Tai Chi as a Way of Life

Two days ago the U.S. Senate passed a bill targeting anti-Asian hate crimes, and yesterday there was a rally where I live in Holland, Michigan condemning anti-Asian violence.  I am, and we all should be, fully behind these efforts.  But I want to go beyond anti-anti-Asian hate; I want to encourage Asian appreciation.  I even considered titling this blog entry “spread Asian love,” which feels more positive than “stop Asian hate,” but then I thought that maybe it would sound too risqué or just too cheesy.  The fact is I have been an Asia-phile for as long as I can remember and the recent rash of anti-Asian sentiment pains me deeply.  I especially hate the fact that my beautiful, kind, smart Korean daughter is subject to stupid bouts of anti-Asian prejudice.  I want to counter this hate with love.

My love of Asian runs deep. I became enamored of Chinese culture ever since visiting my grandparents who lived in what was once New York City’s Little Italy but which, by the 1960’s, had become squarely part of an expanding Chinatown. My love of Asia led me to study and teach Asian philosophies for many years because I think it contains the most profound wisdom on the planet. I also founded and directed an Asian Studies program which allowed me the opportunity to co-lead a Japan May Term study tour about a half-dozen or so times. During this COVID period, when such travel is not happening, I can’t stop watching “Paolo from Tokyo“ and other Japan Vlogs on YouTube to sate my desire for all things Japanese. And I have practiced tai chi chuan for almost forty years now even though I still consider myself a beginner. It is the tai chi part that I want to focus on because it has been transformative.

I was attracted to tai chi primarily because it is beautiful.  As a slow, moving meditation it is a graceful vehicle of grace.  As a young philosopher, before tai chi, I was mostly bunched up in my neck and head, not unlike Rodin’s statue, The Thinker, but not quite as buff.  Like the statue, most of my life-energy seemed to be concentrated in the cranium, focused on a spot between the eyebrows.  It’s a very serious look for sure, but not very peaceful or graceful.  After tai chi this changed.  I became comfortable in my skin, at home in my body, and moved with more ease.  I even overcame my fear of dancing.  I experienced an embodied freedom that spilled over into a kind of psychological or spiritual freedom.  I think of tai chi as a bodily spiritual practice that itself embodies much of the wisdom of Chinese philosophy. 

One of the things I did as Director of Asian Studies was to start a program that hosted Chinese graduate students for a year of study of philosophy in the U.S.  One motivation for this program was the debt I felt to Cheng Man-ch’ing, the man most responsible for the spread of tai chi in the West and the teacher of the founder of the Tai Chi Foundation (https://www.taichifoundation.org/), the tai chi school I have studied with.  Professor Cheng was a very traditional Chinese gentleman who, in addition to tai chi, excelled at painting, poetry, calligraphy and Chinese medicine.  He also wrote on traditional Chinese philosophy.  Interestingly enough, although tai chi clearly embodies many principles of Daoist philosophy – gentleness, flowing movement, softness, balance of yin and yang, humility, etc. – Professor Cheng was primarily a Confucian.  Like many traditional Chinese thinkers (and the same could be said of traditional thinkers in Japan and Korea), he might be called a Neo-Confucian in that he incorporated Daoist and Buddhist insights into his overall Confucian outlook.  As a Neo-Confucian, Cheng emphasized the moral aspect of tai chi.  As his son notes in new video about him, The Professor: Tai Chi’s journey West:  “He was teaching tai chi as a way of life.” 

What is it about the practice of tai chi that informs a way of life?  For someone like Professor Cheng, it is primarily a vehicle for moral self-cultivation.  It is part of the effort at learning to improve oneself so one can be of service to others.  Its primary aim is to learn benevolence and compassion, to become fully human or humane or jen (ren 仁). How so? Confucianism emphasizes harmony and balance – within oneself, within society and between Heaven and Earth. Among the many things tai chi teaches, balance is fundamental. One learns to keep one’s balance, to remain centered, and to restore balance where needed.  One feels the feet and legs rooted to the earth and the head held by a string from the heavens.  As such, one stands balanced between heaven and earth, embodying a cosmic harmony.  We human beings need a connection to both heaven and earth, to the spirit as well as the body.  Tai chi encourages us to be grounded in the soil yet to also feel that our spirit is reaching towards the sacred.  There is one string linking us to earth and heaven.  As above, so below.  On earth as it is in heaven.  If this sense of harmony between heaven and earth is a kind of vertical balance, then the harmony maintained with one another, the social harmony, is our horizonal balance.  Cultivating the disposition to achieve physical balance leads to the disposition to seek societal balance.  Does one find imbalance or injustice in society?  Then we are disposed to act to right it.  In one’s personal life, the attainment of balance, as taught in the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean, is a kind of inner equilibrium.  When one is physically centered, one embodies the mean and can act more easily with moderation in all things.  Being centered, we find an inner stillness as the world swirls around us.  We can follow the swirling, but we need not let it overwhelm us.  It is a way to stay calm in the midst of activity, oftentimes chaotic.  And it enables one to respond instinctually in the right way rather than being pushed into over-reacting or reacting with force.  

Even though tai chi is a martial art, it teaches that one is never to react with force.  In this sense it is a way of non-violence.  And the way to achieve this is to let go of self.  How does one achieve this?  Relax, relax, relax.  Tai chi teaches that we must relax all physical tension in our body in order for qi or life-energy to flow freely.  Yet it is by relaxing that we also learn to let go of self as we drop our burdens, our past hurts, our emotional tension.  This is not just a way to diminish stress within oneself, but it is ultimately a way to relate to others.  Tai chi teaches that we must “invest in loss.”  “Be as selfless as melting ice,” writes Lao-tzu in the Daodejing.  To invest in loss, to practice selflessness, is to cultivate humility, not only in the sense of putting others before you but also in the sense of following others.  This is essence of tai chi push-hands practice.  We learn to follow our fellow push-hands player by listening through touch, by developing a kind of sensitivity to the other.  When empty of self-centered willfulness, you can open up and be present to what is before you – the coffee, the flower, the cypress tree in the garden, the other person, the situation at hand.  One learns to respond spontaneously without force knowing that gentleness defeats aggression, that softness overcomes hardness, that ultimately love wins.  In tai chi one learns to deflect any incoming force by simply shifting one’s weight and rotating.  One then becomes an empty space and force has no place to land.  How many situations in life might be neutralized if we emptied ourselves and deflected rather than struck back with force?  Tai chi teaches us how to turn the other cheek, literally, not so as to be a punching bag for others but to de-escalate and neutralize a potentially harmful situation.  And since the other’s force becomes energy that circles back to them, the aggression of the other becomes a teachable moment, imparting a lesson in karma, showing them that what goes around, comes around.  “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”  So put down the sword or gun, or hate speech, or smallness of mind, whatever it is that is your weapon of choice. 

Confucianism also advocates a sense of social propriety and responsibility.  One is to act with a sense of decorum, not only because it makes one dignified but also out of respect for the dignity of others.  Part of this is respect for tradition, for the past, for one’s elders.  But it is also a sense of respect for what others in our lives are to us and do for us.  It is a way of showing gratitude by honoring what has been given to you by one’s community.  “Itadakimasu,” say the Japanese before each meal: “I gratefully receive.” This is kind of a social rite, whether one is religious or not.  The practice of tai chi functions like a rite or ritual.  It requires dedication and commitment.  It requires some seriousness.  As such it reflects a respect for tradition, for those in the art who came before you, and for those who presently engage in it with you.  I think the same attitude of respect, or serious concern or care for others, and of doing one’s best out of respect for the other, is needed today in order for us to flourish, both as individuals and as a society. 

I’d like to bring this reflection to a close with some quotations from Chinese philosopher, Wang Yangming, a 15th century Neo-Confucian.  Reminiscent of the opening position of the tai chi form, Wang writes, “Standing between heaven and earth, what dignity by body possesses.”  May the embodied sense of dignity one might learn from a bodily practice such as tai chi teach us to treat the self and others with utmost dignity and respect.  The final move of the tai chi form is called “entering the Dao,” a fitting description of that ultimate peace that Neo-Confucians believe is achieved when, through moral self-cultivation, one develops ren or humane loving-kindness.  As Wang writes, “The humane person forms one body with Heaven and Earth and all things.”  May the embodied sense of oneness with all things experienced in the practice of tai chi teach us to experience a shared sense of loving unity with all humanity.  And, in gratitude, may we especially continue to respect and learn from our Asian brothers and sisters.   

Spread Asian love. 

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