What is the art I practice?
Should the name of the skill I practice daily be Tai Chi Chuan or Tai Chi Dao? For me, as I get closer to my 70th birthday, I no longer consider the training I do with my mind and body preparation to get into a fight. In fact, I doubt I've considered it as training for combat since I retired from the military. As Master Peter Moi would have said, if you have to fight, you did not use your Tai Chi training to avoid the situation.
An essential element of intermediate and advanced internal martial arts training is learning the skill of reading the environment, detecting the spirit that is there and responding only when necessary. Being aware of the environment is not some secret skill, but to learn it as part of your Tai Chi forms practice does require being aware of all the information your senses can perceive. Most of us already can do this to some extent. Have you ever been walking in a city and suddenly realize you have entered a neighbourhood that it might be better to avoid?
There are usually fairly obvious things that can be seen or heard that clue us in to the fact that the way we are going is not the right way, and that unless the address we have to go to is that way, it would be better to find another way to get there. But in Tai Chi Chuan practice, we also want to learn what our other senses tell us. The Tai Chi classics often use a character translated as spirit, and for the most part it is used in a way that implies a lot more awareness of the environment than the standard five senses. Perhaps because the sense of spirit in an environment is a product or sum of the "extra" senses modern science tells us human beings have available. And in our current world, there will soon be people learning Tai Chi who have engineered extra senses.
Someone who aspires to become a master of Tai Chi Chuan is also someone who aspires to be the absolute best fighter, and an essential part of that is the hyper-awareness that is discussed in training manuals for various kinds of elite special forces. That aspiration also requires the physical fitness of an Olympic level champion, as well as mastery of the external strengths and skills of a warrior. And these days, also a mastery of the tools of the trade, weapons, night vision, and all the other equipment of a modern warrior.
Wouldn't it be nice if all the wars were fought by just these guys and gals, the aspiring master warriors? Off someplace else, though maybe with webcams watching the action.
Although I served 20 years in the military, and in fact did see combat in Vietnam, I was perfectly happy to serve mainly in support roles. My own personality, while war-like enough to enjoy the sport of fencing, is not that of a true warrior. So why bother to learn Tai Chi Chuan? Why not just call it just Tai Chi and forget all the martial applications and make my forms more like a dance than actual practice for combat? Maybe throw in a bunch of philosophical sounding intellectual statements to justify teaching Tai Chi without the martial aspect, somehow pretending that it's purely for health.
Well, the fact is that the health benefits simply won't be very significant if I don't work on the spirit side of Tai Chi Chuan -- the part of the learning that has to do with sensing both the spirit of the environment and my opponent (or dance partner), as well as my own body, heart and spirit. Being fully aware of my body requires also being fully aware of the environment my body is in. Being fully aware of both my internal self and the external reality in the same way a warrior is on the field of combat.
For me, Tai Chi Dao signifies the goal of this kind of self-control at least when performing a form. And when possible to bring this self-awareness to the rest of my daily life.
From Captioned Photographs