise, it is unnecessary for us Westerners to attempt to impute deeper meaning into this comparison between the energies and the Bagua, or the steps and the Wu Xing; any we “discover” are simply flights of imagination.

The I Ching, bagua and Wu Xing are inseparable from Chinese culture – it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.  In much the same way, the Bible is so interwoven in Western thought that even atheists will unironically say things like “The love of money is the root of all evil” without realizing the line comes from the Apostle Paul’s Letter to Timothy.  Likewise, Confucianism is one of the most fundamental and resilient characteristics of Chinese culture, so much so that it outlasted the Cultural Revolution – China calls itself communist these days but since the 90s it’s much closer to Confucius’s notion of an ideal state than Mao’s.

We in the West don’t spend much time on Confucius.  Most Westerners couldn’t tell you the first thing about him, what he did or what he thought.  And yet, it’s no exaggeration that his influence on the Chinese national character is comparable to that of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln all rolled into one for the United States.  I bring him and his philosophy up in order to compare it with its competitor philosophy Daoism – which really was a competitor, as both schools of thought were developed in the “Warring States Period” in Chinese history, with each having as its goal the influencing of the heads-of-state of the smaller Chinese principalities.  Confucius’s plan came first, followed by Lao Tzu’s Daoism in direct response.

We Westerners would much rather focus on Daoism.  We’ve latched onto it and its founder Lao Tzu over Confucius for several reasons:
o  Daoism is at the same time an appealing counter-cultural alternative to typical Western thinking, and also somewhat accessible to Western thought because it is a close comparison to Stoicism, Epicureanism and many other Classical-era philosophical schools.
o  Daoism is a lot easier for Westerners to embrace than Confucianism, whose emphasis on ritual and virtue seems dry and inaccessible by comparison.
o  Daoism is more easily compatible with Christianity than Buddhism.  Daoism is a philosophy with a religion appended to the end of it (which can be largely ignored), whereas Buddhism is a religion with a philosophy appended to the end of it.
o  Daoism has better writers:  Lao Tzu is more poetic than Confucius, and Chuang Tzu is funnier.
o  The other schools of Chinese philosophical thought (Mohism, Legalism etc.) can hardly be said to exist so far as the West is concerned.

The early writing about tai chi has elements of both Daoist and Confucian thought, simply because most Chinese even to the present day think in these terms.  You will find frequent reference to yin and yang, acting and moving in accordance with our natures, answering hardness with softness and vice-versa, all of which are Daoist.  At the same time, you’ll see repeated exhortation to social virtues, acting in a just manner toward others, and similar moral admonitions.  Daoism as a rule takes a disdainful view of the ordinary concerns, courtesies, traditions or norms of society, but they are fundamental to Confucianism.  The Chinese mind holds both philosophical traditions in view simultaneously, which is no different from any Westerner holding a religious worldview at the same time as he or she looks at the physical world in a rational/scientific way.

In the end, it makes no more sense to think of tai chi as Daoist or Buddhist or Confucian, than it does to think of boxing as Christian or Aristotelian or Cartesian.  Tai chi is simply Chinese.