Dao literally translates as a path or a way and as such the three major religions of China, Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism all talk of finding the way, of following the way and of there being a way that is natural and conforms to the laws of existence.

While there is much intellectual debate concerning whether the three above-mentioned schools of thought are religions or philosophies, as far as we are concerned the distinction is unimportant. We are not practising tai chi chuan as a religion.

The original Daoists were men and women who sought to examine nature and determine the laws that governed it so that they could live in harmony with these laws. These people in Chinese were referred to as Daojia, followers of the Dao. The religion with temples, rites and scriptures which sprang up partly in response to the spread of Buddhism in China, is referred to as Daojiao, the Daoist religion. When we speak of tai chi chuan as being a Daoist art we are referring to the Dao of the Daojia, not the popular religion with its pantheon of gods.

Perhaps the most famous record of the Daojia's research and findings is the Dao De Jing (Tao Teh Ching). This work is attributed to Laozi (Lao Tsu) which is Chinese for the Old Master. In this book we find many sayings which are of direct relevance to our art such as:

"..controlling your qi, be as supple as a child..."
"Yield and become whole, bend and become straight..."
"The heavy is the foundation of the light, the still is the master of movement..."
"Developing excessive strength hastens decay..."
"One who overcomes others has power, one who overcomes himself has inner strength..."
"The soft and weak overcome the strong..."

There are many other examples and careful study will reveal much that is useful to the tai chi chuan exponent.

One westerner who has devoted a lengthy portion of his life to completing the arduous training required of the lineaged Daoist Priest (for want of a better word), Kristofer Schipper, refers in his book, The Daoist Body, to tai chi chuan in the following terms:

"This wonderful method of harmony and well-being is a martial art for the defence of the inner world. The slow, supple dance of tai chi chuan, performed with no apparent effort, is for everybody an excellent initiation into the very essentials of Taoism."

Irrespective of whether tai chi chuan was really devised by Zhang San Feng, who is described sometimes as being a Daoist "saint", it can constitute a Dao or way which we may follow.

What are the characteristics of such a Dao? First of all it must be a path which we can follow throughout our lives which by following enriches our lives and also those of others.

Furthermore the practice we choose as our Dao must in its microcosm reflect the macrocosm; that is the principles and rules we are following in terms of body movement and interraction with partners and opponents must also reflect the way in which the Universe works. In Oriental thought and in the martial arts in particular it is understood that man through understanding himself comes to understand the world. In an article entitled "Philosophical Perspectives on the Martial Arts in America", Carl Becker describes how:

"...the martial arts claim that a knowledge of the nature and structure of the whole is possible through investigation and experience of the parts of it which we contact." (The Overlook Martial Arts Reader, edited by Randy F. Nelson, Overlook press, New York 1989).

This means that the martial artist believes that through practising his martial art he is gaining a deeper knowledge of the universe of which he is a part. The understanding thus gleaned by the exponent allows him or her to fashion their life so that it accords with the way of the universe so enriching it.

As far as enriching the lives of others is concerned, Grandmaster Cheng, the founder of our style of tai chi chuan, describes the attitude of the tai chi chuan exponent as being that of striving to practise and live in the spirit of sharing the good with others so that it reaches the whole world.

The person who is following a Dao seeks to find opportunities for self-perfection in everything that he or she does. This process is called "siu yang" in Chinese. Master Koh Ah Tee (aka Xu Shu Song) describes tai chi chuan as "Siu Yang Chuan", self-improvement boxing.

Kristofer Schipper has the following to say about siu yang:

"...hsiu-yang (is) a practice which enables us to acquire, on the basis of our natural dispositions, exceptional qualities. Hsiu-yang means to arrange, to smooth down any roughness or irregularities by repeating an action many times in harmony with the cosmic order, until perfection is achieved. The perfect and complete body is thereby nurtured, its energies strengthened; it thus becomes totally integrated into the natural and cosmic environment. From there, the way is led - by repeated cyclical movements - to spontanaeity, which is the essence of the Tao."

To understand this process, one has to realise that one's body-person, the ephemeral conglomerate of the diverse ch'i that make up the world, is not perfect at birth. The child's spontaneity is only an illusion. True spontaneity (tzu-jan, literally "as it is") is acquired through training and self-perfection.

... It takes daily practice and endless repetition of the same gesture, the same discipline and ritual procedure, to achieve the mastery that finally allows one to create perfect forms without any apparent effort. It is nature retrieved, spontaneous creation, the secret stolen from the Tao."

Does this not sound like our practice of tai chi chuan?

On my recent teaching tour I talked extensively ( I love to talk!) about Heaven, Earth and Man and how these concepts relate to our understanding of tai chi. Our practice seeks to achieve harmony between these three aspects in physical movement. But in order for this movement to be correct we must have an attitude of mind that is calm and natural. We work from the inside, out. Through developing the natural, "as it is", mind we allow the body to loosen and relax. Similarly by trying to relax the body we promote relaxation of the mind. Through this process we aim for integration of body and mind on a moment-to-moment, conscious basis.

By learning to do this through the set of movements that we call tai chi chuan we learn how to do the same in our everyday lives.

As the Daoist Kristofer Schipper writes:

" ...practising the martial arts is not just a pleasure;it should remain also a discipline, a daily, preliminary set of healthful practices to help one meet the inevitable."

Earlier in this article I mentioned, in passing that tai chi chuan is not a religion. As a Dao however, it should enable you, whatever your religious beliefs, to abide by them more faithfully, to live them more truthfully.

Morihei Uyeshiba, the founder of Aikido, described his art as "leading all religions to completion." In this respect Aikido has much in common with tai chi chuan. prehaps instead of religion we shuld substitute the term human beings.

Tai chi chuan has the capacity to bring all human beings to completion.

In this light consider carefully how you treat your classmates, your martial arts brothers and sisters, as the Chinese would say, both inside and outside the training hall. As you bow and enter the place where you train do so with gratitude in your heart for the opportunities presented to you through your training. And, as you bow to leave, vow to carry with you the things that you are learning and apply them in your everyday life.

But, above all, have fun!


The Overlook Martial Arts Reader, edited by R.F. Nelson, published by the Overlook Press, New York 1989.
The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper, published by Pelanduk Publications, Malaysia 1996.
Tao Te Ching: Backwards Down the Path by J.O. Dalton, published by Eastern Dragon Press, Malaysia 1995.
The Inner Way by Master Xu Shu Song, published by Perfect Balance Publications, Malaysia 1996.

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