Buddhist Meditation and Tai Chi – Synergy and Practice.

I have written this series of articles as I find a great deal of synergy between Tai Chi and Buddhist meditation. In fact that Synergy allows me to use my Tai Chi as an alternative moving meditation. I have been practising Tai Chi now for 28 years and I find that it is an excellent expression of mindfulness.

The Buddha’s Dharma (teaching) has been passed down through a number of lectures (Sutta’s) which initially were memorised by the Monks and then documented some 400 years after the Buddha’s death.

Mindfulness is a fundamental cornerstone to Buddhism and Buddhist meditation. The four foundations of mindfulness are described in the Satipatthana Sutta.

In this article I have taken the four foundations and described the synergy and experience that can be gained when considering them with the practise of Tai Chi. Within the article, I have first quoted the relevant text from the Satipatthana Sutta in this script and then set out my observations. This Sutta was part of a great set of writing originally written in the Pali language and known as the Pali Cannon. The Pali Cannon has come down from the Theravada Bhuddist tradition. The translation here was completed by the American Buddhist monk Thanissaro. In places you may find the sutta a little direct. People generally have many preconceptions of Buddhism and certainly one pre-conception is the gentleness of the religion. Therefore many people find they are a little shocked by the direct nature of many of the Buddhis Sutta’s. This one is certainly no exception. Buddhism is in fact extremely direct. Dealing with life directly as it is, without overlaying artificial sentiment on top.

Satipatthana — the foundations of mindfulness

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in the Kuru country. Now there is a town of the Kurus called Kammasadhamma. There the Blessed One addressed the monks, “Monks.”

“Lord,” the monks replied.

The Blessed One said this: “This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of Unbinding — in other words, the four frames of reference. Which four?

“There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings… mind… mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.

We should start by looking at this wonderful term ‘mindfulness’ and examine what it means in the context of this article.

Mindfulness, is essentially full awareness of the present moment. It is true that our knowledge and experience of the world is limited to our 5 senses. Through these senses we experience the world in its raw nature limited by the capabilities of theses senses. On top of this, Buddhist psychology adopts the mind as the 6th sense. Just as the other senses have stimuli (sense of smell is triggered by the chemical properties of the air entering our nostrils, our sight is triggered by the wavelengths of light entering our eyes) so our mind has stimuli. The stimuli here are our feelings, thoughts and emotions which trigger the mind. Generally, when a sensation, smell, sound etc is experienced by one of our 5 senses, the first thing our minds do is an immediate categorisation. Do we like or dislike the sensation or smell etc or are we neutral to it. So this initial impression happens at an extremely simple level.

Next, the mind takes over. It now starts to overlay all of our previous conditioning, memories, ideas and concepts and directs us to either have aversion to the experience or to crave it. Even in the case of a neutral first impression, this may trigger aversion. Our mind is like a small child. It constantly craves attention and something to do. Therefore neutral stimuli are of no interest to it and aversion can arise as a result.

When we are fully mindful, we learn to experience our 5 senses directly without all the additional overlay from our minds. We are also aware of the way our minds are working. We are able to identify that first, split second initial response to the stimuli when our minds choose to like or dislike the moment. Therefore, if we are mindful, we can capture this moment, before our mind wanders on and adds all the other stuff that it likes to play around with and lay on top of the true experience. In this way, we experience the moment fully and completely, as it is. In the fuller sense.

Tai Chi, I believe is, essentially, an exercise in mindfulness. The practise of Tai Chi requires us to give the exercises our fullest concentration. We learn to keep our mind concentrated on the movement of our body and to understand the energy flowing through it. Buddhist meditations focus the mind on a single subject, allowing us to exercise the mind in a way that allows mindfulness to develop because, typically, the subject is our own body or the environment we are perceiving. Tai Chi enhances this as it gives us an extremely strong reference point to concentrate on. Tai Chi is very much an experience of the body in the given environment, pure and simple. Therefore, the level of concentration on mind and environment is very strong and helps to build up the experience of mindfulness.

The Sutta consists of 4 foundations and I have taken each of these individually and compared them with the practise of Tai Chi.


The First Foundation, The Body

“And how does a monk remain focused on the body in & of itself?

[1] “There is the case where a monk — having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building — sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore [lit: the front of the chest]. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

The Buddha always emphasized the need to take ourselves away from our noisy lives. Here we see he instructs us to ‘go to the wilderness’. Clearly this isn’t always easy, but the message is clear. Take ourselves away from our daily lives. Switch off the radio, switch off the phone. To a tai chi practitioner this is understood. We cannot hope to keep our mind concentrated on our form if our daily lives keep interfering.

Also, posture is introduced here and we can learn something about posture from both the discipline of meditation and Tai Chi. When we begin our Tai Chi form we stand in Wuji (the void). Although standing, our back is straight, our head balanced, arms hanging down. Everything is relaxing down. We develop the impression of being pulled up from the crown of the head and at the same time we relax down. In this way we become rooted, grounded. The idea of ‘grounding’ was incredibly important to the Buddha. Indeed at the moment of enlightenment we understand that he touched the ground, to help with his battle against Mara (Mara personifies unskillfulness, the “death” of the spiritual life. Mara is a tempter, distracting humans from practicing the spiritual life by making the mundane alluring or the negative seem positive.) We understand the touching of the ground today to mean that the Buddha was seeking help merely by contact with earth. Somehow contact with the earth helps to keep us in the hear-and-now. Reminding us to be mindful. At the start of the Tai Chi form, in Wuji, we are doing something similar. We simply stand and become aware of our contact with the ground. We are relaxed but alert, along the feeling of the ground to press itself up through out joints and ligaments through our bodies to the top of our heads.

“Breathing in long, he discerns that he is breathing in long; or breathing out long, he discerns that he is breathing out long. Or breathing in short, he discerns that he is breathing in short; or breathing out short, he discerns that he is breathing out short. He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to the entire body and to breathe out sensitive to the entire body. He trains himself to breathe in calming bodily fabrication and to breathe out calming bodily fabrication. Just as a skilled turner or his apprentice, when making a long turn, discerns that he is making a long turn, or when making a short turn discerns that he is making a short turn; in the same way the monk, when breathing in long, discerns that he is breathing in long; or breathing out short, he discerns that he is breathing out short… He trains himself to breathe in calming bodily fabrication, and to breathe out calming bodily fabrication.

“In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or externally on the body in & of itself, or both internally & externally on the body in & of itself. Or he remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body, or on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to the body. Or his mindfulness that ‘There is a body’ is maintained to the extent of knowledge & remembrance. And he remains independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself.

Buddhism and Buddhist meditation uses the body as an absolute reference point for the establishment of mindfulness. In one of the classic meditations, Anapanasati, it is the breath that is used for bare attention and the growth of mindfulness. But what ever we are using as our reference, the message in this passage is clear. We are to experience the subject exactly as it is. It is extremely easy for us to overlay something on the subject with our minds. All manner of thoughts start to come up and very quickly the mind takes over. A simple example of this is with a small pain in the body. When meditating, typically we sit cross legged on the mat with our posture straight. Small aches and pains can arise in the legs and body from an extended time sitting in a single position (something we don’t often do if we aren’t used to meditating) If we let our mind take control, thoughts come in. “Ouch my leg is aching, I really should move to ease the ache but the meditation teaches me that I should hold the position. Oh! The pain, this meditation is ridiculous, why do I want to do this anyway. What a crazy idea to sit here with this pain. I’m going to get right off this cushion and walk around and ease the pain” If we give in to our mind in this way we will never make progress.  If we simply look subjectively at the sensation underlying the pain we often find that it is a great deal less than our mind is visualising. The ache comes and goes in waves and if we relax into it, quite often it passes altogether. This isn’t some strange exercise in masochism! The reader needs to understand here that we are talking about bare attention. The practise of seeing things exactly as they are, not how our minds might interpret them.

Tai Chi gives us an opportunity for this type of practise. Tai Chi, once we are well practised and know the form well, we discover has a rhythm all of its own. A gentle progression through the form. Continually moving from one posture to the next. Never stopping. This is a little like the breath. When we breathe, it is almost impossible to spot a gap between the in breath and the out breath. The breath seems to continually flow. Tai Chi is like this. The form flows and the awareness of our mind can be placed firmly on the form to observe that flow. When we practise our form we don not force any breathing into the form, we do not add strength to the form. We simply allow the form to flow. However, the form is not limp. It has tone, form and direction, just as our breath does. It travels.

Our form allows us to fully experience our bodies. As we move through the form we observe every stretch of every muscle, the feel of the ground, the temperature of the air around us, the rustle of our clothing against our bodies, the taste in our mouths, the light hitting our eyes. We experience everything from within the bounds of the form.

[2] “Furthermore, when walking, the monk discerns that he is walking. When standing, he discerns that he is standing. When sitting, he discerns that he is sitting. When lying down, he discerns that he is lying down. Or however his body is disposed, that is how he discerns it.

“In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or focused externally… unsustained by anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself.

[3] “Furthermore, when going forward & returning, he makes himself fully alert; when looking toward & looking away… when bending & extending his limbs… when carrying his outer cloak, his upper robe & his bowl… when eating, drinking, chewing, & savoring… when urinating & defecating… when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, & remaining silent, he makes himself fully alert.

“In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or focused externally… unsustained by anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself.

Walking is clearly important here. In Buddhist meditation we have the idea of walking meditation. The Buddha emphasised walking meditation and walked many miles himself during his lifetime. In Tai Chi, stepping is carried out with great care. When we place a foot on the ground we fully experience the moment. We don’t just lurch our weight into the foot. We make contact with the ground as if we are tasting the ground with our foot. We notice the moment when we experience the first tiniest pressure through the sole of the foot (usually centering around the bubbling well point, an energy point on the foot. Then, with the body moving as a complete, unified entity, we shift our weight into the foot. We study the way the energy flows through the body as the weight settles into the foot. Our weight is like a liquid, a thick oil which slowly flows into the leg. We examine the increase in pressure on the foot as our energy moves. And all the time, we keep aware of everything else that is happening, the sights, smells, temperature, taste etc. We are fully in the moment when we take the step.

[4] “Furthermore… just as if a sack with openings at both ends were full of various kinds of grain — wheat, rice, mung beans, kidney beans, sesame seeds, husked rice — and a man with good eyesight, pouring it out, were to reflect, ‘This is wheat. This is rice. These are mung beans. These are kidney beans. These are sesame seeds. This is husked rice,’ in the same way, monks, a monk reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: ‘In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.’

An incredibly important aspect of Buddhist meditation is to see our bodies objectively, exactly as they are. Not glorifying our bodies but not being reviled by them either. Just witnessing them for what they are, not categorising areas as ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’ just ‘noticing’. We do this to, again, try to remove the additional impressions, desires, cravings and aversions that the mind overlays on all of our experiences. Pushing us towards what is known as ‘equanimity’ and the ability to view everything with equal objectivity.

I believe Tai Chi can help us with this. We have only one body and we are rather stuck with it! So when we practise our Tai Chi, we practise with the limits that our bodies present. Some of us are flexible, some of us aren’t. Some of us may be blind, some have illnesses in the joints. None of these things stop us from practising Tai Chi fully and completely because despite the limitations our bodies may give us we can still experience being fully in the moment, fully alive, through the practise of Tai Chi.