Tai Chi Informs an Understanding of Religion through Form
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"L’art du combat avec son ombre" (photo: Frank Taillandier/Flickr)
Over at The Walrus Blog, David Rusack writes a smart and creative reflection on how his training in a specific martial art form of tai chi (Chen-style chuan) has provided a structure that allows him to see with better-informed eyes the parallels with religious traditions and that “the point of the practice is in its form, not its content.”
"…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. …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. … 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.”
(Thanks for the heads-up, Shiraz!)
Out of the Dojo
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
Some months ago, one of our listeners pointed me to The Ultimate Black Belt Test, a surprising, rigorous training regimen for martial arts teachers that combines intense physical training with transformative ethical practice. Members of the UBBT program have to fulfill such varied requirements as walking for 1,000 miles and undertaking an environmental clean-up project.
I was so intrigued by the idea, what with my own practice of martial arts during my teens, that I decided to speak to the founder of the UBBT, Tom Callos. He’s written and spoken about his reverence for Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn and architect Samuel Mockbee, two model people who have brought social engagement into their respective practices.
In this narrated video, featuring an interview with Tom Callos playing over the beautiful photographs of Bill Whitworth, we explore this rigorous program and see some of its own engagement in the world.
Martial Arts Meets Ethical Living
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
I’ve been really drawn to this idea, brought to our attention by a listener, of the Ultimate Black Belt Test. It’s a very intense 13-month martial-arts training course. This course involves many things, some more traditionally “martial” than others: 1,000 rounds of sparring, 10,000 push-ups, and other grueling physical exercises.
Having taken karate for four years during high school, I still remember doing push-ups on my knuckles until they turned blue and purple. And I don’t mean “really red.” I mean like, “I need medical attention.” For days, I would look at my knuckles in horror at what they had become. I remember getting kicked in the stomach on several occasions, being completely drenched in sweat after rounds and rounds of drills, and wondering during the rest of the week whether I had the stamina or the will to go beyond myself to get that black belt.
As a moody 17-year-old, I decided that I’d had enough. I got to the second level of brown belt, but the black belt (the next belt) would have required another 3-5 years of serious dedication, and I simply didn’t care badly enough.
I was studying a form of martial arts that had been removed from its cultural context, and focused on the techniques of punching, kicking, standing, and other outward physical forms. I suppose I gave up because I didn’t have a core motivation inside me to push me through the training I would need to get to black. I didn’t know why I should care. I was never a very confrontational person, and sparring terrified me.
(Photo by tanueshka)
What fascinates me about the UBBT is how it fills out that inner dimension I never found in karate, which I had taken up purely as exercise. In UBBT, aside from the pain, you have to do things like practice 1,000 acts of kindness, live for a day as a blind person, clean up the environment, and profile your ten living heroes. Some of the UBBT trainees this year are heading to Greensboro, Alabama, to participate in Rural Studio home-building projects. (We had done a show on the Rural Studio a few months ago.) And, yes, that area is known as the Black Belt.
When we think of martial arts, or even military training, we rarely associate it with ethical living. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War regularly finds its place in business training. We’re so conditioned to be aggressive, to fend for ourselves, to fight to get ahead. Maybe that’s the dark side of individualism.
In any case, many martial arts traditions have immense philosophical depth to them that have accrued over centuries. It’s fascinating to me to see a program that encourages the development of the inner self and treats it as seriously as the physical regimen. I don’t plan on delving back into martial arts, but I’m drawn to the story of the UBBT, and it’s something I hope we can explore in some form on Speaking of Faith. We’ve talked in the past about having web features, and this might be a topic for such a feature.