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More Learning Tai Chi
further observations and conversations on learning tai chi

Direct Experience: Tai Chi

Would you like some peace and tranquillity? Yes, well why not go out and buy a book about it, study it, find out where it comes from and go and get some? Can't be done, can it?

There may have been many books written about it but unfortunately none come with a free sample or any guarantee of you yourself will ever actually getting any of it.

No use either trying to follow the examples of any or all of those the most peaceful or tranquil that have walked this planet before us. Their way was their way; it will not be yours. Never was - never will be.

standing manFortunately or unfortunately (depending upon how fortunate you might consider yourself to already be) - 'peace' and 'tranquillity' are not transferable commodities or items of trade. Peace, tranquillity etc. - these things are not possessed or dispossessed. They are not gained or lost; they are simply and directly 'experienced'.

So what about asking one those more 'ordinary' even 'humble' people around right now who appear to have some of this elusive 'it'? They can't help much either. These ordinary people are simply happy to have it! Few seem to have any idea about where they got it from, what it is and even what it does, how or why!


Is This for You?

Tai Chi may help you someway towards some peace and tranquillity, I don't know. I like those books by those far wiser I offer no guarantee. As far as Tai Chi is concerned it is not for me to say what it will bring you. I only know what it has brought me, and I guess that only I will ever know what needed to go or be taken away to 'make the space and time' in my life for it.

The practice of Tai Chi has in the past brought many people many wonderful things and it could perhaps bring the same or similar to you, again I don't know. What you get out of Tai Chi is at least proportional if not entirely dependent upon what you put into it.

The Deal = Nothing to put in - Nothing to take away

Legendary Results

I would be very happy now to pass on to you the few pieces of advice that have (in time) provto be the best advice that has ever been given to me.

One: "Always be prepared to put more into your practice than you will ever expect to take out" and Two: "Expect Nothing".

If these two pieces of advice sound as preposterous to you now as they did when they were first related to me - well - maybe its just the same point being made again? And as for my own most considered advice - for what its worth?

Give it Time. Please.

Essential ingredients are 'the person' and the 'intention'. What you put in the oven has a direct and fundamental bearing on what comes out - and what comes out is something that depends entirely upon yourself. I hope that this statement is very clear. It must be the intention and practice of any person wishing to 'gain' anything from Tai Chi to ensure that what he or she studies is Tai Chi and not simply what he or she wishes or expects it to be.

Some people come to Tai Chi hoping to learn how to defend themselves against physical attack. These people have little or no interest in Tai Chi as a method of relaxation or (different thing) meditation. They will unfortunately never learn Tai Chi. They may learn how to fight (and one day they may have to prove it!) but they will not learn Tai Chi.

Some people come to Tai Chi hoping to learn how to relax and see no need to learn a 'new' way of defending themselves. These people will also not learn Tai Chi.

Some people do realise that the more they learn to relax (or 'yield') the more able they might be to defend themselves. These people are on the way to learning Tai Chi and therefore in a position to begin reaping the legendary results.

Those two - self defence and relaxation could be said to be the materials and the inspiration for the type of Tai Chi capable of providing these legendary results. However the best materials and greatest inspiration is still sadly not enough - at least not enough for legendary results! Still required are correct or skilful intention and a person wise enough to discern and enact it. Mindful Meditation is the only frame that can contain all of this. It also provides the individual with a form of expression and creativity that can go far beyond words. This is the 'Art of Tai Chi'. Without application Tai Chi at this stage is simply waving arms, swaying body and occasionally standing on one leg. Nothing wrong with that, but it falls someway short of Tai Chi and mountains and rivers away from the Martial Art of Tai Chi which has profound applications. Nothing added and nothing taken away.

The practice of Tai Chi remains virtually unchanged since ancient times passed on through each successive generation forever-new thus re-born everyday.

There are plenty of books about Tai Chi but it is 'practised' or 'done' much more than it is read about.

It is a direct experience.

The Same but Different Phenomena

So what then is a Direct Experience? In short and clinically it is any personal experience that is experienced independent of the opinion or guidance of any other person as to how, when, where or why the experience could or should be experienced.

Sometimes when it rains and sunshine is in the sky at the same time we may see a rainbow. It is an odd fact but true nevertheless that according to certain laws and principles (therefore by definition "the truth"), that each individual who looks at a rainbow sees not the same rainbow as anyone else but his or her own rainbow. That's a Direct Experience - Tai Chi is like that. So are other things.


Elsewhere (including the SCD website) can be found numerous descriptions of Tai Chi postures, applications and sequences in which to perform them. Please do not mistakenly believe that any of those lists can provide you with any 'experience' of Tai Chi or for that matter - anything else. They can't. Remembering lists is another thing for another time. The first step of true Tai Chi is to try to forget all about 'concepts'.

A dream can be perhaps the most beautiful of direct experiences, and as far as I know the only person who can experience a dream is the person that dreamt it and the only dreams that will never come true are those not dreamt. A concept of a dream is what a psychoanalyst has; what you have is a dream.

The Way of the Body

It should remain clear that the full process of the development of Tai Chi began with the need for a method of unarmed self- defence. There was massive and oppressive forces ranged against these common or peasant people of China in these 'primitive' times. This situation was neither unique to China nor restricted to primitive times and extinct since. It was suggested by those instrumental in the development of Tai Chi that a possible tactic or strategy that might have a chance of success would be to turn the power and strength of an attacker back onto themselves; thus transforming strength into weakness, advantage into disadvantage and so on.

The Way of the Mind

This way of self defence based upon a way of thinking was not developed in isolation of all other aspects of these peoples daily life. It was based upon already made observation of the way of Nature and natural events as they occurred all around them. For instance it was noted that a Willow survived the gale whereas the upright Oak may be snapped or toppled.

It was further noted that following the axe-mans doings in the forest the most stout, straight and robust trees were gone yet the twisted, bent and ugly remained.

It was further noted that apparently 'hard' rocks were eroded by apparently 'soft' water. Essentially it was noted that that there is a natural order to nature and that includes and accommodates the strong and the weak, the large and the small and the fast and the slow.

The Way of the Spirit

The place and the people directly affecting creation of this formative period of Tai Chi into a unified way of fighting, thinking and living that was 'in accord with nature' was China. This distinguishes Tai Chi as unique amongst Martial Arts. It is the only Chinese Form. Comparison is unnecessary, however these differences should be acknowledged as existing because this is The Nature, The Essence of it. Like floors that grow in a particular climate the organic roots of Tai Chi are nourished in the soil of China.


Confucius is rightly known as "the greatest sage of China". He described and taught a system of ethics that had an enormous effect on the people of China. The precepts of Confucianism can be surmised as follows:

The universe is regulated by order.
Mankind is basically good.
People do wrong through lack of knowledge, and from lack of example.
Government must lead by good moral example.
Development is inward and outward.
Inward development is acting in private as if under observation.
Self-sufficiency and high honour reveal outward development.

Confucius was no doubt a great and wise man and his study and exposition on the Taoist Classic 'The I Ching' is second to none. However at this point there can be detected a divergence in the people of China in general and those that practised (particularly those that developed) Tai Chi. I would not suggest that Tai Chi is anarchic, however whilst unity is certainly encouraged it is I also so that the individual is urged first to understand him/herself so as to enable this harmony with others. The anomaly here is that the 'internal' aspect of Tai Chi has more in common with Buddhist precepts than it does with Confucianism.

The (lit) most down to earth people of China were (naturally) the workers of the land - millions of dispersed individuals in a vast country under feudal rule. These are the particular people and it is their view of nature that created Tai Chi, and it is their ancestors that developed the Yang Form. It was the held belief of these people that the way of nature to fight or more correctly 'overcome' was to not fight at all. This 'spirit' eloquently manifests itself again in the words of Cheng Man-ch'ing when he advises: "When you practice the form - imagine that you have an opponent before you. When you have an opponent before you - imagine that you don't." Nevertheless it is a matter of record that by no later than BC.500 the vast land of China was host to:

The 'original/mystic/Shamanistic' Taoism;

Chan - forerunner to Zen Buddhism; and

The Teachings of Confucius. (551-479 BC.)

Belief Systems

The first recorded or ordered belief systems of Japan was Shinto. To savagely surmise, central to Shinto is Ancestor Worship. It might now also be construed that often the most savage aspect of Ancestor Worship is the westerners pre-conception of what that is! Whatever; the ancestors of these Japanese people were numerous Spirits and Gods, people and objects all in a perfusion of guises, material and mythical. It might also be reasonably assumed that any image embroidered on the flag of a nation would represent something rather important or at least respected by the people of that nation. We need look no further than the image of the Rising Sun to appreciate at least one thing that obviously was, or still is, respected by the people of Japan. Furthermore, any study of Buddhism would inevitably lead the enquirer to a study of Japan, for it is this country that has become the Treasure Store of the entire major Buddhist Sutras and text. Many forms of Buddhism flourish there although many of these 'imported' forms have in fact all but vanished from their country of origin. For instance, the form now known as Zen Buddhism was first evident as Chan in China. By the same token - the form of Chan that was developed in China was imported and adapted from its original Indian form. This in has other religious and spiritual roots - including Yoga. I will not debate or even try to define the different cultures of different people from different lands. The art of comparing things is to assimilate and integrate rather than simply or instantly discriminate. We should seek common ground. In this respect Japan must be acknowledged as being profoundly integral to present day Buddhism and Martial Art. Whilst doing so we should however recognise the independence and individuality of Tai Chi. A true understand of true or original Tai Chi is only so when a certain level of understanding of basic Taoist and Buddhist beliefs is attained for it is this that is its essence. It is erroneous to believe that true Tai Chi can be 'learnt' in isolation or with no regard for fundamental precepts or the conditions that formed it. The purpose of this part of this article has been to simply document what Tai Chi has been in the past and I have tried only to indicate how or why it became what it is now.

Fundamental to Tai Chi is the necessity to except all things, exactly as they are. This is not always the way one wants them to be! At its core is a person, you. The future of Tai Chi is in your hands, try to respect it for what it is, and not what you would like to imagine it to be.

Having acknowledged some of these other influences upon Tai Chi I shall without further ado focus upon a figure absolutely intrinsic to the development of Tai Chi.


The person generally agreed to responsible most for a major flowering in the development of early Tai Chi and Buddhism in China was Bodhidharma. The seed had sown itself long before. Artefacts made as early as BC.500 have been found in China that display evidence of both Taoist and Buddhist influences. By about 500AD there was apparently more than ten thousand Buddhist Temples throughout China and several emperors are identified by their given name to being sincere Buddhists. Buddhism declined in later years. Taoism continues, as does Confucianism.

Conveniently for our needs the oldest, most reliable records of ancient China still intact are those of the Shaolin Temple founded in the East/Central Province of Henan in 495.

The Shaolin Temple

Bodidharma was born about 483 AD. He came to China 527 and died in the Shaolin Temple 536. Bodhidaharma, this immigrant Prince of a small Southern Indian tribe was once summoned by the Emperor (526/7) and was asked: "Whom do you represent and what do you teach?" He, at the risk of his own life replied "Nothing" and "No One". He then returned to the Shaolin Temple to enter a legendary nine-year meditation.

The Shaolin Temple was built in 495 by the Emperor Wei Xiao Wen and done so for the first chief monk Batou to expound his Buddhist teachings. Batuo came to China 464AD. Nothing is known about this person's death or demise.

Following his nine-year meditation Bodhidharma wrote two Qigong (Chi Kung) classics: Yin Jin Jing, the Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic and Xi Sui Jing, the Bone Marrow/Brain nourishing Classic. The exercises therein were designed to not only firm up the flabby bodies of the monks but also to energise their brains, assisting them in their endeavours towards enlightenment. Witness the "No Thing and No One" statement as related above, the methods of Bodhidharma were characterised by their 'directness'. Concepts and to a great degree even words were avoided. His nine-year meditation also bears witness to the greater importance that he placed on silent and still meditation. Bodhidharma is also therefore known today as "The First Patriarch of Zen". Thus teachings of a person of Indian origin made its way across China and elsewhere East, North, South and West as also did Tai Chi.

I have gone to length here to describe the spiritual content of the profound Chinese Martial Art discipline of Tai Chi. I have gone to such lengths to try ensure that whatever I pass on is as complete as it can make it; not some cut down version that may be adapted to suit changing whims. Fundamental to Tai Chi is the concept that everything is exactly as it should be, i.e. everything is what it is. This rule of course applies also to the perception and practice of Tai Chi. It is right here that words fail and become inadequate. Words cannot convey spiritual liberation and lists do not lead to freedom.

I have decided now that the most fitting way to end the article on 'true' Tai Chi with a brief re-telling of my Direct Experience of it.

By the age of 40 and a bit I had already been divorced twice, lost more jobs than I had had hot dinners, was deep in debt, on probation, banned from driving (my last job!) and unemployable anyway through mental illness. Was I in trouble!

I had been practising Tai Chi for a few years by then, at least I had turned up once a week for training. I came to Tai Chi looking for 'serenity' and I had the odd tantalising glimpse, but it always seemed to evaporate as soon as I left the training hall. My crisis deepened, I became clinically depressed and isolated. This isolation paradoxically became my liberation. This would not be the last paradox.

I had by this point taken three years to learn all of the postures of the Yang Style Long form. Rather than sign up for some other course of counselling or medication I promised my Probation Officer and Psychiatrist that I would 'apply' myself to something. I applied myself to Tai Chi - doing the form a couple of times a day whilst prodding tentatively at Buddhist Meditation. It is hard for me to describe what happened next. There are no comparisons to a direct experience. Like a dragon in the clouds, you either see it or you don't. Sunny side of the hill - shady side of a roof, you either see it or you don't. Never mind 'applying' myself, all that I can take credit for is applying the break on myself! It was there all of the time, I was just going to fast and passing it - lapping it. Obvious when you think about it. You don't go bird watching on a motorbike!

1. Attention 2. Preparation 3. Beginning

These are first three postures of The Yang Form.

"Always be prepared to put more into your practice than you will ever take out".

Prepare for what?
"Expect nothing"


You are waist deep in liquid. It's your favourite liquid at the best temperature. Make it your favourite colour as well. Your arrival has disturbed the water and caused ripples. For your reflection to become clear again - you must give it time. Remain still; first still the body and then still the mind.

Beginning. The Sun rises slowly over the horizon. Set a higher goal. Breathe in. Everything is exactly as it should be. From then on, things just happen to happen one after the other.
At least that is my experience.
Forgive me; this is why also I am a bit of a stickler about practice and why I ask you to -
Give It Time. Please.
Even if you think you have already put in plenty always -
"Be prepared to put in more than you will ever take out".

The Deal:

Nothing to put in = Nothing to take out.

Plenty to put in = Plenty.

Essential ingredients are 'the person' and the 'intention'. What you put in the oven has a direct and fundamental bearing on what comes out - and what comes out is something that depends entirely upon yourself. I hope that this statement is very clear. It must be the intention and practice of any person wishing to 'gain' anything from Tai Chi to ensure that what he or she studies is Tai Chi and not simply what he or she wishes or expects it to be.
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