What is T'ai Chi Ch'uan?
By Robert Amacker, 1999
For those who practice T’ai Chi Ch’uan on a regular basis, the answer to this question is simple: it is what they practice. The fact that T’ai Chi Ch’uan has an esoteric reputation makes it an easy receptacle for any number of studies, all of which can claim some pedigree in connection with so-called “inner schools” of boxing. Students of T’ai Chi Ch’uan defend these practices with the fervor of religious zealots. For this reason it is difficult to address any collection of experienced listeners without becoming mired in endless debates over technicalities, ninety percent of which are without real substance.
This has been seriously aggravated by the popularity of the art, making well-meaning fools into “masters.” It is difficult to fault even the most mercenary of these teachers, because what they are spreading is generally without harm and frequently connected to teachings of genuine worth. Yet the over-all result has been to make the deeper teachings of T’ai Chi Ch’uan ever more difficult to find. Even when found, they often go unnoticed because they require an exceptional student to master, and now must also compete with a confusing myriad of imitations.
Besides these catachismic confusions, there are very real reasons why the more profound teachings of T’ai Chi Ch’uan will always remain known to the very few. Principle among these is the fact that the requirement for their understanding is the development of a real and highly difficult physical skill. Despite the popularity of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, this is an obstacle which can never be avoided, and its presence will be a constant stimulation for the promulgation of “simplified” and “accelerated” courses in the art.
With these problems in mind, I would like to discuss T’ai Chi Ch’uan from the perspective of a martial art, as it is here that its most profound teaching emerges, on a philosophical level. To look at this, we must separate it from its medical and overtly philosophical elements. These elements, interesting as they are, do not yield the ultimate fruit of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
Probably the least productive is the overt linking of philosophy to T’ai Chi Ch’uan. In fact T’ai Chi is simply the Chinese word for the symbol of yin and yang, and it indeed represents the ultimate principle of Chinese Philosophy (accounting for the frequent and mostly unintentional hubris of T’ai Chi Ch’uan’s translation as “Great Ultimate Boxing”). To assert this art’s connection with such well traveled intellectual territory, and then to travel it once more, is to make little use of the teachings of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
Of much greater utility is the status of T’ai Chi Ch’uan as the highest form of Ch’i Gung, as this leads one to the secrets of meditation, a far more powerful entrance to the world of esoteric wisdom than is the study of philosophy per se. Unfortunately, many practitioners confuse the pursuit of power, albeit “internal” power, with the perfection of martial art. This confusion is more clearly seen in the world of Aikido. There a rift long existed between two schools, one designating itself “with Ki” (a choice of words somewhat reminiscent of “pro-life”), to indicate that its focus was on the meditative “internal” aspect of the art, as opposed to its presumably cruder martial side. Although no clear schools exist as such in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the confusion is the same. I am frequently asked the annoying question of whether I am a “spiritual” T’ai Chi teacher or a “fighting” teacher. The idea that these are permanent polarities is exactly the dichotomy solved by T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and this solution is unfortunately found only in the real practice of the art.
At the heart of the difficulty found by those who pursue power as the key to mastery of T’ai Chi Ch’uan (one smug “master” informed me that he had no use for the advanced stepping techniques of T’ai Chi, since his internal power was so great that no form of external movement was necessary), is that the real secret of the art is not power, but powerlessness. The end run that is made around this fact is through a distinction between “internal” and “external” power. The idea is that through the renunciation of external power a new and magical kind of force will appear. This is actually true, but its nature is of that kind akin to all truly esoteric wisdom: it has no use in the way in which one expected.
This force, when it appears, is a complete surprise to everyone concerned, and disappears just as quickly. There is no relation between this highly sophisticated technique and the kind of shoving matches indulged in by thousands of well-meaning T’ai Chi students. They would be well advised to distrust completely any idea that some kind of force that they produce is dignified as “internal.”
This is not to say that T’ai Chi Ch’uan is not deeply connected with both philosophy and “internal power,” historically, if sometimes by no other measure. But these things exist independently of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. It has as well an aspect that is totally unique, supremely Taoist in nature, and unattainable through either philosophy or meditation. Most schools frankly never touch upon what is truly definitive of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, because they are completely preoccupied with what amounts to preparations for T’ai Chi. Things like rooting, centering, suspended head-top, circulation of ch’i, proper breathing, etc., all are necessary for correct practice, but are not practice in themselves. Even the practice of the form is a preparation for real T’ai Chi, a place where all of the aforementioned techniques may be unified.
Only in the addressing of the problem of double-weight does the first real use of the T’ai Chi principle emerge. Unfortunately, it is almost always directed to the use of the legs, where its application is highly complex. In fact, the elimination of double-weight in the legs results naturally from the proper separation of substantial and insubstantial in the body as a whole.
Generations of teachers have echoed the same litany: that the secret of T’ai Chi Ch’uan lies in the proper separation of substantial and insubstantial. It is important to understand that this principle must pervade not only in the body of the practitioner, but in his relationship to his opponent as well. This is the skill of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and until one is actively doing this in a clear and externally visible way, no matter how powerful, enlightened, or physically graceful one might be, he is not doing T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
This principle is not difficult to grasp in the abstract, but a direct application to movement is so difficult that many avoid confronting it. Given the application of any external force, one is obliged to create a system that includes this force and contains two additional elements. The obvious element is the return of force, which by definition must exactly equal or balance, if you will, the incoming force. Such a force presumes the more invisible element of the system, a stable center. By this we mean that, if these forces can ever be said to be equivalent, there must be some point from which their movements are completely symmetric. If we allow this point to drift aimlessly, we accomplish very little, because in any movement of two forces there is always some point from which they are instantaneously symmetric. Only by keeping this point stable can we create a proper t’ai chi. This is stated in the apocryphal classics of T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Lost T’ai Chi Classics of the Ch’ing Dynasty, by Douglas Wylie) as: “The circle of return is easy, but most difficult is the maintenance of the central earth.” The “central earth” referred to is in fact the stable center, or fulcrum of the force.
It should be stated here that while this use of the T’ai Chi principle is critical and definitive of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, it is of course used, both consciously and unconsciously, by myriads of martial arts. Simple lectures on the principle of leverage are in fact lectures on T’ai Chi. It has indeed been my observation that this principle lies at the heart of all individual greatness in most martial arts, and that some of the better practitioners of various “hard” styles do in fact better T’ai Chi than many self-styled “masters” of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
What makes this art so unique is the degree to which it carries this principle to its ultimate use, finally turning over every boxing decision to it. It is this broad and total use, this exclusion of any other influence upon one’s action, which makes T’ai Chi Ch’uan what it is, a kind of monotheistic Taoism. This directive exerts itself in a most oppressive way, through the traditional insistence that students of T’ai Chi Ch’uan give up completely the practice of any other martial art. This is generally and understandably interpreted in most quarters as simple snobbishness. Most martial arts tout themselves as complete and total systems, requiring no other study, while most martial artists see little harm in adding new techniques to their repertoire, like stockpiling weapons. With T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and the most traditional Chinese forms of boxing, there is a real reason for this monotheistic approach.
In any fight, whether it is controlled sparring or mortal combat, the quickness of one’s responses is paramount. It should be obvious that even the greatest boxing technique cannot be applied if one has already been defeated. Given the presence of any threat, anything that slows one’s response to that threat is a danger. Having to choose between two or more possible responses has a definite slowing effect. For this reason, it has been long been known to street fighters (that is, those whose only training is in real fights) that training in karate or some other martial art has the initial effect of diminishing their skill. Now, instead of the simple and well practiced responses of their past, they suddenly remember their new stances and techniques, producing a hesitation which causes their defeat.
The original forms of the Shaolin Temple were all based on animal consciousness. This meant a deliberate imitation of the physical movements of a certain animal, but more importantly, a consistent adherence to the animal’s consciousness. This single-mindedness, in itself a form of meditation, replaces the complex human mind with a much simpler and more primitive one, undistracted by the affairs of higher human thought. It is a kind of role-playing, but one backed up by enormous somatic reprogramming, giving it an authority that even the greatest actor could never hope to achieve.
Nonetheless, students were allowed to master more than one style, more than one animal. There was the implicit assumption that one could switch consciousness completely, that the character of the various animals was so divergent that confusion would not occur. If true, this indicates the exact depth to which the somatic programming process penetrated. The boxer, while involved in any particular style, could be reasonably sure that no confusing choices would occur. But at some point before this condition obtains, there must be a choice of style.
The programming of T’ai Chi Ch’uan seeks a deeper level. Rather than utilizing the installation of an animal character, there is an attempt to infect the brain with a simple principle. The consciousness of an animal, however much a simplification of human thought, is still enormously complex compared to this principle. Because of this simplicity, the principle can work on very deep levels, far deeper than the level of conscious choice.
This simple programming produces changes and reactions of incredible complexity, however. This is because the principle, once learned in some simple physical practice, begins to spread through the behavior of the individual until it becomes completely unconscious reaction. This phenomenon is fractal, and produces complexity in exactly the same way that the simple genetic code of a tree can produce an infinite variety of leaf patterns.
To produce this result the unconscious must be secure in the fact that no other criteria for action will ever be employed. If one has the idea that one can use the principle when it is convenient and throw it out when it seems unwise, it will only penetrate to the level to which it has been consciously programed.
How is this principle actively employed? First, the body is separated in one’s mind at the major joints into thirteen parts. One of these parts is the entire torso and head, including the pelvis. This part is made to move as a unit, a sort of egg that should never be deformed. The first object is to make this egg obey the principle. The center of movement is fixed at the tan t’ien (it should be noted that, though there are very good reasons for placing the center of movement at the center of the body’s mass, any point that was fixed would demonstrate the principle). This egg is now made to demonstrate the principle by differentiating itself into substantial and insubstantial, that is, by moving part of itself away from incoming force, and part of itself towards that force. The image created is like a bottle floating in water, tipping back and forth under the influence of wind and waves.
One might call this the original infection. The reprogramming of the torso, involving spinal corrections and a whole new way of moving the legs, has a deep effect on both the movement and the personality of the student. The differentiation of substantial and insubstantial in the legs, addressing the problem of double-weight, can only be done in the context of their proper function, which is to control and effect this differentiation in the torso. This differentiation can be practiced while doing the form or indeed at any time, but it can only be tested and objectively improved by the influence of some outside force.
This could be cultivated simply by direct application of force to the torso, with partners taking turns providing the force, and in fact this forms a part of early training. It is quickly replaced, however, with a more complex connection between the opponents’ arms. It is now that the study of T’ai Chi Ch’uan becomes really difficult. One must learn to create a t’ai chi, the three-element system described earlier, between himself and his opponent, not merely within his own body. Moreover, this proper relationship with the opponent involves the creation of not one, but several t’ai chi relationships. The physical changes necessary to keep this set of balls in the air, so to speak, are formalized in the eight-trigram postures developed by T’ai Chi Ch’uan’s inventor, Chang San-feng.
It must be stressed that each one of these systems is quite literal and external, and students can be caught on the spot the moment any one of them fades from activity. I say activity and not consciousness, because the mind must ultimately not have to consciously concentrate on these matters. The principle must become so deeply ingrained that it is automatically employed on every level of behavior. The method, however, is to turn one’s consciousness from one aspect of training to another until one obtains a balanced, well rounded (no double-meaning intended) skill.
Not only is this a difficult skill, but also it is a completely co-operative act. The t’ai chi systems created are mutual systems, only existing through time because both players seek to maintain them. Any one of the players can at any time completely destroy the continuity of this game, just as a chess player may suddenly knock the pieces from the board. This game could, in fact, be played in principle without any martial intent, but it would have little motivation, like endless volleying in tennis.
This boring state of affairs is prevented by the eight-trigram postures, invented by Chang San-feng. These are not rigid forms, but martial ideas, which evolve naturally from the principle. They are designed to change from one to the other in a fluid fashion, and counter each other in a highly complex version of the old “rock, scissors, paper” game.
A certain paradox of movement ensues which is not obvious to the casual observer. Because of technicalities too involved to mention here, the stability of the centers of the various t’ai chi systems created is directly dependant upon the fluidity of movement around those centers. This means that simple attempts to stabilize the centers will result in trying to hold them steady, which will manifest as trying to stop the free movement of the system as a whole. This causes the center to immediately destabilize and seem to spin out of the players’ grasp. Likewise, a determination to relax and let the system spin, as it were, produces a general laxity and sloppiness, which also destabilizes the center. A peculiar state of mind is finally produced, one which can allow completely free movement even while one is organizing this movement in such a way that points of stability occur. It is a kind of quietness.
The careful attention to these matters produces what is termed a non-zero sum game. A zero sum game is one in which there is always both a winner and a loser (a plus and a minus which add to zero), with the obvious corollary that one can always be a winner simply by making sure that the opponent is a loser. In a non-zero sum game both parties may co-operate for a final result. In politics, for example, running for office is a zero sum game, while (presumably), the actual business of governing is not. As described, the difficulties involved with creating and maintaining these t’ai chi systems point to the necessity for co-operation between the players that is both skilled and dedicated.
And yet the interplay of the eight-trigram postures produces constant changes of martial significance. In every change there is a real threat, a situation that would motivate action without recourse to any principle of movement. The task of the player is to create his response based entirely upon the principle, while observing its martial effect. When both players do this simultaneously, it is almost like a movie, which they watch together. They are involved in a complete abstraction, and yet see its effect acted out as a dramatic life and death struggle.
These are sometimes called the “civil” and the “martial” aspects of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Initially, they serve to distract from one another, the mind seeming to skip back and forth between them. Ultimately, they seem to blend together without contradiction. This in fact is the repeating theme of T’ai Chi Ch’uan practice: on a variety of levels, one separates something into two parts which seem in opposition, but are finally resolved into one coherent system.
For example, we can see that the hand-pushing practice described is a non-zero sum game concealed within a zero sum game. Internally, it is a complex exercise in balance; externally, a fight. It is a kind of fractal Taoism. On the one hand, the balance exercise is in itself a Taoist exercise on the physical, geometric level. On the other, it is only one half of a similar, greater exercise: its balance (and eventual unity) with the martial consciousness. We have found a way to play the two games (zero sum and non-zero sum) simultaneously, making them into one greater game.
It should be obvious that the repetition of this kind of process on so many levels, reinforced by powerful, whole body somatic programming, can have a deep and highly infectious effect. One begins to observe its influence on all levels of behavior and interpersonal relations. But as in the experience of good hand pushing itself, it is like observing. One might find oneself taking a strange and unfamiliar approach to a familiar argument, but never as a conscious attempt to “apply T’ai Chi to daily life,” or to “be a Taoist.” The effects are far more subtle and, sometimes, disturbing. One student, a free-lance musician used to actively hustling his jobs, began to wonder why he wasn’t getting work. Upon inquiry, a friend told him: “We thought you were dead.” Fortunately, this was a comment on his current social invisibility, not his music.
T’ai Chi Ch’uan, when properly studied at a high level, produces Taoism. It is more like a disease than a study of philosophy, and yet it produces philosophy, almost as a kind of excrement, the way that art produces truth. It is behavior modification on an extremely fundamental level, and it is done entirely in the context of the most stressful kind of personal encounter. Rather than alter one’s social behavior according to complex theories, one’s actual physical behavior is altered in a way that eventually effects apparently unrelated societal integration. As one psychotherapist said to me: “This is great; psychotherapy without language.” “It’s even better than that,” I told him. “It’s psychotherapy without psychotherapists.”
Instead of trying to affect psychology through the intellectual application of philosophy, psychology is reorganized on a subliminal level such that it directly models a philosophy. The experience is not one of understanding a philosophy, but of creating it.
In closing, I can only repeat a conversation with another teacher held years ago. He told me that his dream was to teach people philosophy so well they wouldn’t need anyone to teach them T’ai Chi. I replied that my dream was to teach people T’ai Chi so well they wouldn’t need anyone to teach them philosophy.