The Tao is the way to harmony and happiness and is based on living in accord with certain principles expounded by Taoist masters over 2000 years ago. Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu were two of the more well known exponents of this philosophy. Over the centuries, Taoism has infiltrated every aspect of Chinese culture – from cooking, medicine, martial arts, architecture, music and relationships to astronomy. Tai Chi movements and applications are heavily influenced by Taoist philosophy which uses yin yang, the five elements and bagua (the eight trigrams) as the underlying principles.
The principles of the Tao act as a guide and give us hints. However, it is up to us to use our intuition to apply them. To illustrate a particular principle, Chuang Tzu told a fictitious story of Confucius’ student Yen Hui, discussing ways to teach a tyrant a lesson. He first proposed different strategies, such as direct or indirect approaches. With each suggestion, Confucius countered saying that the tyrant would be able to impose his will on Yei Hui and would either use Yei Hui to boost his approval from others or kill Yei Hun for opposing him. Finally, Yen Hui asked, “What do you think I should do?” Confucius said, “Xin Zhai is the best way.” Translated literally, Xin Zhai is heart fast. The Chinese also commonly use the character xin to mean the mind. To bring out all the qualities intended, we use heart-mind from here onwards. How can cleansing the heart-mind be more effective than a particular strategy?
When we are full of ideas and plans, worries and fears, we are not able to respond naturally to a pressured situation. It is easy rehearsing how to react when we are alone. However, as soon as an audience appears or we are challenged by someone, our carefully prepared lines begin to fall apart. So, how can cleansing the heart-mind enable us to face challenging situations?
First of all, we need to know how to cleanse the heart-mind. According to Taoist wisdom, it is about calming down and not being too attached to phenomena. Being able to see constant change in the world and in ourselves gives us insight into the ephemeral nature of existence. Distractions in the form of entertainment confuse and dull the mind. As Lao Tzu said, “The five colours blind the eyes, the five sounds deafen the ears and the five flavours spoil our sense of taste.” Lao Tzu was talking about excess here. Once we lose our natural state, everything becomes confused. Confucius was giving the same message to his student when he said that too many strategies would cause confusion in his mind. With the help of meditation, practising Xin Zhai teaches us to calm down, becoming clearer and natural. In this state, we will better utilise our skills. It will also reduce our egotistical ideas which are easily challenged.
In Tai Chi, as a self defence art, the best way to deal with confrontation is to be fully present in the face of danger and completely open to the situation. Once we start thinking about what to do and what might happen, we freeze up, becoming tense and fearful, making it impossible to respond naturally and appropriately. Before we reach this state of openness, we must practise and master the skills until they are totally natural. At a high level, it may be possible to diffuse a difficult situation without resorting to physical force.
Once there were three martial arts enthusiasts who heard about a famous Buddhist master who was well versed in kung fu. They decided to pay him a visit. When they arrived, the master talked about philosophy and living well. The men were transfixed by his presence and his speech. On the way home, they talked about their experiences and realised that they had forgotten to ask the master about martial arts. They all vowed to go back and find out about his kung fu skills. The three went back and the same thing happened. They completely forgot why they went to see the master. On the third visit, the master said, “I have served my purpose in life and will now light my pyre and pass away.” It is said that the master blew a flame of fire from his mouth, setting himself alight and passing away.
On the way home, when the martial enthusiasts talked about the amazing sight that they had witnessed, they began to realise that all the things that the master spoke of were to do with martial arts training, even though they at first seemed to be Buddhist scriptures. The master actually knew the reason for the men's visit. He was showing them a higher level of teaching. Most people think that martial arts are purely physical when, in fact, there are many levels to their application. The men forgot their initial intention because the master engaged them on a higher level. His own presence impacted greatly on them and spoke volumes about the true meaning of martial arts.
Confucius was talking about the practice of Xin Zhai. The Buddhist master was being the embodiment of this state. Most of us see success in the short term, such as victory in establishing our own point of view, showing how materially wealthy we are or how famous we have become. If the righteousness of our point of view alienates us from friends and family or creates more enemies, is this success? If our material wealth harms others or becomes an ostentatious show, is this inspiring to others? If fame has created the illusion of being better than others, is this beneficial? Success in terms of Taoist wisdom is about whether it is worthwhile not only to you, but to society in general. Making friends, sharing your good fortune and inspiring others – these are the workings of the Tao.