T’ai Chi Ch’uan has been called the perfect example of Taoist principles expressed in the human domain. One does not need to know anything about Taoism or its principles and precepts to practice, enjoy, and benefit from the practice of t’ai chi since our practice is unconcerned with the world of thoughts, concepts, or any other “things,” and what we practice, “The Form,” is an ever-changing, ever-transforming series of movements or shapes without fixity or stasis. There is only change, only transformation: the transition between yin and yang. Every spiritual tradition has a defined or implied cosmology: a story about the origin of the universe–about how the world as we perceive it comes into existence. Although it is not necessary to know about Taoist cosmology, it is constructive to ponder its principles, and to appreciate that creation is ongoing still in every moment and that it is this realm we are exploring when we practice T’ai Chi Ch’uan. In traditional Taoism, this cosmology is uniquely devoid of symbolic deities, focusing instead on energetic and elemental principles. The basics are as follows:
1: In the beginning, there was an endless void, known as Wu Chi, or Tao. The Tao is a universal energy, from which all things emanate.
2: From this vast cosmic universe, from Tao, the One emerges.
3: As the One manifests in the world, it divides in two: the Yin and the Yang, complementary conditions of action (Yang) and inaction (Yin). This stage is called T’ai Chi (without the ch’uan) and represents the emergence of duality/polarity out of the Unity of Tao. The “dance”– the continual transformations of Yin and Yang–fuels the flow of qi (chi). In Taoist cosmology, Qi is in constant transformation between its condensed material state (particle) and its dilute energetic state (wave).
4: From this dance of Yin and Yang emerges the five elements: wood (lesser yang), fire (greater yang), metal (lesser yin), water (greater yin), and earth (central phase). Also produced here are the eight trigrams (Bagua) that form the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching. This stage represents the formation, out of the initial Yin/Yang duality, of the elemental constituents of the phenomenal world.
5: From the five constituent elements comes the “world of 10,000 things,” all of manifest existence–all of the objects, inhabitants, and phenomena of the world we experience. Human beings, in the Taoist cosmology, are among the Ten Thousand Things—a variety of combinations of the Five Elements. Spiritual growth and change, for Taoists, is a matter of balancing the Five Elements within the person. Unlike many religious systems, human beings are not regarded as something separate from the natural world, but another manifestation of it.
Another way of describing this process is to say that these stages represent the descent of energetic consciousness into physical form. Taoist mystics, using various Inner Alchemy techniques, are said to be able to reverse this sequence of events and return to the energetic, blissful realm of Tao, or “enlightenment.” The practice of Taoism, in general, is an attempt to perceive the presence and workings of the universal Tao in the Ten Thousand Things and live in balanced accord with it.
Although “T’ai Chi Ch’uan” is often translated as “supreme, ultimate fist,” a more useful translation is: an exercise or movement in “the realm where Yin and Yang play.” Through this practice we learn how to move and interact in the “world of 10,000 things” (thoughts, emotions, other people, life experiences, etc.–all of manifest existence) without being drawn away from our essential nature. We can participate in the realm of “doing” while consciously remaining in the realm of “being.”