Some years ago I was visiting with a professor of Chinese history at a prestigious college and asked him if there was “one best way” to understand the essence of Chinese philosophy. He unhesitatingly replied that there were TWO ways. One was to “Eat an excellent Chinese meal” and the other was to “Study Tai Chi.”
The first came from a wonderful book by Lin Yutang, a Chinese scholar in the early 20th century who wrote in impeccable English because of his Oxford education. When asked to summarize the Chinese approach to life, he answered, “All of Chinese philosophy can be reduced to one good meal.”
Lin wrote a wonderful book entitled The Importance of Living. Although its style is a bit antiquated by modern standards, it is well worth the read, and to be perused slowly, like smoking a fine cigar or enjoying a cup of truly excellent tea.
Other than Lin’s advice, the best way to learn Chinese “philosophy” is by studying Tai Chi. Of course this is NOT about learning a bunch of abstract philosophical “head-trips.” Chinese philosophy has always been practically oriented, centered on how best to live and enjoy life.
And since many elements of the practical application of Chinese philosophy have endured for several millennia (notwithstanding the tremendous changes to China in the past century), it just might be interesting to take a look…
There are three main “paths” or teachings in China—Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Although many Westerners would call the latter two “religions,” they are not religions in the commonly accepted sense. They are more like ways of life, each effective in its own area. In the West it would be unthinkable for someone to be an Orthodox Jew, a devout Catholic, and a Presbyterian at the same time. Yet it is not at all unusual for a traditional Chinese to be a Confucian in regard to family matters, a Taoist in terms of overall life-attitude and health cultivation, and a Buddhist when it comes to the “afterlife.” Each of the teachings serves its own proper sphere.
The best example of the practical use of these Three Teachings came from my main teacher of Tai Chi, T.T. Liang
Master Liang often advised his students to be good “Confucians” until age 60—that is, get a good education, find a good career, have children and grandchildren, etc. Each successive step would be a big “Raising of Rank.” During this time it would also be necessary to practice health and QI development to form a foundation for later life. By establishing a good foundation of family, career, finances, and health, a student would have a good "root" for the remainder of his/her life. Since most of Master Liang’s students of the early 1970’s were “hippies” and “seekers,” it was quite amusing seeing them reject his admonition to be good “Confucians!”
Then, Liang recommended being a “Taoist” from 60-80, emphasizing further cultivation of QI and Spirit for long life and the perfect health necessary to ENJOY the fruits of the first 60 years! I remember a very touching incident which perfectly illustrated this maxim. One Summer, Master Liang was teaching at an education center in New York State. He and his students were practicing in a pine grove; the air was fragrant with pine and soft white clouds drifted across the blue sky. A perfect day!
After they had finished a round of the Tai Chi Solo Form, there was a short respite. One of the students took advantage of the break to ask the Master why he still practiced at his advanced age (he was around 80 at the time). Liang looked surprised for just a moment, then replied that he practiced to make his life beautful! The student appeared a bit confused, so Liang went on to explain that he had experienced considerable toil and stress during the "Confucian" period of his life--and he needed to be in excellent health now to enjoy the fruits of his earlier labors. Tai Chi ensured that he could remain in perfect health, so he could now have the abundant energy and alertness to enjoy his life to the fullest.
If he did not have his health, he said, his first 60 years would have been in vain. But now, he found every day beautiful.
Finally, after age 80, Liang recommended one become a “Buddhist,” that is--meditate frequently, and remember that in the end “Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form.” This way one could have a perfectly clear and calm mind, devoid of any stress or striving. As Liang once said to me—“In the end, nobody cares who’s who—all are dust!” And Liang seemed to perfectly exemplify each stage of the Three Teachings and passed away peacefully at age 102.
In Tai Chi practice there is a fascinating mix of the Three Teachings.
The Confucian aspect of the art lies with the teacher/student and student/student relationship. The teacher/student bond is based squarely upon Confucian norms of respect. There is a respect for the Founders of one’s Style and for the Founders of Tai Chi in general—that is a respect for the Lineage. There is a kind of vertical dimension, in which both teacher and student revere the Lineage of the past, and realize that someday they will be a part of that Lineage, and be esteemed in turn by their Tai Chi “descendents.”
In the horizontal dimension, students respect each other as members of the same family in a spirit of mutual help and support.
The “Taoist” aspect of Tai Chi is that many of the fundamental principles of the art—such as the mutual interplay of Yin and Yang, neutralizing aggressive Yang energy with Yin yielding, and a concept of a firm “root” which ensures one’s physical stability in the midst of movement and change—all have a distinctly Taoist flavor.
And , while there is no markedly Buddhist aspect to Tai Chi in terms of underlying philosophy, many of the Tai Chi movements probably derived from elements of Shaolin martial arts, since Shaolin anteceded Tai Chi, and formed much of the martial arts “repertoire” for many centuries in China.
In sum, going beyond the Tai Chi “Solo Form” and exercise routine and exploring the profound spiritual and philosophical roots of the art can be a rewarding study, with many positive ramifications in real-world everyday life.
For an entire audio seminar on Tai Chi and the Three Teachings, go to http://www.totaltaichi.com/ click on the left on “Audio CD’s” and find “The Secret Life of Tai Chi” audio program. It is currently available as CD’s, and will be available as an MP3 download early next year.
Also, we are continuing with our Tai Chi Master Key series, using the Tai Chi principle as a guide to many areas of life. The first in this series, an e-book on “The Tai Chi Master key to Healthy Eating” can be found at www.totaltaichi.com/Master_Key_to_Healthy_Eating.htm