Grasping Sparrow' Tail

Spiritual Cultivation is an important aspect of genuine Taijiquan


I read with interest your statements about Tai Chi Chuan. You are quite correct in stating that in the West, Tai Chi is often not taught in its martial arts application. However I'm not certain why a person would need to study martial arts in order to reap the spiritual benefits of the practice. Could you make this clearer to me?

-- Dr Traver, USA


Not only in the West but also in the East, Tai Chi is almost always taught without its martial application.

I am not sure wheteher you mean why any person would need to study the martial aspects of martial arts to reap the spiritual benefits of the martial arts, or why any person would need to study martial arts to reap any spiritual benefits in general. I shall answer both questions.

Not all martial arts give spiritual benefits; in fact, most don't. Personally, I do not see much spiritual benefit in such martial arts like Taekwondo, Karate, Kickboxing, Western Boxing, Judo, Wing Choon Kungfu and Choy-Li-Futt Kungfu. This is, of course, my personal opinion, and many other people would disagree with me.

Please also do not mis-understand me, thinking that I belittle these arts. In fact, I have great respect for Wing Choon Kungfu and Choy-Li-Futt Kungfu, and I believe they are great martial arts. They do not give much spiritual benefit because their inventors and early masters did not mean to use them for spiritual cultivation.

The two most outstanding martial arts whcih give much spiritual benefit, if they are practised the way their masters practise them, are Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan. If we look at their histories, we shall find that they were originally developed not for fighting, not for health, but for spiritual cultivation. Bodhidharma taught the Eighteen Lohan Hands, whcih later developed into Shaolin Kungfu, to aid Shaolin monks in their spiritual meditation. Zhang San Feng invented Wudang Thirty Two Patterns Long Fist, which later developed into Taijiquan, to help Taoist priests in their quest for immortality.

If you want the spiritual benefits of these arts, you must practise them as they are, ie. martial arts. The logic becomes obvious if we remember that it was precisely for spiritual cultivation that these martial arts became what they are.

If you practise them otherwise, such as practising Shaolin Kungfu as gymnastics or Taijiquan as dance, you will get the physical benefits of gymnastics and dance, like muscular strength and graceful movement. It is in the training of energy and mind, for which Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan as martial arts are famous, that leads to spiritual benefits. What we call mind here is referred to in Chinese as “xin” in Shaolin, and as “shen” in Taijiquan. “Xin” and “shen” are what Westerners would refer to as “soul” or “spirit”.

Even the external forms of combat application in Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan lead to spiritual benefits. The Buddhist monks who played a major role in the development of Shaolin Kungfu were noted for their compassion, and compassion is significantly reflected in Shaolin combat application.

A Shaolin master, for example, would not jab his fingers into the opponent's eyes or thrust a kick into the opponent's head, but instead subdue the opponent with techniques like “qin-na” which do not cause irreversible serious injury.

The combat movements of a Taijiquan master flow with those of the opponent, whcih means that the master has to be calm and relaxed in order to use the flowing movements effectively. Brutal intentions or aggressive actions, which are alien to spiritual cultivation but are not uncommon in some other martial arts, will interrupt both the mental rhythm and the physical momentum of the flowing movements.

It is not necessary to practise martial arts to derive spiritual benefits, but practising great martial arts like Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan is excellent for this purpose.

For effective spiritual cultivation, an aspirant must be physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually ready. If a person is frequently in pain, easily angry, dull in his thinking, or depressed in spirit, it is difficult for him to progress spiritually.

Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan are excellent programmes for physical, emotional, mental and spiritual development; those well trained in these arts are physically fit, emotionally calm, mentally fresh and cheerful in spirit.

The above is reproduced from Number 15 of the April 1999 Part 1 of the Question-Answer Series.