Rising Dragon Tai Chi

The Empty Boat

by Richard Farmer


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If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty,
He would not be shouting, and not angry.
If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.

Chuang Tzu


"Emptying the boat." So simple yet so difficult. In my experience, "Emptying the boat", can easily become another thing to do. It becomes another technique which we hope will make us happy and in so doing we become full and busy with "Emptying the boat", thereby missing the whole point of the story. What Chuang Tzu is inviting us to is a state of being which Taoists call 'Wu-Wei' or 'Non-Action': in essence, an action not ruled and controlled by the thinking mind - an empty boat crossing the river of the world.

Taoists take Nature as a role model for this non-action. A pine tree is itself perfectly, not worrying whether it should be a pine tree, or a bigger pine tree, or standing in some other place. It is. Its action of growth and movement comes from a non thinking place in harmony with natural conditions. If the conditions are right, it grows. If they are not it doesn't. Simple. What makes it difficult for us is the mind that thinks - what you could call the Self, that part of us which is constantly evaluating and weighing the pros and cons of any situation. It is a great gift and can be extremely useful, but when out of balance it hinders our spontaneous creative action. Thinking is always one thought behind what is actually happening. It's like reading the daily papers - the news actually happened yesterday, even though we first hear it today.

In our world which is so full of activity and busyness, how do we allow our actions to come from this simple place? One road is Tai Chi Chuan. 'Chuan' means the route or method. 'Tai Chi' is what the method produces, this place of balance. Tai Chi is Non-Action. But how does the method bring us to a place of Tai Chi? Does it do this by learning a series of movements? No. Does it do this through the practising and refining of technique? No, because although these are useful, what happens is that we become "full" of Tai Chi Chuan. We have substituted one kind of fullness for another. You could practise the art of Tai Chi Chuan your whole life and never become Tai Chi. So what makes the difference? The movement, exercises and techniques of Tai Chi Chuan are an excuse to investigate the energetic principles which are its heart, which give it life, meaning and power.

These principles mirror and connect to the three major components of the human being: Body - Mind - Spirit.

  • Body is reflected in the principle of Soft strength.
  • Mind is reflected in the principle of Relaxed concentration.
  • Spirit is reflected in the principle of Engaged Heart.

When our three centres are enlivened by these energetic principles, we are united as a whole being and life becomes simple and clear. It is from this place of wholeness that
a tree is and it is from this place that it acts. When the wind blows the tree bends. No wind and in total aliveness....... it rests in stillness. This is an example of action from stillness. It is not a big deal or mysterious, in fact in little ways we do it everyday without realising it. The path of non-action is about making it conscious, and from experience, relaxing and trusting that space more and more.

Traditionally in Tai Chi Chuan, the path of training to make friends with and harmonise these energetic principles is taken step by step, even though each one contains the others. So we begin by exploring the energetic principle of Soft Strength.

Usually when we are confronted by something which threatens us and we want to be strong, we think of something hard, even aggressive. But you know that in nature that which is too hard can be broken. This hard strength is double Yang and that which breaks becomes double Yin. True strength contains softness - the best parts of the masculine with the best parts of the feminine. Soft Strength. Yin within Yang.

The second energetic principle builds on the first, and is Relaxed Concentration. This too is a mixture of Yin and Yang: too relaxed and we space out, too concentrated and
we are cut off from the world. It is this state of imbalance which allows us to invent wonderful creations which harm us as a planet. The act of concentration is a balance between doing - to concentrate, and receiving - to listen, of Yin and Yang.

Thus we are in our soft strength with a relaxed alertness, but this does not presuppose a correct action. These two principles just make us efficient. To make the action appropriate and in the flow with the Tao, our hearts need to be engaged: the third principle.

No human heart can harm another. But a "Man" can harm a "Woman" and visa versa. How do you know when to strike and when to hug? How do you know when to reason and when to command. Which one is right? If you are in your body with a concentrated mind and your heart is engaged, you will only be able to do one thing. We have all done something which felt right. It is unmistakable - what's more others feel it too. There is a rightness. There is a Yes. The action is simple and correct. It came from an empty place. When the energetic principles are engaged, any action we
make will be perfect. It is the eye of the hurricane. The place of stillness in movement. Non-Action. The "Empty Boat".

Richard Farmer


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