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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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When he states “the point of the practice is in its form, not its content” regarding Tai Chi, but intimating that various religions can be thought of similarly, I think he's already finished the argument because he's essentially saying that the religion itself (I.e. faith in whatever god it espouses, etc) does not matter, its merely the ritual, the setting, the framework, etc that matters. Like we would indeed use a class that might be teaching martial arts, musical instruments, mathematics, anything. I fundamentally agree but I don't think the author even realizes how far he must take the tip-of-the-iceberg argument that he himself is making.

I believe he is close to arguing absolute relativism – i.e. your belief may work for you and yours, but not for me and mine. A long-used trope by free-thinking people.

I believe he is correct in his comparison of religion's worth as a framework, habit, structure, but that that comparison itself is what should show us all that belief/faith is the problem. The belief/faith is what brings about violence and war, intrinsic beliefs regarding Right and Wrong that must be enforced upon those not-in-the-know, etc. Indeed that is the most important aspect to the actual believers.

The author is in fact merely arguing that the framework of a religion is no different than the framework of any social construct. He does not take it far enough, though. Arguing his point is itself pointless if not taken to the next level, which is to say that the faith in god of any certain religion is a waste of time/energy simply because it is relative.

In fact his entire point is essentially pure atheism – i.e. your god doesn't matter, its the practices that are important. However, note that this precise point is exactly what religious zealots are against. Evangelicals will say merely believing is what is going to save them at the Rapture (not how they live their lives), militant Muslims will say that they must kill the infidel unless they confess faith in Muhammed, etc. These zealots preach precisely the opposite of what this intelligent author, and all free-thinking people, recognize as merely one more facet of humanity.

He's spot on with this bit:
“all honest believers have experienced some cognitive dissonance when faced with the multitude of religions that are and have been, and the correspondingly low probability that their particular creed happens to be the one whose claims about the universe are true.”

This is a wonderful article, in that it (apparently without intention) highlights the ancient connection that has existed between the martial arts and religion. In fact, most of what we call the martial arts today grew out of specific eastern spiritual practice, some Taoist, some Buddhist, some Hindu.

The author uses the phrase “religious practice” in the same way he uses the phrase “martial arts practice”. Great phrase. I love the way the author refers to the fact that early in a practice, the student assumes that there’s some universal truth behind the exercise, only to learn later that some other form of practice uses a different exercise to teach similar concepts. Isn’t this the core of religion after all - each form or discipline has developed its own mythology, dogma, and ritual to get students “practiced” in the disciplines - accustomed to using the “muscles” required to consider and reflect on Divine Presence? Each different religious practice is only preparing the student for a journey - getting them accustomed to using the “muscles” that will help them maintain the grace and poise required to stay focused on the journey.

I wonder if most martial arts have a tradition of assuming that students should strive to advance beyond the basic “dogma” and “ritual”. I know many religions have this assumption - that as we mature and advance in our ability to ask good questions and progress further on our journey, we should be able to emerge from the other side of our lessons with the ability to continue seeking without the need for the myth or ritual that got us to that point. (Christianity and Judaism for example have this tradition.)

This doesn’t mean the student throws away the myth and ritual that brought them to where they are - they should embrace it as a good and strong path. When they outgrow that path, they’re expected to continue to seek, only they now need a path “further along”. Do martial arts assume that this happens as well - that the student will come to the point to which the author has arrived, realizing that there are many paths that lead to a place similar to where he is today, and that from this point the practitioner must “journey on”?

Of course, I’ll agree with critics who’ll choose the few fundamentalist extremists from different faiths, who focus on one small piece of the religion overall and try to turn that into the religion itself. Unfortunately the media is great at finding these people and presenting them as truly representative. I’m not talking about that minority, but rather the “root” of most religions - where they come from and what their core teachings have been.