Zen & tai chi

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What is Zen?

Zen is not a religion or belief system. It is concerned with seeing things as they really are. This means freeing the mind from ideas, thoughts, opinions, concepts, notions, bias, memories and expectations.
The limitations of thought and language is a principle theme in Zen.

Tai chi & Zen

Both Zen and the internal martial arts arose from the contemplative Taoism of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Some understanding of Zen can aid the student in their study of the internal martial arts.
Recommended reading:

  1. Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers by Leonard Koren

  2. Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

  3. The Little Zen Companion by David Schiller

  4. Sword and Brush by Dave Lowry


At the heart of all things is a simple quality. Clarity arises when we are capable of seeing this simplicity. When we notice small things. The details.
Instead of pursuing greater and wider experiences, we are content to remain where we are and notice what is in front of us.

I have tried throughout this book to draw a distinction between Zen Buddhism - monkish, rather ascetic, and sometimes strait-laced - and Zen itself, which is unpredictable, unfathomable and ubiquitous.

(Robert Allen) 

Natural things

Zen cultivates a taste for natural things. Instead of glossy, flamboyant, outward show, it turns the attention inward.
You begin to notice the small, the seemingly insignificant, and you see the wonder of the ordinary.


The Zen way of looking at things seems most appropriate for tai chi; a martial art that conceals its power so skilfully. The internal martial arts are not ornate.
It is simple, direct, flowing and natural. Within the slow spirals, curves and gentle steps can be found a grace that is difficult to articulate.

Slow down

It is necessary to slow down in order to see what is happening in our lives, with our bodies, with our thoughts. Many of the tai chi exercises are performed slowly in order to increase awareness.
We learn to notice the hidden, the small, the subtle.


When things are left alone, they settle of their own accord. People become silent, calm and still. Your body will do the same if you let it.

of forms

One facet of any Zen-related discipline is the repetition of a form or pattern; the accurate reproduction of a deliberate sequence of actions. The aim of this practice is to lose the sense of self.
No thinking, no worrying, planning or anxiety. Just being.


Spontaneity is the ability to act without thinking. It is the raw immediacy of action. To be spontaneous, conscious thought must cease and you must simply do.
Both the mind and the body must be loose and flexible. Tai chi teaches a person to move instantly in response to what is happening.

Zen & the Tao

Zen and Zen Buddhism are not the same thing, any more than the Tao and Taoism are. You do not need to go on retreat to study Zen.
The dangers with monasteries and retreats is that they serve to formalise something that is inherently informal.


There tends to be a lot of pageantry and ritual practiced in certain approaches to Buddhism. This kind of thing has nothing whatsoever to do with Zen.
It is important to see that Buddhism and Zen are not the same thing. Zen is pared down to the essentials. No extra baggage and pretentiousness is required or desired.

Not Buddhist

You can study Zen without being a Buddhist. If you are interested in Zen, there is no reason why you should become a Buddhist. Unless, of course, you want to.

Freedom from the known

If you are training the internal martial arts, then Zen is very relevant to your study. The perceptions and insights offered by Zen will help you to become one with the internal martial arts.
Zen is all about shedding preconceptions, losing the ego, as well as discarding your conditioning and opinions.
If you try and learn the internal martial arts without letting-go of your existing notions, then you will simply see what you want to see.
You will engage the art from your current standpoint. You will miss the depth of the system.

Pattern recognition

Tao-inspired Zen arts such as flower arranging, tree cultivation and rock arrangement often involve the search for objects that capture a particular quality that exemplifies the object being studied.
A rock that is the most rock-like rock... The Science of the Essence can be applied to all manner of things, especially fashion and design. Most designs are adapted from an earlier model.

The Science of the Essence

It can be fascinating the seek out the 'classic' example. Often it is easy to see how derivative designs have lost the essence and become unnecessarily encumbered and lack the substance of the original.
The raw immediacy and sheer functionality of the original is often evident. Adaptations often look weak, shabby and lacking.


Zen was often opposed to the precepts of orthodox Buddhism. To the transcendental insight of the Zen, words were but an encumbrance to thought; the whole sway of Buddhist scriptures only commentaries on personal speculation. The followers of Zen aimed at direct communication with the inner nature of things, regarding their outward accessories only as impediments to a clear perception of truth.

(Kakuzo Okakura)

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Page created 17 November 1994
Last updated 04 May 2023