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Only words

Zen and Taoism have always shunned words. Words point at things. But that is all.
This website is an attempt to provoke the reader to look past the words and be inspired to discover tai chi, the Tao or Zen. Perhaps all three...
We will annoy some people, please others and perhaps bore others. Who can say? It does not matter really. Words are nothing. We have no attachment to them. Nor do we prize them.


People occasionally ask us to define 'tai chi' - to explain it to them using a few words. This kind of request illustrates the ignorance and naivety of the person asking the question.
The word is not the thing. You cannot express the art verbally. A conversation will not improve your comprehension, any more than reading a book, looking at pictures or watching a video will.
Tai chi is understood by doing. Does the word 'chocolate' really taste of chocolate?

Talk is cheap

Taoism and Zen have always treated talk with scepticism, since words cannot extend to reality. The word is not the thing. We live in a culture that embraces meaningless chatter.
How many stories do you read that actually convey a message, a moral, a lesson? When was the last time you had a considered, honest conversation with somebody you know?
In our culture of mobile phones, e-mail and blogging... talk really is cheap.


Conversation is a skill. It serves to convey thoughts, feelings, ideas, emotions. It can educate, seduce, entertain or amuse. Words are ambiguous and deceptive, playful and interesting.
We are free to explore nuance and meaning. Given the opportunity for wit and humour, it seems sad to squander it on mindless chatter.


It is important to avoid jargon. Why are you using the oriental word rather than an English equivalent? What is your motive? Does the Chinese word improve your understanding of the art?
Our aim is to understand the art. Everything we do must be towards that end. If an oriental word helps, that is good. If it does not, we must dig deeper.


In some cases an oriental word does not have an adequate English substitute. It is appropriate to use the original word. Consider: 'sung'.
Sung may be translated to mean 'relax' but this does not adequately capture the full nature of this concern. Sung feels like the limbs are moving by themselves; all doing is gone.
It is a composite skill which relies strongly upon yielding.

Necessary jargon

Sung requires the body to be naturally sunk at all times and for the joints to open & close without conscious effort.
The groundpath permeates the body, creating elastic bow tension although no conscious will is required to manifest or sustain it. Resistance to force should now feel anatomically uncomfortable.
The waist should return to the centre by itself once rotated and the elbows should be heavy. Sung is not flaccid or inert - it is a cat-like readiness within the mobile structure.

No equivalent

In this example, it is appropriate to keep the Chinese word. It is essentially a 'technical term' with no English equivalent. There are many other examples.
It is important to focus upon the essence. What key message is being conveyed? Be discriminating. If you can say it in English, do so.


There is a danger in using exotic words. They can make it difficult for newcomers to understand what is being expressed.
Quoting a word is one thing. Understanding the underlying principle is something else entirely. We only use Chinese/Japanese words when English fails us.

Beyond Words

Here is an extract from Ben Okri's book A Way of Being Free:

We began before words, and we will end beyond them.

It sometimes seems to me that our days are poisoned with too many words. Words said and not meant. Words said and meant. Words divorced from feeling. Wounding words. Words that conceal. Words that reduce. Dead Words.

If only words were a kind of fluid that collects in the ears, if only they turned into the visible chemical equivalent of their true value, an acid, or something curative - then we might be more careful. Words do collect in us anyway. They collect in the blood, in the soul, and either transform or poison people's lives. Bitter or thoughtless words poured into the ears of the young have blighted many lives in advance. We all know people whose unhappy lives twist on a set of words uttered to them on a certain unforgotten day at school, in childhood, or at university.

We seem to think that words aren't things. A bump on the head may pass away, but a cutting remark grows with the mind. But then it is possible that we know all too well the awesome power of words - which is why we use them with such deadly and accurate cruelty.

We are all wounded inside in some way or other. We all carry unhappiness within us for some reason or other. Which is why we need a little gentleness and healing from one another. Healing in words, and healing beyond words. Like gestures. Warm gestures. Like friendship, which will always be a mystery. Like a smile, which someone described as the shortest distance between two people.

Yes, the highest things are beyond words.

That is probably why all art aspires to the condition of wordlessness. When literature works on you, it does so in silence, in your dreams, in your wordless moments. Good words enter you and become moods, become the quiet fabric of your being. Like music, like painting, literature too wants to transcend its primary condition and become something higher. Art wants to move into silence, into the emotional and spiritual conditions of the world. Statues become melodies, melodies become yearnings, yearnings become actions.

When things fall into words they usually descend. Words have an earthly gravity. But the best things in us are those that escape the gravity of our deaths. Art wants to pass into life, to lift it; art wants to enchant, to transform, to make life more meaningful or bearable in its own small and mysterious way. The greatest art was probably born from a profound and terrible silence - a silence out of which the deepest enigmas of our lives cry: Why are we here? What is the point of it all? How can we know peace and live in joy? Why be born in order to die? Why this difficult one-way journey between the two mysteries?

Out of the wonder and agony of being come these cries and questions and the endless stream of words with which to order
human life and quieten the human heart in the midst of our living and our distress.

The ages have been inundated with vast oceans of words. We have been virtually drowned in them. Words pour at us from every angle or corner. They have not brought understanding, or peace, or healing, or a sense of self-mastery, nor has the ocean of words given us the feeling that, at least in terms of tranquillity, the human spirit is getting better.

At best our cry for meaning, for serenity, is answered by a greater silence, the silence that makes us seek higher reconciliation.

I think we need more of the wordless in our lives. We need more stillness, more of a sense of wonder, a feeling for the mystery of life. We need more love, more silence, more deep listening, more deep giving

(Ben Okri)

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Page created 2 March 1995
Last updated 04 May 2023