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The Shamanic Origins of Tai Chi

Map displaying The Golden Triangle
"Only the multi-disciplined warrior, the techno-shaman, can scale the walls of ignorance and shed light over the prevailing darkness. The warrior spirit must guide this process."
The Warrior's Edge, Alexander, Groller, Morriss

Under the moonlight, in a village somewhere in the Golden Triangle, the Ka-ren Shaman moved slowly and methodically. He was showing us the movements taught him by his Shaman, which had been passed down through the tribe for generations. The Shaman moved strikingly similar to a Tai Chi master.

The Golden Triangle is a roughly drawn geographic area that overlaps the borders of three countries: Myanmar in the west, Laos in the east, and Thailand in the south. This area gets its soubrette from its most profitable export, the golden excretions of the poppy—opium. The terrain of small brown mountains and narrow forested valleys is ideally suited to guerilla tactics. In the past this incomprehensible landscape acted as a barrier against the encroachments of the Burmese, Chinese, and Cambodian empires, allowing the area's indigeonous hill tribes to maintain their own autonomy. More recently, the triangle's remoteness continues to keep much of civilization at bay. Both Buddhist and Christian missionaries have failed to convert but a small number of the people away from their ancient animist beliefs. The Shaman or medicine man still plays an important role in the life of the isolated villages. In 1987 the author visited with the Ka-ren in one of the more remote areas of the Triangle. There he was fortunate enough to spend an evening with a Shaman and witness his spirit dance. It was there that the connection between this tradition and that of the Chinese martial arts seemed to meld.

Tai Chi has often been described and written about as form of meditation—a moving meditation. The purpose of meditation is to alter one's consciousness in order to achieve a variety of goals from relaxation and healing to extending one's lifespan and many even believe that it helps develop supernatural abilities. The picture that most often comes to mind when we consider meditation is that of the Yogi, the Buddhist, and the Taoist, sitting cross-legged in a temple. The key ingredients are silence, stillness, and solitude. Contrast this image with one of the continually flowing and sometimes explosive movements of Tai Chi, and it would appear to be the antithesis of the conditions needed for meditation. From where then did this unique concept, the linking of physical movement with an altered state of consciousness, originate?

The five elements and their associated heraldic animals represent an ancient knowledge of how heavenly forces could be manipulated to affect earthly destinies. The central ritual of Taoist magic consists in the ability to call up the forces of these spirit generals and indicates that the heraldic animals are indeed the essence of supernatural powers.
The Chinese Pau Kua, Ong Hean-Tatt

In the older martial arts traditions of China, Burma, the Philippines, and Malaysia, there are systems of self-defense that are based upon the combat movements of either real or mythical animals. The better known styles originated in China and include Tiger, Leopard, Lion, Crane, Eagle, Phoenix, Snake, Dragon, White Ape, Monkey, and Praying Mantis, to name a few. Most of the movements of these styles are more complex and vigorous than their passive cousin Tai Chi, and are thus even further removed from the traditional requirements of silence and stillness. Yet it is in the grand ballet of the animal styles that the connection is closest to the ancient origin of moving meditation. That connection can be seen in the oral traditions.

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