Taoism and T’ai Chi – Written November 30, 2001

Taoism and T’ai Chi are two of three “lost religions” of China. The other is Confucianism which, though similar to Taoism, is not nearly as related to T’ai Chi. T’ai Chi and Taoism, on the other hand, compliment each other very well.

Tao simply means “The Way.” Taoism is a name given to a sequence of thoughts and actions that get a person to a harmonious state of being. The Tao Te Ching is considered “The Bible” of Taoism. It was written by Lao-Tzu and is the world’s second most translated book.1 The book is a series of eighty-one of Lao-Tzu’s thoughts. Each thought has a message which helps lead the reader to discover Tao.

The first line of the Tao Ti Ching is, “A way can be a guide, but not a fixed path; names can be given, but not permanent labels.”2 If one can fully understand this statement, that person can understand everything about Taoism. However, I doubt even Lao-Tzu knew all of what he talked about. The message of Taoism is simple, though it is said in many different ways.

The part of the Tao Ti Ching that is one of the best is segment nineteen. It is as follows:

Eliminate sagacity, abandon knowledge,

And the people benefit a hundredfold.

Eliminate humanitarianism, abandon duty,

And the people return to familial love.

Eliminate craft, abandon profit,

And theft will no longer exist.

These three become insufficient

When used for embellishment

Causing there to be attachments.

See the basic,

Embrace the unspoiled,

Lessen selfishness,

Eliminate desire.3

There are many different things being said in this passage. Lao-Tzu starts off showing how the growth of society has begotten its potential eventual destruction. At the end, however, he turns it all around and shows how, if these things are eliminated, Tao will be accomplished. This teaches that the things that are unaltered by others are the best things to have near you. However, if the person alters these unaltered things, they will move away from Tao. The key is to become unaltered, do not alter anything else, and just exist among everything, not needing or wanting for anything.

This concept is one that is common in many Eastern religions, including Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Another common topic is passage sixty-three. Many similarities can be drawn to the Hindu “neti, neti” concept. The passage is as follows:

Do nondoing,

Strive for nonstriving,

Savor the flavorless,

Regard the small as important,

Make much of little,

Repay enmity with virtue;

Plan for difficulty when it is still easy,

Do the great while it is still small.

The most difficult things in the world

Must be done while they are easy;

The greatest things in the world

Must be done when they are small.

Because of this sages never do great things,

That is why they fulfill their greatness.

If you agree too easily, you will be little trusted.

If you take it easy a lot, you’ll have a lot of problems.

Therefore it is through difficulty

That sages end up with problems.4

Simply put, that statement describes how to live Tao once it has been achieved. Calvin Kline made a fragrance a few years back called “CK Be.” Their slogan was “Just be…” That sums up most of this statement, though there is a direct message of distaste for procrastination.

The best statement in the entire book is passage eighty-one. It sums up Tao, how to achieve it, and what to do when one does achieve it. It is as follows:

True words are not beautiful,

Beautiful words are not true.

The good are not argumentative,

The argumentative are not good.

Knowers do not generalize,

Generalists do not know.

Sages do not accumulate anything

But they give everything to others,

Having more than they give.

The Way to Heaven

Helps and does not harm.

The Way for humans

Is to act without contention.5

It is hard to really delve into this as thoroughly as one might like, mainly because of how incredibly interpretive this statement is, especially the last statement. To “act without contention” is next to impossible. The key is to read the whole Tao Ti Ching. Simply put, Tao is acquired, not bought or even learned. A few years ago, a movie called The Matrix came out. The entire movie relates to Taoism so well that it must be presented here. At one point, Neo (the main character who is supposed to be “The One,” another concept covered in Taoism) meets with an oracle who is to tell his future. She gives him information, but the most important thing she tells him is a simple one. A sign that hangs above the door reads, “Temet Nosce.” She tells him that it means “Know Thyself.”6 That statement is Taoism in its purest form. If one knows himself, then he has no reason to learn anymore, but is comfortably full of all the knowledge that is prevalent to his life. He also does not desire to teach, for then he would affect other beings and step off Tao. Tao is about the individual and his/her relation to his/herself and his/her environment.

The definition of T’ai Chi is “the ultimate.” T’ai Chi is both a martial art as well as a state of mind. It is not a necessary part of Taoism, nor is Taoism a necessary part of T’ai Chi, but they are normally associated with each other. The base concept is what really relates the two. This concept is called “Yin and Yang.”

The goal of each student of T’ai Chi is to achieve a harmonious state with all things (just like Taoism). When “One reaches the ultimate level, or develops in that direction, by means of the ladder of balanced powers and their natural motions – Yin, the negative power (yielding), and Yang, the positive power (action). From the viewpoint of this theory, it is the interplay of constructive and destructive forces that causes the essence of life to materialize, the material world to manifest. And the spiraling movements of these forces seem endless.”7

The concept of Yin and Yang has aggravated Western Civilization since the Europeans discovered it. Since science can not prove it, it is hard for them to accept. However, it is also not disprovable, but only because almost nothing is really disprovable. What is generally believed about claims (in the scientific world) is that the person who announces the claim is not responsible to prove that claim, rather, the person that disagrees must disprove the claim. Generally, if the claim is not disprovable, it is accepted as a theory. This is not the only concept that irks most scientists.

Four commonly-heard words in T’ai Chi as a martial art are “Chi,” “Jing,” “Shen,” and “Li.” Once again, they can not be proved or disproved as they are believed to be beyond actual mortal existence, just as Yin and Yang are. Simply put, Chi is energy that surrounds and binds all things. Jing is the power that is generated from Chi. Shen is the spirit. It is also the hardest part to master, and feels very different from Chi or Jing. Li is the physical force that is created by Jing. Chi, Jing, Shen, and Li are very difficult concepts to grasp. In order to be precise and make sure that these concepts are clear, an easy analogy can be made.8

Imagine a sailboat on a body of water. The wind is Chi, the velocity of the wind is Jing, the movement of the boat is Li, and the captain of the boat is Shen. It is impossible to control Chi, one must simply attempt to hold on to as much of it as possible. The Jing is varied depending on the conditions, but the Chi is always there. Li occurs when the Chi and Jing are harnessed and put to good use. And Shen directs all of the controllable variables that occur.

The process of discovering/realizing one’s Chi is called “cultivation.” To cultivate one’s Chi, one must practice the “T’ai Chi Meditative Movement.” This is more commonly known as T’ai Chi-Chuan. T’ai Chi-Chuan covers all aspects of the physical facet of T’ai Chi, from meditation to the martial art.

To describe the T’ai Chi-Chuan and the Meditative Movement is extremely difficult. Simply put, Chi and Jing are realized and turned into Li. The Shen develops as the rest of the powers develop. The physical aspect of T’ai Chi is difficult and also very simplistic. It is practiced extremely slowly while one meditates. However, it is considered by most all great martial artists to be the most powerful of the martial arts.

Similarities are great among the two religions. Both believe that thought and the mind are foremost in the control of one’s life and destiny. They also both consider pacifism to be the best policy, as do most Eastern religions. Both are very individual religions; each can be learned and practiced without a specific group, figurehead or leader. Another interesting concept among both is that there is no worship or even a belief in any “god” figure. Both believe in the Yin and Yang, and each regards that to be the great power in the universe, which has existed before time was time. However, unlike most religions, Yin and Yang is not worshiped, but absorbed and understood. Whereas most religions are about joining the “life substance” (God, Yahweh, Allah, or otherwise) somewhere, Taoism and T’ai Chi attempt to become one with the “life substance” (Yin and Yang).

Taoism and T’ai Chi are two different things. Though they are separate religions, they compliment and cooperate with each other. The Yin and Yang concept comes into play here again, because the physical can not exist without the mental, Taoism and T’ai Chi are different things that go together as perfectly as Yin and Yang.

1 Rasmussen, Jeff. Taoism, Tao Te Ching, Zen Buddhism. [Referenced 20 November 2001]. http://www.symynet.com/tao_te_ching/.

2 Cleary, Thomas. The Taoist Classics; Volume I. Shambhala Productions, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. 1994. Page 11.

3 Cleary, Thomas. The Taoist Classics; Volume I. Shambhala Productions, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. 1994. Page 18.

4 Cleary, Thomas. The Taoist Classics; Volume I. Shambhala Productions, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. 1994. Page 38.

5 Cleary, Thomas. The Taoist Classics; Volume I. Shambhala Productions, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. 1994. Page 47.

6 Matrix, The. AOL/Time/Warner Film Productions, Hollywood, California. 1999.

7 Laio, Waysun. T’ai Chi Classics. Shambhala Productions, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. 1990. Page 5.

8 Laio, Waysun. T’ai Chi Classics. Shambhala Productions, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. 1990. Pages 18-19.


Authentic Breathing Exercises. [Referenced 20 November 2001]. http://www.authentic-breathing.com/.

Cleary, Thomas. The Taoist Classics; Volume I. Shambhala Productions, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. 1994.

Laio, Waysun. T’ai Chi Classics. Shambhala Productions, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. 1990.

Lao-Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Translated by Steven Mitchell. Harper & Row, Publishers, New York. 1988.

Major World Religions, The. [Referenced 23 November 2001]. http://www.omsakthi.org/religions.html.

Matrix, The. AOL/Time/Warner Film Productions, Hollywood, California. 1999.

Hutchinson, John A. Paths of Faith. Mc-Graw-Hill, Inc., New York. 1991.

Philosophical Taoism as Lao Tzu Professed, The. [Referenced 15 November 2001]. http://www.tao-ism.com/.

Rasmussen, Jeff. Taoism, Tao Te Ching, Zen Buddhism. [Referenced 20 November 2001]. http://www.symynet.com/tao_te_ching/.

Taoism. [Referenced 24 November 2001]. http://altreligion.about.com/cs/taoism/index.htm?iam=savvy&terms=%2Btaoism.

Taoism. [Referenced 9 November 2001]. http://www.csuchico.edu/%7Echeinz/syllabi/fall99/hundoble/.

Taoism, or The Way. [Referenced 5 November 2001]. http://www.askasia.org/frclasrm/readings/r000005.htm.

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