The Zen of Taijiquan

When people think of taijiquan — as a martial art or as a spiritual discipline — the first association is with the principles of the Tao. The classics of Taoism are tai chi chuan’s philosophical foundation, and without them, any consideration of our beloved art is missing its most essential cornerstone.

Zen and Taijiquan

The history of Taoism and Zen (Cha’an in China) are intertwined in too many ways to count, but for the sake of the Zen of this article … we’ll save the history lesson for another time.

As I have heard from one of my teachers:

“All explanations are wrong. Correct taijiquan is a feeling.”

It is here, at this intersection of feeling & explanation, that I would like to examine the “Zen” of Taijiquan.

As I understand it, Zen, too, is a feeling.

I have heard it referred to as a feeling of oneness with everything — a  dissolution of the self.

Recently, studying some Zen classics, I was struck with a remembered quote by my teacher, Yang Cheng Long in Kunming, China. I remember the moment quite clearly, in a private lesson in a remote wooded area at the zoo. I had to clarify this with him several times (in my broken Mandarin at the time) … because I had a hard time believing I was hearing him correctly. What he said was this:

When he practiced taijiquan … he would cease to notice what was “himself” and what was “not himself.”

The border between his body and his not-body vanished, and he “floated” through a “timeless time” until he concluded the form. There, I am paraphrasing.

While at the time my reaction bordered somewhere between total astonishment and confusion, that unusual statement always stuck with me. Just today, encountering an excellent lecture on Zen, I finally began to comprehend my teacher’s words. The following is a thanks and tribute to one of my favorite speakers & authors of all time, the late Manly Palmer Hall.

After hearing this following list from the great Mr. Hall, my mind was momentarily blown … as I was transported back to  Yang Laoshi’s words. I saw the path that led me to where I am now, and the line of development required to reach that level of my teacher’s attainment. I was impressed at the mirroring of taijiquan & Zen alchemical processes, so much so that I had to share them with you.

10 Steps to the Practical Values of Zen

From “Spirit of Zen” lecture by Manly Palmer Hall

The following are the steps through which one must pass … or the levels of attainment through one must develop … to reach the ultimate goal & objective of Zen practice.

Beneath each of the steps, according to the late Master Manly P. Hall, I have included my own parallel experiences developing along the taijiquan path. I wonder if they parallel your own experiences as well?

  1. Step 1 :: The experience of the pressing need for greater understanding than we now possess.For me, this was the realization that the internal arts, and tai chi in particular, possessed specific powers & attainments that I had never before encountered in the external styles (or in my personal experience at all!). In other words, I was blown away by taijiquan — and I felt a “pressing need” to learn more!
  2. Step 2 :: The experience that it is possible for us to attain to any degree of insight necessary for our own internal security.For me, this came after only one or two tai chi classes … as I was very fortunate to begin my tai chi journey with a teacher of authentic taijiquan (a rarer and rarer commodity). I quickly picked up little gems even in the very first class, and learned some taijiquan “tricks” that I could take home and integrate with my previous martial arts training immediately.
  3. Step 3 :: The experience that inner peace can be attained only through the proper control of our thoughts and emotions.This attainment took quite a long time to really sink in compared to steps 1 & 2 above. While I already had some understanding of this before my studies of taijiquan & Taoism … I’d had so few first-hand experiences with individuals who had attained inner peace through control of their thoughts & emotions that I wondered whether it might be an out of reach fantasy. It is not.
  4. Step 4 :: The experience that there can be no advancement of character without self-discipline.Honestly, I had this experience long before step 1 of my “spiritual” journey with tai chi, Taoism, or anything else. A martial artist must be well acquainted with the requirement of self-discipline … or choose a different pursuit after repeated pummelings.
  5. Step 5 :: The experience that by self discipline, the mental, emotional, and physical life can be brought under the control of enlightened purpose.The idea of enlightened purpose was not something that was introduced to me until many years into my studies. I feel, in hindsight, that this is an area where tai chi schools & masters could take a cue from the Zen schools & masters (if they have not already).

    The return to harmony with the Tao is the enlightened purpose of tai chi.


    Without this objective in mind, one may practice for many years and never reach the higher levels of attainment. Seriously, this is vital.

  6. Step 6 :: The experience that control over thought and emotion can be attained without stress or tension of any kind.This is so similar to any tai chi classic that I don’t even feel it is necessary to comment. If your tai chi school doesn’t introduce you to concepts like this very early on in your training, find another school!
  7. Step 7 :: The experience that proper control makes possible the condition of complete inner quietude by gradually reducing the power of external factors to disturb the inner life.This was a lesson that I found much easier to learn when studying tai chi in China … mainly for linguistic reasons. When we Westerners speak of quietude in these types of metaphysical terms, it can be difficult to integrate into practice. The way it is discussed in Mandarin (to me at least) seems much simpler.In Chinglish terms for all to understand, the taijiquan equivalent is that you need your xīn (心) or heart to be ān​jìng (安静) or quiet. In practice, each “discontinuity and continuity of form” – when the mind disconnects, or when the body “jerks” or “stops & starts” – is a moment when the heart is disquieted.

    To remedy this problem, and reach the 7th Step toward the practical values of Zen (in one’s taijiquan practice), it is necessary to quiet the inner dialogue until it is “smooth as the surface of a pond on a windless day.” Something to this effect was a saying Yang Laoshi used often. In the Spirit of Zen lecture, Manly P. puts it thusly:

    As the surface of the sea is troubled by the winds, so the thoughts & emotions of men are troubled by the storms of circumstance. But the deeper parts of the sea are not troubled by the tempest, and in each of us is a region of peace where self abides forever in blessedness.
    -Manly Palmer Hall
    “The Spirit of Zen” lecture

    Masters who reach this level of attainment have a form that looks very smooth, without jerkiness or changes in pace.

  8. Step 8 :: The experience that through quietude it is possible to become receptive to all the beauty and wisdom in the universe.This is beyond anything I can really experience consistently. I’ve had glimpses into this type of “realization” during my practice … or perhaps “Revelation” is a better word for it! I wish I could help you on this…
  9. Step 9 :: The experience that we exist eternally in space, and that true happiness and peace of soul result from complete acceptance of the universal plan and its laws.This one is all theory for me. It sounds right … but how to implement, that is the question…
  10. Step 10 :: The experience that pure consciousness, beyond and superior to self will and self purpose, leads to “at onement” with nameless reality.Ok, now I don’t think many people ever attain this level. Good luck, my friends!

If you want to hear the whole lecture, from whence the list came, you can listen to the audio track of the first Youtube video. It is just a still image for the visuals … so I have put some cool taijiquan videos below it you can watch while you listen! :-D

Listen to “The Spirit of Zen” Lecture by Manly Palmer Hall

Some Taijiquan Videos to Watch While You Listen:

Please, everyone, if you can, give thanks for the excellent lectures of Manly Palmer Hall, and to his Philosophical Research Society for painstakingly recording and editing hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of this intellectual giant’s brilliant lectures. Follow the link above to find a treasure trove of free online resources from one of the most brilliant geniuses of the 20th Century.

5 comments to The Zen of Taijiquan

  • huang lew

    Rubbish…Tao/Zen not the same, I bet you American “Expert” ha.

    • Dear @huang lew,

      I never claimed to be an “Expert” … at anything …

      … nor did I in any way imply that Tao is the same as Zen ( Only that their histories – in China – are intertwined).

      Perhaps you can help us understand any specific examples of “Rubbish” from my article? I will be happy to make any corrections.

      Or maybe you can recommend some proper non-”American” sources for Zen or Tao education for those who share your prejudice?

      Either way, thanks for reading ( … though I doubt you made it past the title by your comment).


  • Andrew

    I live in Kunming! When were you here?

    • @Andrew :: Haha, small world! I was there in 2006 – 2007 if I recall correctly. Lived right near Wénlín Jiē [文林街] / Wénhuà Xiàng [文化巷].

      When I was there, I was studying with Yang Chenglong (not sure the spelling) who teaches at the Kunming Zoo. I cannot recommend him enough, really great guy, great teacher!

      Do you study martial arts there in Kunming?

      • Andrew

        Hey, sorry for the late reply. I am studying Mandarin and Chen TaiJi here. My TaiJi teacher is Shifu Huang. I quite like his teaching style, (he showed me push hands when I first met him, instead of giving me the ol’ stand in mabu for 10 years type of nonsense). I’ve heard quite a bit about Yang Chenglong, but haven’t checked him out because it’s kind of a faux pas to study with two teachers.

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