I’d been gathering up ideas for what I had hoped would be a more helpful and less enigmatic response to your questions, but in the process of thinking through the issues, questions of my own kept coming up, and one thing led to another. I fear the result may still be less than clear, but I’ll just go ahead and post my ramblings. In the meantime, I think Audi did a great job of making distinctions among the notions of continuity, cadence, and the oscillations between relative states of stillness and movement.
“The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.”
—Werner Heisenberg, uncertainty paper, 1927
Heisenberg, of course, was talking about the observed behavior of subatomic particles, but many modern thinkers have noted the wider implications of his observation—sometimes also known as the “uncertainty relation,” the “uncertainty principle,” or the “principle of indeterminacy”—on epistemological issues, such as causality.
Being one who likes to play with words, and then “see what happens,” I can almost hear an aphorism for the taijiquan practitioner here, stated as, “seek the position in the momentum, and seek the momentum in the position.” That is, one should avoid fixating on one at the expense of knowledge or awareness of the other.
Another thing to keep in mind with regard to the notions of “motion” and “stillness” in the taijiquan context is that the particular Chinese words being used for stillness (jing), and motion (dong) do not refer exclusively to physical/mechanical motion and its absence. The word jing not only refers to physical motionlessness, but also to mental quietude, calmness, or presence of mind. Some Neo-Confucians extrapolated from jing “quietude” to another jing character, “composure,” and asserted that one should in fact seek composure in both actions and in quietude. At the same time, the word dong can refer not just to specific physical motion, but also to “action” in a more general sense. So, “dong” can and often does refer to mental activity. There is a Chinese expression that may help get at how to understand these terms in the taijiquan context: “yi dong bu ru yi jing.” Literally, this is, “one action is not as good as one stillness,” but the common meaning is more like “better to refrain from action until one is absolutely sure one’s action will be effective” (an equivilant English aphorism might be 'Look before you leap.') To me, this ties in with the taiji aphorism, “deji deshi” (obtain the opportunity and strategic advantage), having to do with finding the perfect nexus of timing and posture so as to avoid superfluous movement.
In my opinion, the notions of “motion” and “stillness” do have additional, wider ranging, philosophical connotations. One thing that leads me to this position is that the phrase “seek stillness in motion” resonates with language found in the discourse of various Chinese philosophical traditions. The pair “dong/jing” is one of a host of what have been referred to as “ontological dyads” that have played perennial roles in Chinese thought. Most notable is some phrasing in the work of an early Buddhist thinker named Seng-zhao (384-414). In an essay called “The Immutability of Things,” he wrote:
“In our search for immutability, we surely do not find quiescence by putting movement aside. We must seek for movement in the quiescent, just as we must seek for quiescence in movement. Therefore though (things) move, they are ever quiescent. Because we do not find quiescence by putting movement aside, therefore though (things) remain quiescent, they are ever in movement.”
—Seng-zhao, trans. in Fung Yu-lan, _A History of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. II_, p. 263.
Although most classical taijiquan documents do not tend to have much in the way of a Buddhist flavor, the “seek stillness in motion” aphorism may well be inspired, directly or indirectly, by Seng-zhao’s wording. For those interested, Arieh Lev Breslow discusses this connection in his book, _Beyond the Closed Door: Chinese Culture and the Creation of T’ai Chi Ch’uan_(1995, Almond Blossom Press).
In the tenth of Yang Chengfu’s “Ten Essentials,” the wording, “Seek stillness in motion” is followed by wording that is likely Chen Weiming’s elaborative commentary: “Taijiquan uses stillness to manage movement” and, “Even when there is movement, there is stillness.” The second phrase “sui dong you jing” picks up wording that appears in the “Song of the Thirteen Postures”: “In the midst of stillness one comes into contact with movement, moving as though remaining still (dong you jing), and in Li Yiyu’s “Song of the Essence and Application of Taijiquan”: “Movement arises from stillness, but even in movement there is stillness [sui dong jing you ran].” (see Wile, trans., _Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty_, pp. 50-51, 130-131). In each case, it might be helpful to think of “stillness” here as “calmness,” or presence of mind.
Addressing your initial question about the metaphors “still as a mountain” and “move as a river,” these natural images are again very common metaphors in Chinese. As Audi suggests, I don’t think the taiji usage of these metaphors has so much to do with absolute physical stillness or motion as much as with the quality of one’s form, or if you will, with the quality of one’s disposition (psycho-physio disposition). In the metaphors as they appear in the “Mental Elucidation of the Thirteen Postures,” it’s not just “mountain,” but “shanyue,” meaning a particularly lofty peak. This imagery is sometimes called upon to describe someone whose bearing or deportment is noble and dignified. Chen Weiming’s commentary says that “still like a lofty mountain” here means “sink the weight and not float” (chen zhong bu fu). Also, it’s not just “river,” but “jianghe,” meaning the Yellow River, or a particularly large river. Chen Weiming’s commentary for “move like a river” is “ever flowing without ceasing” (zhou liu bu xi). A large river may have spots of relative stillness as it flows, but it moves continuously nonetheless.
Does any of this help make the taiji notions of stillness and motion more understandable?
regarding your questions about “energy” in Chinese and its inherited meaning in English: I did a search on "energy" in the above mentioned database, and got 247 entries, beginning with an 1867 entry for "nengli," probably the most common neologism for energy, from a publication on "zhongxue," (study of weight -- the earliest term used for mechanics or physics in Chinese). There were some early competitors that incorporated "qi," but nengli eventually out-competed those. Why? I suppose that nengli (capable/strength) more closely captured the Western physics meaning. Still, I wouldn’t say that there’s anything about “qi” that would make it incompatible with the scientific notion of energy. I still like Porkert’s thoughts on this. He says that qi is rather similar to the conception of “energy.” “And yet, unlike our concept of energy, qi, whatever the context and absolutely without exception, always implies a qualitative determination of energy. . . . For this reason we use for the technical term qi the standard definitions ‘configurational energy’—i.e., energy of a definite direction in space, of a definite arrangement, quality or structure—and ‘energetic configuration’.” (The Theoretical Basis of Chinese Medicine, pp. 167-168)
As I understand it, the most common definition for “energy” in physics is “the capacity for doing work.” (This has puzzled me, as I don’t know what exactly to make of “work”; it seems to be a loaded word for what is supposedly a scientific concept.) Just to add to the mix, my CD Encyclopaedia Britannica says: “All forms of energy are associated with motion. For example, any given body has kinetic energy if it is in motion. A tensioned device such as a bow or spring, though at rest, has the potential for creating motion; it contains potential energy because of its configuration.” (I find the “configuration” wording quite congenial to my previous ruminations about “disposition.” The wording “it contains potential energy because of its configuration” would be quite at home in a Warring States description of a crossbow.) As you know, classical taijiquan writings often rely on metaphors or analogies of bows, springs, levers, balance scales, etc. For example, “Store energy as though drawing a bow. Issue energy as though releasing an arrow.” Oh hey, another arrow metaphor!
I’m intrigued by your statement, “. . .you are not moving your limbs to do something that is only useful at its endpoint, but rather you are changing the disposition of the joint energy [combined energy?] manifested by you and your opponent at that very instant.”Consider this statement under Britannica’s “Potential Energy” entry: “Potential energy arises in systems with parts that exert forces on each other of a magnitude dependent on the configuration, or relative position, of the parts.” A system would include solo form as well as partner training. Neat, huh?
[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 01-07-2003).]