|The ancient world|
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The ancient world
Human history is a very speculative field of study. Historians rely on a variety of sources to piece together an impression of what took place. For the most part it looks grim.
Quality of life for the average person in the past didn't seem great. Wars. Famine. Robber Barons. Slavery. Poverty. Exploitation. Homelessness. Sexism. Racism. OK, so not much has changed...
The modern world has a vast number of unsolved problems to address.
The good old days?
People occasionally think of history and reminisce. Yet, the ancient world was not a safe place to be.
Think of the Romans: they invented/introduced all manner of civilisation, but they also conquered, enslaved and crucified people. They set living Christians on fire (Roman Candle).
Yet, amidst the horrors and atrocities of the past there are also great discoveries, insights and wisdom.
Wonders of the ancient world
Traditionally there were seven wonders of the ancient world: The Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Greece, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt.
How about the Great Wall of China? Roman roads? Petra, Jordan? Chichen Itza, Mexico? Machu Pichu, Peru? Taj Mahal, Agra, India? Colosseum, Italy? Sigiria, Sri Lanka? Sacsayhuamán? Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni in Malta? The Lycurgus cup? Nazca Lines?
The ancient world also heralded technology that was remarkable e.g. compass, irrigation, writing, gunpowder, paper, printing, pottery, looms, the wheel, mathematics, matches, suspension bridge, central heating, batteries...
Much of what we take for granted in modern times has its roots in the distant past. Do some research. Find out for yourself...
Junk is the ultimate merchandise.
The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the
consumer to the product.
He does not improve and simplify his merchandise, he degrades and simplifies the client.
(William S. Burroughs)
How smart are you?
In our technologically-dependent era people tend to equate the ownership of high-tech toys with intelligence. As if owning a phone means they are smart. 'Smart phone' refers to the device, not the owner.
Did you design, build or program your mobile phone? Do you even understand how the device works? Could you construct your own?
Not quite so smart, eh?
If you read the books written by ancient gurus millennia ago it becomes glaringly obvious that most people these days are stupid. Hey, don't be insulted. We are all pretty stupid.
Try reading Marcus Aurelius, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Krishnamurti. How well do you understand what these people are saying? Really understand?
The good news is that you can do something about it. You can unplug your devices. You can switch off the TV. You can learn.
Reading books from the ancient world can be a somewhat startling wake-up call.
It is isn't the writing style/language that's the problem - after all you're probably reading a translation - it's the content, the meaning that will baffle you.
And what were the ancient teachers talking about? Life. Civilisation. Culture. People. They were interested in the very same things that we are.
Once upon a time humans knew how to farm, make things, hunt animals, protect themselves. Their senses were attuned to the seasons, to sounds and smells. Modern humans have lost this.
As a culture we are evolving into fat, lazy, bored, distracted beings who sit all day and stare at flickering screens. Not so impressive?
In the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's they imagined the 21st Century to be an era of interstellar exploration, the eradication of poverty, the end of war. Well, we have the smart phone...
China boasts one of the oldest surviving civilisations in human history. For example: the roots of Taoism are truly ancient.
When you read famous books such as The Art of War or Tao Te Ching, the authors speak of the 'the Ancients ', the 'men of old' etc.
Given that these books are potentially thousands of years old, who did the authors regard as being the Ancients ? How far back are we talking here?
Mysteries & ignorance
In the distant past little was known about Taoism. Many of its adherents belonged to sects and esoteric schools. Others were hermits who lived in remote places.
Teachings from books with curious names such as The Way and Its Power, Book of Changes, The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings were treated with suspicion.
Secrecy, rumours of great power and deliberate obfuscation led to ancient Taoists being regarded with considerable fear and superstition.
Being privy to secret knowledge about the Tao, the workings of the human body, natural power and combat would have been a remarkable thing 2500 years ago. Most people were illiterate.
Such a person might well have been seen as a sage, a mystic, a magician or a sorcerer. Of course, none of these descriptions are accurate.
The individual simply knew something that others did not. They had knowledge that was uncommon. They were not magical; they possessed no superhuman skills.
The I Ching is thought to be at least 5000 years old. It is a key Taoist book and very hard to understand.
It is believed that the roots of qigong are as old as the Book of Changes.
Some tai chi instructors talk about qi a lot. The word qi is used as a catch-all to supposedly explain any phenomenon that the individual could not explain. Not exactly a scientific approach?
Similarly, there are a number of books that suggest that neigong is some sort of magic power. It is not. These books reflect superstition, not insight.
How old is taijiquan?
This is hard to say. Taijiquan was once a 'closed school' style of fighting; taught secretly and never shared with outsiders.
Its existence was first documented in the 1700's but it's origins are unknown. It could be as old as the Warring States period, perhaps even older. There is no way of knowing for sure.
Elements of the training seem rooted in qigong.
In many martial arts schools the
practice was carried out in secrecy and the school's very existence was
frequently concealed from the authorities. For example, taijiquan is based on
body of principles known to be around 2000 years old yet it was not revealed until
Regardless of the age of taijiquan, the art offers a glimpse of ancient wisdom and forgotten skills. It challenges the modern exponent to re-discover the human body, to attune the senses and gain balance.
Many students are quite amazed when they realise how important mental clarity is and what role the mind has to play when employing this art.
Not all 'tai chi' features ancient wisdom
Although many classes claim to be teaching authentic tai chi or taijiquan, very few are. In order for the art to qualify as tai chi, it must adhere to the essence of the art.
Slow motion movement, chilled out exercise or dance cannot be considered tai chi. Tai chi is more than this. It adheres to certain parameters, guidelines and rules of practice.
Providing these criteria are met, you have an immense degree of freedom for personal expression and individual interpretation.
It is reassuring to learn that taijiquan can be practiced throughout the entirety of one's life and promises great strength, agility and power without exertion, injury or suffering.
Students are encouraged to return to their natural, vital, healthy condition through the moderate practice of taijiquan and the daily study of Taoist texts.
Taijiquan is a vehicle for exploring the many insights offered by 'Taoism'. It is a hands-on approach to spirituality. The aim is to become a 'real human' - somebody who is fully conscious.
Instead of stumbling through life in a semi-conscious state, the Taoist seeks a condition of exceptional alertness and physical harmony.
This is not seen as been an elevated state of being, but rather our 'natural' state.
The old ways
An inspiring final thought is the realisation that the skills, insights and wisdom of the Ancients are still pretty astonishing today. These teachings have never been widely taught.
When a new student encounters authentic taijiquan for the first time they usually find the experience quite surprising. The more they learn, the more incredible it gets.
18 April 2005
Last updated 26 January 2020