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Everything I Needed to Know About Religion I Learned in Tai Chi

In training martial arts, a student comes to understand faith through fealty to form

In training Chen-style tai chi chuan and other martial arts, a student comes to understand faith through fealty to form

Taijiquan form
Taijiquan form (Taijiquan Taolu) — Associació Catalana de Choy Li Fut, Tai Chi Chuan i Chi Kung (Source:

Although I have dabbled in a few since, Chen-style tai chi chuan is the martial art with which I had my formative experiences. Training in the evenings during high school not only gave me exercise and taught me coordination, but granted me some unexpected insight into the world of religion as well. In both realms, followers may seem to accept the received wisdom of their traditions with a strange credulity — but, I found, the point of the practice is in its form, not its content.

Chen is the originating school of tai chi, a centuries-old martial art frequently pictured in the West as a sort of Taoist geriatric health exercise. In this and many other traditional martial arts, a large chunk of the practice consists of learning and perfecting one or more forms — choreographed sequences of the discipline’s techniques, the details of which are carefully prescribed from start to finish. Tai chi forms are trained at a mostly slow, deliberate pace, intended to force the practitioner to take care in performing each movement correctly. Students learn the routine by following along behind teachers and senior students, who also pass on explanations for the parts of the form as well as general rules of movement. In these, my group tended to eschew esoteric talk of chi energy or yin and yang in favour of practical concerns: you need to sink your elbows or else your arm can easily be put in a lock (“Thusly!”); the curled position your fingers assume during Single Whip can be used to strike at a pressure point; et cetera.

I only noticed later what a charitable sort of exegesis this was: we always began with the natural assumption that a move was included in the traditional form for good reason, and proceeded from there to give explanations for it. Sometimes these would change or even contradict one another, but the general feeling was that a great wisdom lay behind the form, and so its moves could be effective in many applications. With the form, as with a holy book, we could find confirming interpretations wherever we sought them, and so each lesson redoubled my trust in the rules and motions I was learning.

I had no holy books in my childhood, though, and so grew up with little understanding for the comparable trust that people of faith place in their religious traditions. Looking from the outside, it’s not hard to see why: all honest believers have experienced some cognitive dissonance when faced with the multitude of religions that are and have been, and the correspondingly low probability that their particular creed happens to be the one whose claims about the universe are true. Many denominations have faced this problem by deciding to treat their religion more as a set of metaphors and lessons than as facts and doctrines. This kind of reinterpretation only deepened my skepticism, though; if you didn’t think that Yahweh strictly existed, much less led the Jews out of Egypt, why would you keep observing a holiday whose purpose is ostensibly to praise Him for doing so? If it is but one myth out of the untold thousands in human history, why arbitrarily pick that one and act as though it were true?

And yet, when I went off to school and began to mix there with people who studied other martial arts, I found myself dealing with just the same problem. Nobody else followed the rules of movement that had been drilled into me as the Right Way of doing things. A student of Crane-style kung fu stood with his feet angled bizarrely inward; a teacher of Wu-style tai chi took unnervingly short steps and struck small, constipated poses, barely making visible the graceful flowing motion that Chen style emphasizes. Plainly, many of the things that had been presented to me as the doctrines of effective martial practice were in fact only specific to my style, were maybe even just part of a graceful-flowy Chen aesthetic that had little to do with usefulness. I fretted over the question of how much of what I had been taught was mere stylistic fluff, and how much was of genuine substance.

What’s clear to me in hindsight is that I did learn things of substance from studying Chen tai chi. It was my gangly teenage body’s first real introduction to the notions of upright posture and coordinated movement, and it gave me a solid foundation for all manner of other physical disciplines as well, helping me pick up new skills from taekwondo to parkour. Little of this is directly due to the idiosyncratic rules of Chen style or the particular sequence of its form, though: the things I really took away from it are the knowledge of how to maintain my balance while moving, stand up straight, use my core muscles to propel motion, and other basic lessons of body control that, if simply delivered as instructions (“Stay balanced while moving!”) could never be properly internalized. We certainly were given all of those instructions, but, more importantly, we were faced with the challenge of memorizing the form, and practicing it again and again until we had every detail of it right, all the while mimicking the postures and motions of more skilled practitioners and being corrected by them. The form, even if quite arbitrary in its details, provided a structure through which the really substantial learning could take place. Dance-like and deeply satisfying to perform, it is a kind of ritual packaging that carries the real, core lessons of movement that I have now begun to be able to grasp.

As I realized this about my tai chi problem, I could not help but notice it extended to the case of religion as well: why reject all things arbitrary? One cannot really convene in an empty room on a randomly chosen day, declare “Be good to others,” and then depart until some day next week. The contingent pieces of a religion — its symbols, stories, places of significance, and special ceremonies — make up that structure that must be posited, even if arbitrarily, in order for it to be possible to have religious practice at all. This ritual structure allows religious practice to impart moral lessons and create feelings of community and spiritual fulfillment that ultimately stand apart from the factual claims of a particular creed. Many modern Christians, for example, will profess skepticism about the literal rise from the dead of Jesus after three days, but nonetheless feel a conviction that the practices they have been raised in still give them something of value. Whatever end modern believers intend to reach by continuing religious practice even while perceiving a baselessness to it all, I can now say I see how they might hope to achieve it.

This all leads me to wonder about martial arts like Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do and religions like Unitarian Universalism — both of them explicit attempts to shed the trappings of dogma and directly teach those core, shared lessons that martial arts/religions are supposed to convey. Do Universalists experience the same sense of symbolically loaded holiness felt by Catholics at Mass? Have they posited their own particular set of rituals out of the infinite space of possible practices? Is Jeet Kune Do, in practice, really a “style without style,” and if so, does it attract and keep students as well as older, more formalized martial arts? As concerned as I might be about the possibility of arbitrariness, I can’t help but feel now that attempts to transcend it entirely are doomed to self-contradiction; thus I am left, as the cliché goes, like an unsettled parishioner — just “looking for something that feels right for me.”

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  • ben wiley

    When he states “the point of the practice is in its form, not its content” regarding Tai Chi, but intimating that various religions can be thought of similarly, I think he’s already finished the argument because he’s essentially saying that the religion itself (I.e. faith in whatever god it espouses, etc) does not matter, its merely the ritual, the setting, the framework, etc that matters. Like we would indeed use a class that might be teaching martial arts, musical instruments, mathematics, anything. I fundamentally agree but I don’t think the author even realizes how far he must take the tip-of-the-iceberg argument that he himself is making.

    I believe he is close to arguing absolute relativism — i.e. your belief may work for you and yours, but not for me and mine. A long-used trope by free-thinking people.

    I believe he is correct in his comparison of religion’s worth as a framework, habit, structure, but that that comparison itself is what should show us all that belief/faith is the problem. The belief/faith is what brings about violence and war, intrinsic beliefs regarding Right and Wrong that must be enforced upon those not-in-the-know, etc. Indeed that is the most important aspect to the actual believers.

    The author is in fact merely arguing that the framework of a religion is no different than the framework of any social construct. He does not take it far enough, though. Arguing his point is itself pointless if not taken to the next level, which is to say that the faith in god of any certain religion is a waste of time/energy simply because it is relative.

    He’s spot on with this bit:

    “all honest believers have experienced some cognitive dissonance when faced with the multitude of religions that are and have been, and the correspondingly low probability that their particular creed happens to be the one whose claims about the universe are true.”

  • Neil Hanson

    Great article David. You highlight, (without intention?), the ancient connection that’s existed between the martial arts and religion. As I’m sure you know, most of what we call the martial arts today grew out of specific eastern spiritual practice, some Taoist, some Buddhist, some Hindu.

    You use the phrase “religious practice” in the same way you use the phrase “martial arts practice.” Great phrase. I love the way you refer to the fact that early in a practice, the student assumes that there’s some universal truth behind the exercise, only to learn later that some other form of practice uses a different exercise to teach similar concepts. Isn’t this the core of religion after all — each form or discipline has developed its own mythology, dogma, and ritual to get students “practiced” in the disciplines — accustomed to using the “muscles” required to consider and reflect on Divine Presence? Each different religious practice is only preparing the student for a journey – getting them accustomed to using the “muscles” that will help them maintain the grace and poise required to stay focused on the journey.

    I wonder if most martial arts have a tradition of assuming that students should strive to advance beyond the basic “dogma” and “ritual.” I know many religions have this assumption — that as we mature and advance in our ability to ask good questions and progress further on our journey, we should be able to emerge from the other side of our lessons with the ability to continue seeking without the need for the myth or ritual that got us to that point. (Christianity and Judaism for example have this tradition.)

    This doesn’t mean the student throws away the myth and ritual that brought them to where they are — they should embrace it as a good and strong path. When they outgrow that path, they’re expected to continue to seek, only they now need a path “further along.” Do martial arts assume that this happens as well — that the student will come to the point to which you have apparently arrived, realizing that there are many paths that lead to a place similar to where you are today, and that from this point the practitioner must “journey on”?

    Of course, I’ll agree with critics who’ll choose the few fundamentalist extremists from different faiths, who focus on one small piece of the religion overall and try to turn that into the religion itself. Unfortunately the media is great at finding these people and presenting them as truly representative. I’m not talking about that minority, but rather the “root” of most religions — where they come from and what their core teachings have been.

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