Buddhism and Tai Chi

English translation of a Chinese article from 世界太极拳网

太极修身为主,兼而修心。Tai Chi mainly cultivates the body, as a result the mind is cultivated.

佛法修心为主,兼辅修身。Buddhism mainly cultivates the mind and as a result the body is cultivated.

The two are complementary and they share the ultimate goal—return to nature. But if you practice Taijiquan for the purpose of becoming skilled and powerful or if you recite mantra in order to gain merit, then in itself the motives are self-centred and do not constitute a return to nature. How then can we achieve the state of supreme ultimate 太极?Here are three points to contemplate:

  1. Stillness

What Tai Chi and Buddhism have in common is that both methods of cultivation start with stillness. Before practicing Taijiquan, you should calm your body, respect your intentions, and relax your whole body; before practicing Buddhism, you should also calm your body and mind, gradually eliminate distractions and abandon any thoughts of desire.


Why does it start from stillness?

老子说:夫物芸芸,各复归其根,归根曰静,是谓复命。Lao Tzu said: “Every human being will return to his roots, to regain stillness as if being reborn.”

重为轻根,静为躁君。(厚重是轻率的根本,静定是躁动的主宰) “Heaviness is the root of lightness, stillness is the force behind restlessness.”

Lao Tzu claims stillness is the primordial state of life where one is able to know one’s true self, to return to nature and to resist the distractions of the world at large. As far as the mind is concerned, stillness is closer to its innate nature. Taijiquan allows you to 化掉本力dissolve your strength and return to your natural state of being; Buddhism dispels your illusions and awakens your Buddha nature.

Everyone is a grandmaster but due to the perpetual motion of the limbs in everyday life, we have become stiff and unable to relax when encountering external forces. Everyone is a Buddha, but we are caught up in this world. In order to accumulate knowledge, we never stop learning and developing our own brains, we have become tense because we can’t stop thinking. So we need to stop, we need to relax, and becoming still is the first thing to do.

  1. How to be still

Some say if you want to be still, you must first have a quiet mind, what they don’t know is that just this thought alone can wreak havoc in our mind. We are so accustomed to thinking from day to night, like a river that never stops flowing, it has become a habitual pattern like our second nature (just like breathing). Although we think constantly around the clock, we do not have awareness around it. When time comes for us to be quiet, we find that our mind is too ruffled and we are unable to calm down.

Nan Huai-chin once compared this to: “For example, in a house, you usually can’t see the dust, but when the sun shines through, you find dust dancing in the light. You should neither clean it nor find a way to get rid of the dust. As long as you don’t move, you don’t increase or decrease the dust, then the dust will become still and eventually stop flying.”

Therefore, stillness is not adding a thought; the mind and body is just like a container—not moving, it comes to a point of stillness.

3. Movement after stillness

Just being still is not enough to cultivate the Tao. The saying 一阴一阳谓之道”yin and yang is the Tao”, so there has to be movement after stillness. To move is to practice martial arts (Taijiquan and so forth), and to learn the dharma and listen to teachings. 静犹如足赤之金,但质量未必够分量。动犹如千钧之金,但成分未必纯正。Stillness might be pure gold, but it is not without flaw; movement might be like gold that weigh over tonnes, but its composition might not be completely pure.

The reason why you should be still first and then move is because 欲善其事,必先利其器”if you want to do something really well, you need to first sharpen your tools.” 磨刀不误砍柴工Stillness plays the role of sharpening the knife so the effort of chopping the wood is optimized. For example, in “Liao-Fan’s Four Lessons”, Yuan Liaofan asked Master Yun Gu why he did a thousand good deeds for ten years. Master Yun Gu replied that it was because the good deeds were done with rewards in mind, his intentions were impure, and thus, his merits and faults cancel out each other. Therefore, it is in accordance with the laws of nature that one be still before moving in order to achieve optimum results with only half the amount of effort. If you blindly practice Taijiquan or accumulate merits by doing good, without realizing the importance of the nature of mind, then the results will be compromised even with double the amount of effort.

In short, Tai Chi and Buddhism both necessitate a return to nature. Tai Chi is a return to the natural physiological state, that is, 即放松而气敛入骨to relax and allow the chi to permeate the bones; Buddhism is the return to our primordial state and experience the nature of the mind. Cultivating these two practices are equivalent to cultivating life and their power are beyond words.

stillness as return to nature

Tai Chi in Vancouver

Chinese overseas are bound together by notions of collective identity through enactment of a common cultural heritage, such as Tai Chi, that is often stronger than territorial nationalism. In Vancouver, it is not unusual to find Chinese people from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere convening in a unified motion of Tai Chi.

I compiled a list of Tai Chi Schools in the Greater Vancouver Area on Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/JXozANYiWAEso28M7.

Out of the five schools, the two Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi are the ones that openly combine Daoism such as prayers and chanting with the movement practice. The founder, Master Moy Lin Shin’s family moved from Guangdong, China to Hong Kong after the Communist revolution in 1949 and he migrated to Canada in 1970. The other Tai Chi teachers who migrate to Canada from China do not openly promote religious teachings and keep their practices predominantly secular. In comparing the differences of Tai Chi as a religious and secular practice in Canada, there is much to be said about the emergence of a new, deterritorialized identity that emphasizes hybridity and multiple belonging. 

An aspect of Chinese diaspora communities that has been undermined is their self-help ability to rely on their own resources as basic forms of social support. It is their way of overcoming language barriers and cultural gaps in their adopted countries, enabling them to solidify rather than to dissolve into multi-ethnic liberal polities. During the pandemic of COVID-19 in 2020, a lot of Chinese immigrants in Greater Vancouver are taking health into their own hands by turning to Tai Chi. This trend could be the rippling effect of how people are managing the lockdown in China by practising Tai Chi at home and staying healthy. For instance, the Li Rong Academy of Wushu and Qigong have opened new classes since May 2020 catering to Chinese immigrants who only speak Chinese and are keen to improve their physical and mental health through Tai Chi.

It is premature to conclude at this point of my research that religious elements do not weigh as heavy in my discussion of Tai Chi practice among Chinese diaspora in Vancouver. However, on par with the fervour of a religious faith, is what Matti Bunzl (2004) refers to as “deep nostalgia for a world that has disappeared” (6)—the profound yearning for a irrevocable past. There are many things that have been wiped out by the Cultural Revolution in China, but not the memories that human bodies carry, not the heritage that an ethnic culture perpetuates, and certainly not the resilience of the age-old Chinese spirit that uplifts and spreads its people across space and time.

My journey of learning Tai Chi

Four years have gone by since I first took up Tristar Taiji. I came back to Vancouver in October 2015 after being away for ten years. I had then sprained my right wrist. My limbs were always cold and I felt lethargic all the time. I wanted to learn Taiji and Qigong to improve my health. I first took lessons from two instructors. They were teaching the Taiji forms but not the basics. Unsatisfied, I continued my search for the right teacher until I found Li Rong Academy of Wushu and Qigong in September 2016. I will never forget that fateful night I met Master Li Rong for the first time. It was a sense of coming home and I felt instantly drawn to her. During my first class, she only taught me how to stand but I was ecstatic after class that night because I knew my search was over.

时间一晃就过了三年。起初为什么想学太极?2015年10月我隔了十年再回到了温哥华。当时的我右腕损伤,手脚总是冰冷的,气血不足,而且我时常都会感到很沉闷,提不起劲来。我一心想练太极和气功来改善我的健康。开始的时候,我跟两位老师学过太极,但我觉得他们只教套路,而我想学的是基本功法。2016年9月,我在网上搜寻到了李蓉武术气功保健中心。记得第一次见到李蓉老师,我就有一种熟悉,似曾相识的感觉。上第一堂课,李蓉老师只教了我站桩。课后我特别高兴,因为我找到了我一直在寻找的老师。

Tai Chi with the Chinese Housewives Club

It was my birthday today. My Tai Chi teacher has invited me to one of her students’ house in White Rock where they were throwing a potluck party to celebrate the end of their training course.

It turned out to be in a posh neighbourhood in South Surrey to be exact, but it’s close enough to White Rock to be considered there. I found myself parking my old Subaru wagon behind a BMW sportscar and no matter which way I looked, I was conscious that my car did not fit in on that street.

Nonetheless, I sheepishly made my way to the right mansion and rang the doorbell. When the host opened the door, I introduced myself as a student of Master Li and I had come upon her invitation. I was ushered into the house and into the kitchen where I found a happy, chatty bunch of women gathering around the dining table. There were a lot of food on the table, someone was still cooking. The feast has yet to begun.

After a while, we adjourned to the courtyard where I was requested to lead the group in practising the No.1 Tristar Taiji form and No.2 Tristar Taiji Fan form. I didn’t know anyone except for Master Li, but clearly it did not make a difference. I was not to act shy or weird according to the protocol; being a reserved person around strangers, I was noticeably quiet compared to the rest. It wasn’t difficult for me to blend in as I could speak in fluent Mandarin but I was quite aware of the fact that I was the only person not from Mainland China in the group.

Demonstration in the hedge-lined courtyard

After completing the demonstration practice, we went back to the kitchen and started eating. The food was simply delicious, all homemade and brought together by the Chinese housewives. I felt very fortunate to be invited to eat together with them, even though I had not bring any food but myself. I made friends with some of them as they were very curious about who I am. It was very interesting to talk to them and get to know how they organize learning and events in their communal setting.

After dinner, we went to the beach to watch the sunset and took more photos of us doing Tai Chi. It was a very lovely way to celebrate my birthday.