by Gregory James
The average person may not be interested to know where the Tao Practice came from, or what TaiChi really is, but this is largely because most people never knew of its fundamental Universality within All Things and All Beings. The origin of TaiChi (太極, also transliterated: Taichi, T’ai Chi, Taiji, Taiqi) is widely disputed among various schools and between the realms of Western academia and Eastern lore. Some say its a martial art, some say a dance for good health; still others insist it is the invention of a monk who observed a snake and a crane fighting; and still some believe – like many mysterious things – that TaiChi was Heaven-sent. While the popular and practical history places TaiChi at the hands of martial artists in the early 17th century, this is largely because an adaptation to and exploitation of a much older Spiritual Meditation system became known by a similar name.
Having been formally and traditionally trained in this ancient Spiritual Practice known as TaiChi Tao (Supreme-Boundless Way), I know very well that the Spiritual Practice long predates the martial art that flourished in the latter half of the last millennium. I know this not only because it is the traditional TaiChi Tao perspective, but also because the practice that came to be known as TaiChi is highly and effectively Transformational, and this Transformational quality – this participatory examination of Universal Energetics – reveals in a very lucid way the truly ancient and Foundational Properties of the Practice. Furthermore, this Spiritual and metaphysical Realization is very well documented in ancient texts, if one understands their meaning. But because TaiChi Tao is very challenging to understand, and can really only be Understood experientially, modern scholars and eccentric philosophers – who would seldom know Tao from their cliché Chinese antiques and imported teas – miss the real significance of the texts and their higher, and often hidden, meaning. Yet the fact is – and it is undeniable even from the most scholarly scrutiny – that TaiChi is a very well discussed topic of China’s most ancient texts. I will give a few examples of this later in this post. But let’s start from the beginning – one that doesn’t involve snakes and cranes, or dragons imparting mystics with magical scrolls.
Thousands of years before TaiChi got its name, powerful meditation practices were being developed and explored throughout the ancient world, predominately in areas known today as China, Tibet, Nepal, and northern India – later to spread throughout Asia and even into the Middle East. Such practices eventually spawned profound meditation systems that have since led to the Enlightenment of countless Spiritual seekers. Many of these precious methodologies were lost to time as societies and cultural patterns shifted their focus toward worldly conquests. What fortunately remains today are the treasures of Yoga, Tibetan and Zen Buddhist meditation practices, Buddhist and Taoist Tantra practices, and Taoist meditation practices – including TaiChi, Chi-Gong (氣功) and Tao-Gong (道功).
Due to the underlying Universality implicit to virtually all meditation methods, it is impossible to point to a definitive date for the creation of the practice we today call TaiChi. The practice evolved from earlier meditation methodologies and philosophies in such a way that one can scarcely suggest that TaiChi began as a system independent from its predecessors.
Long before the practice of TaiChi was formalized publicly, distinguishing it from other methodologies, wise magi in ancient China – called Taoists (道家) – adapted the Energetic Principles of Meditation to specific postures and movements combined with intense introspection. Based on the resultant observations and eventual reward of Spiritual Enlightenment, the system came to be called Prenatal Meditation (Xian Tian Chi-Gong, 先天氣功) – as the practice returns the practitioner to an experiential Knowledge of the Source condition: the fundamental, fractal process through which all complex life takes form prior to physical birth, or even prior to conception.
Later still (no one knows exactly when), this practice would be identified as The Thirteen Power Postures (Shi-san Shi, 十三式) – relating to the thirteen principle expressions of the Center, which ultimately give rise to all form and movement (something virtually all ancient cultures of wisdom expressed, usually geometrically, for example: Plato’s Platonic Solids, ancient Egyptian principles of harmonic proportion, the Sri Yantra of Hinduism, the Tree of Life in Kabbala, or the secrets of the Merkabah, as pointed to repeatedly in the Hebrew texts of the Holy Bible and practiced in scarce methodologies of Christian Mysticism). It is this Thirteen Power Posture methodology that would eventually evolve into the practice known as TaiChi (and thereafter be known primarily in the context of martial arts). To put it plainly, the practice we today call TaiChi was studied in it’s root format long before the name “TaiChi” was applied to this practice.
The common misconception today is that TaiChi originated as a martial art – a kind of “gentle” Kung fu. Most TaiChi schools maintain that the art was created by a Taoist monk named Master Chang San-feng (師張三丰) at the infamous Wu-tang Mountain Temple (武當山), sometime thereabouts the 13th century. And modern historians often argue that the existence of TaiChi, as it is most commonly known today, is not verifiable until its systematization as a martial art baring the name TaiChi Chuan (太極拳) in the early 17th century. This system is accredited to Master Chen Wang-ting (師陳王庭) and later became distinguished as Chen style TaiChi Chuan (陳式 太極拳) – and is still perpetuated today by the Chen family. Chen style TaiChi Chuan is in fact the foundation of most TaiChi Chuan styles, most notably, Yang style (楊氏), Wu style (吳氏), Wu/Hao style (武氏), and Sun style (孫氏) – which themselves have given rise to various offshoot systems. Most TaiChi practiced today worldwide stems from one or more of these TaiChi Chuan systems.
While our much more ancient TaiChi Tao (太極道) Meditation system – often called “Temple style TaiChi” – is also powerfully applicable as a martial art, it is somewhat erroneous to compare TaiChi Tao to any TaiChi Chuan system. The Chinese (Mandarin) word, “Chuan,” (拳) literally means, “fist,” suggesting that martial prowess is the art’s primary aim. While TaiChi Chuan and TaiChi Tao seem rather similar at first glance, the principle aim of the two is actually quite different. TaiChi Tao is a complete lifestyle practice and centers its primary focus on nothing less than attaining longevity, Enlightenment and Spiritual Transformation, while TaiChi Chuan traditionally focuses mainly on the development of fighting skill.
This is not to say that TaiChi Chuan is not potentially developmental as a Spiritual practice. In fact, the powerful meditative attributes of TaiChi – when understood correctly – eventually bring the dedicated TaiChi Chuan practitioner to an understanding of the art’s Spiritual components. The famous TaiChi Chuan patriarch, Master Yang Lu-chan (師杨露禅, 1799-1872) – founder of Yang style TaiChi Chuan – appended a footnote to a famous TaiChi text written by Master Chang San-feng almost six hundred years earlier:
“This treatise was left by the patriarch Chang San-feng of Wu-tang Mountain, with a desire toward helping able people everywhere achieve longevity, and not merely as a means to martial skill.” (ca. 1865CE, Yang Lu-chan, 杨露禅, appendix to: TaiChi Ching, 太極經, Chang San-feng, 張三丰)
Most notable is that Master Yang’s use of the word “longevity” has a double meaning. The term, “longevity” is frequented in Taoism as implying both physical and Spiritual Longevity – or Eternal Life, in Western terminology. This is a very interesting statement coming from a man so adept at martial skill that he earned the nickname, Yang Wu Di (楊無敵, Yang the Invincible). Master Yang was indeed a powerful martial artist, purportedly never loosing a match. Although his reputation awarded him many challengers, Master Yang was known to never seriously injure any of them – thus demonstrating not only his high-level martial prowess, but also the compassion and humbleness he had cultivated as a result of his practice. Master Yang clearly attained a high-level of Spiritual insight from his study of TaiChi.
Indeed Master Chang San-feng himself – being a Taoist monk – transmitted TaiChi as a Spiritual methodology, both to his students and in his writing. The second verse of his treatise reads:
“The Chi should be extended, vibrated like the beat of a drum. The Spirit should be condensed toward the Center of your being.” (TaiChi Ching, 太極經, Chang San-feng, 張三丰, ca. 1200CE)
Unfortunately, due to turbulent periods of political and social unrest in China, the powerful martial application of TaiChi was urgently needed. Gradually, the highly esoteric Spiritual and metaphysical aspects of the practice became more or less ignored by the public as the demand for defense increased. As time went on, the practice of TaiChi – even as a martial art – degraded further as prominent teachers refused to impart the internal secrets of the practice to all but a few very select students – either as a means of insuring that the martial power of TaiChi was not misused, or to protect the livelihood of their teaching careers. Additionally, because of the mysterious nature of TaiChi, many charlatans – as well as folks who simply did not fully understand the practice – steadily stepped in to fill the demand for TaiChi, which had by this time become a cultural trend. As a result, a severely watered-down version of TaiChi practice has propagated among the masses for the past three hundred years. As this public practice became fashionable as a physical exercise and a fixture of Chinese heritage, authentic TaiChi became evermore obscure – surviving today among but a relatively small handful of dedicated, and very lucky, practitioners.
Fortunately, whilst the vast majority of TaiChi Chuan inevitably went the way of degradation, devoted Taoists monks, nuns and wandering magi preserved the TaiChi Tao Practice intact. This preservation includes not only the martial aspect, but more importantly the Spiritual, philosophical, medicinal/reconciliatory and metaphysical aspects as well. Because of these dedicated, sincere Spiritual practitioners, who remained reclusive in mountain temples – never teaching the system publicly – the entire TaiChi Tao way of life was maintained largely unchanged from its ancient roots.
Quite unlike TaiChi Chuan, the sacred TaiChi Tao system includes not only the unique moving-meditation practice of TaiChi, but also various mystical, devotional, contemplative and renunciation practices, as well as potent Chi Gong and Tao Gong practices – none of which were ever considered separate from authentic TaiChi Tao. TaiChi Tao (the Supreme-Boundless Way) is a fully integrated system, irreducible from its parts. To separate the Moving-Meditation practice of TaiChi from other components would be like reducing Zen Buddhism to just sitting meditation and nothing more – no Dharma, no teachings of Buddha, no Sangha, no philosophy, etc. It would be like pointing to the fragrant beauty of a flower, but denying the seed, the root and the stem that support it.
We see a similar conundrum with the practice of Yoga today. From a very narrow perspective, it is arguable that the basic practice of Yoga – distinguished today as Hatha Yoga (physical postures, breath-work and meditation) – originated in the 15th century with Swami Swatamarama’s Hatha Yoga Pradipika. However, any knowledgeable Yogi will contend that the principles of the Yoga practice are outlined and expounded much earlier, in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – a text originating thereabouts the 2nd century BCE. True to form, even earlier texts discuss Yoga in its Spiritual and philosophical applications; the Hindu holy text, the Bhagavad-Gita (ca. 400BCE), offers eighteen chapters on Yoga and its meaning; and even earlier texts, the Upanishads, discuss Yoga principles as early as the 6th century BCE – or even much earlier, depending on who you ask. To separate the modern practice of Yoga from its ancient roots is to destroy what makes the practice Yoga to begin with.
Like Yoga (meaning Supreme-Unity), TaiChi (meaning Supreme-Boundless) cannot be reduced to just a physical practice of postures and movements. It is incorrect as well even to claim a meditative aspect to the practice without a rigorous endeavor at understanding the core philosophy, methodology and Energetic potency. Without the complete system, TaiChi hardly lives up to its name – Supreme-Boundless.
TaiChi Tao – as a practice and a lifestyle – incorporates and embodies the high ideals of its Taoist founders. Truly this is an ancient practice, expounded in lucid detail long before TaiChi was popularly applied as a martial art. The philosophical understanding of TaiChi – encompassing the two extremes of Yin (陰) and Yang (陽) into a single sphere of discourse – is a term equivalent to Tao (道, meaning [the Great] Way). In fact, the symbol known commonly in the West as the Yin/Yang Diagram is actually called TaiChi-tu (太極圖, or Taijitu, Diagram of the Supreme-Boundless). The TaiChi-tu is the symbol not only for the TaiChi practice, but also for Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and several martial art practices from all over Asia, even the Korean flag – clearly demonstrating the ancient root influences of TaiChi wisdom.
As early as the 11th century BCE, the term TaiChi is illustrated as a principle teaching in the I-Ching (易經, Book of Changes), predating even the term Tao as expounded by Lao Tzu (老子) in the Tao Te Ching (道德經, Book of the Great Way) written thereabouts the 6th century BCE. Throughout the entire book, Lao Tzu continuously expresses the TaiChi Principles and describes the Supreme-Boundless state. In fact, there is not one single chapter of the 81 that does not define TaiChi Tao – paradoxically, against even Lao Tzu’s own credo; for he understood very well that without actual practice and guidance, it is not possible to fully appreciate his teachings merely from a philosophical perspective.
“The Great Way is like a bellows: it is empty yet infinitely capable. The more you use it, the more it produces; the more you try to explain it, the less you understand.” (Lao Tzu, 老子, Tao Te Ching, 道德經, chapter 5, ca. 500BCE)
In the 4th century BCE, the Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu (莊子) defined TaiChi in compliment to Liuji (六極) – the six cardinal directions from the Center that give rise to all form (upward/downward, forward/backward, right-side/left-side – each whose origin is the Center. In our modern Western understanding, we would refer to these as the three spacial dimensions). In fact, in a flavorful and allegorical manner, the Chuang Tzu texts describe in considerable detail the state and Revelations Realized within the TaiChi Practice. This becomes apparent to anyone who Truly Understands the profound nature of Moving Meditation through TaiChi Tao.
“The Accomplished Master rides the winds, traveling to the edge of the Universe unimpeded, and returns in the right-timing. Seeking Purity he knows no limitation. Never needing to lift his feet, he moves in the way of cycles, for he has risen through the Natural Awareness of Heaven and Earth, carried on the Six Fundamental Directions (Luiji), the Odyssey of the Supreme-Boundlessness (TaiChi). Because he is Sustained, he depends on Nothing (Wuji).”(Chuang Tzu, 莊子, ca. 300BCE)
Such texts are simply impossible to Truly Understand without serious, ongoing and dedicated training in an authentic Transformational Meditation Practice under the proper guidance of a qualified Master. When Chuang Tzu says, “…rides the winds,” it is a poetic way of illustrating a quality of experience wherein the practitioner Transcends the body to experientially “ride” on the Energy – often likened to wind – produced in Deep Meditation, analogous to being “…carried on the Six Fundamental Directions.” This Power Ebbs and Flows, Expanding and Returning in a coordinated manner, or “right-timing” – a reference to wave-length, in modern terminology. Within such a state of Pure Mind, the Practitioner literally experiences a Fundamental Limitlessness that is the Essential Nature of True Being and of Ultimate Reality. “Never needing to lift his feet, he moves in the way of cycles,” is a specific reference to the cyclic Single-Form-Moving-Meditation methodology inherent to the TaiChi Tao Practice (please see my practice videos as an example of this). So too is the term “Natural Awareness,” and the maxim “Heaven and Earth” regularly used terms in the TaiChi Practice – irrespective of the specific school or tradition. Moreover, these terms illustrate not merely a fantastical philosophical precept, but an Accomplishment of Practice that provides an actual quality of Natural Awareness within the interplay of the Fundamental Forces known as Heaven Power and Earth Power. More obvious, such a Master is Sustained in this Supreme-Boundlessness, and therefore, depends on Nothing – which is both No-thing and the Center of the All (Wuji).
In the 2nd century BCE, a text called Huainan Tzu (淮南子, The Masters of Huainan) discuses TaiChi in a context of a Zhēnrén (真人, Enlightened/True person) who perceives from a “Supreme-Boundlessness.” The text goes on to describe the power of such a person:
“Were it within one’s power to gather from within TaiChi, one could immediately produce both fire and water. This is because Yin and Yang share a common Chi (氣, Life-Energy) and move each other.” (Huainan Tzu, 淮南子, ca. 150 BCE)
In the mid 11th century – still a few hundred years earlier than the commonly recognized origin of TaiChi Chuan – a highly regarded philosopher named Chou Tun-i (周敦頤) wrote a text called TaiChi-tu shuo (太極圖說, Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme-Boundless). This text – illuminating the highest principle of TaiChi – asserted the Universality within Taoism and Buddhism. The text became the cornerstone of Neo-Confucianist cosmology, and further heralds the findings of modern quantum physics.
“TaiChi in activity generates Yang; yet at the limit of activity it is still. In stillness TaiChi generates Yin; yet at the limit of stillness it is also active. Activity and stillness alternate; each is the basis of the other. In distinguishing Yin and Yang, the Two Modes are thereby established… …Yin and Yang are simply TaiChi; TaiChi is fundamentally Nothingness (Wuji, 無極).” (TaiChi-tu shuo, 太極圖說, Chou Tun-I, 周敦頤, ca. 1050AD)
The Supreme-Boundless Way was, and still is, the Taoist Way; it was the Way of the seekers of Truth and Light far earlier than anyone knows for sure. The modern Taoist, Grandmaster Waysun Liao (大師 廖渭山) – among the eldest surviving recipients of this sacred tradition, and the world’s foremost authority on Alchemical Taoism and the practice of traditional TaiChi Tao – rightly attests:
“TaiChi has a heritage that spans more than four thousand years.” (Tai Chi Classics, Translation with Commentary, Waysun Liao, 廖渭山, preface p. IX, Shambhala Publications, 1977)
Not even the most learned historian can argue that TaiChi has been at least a core philosophy that shaped the Chinese cultural pattern for the past few millenniums – finding its way into art, music, calligraphy, medicinal sciences, astrology, literature, poetry, and even cooking. TaiChi permeated the culture in such a way that the TaiChi Tao Masters – those men and women who exemplified a pure understanding of TaiChi – were, and still are, regarded as the ultimate symbol of wisdom.
In the past few hundred years, as the TaiChi exercise became evermore popular in China among the aristocracy and the common people alike, TaiChi Tao remained a privilege of Spiritual Seekers of the utmost dedication and integrity. In order to receive this Holy Teaching, these devoted men and women would leave behind the illusory security of common life and pledge their Mind, Heart and Soul to following this Supreme-Boundless Way. Unfortunately, however, with the lustrous allure of industrialization, materialism, and the murderous and destructive oppression of communist China, the TaiChi Tao system has suffered to near extinction, while a degraded, public version of the practice still enjoys popularity among the masses.
In the early 1970’s, the renowned, temple-trained Taoist, Master Waysun Liao, brought TaiChi Tao into the Western World for the first time. He has since instructed more than twelve thousand students worldwide and inspired countless more with his books and DVD publications. In fact, his first book, “Tai Chi Classics,” Translation and Commentary by Waysun Liao, is likely the most sold book on TaiChi the word over. Thanks to him, authentic TaiChi Tao is alive and well. Ironically, what began in China thousands of years ago, is now flourishing in the West – and being taught by several qualified instructors given the honor of Mastery by now Grandmaster Waysun Liao.
In an effort to share the TaiChi Tao Teachings, I have established the SevenSuns TaiChi organization, and offer training seminars and intensives world-wide — reaching students in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, India and Brazil. It is my Mission under Tao to present this ancient and Sacred Teaching with an approach that is accessible to the modern Spiritual Seeker and all those wishing to explore their innate potential as human beings.
“It is when a person becomes serious in the study of TaiChi that the search for the authentic art, the TaiChi Tao, begins. One can only then appreciate the courage and dedication of the Masters who have preserved the line of TaiChi Tao down through the centuries. This is our heritage.”
-Grandmaster Waysun Liao 大師 廖渭山
(Tai Chi Classics, Translation with Commentary, Waysun Liao,
p. 15, Shambhala Publications, 1977)
For more information about the history of TaiChi, please read:
Also, see our website and visit our Center at the beautiful Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
The following are videos explaining the Universal Energetics inherent to an Awareness of the Center and Its Fundamental Dynamics. The TaiChi Tao Practice is a Transformational tool by which to Understand this phenomenon.