The Philosophy of Tai Chi

by Gerda Geddes

The art of Tai Chi Chuan embraces three levels. There is the solo exercise, and then what is called ‘pushing hands’ and the self-defence. There is a long form and a short form. It is said that one must practice the Tai Chi Chuan for at least 10 years before becoming a master. This is very true, for as you go on practising the quality of the movements seem to alter all the time. Slowly the body is transformed, the movements become smoother and more flowing, the breathing becomes clearer and you become more aware of the changing of the Yin and the Yang.  Because the movements have a natural slow rhythm and are integrated with the breath there eventually develops a sensation of calmness, stillness and non-attachment. This is what the Chinese call Wu Wei.

The long form of Tai Chi Chuan consists of three major parts and each part is divided into sequences. There are thirteen in all and although each is complete in itself, one sequence builds on the other and very gently the body is strengthened and the health improved.  But each sequence also tells a story which when correctly interpreted shows quite clearly a journey from birth to death, or the departure from this particular existence.  For a long time I was very puzzled as to why the number of sequences should be thirteen. It seemed a very odd number, until quite by chance I came across a translation of the Lao Tzu called’ The Way of Acceptance’ by Hermon Ould where he quotes chapter 50 as follows:

To go out into life is to enter death, the Knights of Life are thirteen, the Knights of Death are thirteen and most men living create thirteen vulnerable spots within themselves. How is that? Because they are so avid of life. I have heard that he who has control of his life may walk throughout the land and meet neither tiger nor rhinoceros. He may pass through the battlefield indifferent to weapons and armour.  For the rhinoceros would find in him no place to drive his horn, the tiger would find no place to thrust his claws and the weapon no place to insert its blade. How is that? Because such as he has no vulnerable spots.

It may be of interest to you to hear what these spots are according to the Chinese. They are the nine orifices and the four limbs.

I would like to explain to you a little how you can see this allegorical journey that comes through the Tai Chi Chuan.  The first thing you do is visualise yourself within a circle which is just the size of your own body when you stand on the ground with your feet flat.  Each individual has his or her own circle according to the size of the body.  Within this circle you can move either forwards or backwards, from side to side, or on the diagonal. Through the first two parts of the Tai Chi Chuan one mover in all these different directions and what it is trying to say in its imagery is that we live within this circle.  The body is in there – like the chicken in the egg – you have to discover all the possibilities that are within the circle. When you have found the perfect balance, the last part of the Tai Chi Chuan symbolises the spiritual journey which then takes over.  But it tells you that you must work with the body first before this is possible.  You have to start from the soles of your feet and work upwards from the ground, because the balance comes from the ground and the freedom comes from finding the balance.

Now I will go through some of the movements giving you some idea of what they symbolise and are trying to convey.  In the first sequence the movements are directed towards understanding how, within this large circle, there are other smaller circles.  You have to feel within yourself how to hold a circle, and where it is. If you visualise it as being the birth of this particular existence you see the ideal circumstances being described of the child being born and being held within the circumference of the circle of the mother until it is ready to go out on its own. In the whole of the first sequence every movement you do is protective – it is as if the child needed the protection of the unity with the mother until you come almost at the end, to a movement called pushing open the door.  In the first movements of this sequence you start off by rising out of the water. You step out into a movement called grasping the sparrows tail.  Now the bird is always thought of as the messenger and this grasping of the birds tail symbolises the dawning of consciousness. It is followed by the movement of pushing open the door and the sequence finishes in a position called single whip.  All the sequences finish in this way.

In the second sequence there are some steps called brush knee and push.  These are steps where you actually walk straight forward. There is then a movement called the big bird spreads its wings which is followed by one called the strumming of the lute.  When you strum the lute it means you are enjoying yourself.  In Chinese poetry and painting you will often come across the lute and it is always in connection with enjoyment and the good things of life. Then come the steps when you walk forward – this is the child taking its first steps into life with the body open – open to experience. It comes back and strums the lute which says: ‘I enjoy myself, it is lovely being here’.  This continues throughout the first part until there comes a movement fisting of the hand.  Now this as you remember means to have yourself under control it also means that you draw the energy back into the body.  In the breathing of the Tai Chi you have two kinds of outbreaths; either you breath out into a circle where the energy is regenerated and drawn back into the body or you have the outbreath which goes out through the hand into the outside world.  There is a perfect balance between the breathing which tells you that it is equally important for a human being to regenerate himself within his own circle as it is for him to be giving out and receiving from the outside. One needs to have communication with others but one also needs to have communication within oneself.  These two are in balance. By grasping the hand the individual says:’ I have have had enough walking forward into this wonderful life, something is going to change’ and that is the end of the first part.

In the second part the first sequence is called step back and repulse the monkey. Now the monkey in China represents human nature and although human nature is basically good the monkey is very easily tempted into whatever distractions may come across its path. They also in China have what they describe as ‘monkey thoughts’ which go flashing through your brain; whenever you want to concentrate or to become clear and still, these monkey thoughts keep coming in to prevent you.  When you have repulsed the monkey to become still and clear then you have the movement again of holding the circle which means you regenerate your own energy. This is followed by bird slanting flying or the magic bird spreads out its wings and stands on one leg.

The bird images have changed during the ages. The first bird that they thought of was the phoenix – that was the magic bird – and when the magic bird spreads out its wings and stands on one leg it is asking for a blessing to come down from heaven. This blessing always has to do with fertility, either it is asking for rain or for sunshine depending on what is needed. The movement of the bird leads into the strumming of the lute which is a ‘thank you’ for blessings received; then once again you come out into the circle where there is another bird spreading  its wings… The next movement is called looking for the golden needle at the bottom of the sea.  In this you bring up the golden needle and you shoot it out. The golden needle represents the creative force. Anything which is golden in China is always yang in character and has this element of the creative in it. Looking for the golden needle at the bottom of the sea is looking for you creative force. Water always stands for wisdom and the mountain for stillness.  There is a lovely story in this respect about an old Taoist monk who had made the most wonderful embroidery with such beautiful shapes and colours that people came from far and wide to admire it. They asked him how he was able to create such beauty. He replied that it had only been possible through the use of the golden needle and those who wanted to do likewise must find the golden needle for themselves. So – we bring up the golden needle and create whatever we are meant to create and then we shoot out the arrow, giving it to the world.

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