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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

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Tai Chi Informs an Understanding of Religion through Form

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Tai Chi Master
"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!)

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