“Go Hard or Go Home”

Strolling through Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa the other day, I encountered a group of people running around doing various drills in some kind of organized fitness activity.  Their leader was a super-fit, fully engaged alpha male, shouting “C’mon, push it, PUSH IT!”  His leather work gloves hinted at some of the intense drills they must have been doing.  His T-shirt read “Go Hard or Go Home”.

I always appreciate the act of human cultivation and self-improvement.  And if you’re going to take on a view of human life, take it all the way.  His pithy mantra so captures the philosophical basis of modern culture and perhaps reflects the entire history of Western development – from falling out of favor in Eden to our long march toward perfection.  According to this view, our natural condition is deficient, pathetic even.  Uncultivated, we become fat, sloppy, and weak – common, worthless chaff.  To achieve excellence, we need to struggle and strain to overcome our wretched, imperfect nature.

From the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine, this group was demonstrating an aspect of liver qi.  The liver gets things moving – stirs up stagnation and inspires growth.  Springtime.  Determination.  To work the liver with such intensity is aggressively harnessing generative qi, what Daoists refer to as “post-celestial qi”.  Such cultivation is responsible for so many historical achievements – magnificent cathedrals, undefeatable armies, Olympian athletes.

Laozi’s perspective however tells us that all such achievements ultimately fade away into a common context of weakness.  From an alchemical perspective, we can say exerting the liver to such degree presses qi away from our center – it may produce myriad excellences, but it leaves the center without a basis for internal cultivation.  The view of pushing ourselves to overcome our natural condition is antithetical to Daoist cultivation.

Adepts in Laozi’s tradition bring a different qi-quality to their cultivation.  Daoist hygiene practices involve regular movement but not necessarily the development of special skills or massive amounts of qi.  Our demeanor outside becomes gentle and soft, unremarkable.  As Laozi observes, remaining soft and weak allows qi to gather inward.  This is the beginning point for cultivating regenerative qi, what Daoists refer to as “pre-celestial qi”.  Such practice may or may not produce remarkable generative results.  It does however bring about a profound appreciation of our natural condition.  Staying soft, staying home.

Mindfulness & Wuwei


I recently attended a two-day seminar on mindfulness training in a program promoted by Google.  A Google engineer was inspired by mindfulness and decided this practice should be Google’s next gift to the world.  The program is now being taught all over the world, largely in corporate settings.

Despite my initial skepticism, I thought it was quite good – the teachers were steeped in the practice and well-versed in the latest science on meditation, and of course both were clinical psychologists because that is the route through which modern science is opening up to the benefits of meditation.  Practices included attending to the breath, feeling the body, noticing emotions, journaling, and conscious listening.

It wasn’t noted in the seminar, but mindfulness meditation per se comes from Vipassasa practice in Buddhism.  Vipassana – meaning “keen observation” – uses systematic conscious observation as a gradual method to chisel away at our illusion and impurities in order to uncover our pristine original nature.  From a modern agnostic-scientific-corporate perspective, we are chiseling away at our distractedness in order to optimize our brain function, creativity, emotional intelligence, happiness, and productivity.

It is pragmatic to meet people where they are (“skillful means”), and these practices, which are fundamentally non-cultural and non-sectarian in nature, have adapted to many different cultural and religious contexts for millennia.  Since we’re living in a largely post-religious scientific world, it probably makes sense to present these practices from a scientific perspective, as most of us trust doctors, psychologists, and scientists more than priests or shamans.

While mindfulness practice is wonderful in itself and has countless “benefits”, I am compelled to write about the distinction between mindfulness & wuweidao – they are not the same thing.

The Chinese term xin (心) translates as heart-mind.  It represents our central consciousness consisting of a harmony of 5 distinct kinds of spirit, each associated with 1 of the 5 phases of qi.  One of these spirits is yi (意), which means mind-intent.

Mindfulness practice engages the yi to look into the xin in order to gain perspective, to calm down, and to improve our ability to remain centered or to handle difficult situations.  Two Chinese words for mindfulness practice are ding & guan (定觀) – focus & observation (see Ding-Guan post).

There is a term in esoteric Daoism called the “Yellow Woman” (黃牝) – these characters are featured above.  “Use the yellow woman to harmonize yin & yang”.  The color yellow implies the qi-phase soil, which represents central equilibrium and is associated with yi.  The character for woman here – “pin” – shows an ox plowing a field, so the image is of furrows in soil.  While the process of plowing represents intentional practice (wei, 為), the open, empty grooves represent emptiness, fertility, and open potential (wu, 無).

Most traditions, including Daoist alchemy, agree that meditation practice needs to start with some degree of intentional effort, but at some point effort needs to be abandoned in order to allow our practice to ripen.  In Daoist terminology, we start with youwei (有為) – intention and control (plowing the field), and finish in wuwei (無為) – abandoning intention and control (relaxing effort).

In wuweidao, we abandon intention and control pretty much from the very beginning.  It takes some degree of intention to sit and maintain the specific points of posture, but once we’re sitting we just let everything go, leaving our cultivation to the great Dao.  We’re not actively cultivating and we’re not exerting effort to be mindful – this is an important point.  Letting our mind be as it is without placing effort or mindfulness or anything else upon it.

Mindfulness is the process of actively plowing the field.  Wuweidao by comparison is the practice of empty-mindedness – xuxin (虛心).  While mindfulness may aspire to wuwei as an ultimate goal or consider it an advanced stage, in Laozi’s practice we consider wuwei the fundamental method of nature itself and jump right in with full faith in the capacity of Dao and our own inherent virtue.


10,000 methods come & go

From where, to where?

I don’t know

Weary of them all

Something else arises – of itself

Can’t really call it a method

Call it wuweidao


*image source: Richard Sears – thank you!

Wuwei & The Zen Circle of Zen Master Seung Sahn

One of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s foundational teachings was the Zen Circle.  It highlights different experiences and approaches to cultivation and serves as a compass for our practice.  He broke the circle into 0°, 90°, 180°, 270°, and 360°.

0° represents our “before practicing” condition.  In Buddhism this perspective is characterized by discomfort (dukkha) & delusion (samsara).  In Daoism it is characterized by vulnerability to qi-disorder.  This condition is our everyday “monkey-mind”, associated with animal consciousness and basic survival.

90° represents striving to improve ourselves, to gain understanding, or to find relief from suffering.  This includes self-improvement paths such as fitness & martial arts striving to achieve excellence; therapeutic paths working to release our issues; and philosophical paths ruminating to understand reality.  In Daoism these approaches are referred to as laying the foundation – they can be an important step in rectifying discomfort & delusion to prepare us for internal cultivation.  This perspective separates human beings from other animals, but it offers limited fruition if we don’t progress to other parts of the circle.

180° represents emptiness, samadhi – a direct encounter with our original nature.  In Daoism this is referred to as infinity (wuji), pre-heaven (xiantian), or original spirit (yuanshen).  The experience of wuji transcends paths of fitness, therapy, & rumination – these paths may or may not lead to 180°.  Laozi refers to 180° as “returning radiance” – turning the light of awareness around to shine upon itself.  Gazing into the source.  This is the direction of alchemy practice.  Daoist alchemy isn’t just gazing with the mind but turning all of our qi around to flow back into the unborn origin.  There are physiological changes.  But this fruition too is incomplete – it’s a phase, similar to sleep or death.  Dao continues to generate myriad worlds & creatures, so if we are to abide in complete reality we need to not fixate on samadhi.

270° represents the realm of magic and miracles.  Playing with pre-celestial qi.  This is the realm of Daoist ritual practice, tantric Buddhism, and some kinds of yoga.  It differs from 90° because we are channeling pre-celestial qi, so it is much more subtle.  Magical practices usually focus on refining qi, improving conditions for ourselves or others, or actively treating karmic conditions to bring them to resolution.  While such “getting what you want” practices may improve conditions, they ultimately don’t offer any lasting end to discomfort and struggle.

360° represents complete reality – things-as-they-are.  Laozi, like Zen, starts and ends here.  From this perspective, there is really no need to struggle for survival, to strive for fitness, release, or understanding, to focus inward, or to play with magic.  Letting ourselves be just as we are, without distortion, without spiritual ornamentation, and without effort is wuweidao.  This means responding to things as they arise.  Importantly, 360° is located in the same position as 0°.  This is the nature of “sudden” paths – we don’t have to gradually progress along any path in order to arrive, as the destination is always at hand if we only open our eyes.  All of the other points on the circle take time to ripen.

People often misunderstand Laozi as being a philosopher, alchemist, or sorcerer, but none of these are entirely correct.  “The great Dao is wide-open, but people like narrow-paths” (DDJ 53).  Narrow-paths are 90°, 180°, and 270°.  Once we have a wide-open 360°-view, we see these paths in a larger context.  We can see their benefits and limitations.  We can engage in them without becoming entrenched in them – our motives are different because our view is different.  Laozi’s adepts may or may not practice the myriad methods – none are required or prohibited.

“My way is easy, but no one can practice it” (DDJ 70).  Pragmatically speaking, it may be difficult for us to accept that our before-practicing condition is truly complete.  We may feel the need to practice narrow-paths to experience their limited fruition before we are ready to trust 360°.  Go for it.  At 360° there is no need for self-improvement, transcendence, or magic.  There is simply a profound appreciation of our natural experience.  Zen Master Seung Sahn summed up his experience in this wonderful poem about wuwei:

Your original nature is always shining and clear;

Human beings make something and enter the ocean of suffering;

But if you don’t make anything, you are already complete;

The high mountain is always blue, white clouds coming and going.


Emerging Phoenix

My community recently suffered  the most devastating wildfire in California history, with more than 6,000 homes burned.  As the community recovers, I am reminded of a phoenix rising from the ashes.

In Greek mythology, the phoenix is a bird that regenerates itself by dying in flames and emerging anew from the ashes.  It thus serves as a symbol of hope, recovery, and rebirth after disaster.  Let’s consider this image from the perspective of wuweidao.

People typically celebrate birth & growth and want to avoid decline & death.  In Laozi’s practice, we see these phases all as part of one continuum happening within an unchanging context.  Birth & growth inevitably lead to decline & death; decline & death inevitably lead to birth & growth.

In Laozi’s practice, we recognize all aspects of natural process as the unfolding expression of Dao.  We yield to whatever arises.  Struggling to maintain growth or to avoid decline brings about exhaustion, stiffness, & internal blockage – ironically increasing the power of decline & death.

Disaster happens; rebirth & recovery happens – like a pendulum.  Wuweidao means staying with things as they are – relaxing aspirations for what we want and resistance to what we don’t want.  Hoping to obtain, maintain, or avoid particular conditions is not really part of the basis of Laozi’s practice.

Wuweidao is about continuity – the continuously renewing stream of reality has no beginning, no end, and no interruptions.  To stay with reality, we have no choice but to experience birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death as they come.  Sometimes we need to go through destruction in order to continue.

Although one may expect such a laissez-faire view to lead to some kind of complacent stupor, if we engage this view in meditation & qi-cultivation, we find that something quite different emerges.

Yin darkness gives birth to yang radiance.  Zhuangzi thus described Laozi’s practice as “cold, dead ashes”.  While some Daoist arts look impressive and exciting, Laozi’s practice looks anything but.  We are relaxing yang-expression, letting the fire calm down to nurture the radiant embryo inside.

Laozi says: “Dao is wide-open, but people like narrow paths.”  The character for wide-open (夷) suggests barbarian tribes leveling a village to the ground.  This image is similar to wu (see What is Wu-Wei? post).  Laozi is reminding us that although we may prefer particular conditions, the field we are actually abiding in is wide-open and unconditioned – the unborn and undying field of reality.

Not only do death & disaster happen from time-to-time, but things are in a sense continuously dying and being born.  The stream of reality is like a standing wave – stable yet continuously flowing – out with the old, in with the new.  When we let this current flow, letting ourselves die moment-by-moment, we likewise find each moment fresh and new – continuously-arising inspiration.  The ten-thousand things are continuously being destroyed; the phoenix is continuously emerging.

Zen Master Seung Sahn (Part 1: Dark Night of the Seoul)

In 1994, I was having a “dark night of the soul” in the midst of college at UC Santa Barbara.  I didn’t know who I was, but I knew the answer must lie somewhere very far away.  I saw a flier advertising study abroad in China, and I signed right up.  On the way, we stopped in Korea for a week, and on a jet-lagged evening stroll, I wandered the streets of Seoul.  I made my way through a dark alley to Chogye Sah Temple, where there was a large crowd gathered.

The temple abbot approached me aggressively saying “You!” then pointed into the temple building saying “Zen Master Seung Sahn!” and shoved me inside.  I couldn’t understand a word of the Korean Dharma speech, but I watched as the master raised his stick above his head and shouted with the utmost confidence and energy, bringing the stick slamming down with a loud THUD!  I was hooked.

Afterward, as the master was blessing his fans at the gate, the abbot introduced us, and the master turned around and shot his eyes into mine, shouting, “Where you come from?!”  I experienced his question, his direction – that was transmission of Zen mind.  Emerging from that spacious moment that lasted forever, I muddled some weeny response, “uh, California”.  He shook his head and turned around, resuming his blessings.

Thus began my practice of Korean Zen.

Taking Refuge: The Three Treasures of Ritual Daoism

As ritual Daoism developed over the past few thousand years – blending ancient shamanic practices with Laozi’s insights and coming into contact with Buddhism – the concept of “Three Treasures” or San Bao (三寶) emerged.  As with any three-fold concept in Daoism, these relate to Heaven, Earth, & Humankind – or yang, yin, & the union thereof, respectively.

The Three Treasures of ritual Daoism are Dao, Jing, & Shi.  These roughly translate as way, scripture, & mastery.  (Note there are also Three Treasures of alchemical Daoism and Three Treasures of Laozi – I’m not talking about those).

Dao (道) or way refers to the primordial origin – the hidden wellspring that gives birth to myriad worlds & creatures.  Where we come from and where we go.  It also refers to the eternal procession of birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death.  The character implies grass growing by itself – the spontaneous emergence of worlds & creatures.

Jing (經) or scripture refers to the teachings of Dao – the views & methods that our lineage ancestors have passed down to us as guidance on how to encounter & embody Dao.  The character implies woven thread, referring to written teachings and also implying fundamental principle – the common thread running through the fabric of Daoist practice.

Shi (師) or mastery refers to our resulting experience when we practice and conduct ourselves according to the teachings of Dao.  It often refers to our teachers or practice community, or even hidden immortals who bring us insights.  The character implies accumulation and exaltation.  In the view of Laozi’s Daoism, mastery is abiding continuously in the wellspring amidst myriad phenomena.  Laozi sees such abiding as our natural condition.

Dao-Jing-Shi correspond respectively to Buddha-Dharma-Sangha, and the notion of taking refuge (拜) probably comes from Buddhism.  The starting point of Buddhism is the recognition that life brings discomfort (dukkha) so let’s find a way out.  Laozi doesn’t suggest we need any refuge from reality – we’re just there, perpetually, ever-embraced and supported by the primordial origin.  But he does acknowledge that human beings have a tendency to lose our way – so the Daoist approach to the Three Treasures is, to the extent that we lose touch with reality (Dao), it’s nice to have guidance (Jing) pointing us back to our natural condition (Shi).  The character for taking refuge or paying homage shows a hand placing crops on an altar – a sacrificial offering.  Giving to receive.  Daoists don’t worship deities but in ritual practice do place Dao-Jing-Shi on a pedestal to sanctify them and place ourselves in a position to receive energy and inspiration.

A traditional ritual gesture for taking refuge is to light three sticks of incense at our altar, hold them up, and recite: “I take refuge in Dao; I take refuge in Jing; I take refuge in Shi”, then bow three times and place the incense in our burner.

Real stuff comes through when we take refuge in Dao, Jing, & Shi.


Our tradition emphasizes the importance of View-Method-Fruition.  This trinary mechanism functions as a circle of “Great Completion” (大圓).

View is our perspective – how we see ourselves and how we see reality.  The character guàn (觀) shows a heron watching something, meaning to keenly perceive – this character also means Daoist temple.  Our view informs how we relate to the world, how we approach our formal practice methods, and what we expect to “get” out of our practice.

Method refers to our various formal practices of hygiene, meditation, & ritual, as well as our informal conduct.  The character yòng (用) shows a water bucket, indicating a useful device.  Methods are means to achieving a desired end result – like using a bucket to water a tree.

Fruition refers to the ripening experience resulting from practicing methods with a view.  The character guǒ (果) shows a tree bearing fruit – the successful achievement of the goal, the whole purpose of the bucket.

View-Method-Fruition correspond to Heaven, Earth, & Humankind – Heaven being the primary inspiration, Earth being the field of activity, and Humankind being the resulting fruit of the union of Heaven & Earth.

From this perspective, we can see the importance of looking into our view – what am I?  What is reality?  If method is a bucket, view is the water – we can put something else into the bucket but when we pour it onto the tree it’s not going to have the same effect.  Our practice needs to align view & method in order to ripen the fruit.

In the broad suite of spiritual or energetic practices out there, each is inspired by a particular view.  In the West today we have many opportunities to learn practice methods, but their transmission doesn’t always include the underlying view – the view is actually often stripped out in order to make the method more palatable to our existing views.  For example, we can learn yoga, meditation, or taiji by people who tell us we are free to apply our own beliefs to them.  This is the American way – show me what you’ve got, but don’t tell me how to think.  Wonderful.  But practicing Daoist methods without the corresponding view does not lead to the intended fruition.

This is particularly important when approaching the non-conceptual contemplative meditation & qi-cultivation of Laozi.  The method is simple but the view is paramount.  If we are pushing for results, Laozi’s method is futile.  If we are looking to get saved or to become a superhuman being, his method is worthless.  So in our school we study Laozi’s text as a “view” manual for meditation & qi-cultivation.  Laozi may not include many technical points, but his view-teaching deeply informs the proper method of contemplative meditation & qi-cultivation.

Not all Daoist texts and practice methods are aligned with Laozi.  Alchemical Daoism has a great deal of complex concepts that are important to understand in order to practice its methods effectively.  And the methods tend to be quite complex and elaborate.  Laozi’s contemplative Daoism by comparison doesn’t rely on many concepts so much as an atmospheric qi-quality shared between mentor & disciple in the context of Laozi’s teaching.  The corresponding method is simply abiding in that atmosphere.

My Daoist teacher was a view-teacher; he didn’t spend much time on method instruction.  Just enough for it to carry water to the roots.  If you’re studying a Daoist art, I encourage you to tap your teacher to ask about the underlying view of the practice.  In our tradition, when our practice starts to ripen, the view becomes ever more clear and the method becomes ever more effective.  This is the circle of Great Completion.

Hygiene, Meditation, & Ritual

As we’ve discussed, Daoism is a highly complex and elaborate system of cultivation.  In my 25 years of practicing with numerous teachers in different traditions, I’ve observed that most, if not all Daoist practice methods, fall primarily into one of three broad categories: hygiene, meditation, or ritual.  Although these distinctions may ultimately dissolve, as most methods are in fact forms of all three, I nevertheless think this breakdown is helpful as we approach the gate, particularly given our Western cultural context and the fractured nature of the transmission of Daoism to the West.

Hygiene.  Hygiene refers to Daoist health practices, including qigong, martial arts, acupuncture/massage, herbal medicine, and diet.  Even arts like painting, music, gardening, and fengshui can be considered ways of supporting our health and well-being.  One of the features that distinguishes Daoism from Buddhism is its greater emphasis on healing practices.  So Daoists are often known for good health and long lives.  The Daoist term for hygiene is yangsheng (养生), meaning “nourishing life”.  The majority of Daoist arts we see in the West today are various forms of yangsheng fairly disconnected from any orthodox tradition of meditation or ritual.  Westerners are increasingly interested in health & healing but not so commonly interested in ritual, so “non-religious” Daoist hygiene practices have found broad appeal here.  Traditionally yangsheng arts are indeed intended to help everyone live a better life, but for Daoist cultivators, yangsheng is more a matter of supporting and empowering our base of jing & qi so that our practices of meditation & ritual are effective.

Meditation.  There are many Chinese words for meditation, the most broad being “da-zuo” (打坐), which just means “sitting”.  There are endless methods we can undertake when sitting, from counting breaths to focusing on energy centers or pathways, reciting mantras, or visualizing deities.  There’s also the non-conceptual wuwei meditation of Laozi, which we emphasize in our school.  Many Westerners view meditation as a remedy for some problem – from high blood pressure to original sin – but for Daoists it’s either a way to enhance the power of ritual, a process of alchemical transformation, or simply a platform for appreciating our natural luminosity.  In the West today, there’s a great deal of interest in non-denominational, indeed medical meditation.  This is viewing meditation as merely a form of hygiene, which is fine, but such approach is far removed from what meditation has been in numerous traditions for millennia, and it really misses the central point.  Daoist meditation is about coming face to face with our nature – our true nature before birth.  So I distinguish it from hygiene & ritual as it has a distinct purpose.

Ritual.  Ritual – daojiao (道教) – is what many Western observers consider the “religious” aspect of Daoism.  The vast majority of Daoism throughout the ages has been a form of ritual practice.  Maintaining altars and temples, keeping precepts and chanting scriptures, casting spells and crafting talismans, and interpreting the calendar and divining auspices are central Daoist practices.  These methods are largely ways to benefit the lives of people or communities, to pacify the dead, and to help communities thrive with healthy harvests or peaceful relationships.  But they also provide a means of supporting and expressing the contemplative and alchemical experience of Daoist cultivators.  The robust traditions of Daoism have developed and maintained highly elaborate and complex ritual practices throughout the ages.  And yet there has also been a robust yet less visible hermit tradition of personalizing and distilling ritual down to its basis.  Fundamentally, ritual is a formal expression and engagement in the Dao.

From the perspective of our tradition, all human beings practice each of these categories to some extent.  Hygiene is simply taking care of ourselves – breathing, moving, and eating to support our base of jing & qi.  Formal yangsheng practices work with these natural systems to normalize and optimize jing & qi.  Meditation is also a natural inclination, driving us to find various ways to get out of our head and into the “zone”.  Daoist meditation follows this natural inclination to open us into a stable contemplative experience.  We’re also already undertaking ritual, be it conscious or not.  What we do repetitively each day, how we mark special occasions.  Daoist cultivators ritualize our everyday activities as a way of observing Dao.  Daoist ritual is an act of formally embracing the cycles of nature to acknowledge or evoke a shift in qi.  Having a focused, formal daily ritual ceremony is such a wonderful practice, it’s unfortunate how scarce it has become in our society.

Our formal engagement in each of these categories is up to us.  None of these areas is necessarily central, but certain traditions or individuals may treat one as more central than another.  Most important is the view we take into our practice methods – why are we doing this and what do we intend to “get” out of it?  There’s so much to be unpacked in the sections above – this is such a shallow scratching of the surface, but I think the context it sets is important.  I’ll be unpacking these areas a bit in future posts, but much is really more the purview of in-person training.

I hope this discussion helps to set some context about the array of methods out there and how they fit into the larger picture of Daoist cultivation.

What is Wu-Wei (無為)?

無-oraclebone 為-bigseal

Wuwei is probably the most inspired concept in all of human history.  Laozi coined this term in the Dao De Jing, and it is indeed the central theme of the text.  Laozi did not develop the basic cosmogony of Daoism – the waxing & waning of yin & yang was already well understood long before, and numerous other Daoist theories & practices are not necessarily inspired by Laozi.  What Laozi presented was wuwei – how the Dao functions in the world and how the sage conducts himself.  Although this term is important in all Daoist traditions, different traditions have different interpretations of what it means.  Let’s look at the old characters* from the perspective of our tradition.

The old character for wu (無) shows a person (人) holding wood (木) in either hand.  Perhaps because of the homophones for shaman (巫) and dancer (舞), it is typically understood as a dancing shaman holding ritual sticks.  I also see a person in the forest – a homeless hermit with nothing to his/her name, or a person holding “the uncarved block” – grasping unmanifest simplicity.  I also notice the entire character conveys the image of fire (火), and the modern traditional character places the radical for fire (灬) at the bottom, so the image of burning wood (i.e. transformation) may be important to understanding the meaning of wu.  Taking the gestalt of these images, I see a homeless shaman-sage conducting a ritual dance in order to transform or banish something.  The image is of ritual practice transforming something from one state to another.  This ritual represents what Hindus call the dance of Shiva.  What Brahma creates, Shiva destroys.  Shiva is not a devil; Shiva is that aspect of Dao that moves things along – transformation through destruction.  So wu means emptying things out, purging and moving them along, sending spirit up and leaving only ashes below.  It can also mean having nothing – no home or belongings, no agendas or delusions.  Wu is commonly used to denote nothingness or the lack of something.

The old character for wei (為) shows a claw above an elephant.  Whereas hand (手) represents skillful activity, claw (爪) implies exertion of force.  In ancient China, elephant (象) symbolized strength and intelligence.  So wei means cleverly wielding strength – deliberate, intentional activity undertaken in order to achieve some result.  Leading the elephant where you want it to go.  The character for elephant also means form or appearance, so another meaning could be to claw at appearances, which also implies exerting force to get something.  Most of Daoism throughout history has indeed consisted of undertaking intentional methods in order to achieve specific results.  Interestingly, when the character for person is added to the left, it generates another character wei (偽) that means false pretense, artificial, or contrived.  I think wei also suggests the magical “getting what you want” practices that exist within Daoism.

What does it mean when we put these two words together?  The Dao De Jing has no punctuation marks and the language is very terse, so terms like wuwei can be read separately as wu & wei or together as a single concept.  Some schools interpret wuwei as using emptiness (wu) in order to achieve certain results (wei); others interpret it as using intention (wei) in order to push things along to another state (wu).  In our tradition, we view wuwei as a single concept that describes the way nature functions.

Wu is our state before birth.  Before our mother & father were born, what were we?  Long after our children pass away, what are we?  In our practice, we become intimate with the nothingness that precedes, underlies, and outlasts our lives.  Our tradition notes that no matter how much effort (wei) we apply in shaping the world to meet our desires, wu always comes along and transforms our creations back into nothingness.  Even if we make some huge mark on the world, eventually that mark passes away.  Wuwei invites us to try something different.  What would it be like to apply wu to our wei?  Extinguish all effort.  Abandon strength and cleverness. This shift opens up the possibility of relating to the world (and to our practice of meditation & qi-cultivation) in a different way.  Relating without struggle & strain.

Wei is based on wanting things to be other than they are.  Wuwei is accepting things as they are, adjusting to the continuous transformations of nature.  Laozi’s practice is not about getting what we want but relaxing into the way things are.

Wuwei is how we come into the world and how we grow and change and return.  Wuwei is how water flows downstream, how clouds form and break apart, how trees grow and blow in the wind.  Nature functions through wuwei – the birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death of myriad worlds & creatures is not driven by intention and effort.  It just happens.  Like good art.  The ritual image of wu suggests personal engagement in this natural process.

Laozi said: “wuwei but not buwei” – wuwei is not “doing nothing” as a direct translation might suggest.  Daoism includes various active practices of hygiene, meditation, & ritual.  But Laozi’s tradition does not focus on practicing particular methods so much as on how we practice whatever we are practicing.  Wuwei invokes a qualitative shift away from struggle & strain, finding natural ease in our conduct moment-to-moment.  Retract the claws and dance with Shiva.

*image source: Richard Sears – thank you!

Stable Gaze: A Look at “Ding-Guan” (定觀)

Now let’s look at the term “ding-guan”.  This is an interesting term that is quite similar to “qing-jing” (see Clear & Calm post).  In fact, it’s just a different way of describing the same energetic experience, although I think it provides additional perspective.

Laozi did not use this term, but he did use each character individually.  Chapter 37: “Without desire, there is calm, and all under Heaven will settle (ding) of itself.”  Chapter 16: “Remaining utterly calm, the myriad things merge together; I thereby observe (guan) returning.”  The Tang-Dynasty Ding-Guan scripture describes a gradual method of settling into calm observance.

The character for ding (定) shows a person under a roof.  It means to put something in its place, to confine or fixate.  Ding is sometimes used to translate the Buddhist word Samadhi – one-pointed concentration.  So it also means to concentrate, to focus, or to reach a state of non-arising pure awareness.  I can’t think of a single word to perfectly translate ding, but how about “stability”.

The character for guan (觀) shows a heron watching something.  Perhaps a fish, perhaps open space.  Like its sharp bill, its awareness is penetrating.  So guan means to adeptly observe or notice phenomena.  Guan is also the term for Daoist temple – a platform for observing reality.  Let’s translate it as “gaze”.

Ding & guan individually describe opposing poles of awareness – we can subdue the fire or we can direct it outward; together they describe a state of stable, uncontrived awareness.  Neither held down nor projected outward but nevertheless stable & open.  Calm & clear.

While it is possible to treat ding as a goal, in Laozi’s wuweidao we see it as something that just happens of itself when we calm down.  We don’t want to approach ding with effort.  When it arises of its own, it’s an easy, reliable base, providing root-power to our practice.  My Zen teacher (Zen Master Seung Sahn) always said pursuing one-pointed concentration is a mistake.  Too much focus obstructs our view.  When we calm down and relax into our base, qi effortlessly stabilizes and gathers into a nice ground for sitting.

It’s also possible to over-emphasize observing as a method – like pro-active “mindfulness”.  From the perspective of Laozi’s tradition, observing is not something we have to “do” – if we remain calm and present, we cannot help but notice the myriad activity in our senses, emotions, and mind.  Things come & go of themselves; we don’t have to actively watch them come & go.

While it’s helpful to look at ding & guan separately, in reality they are different ways of describing a singular experience.  If this sounds like a precarious balancing act, then I have not described it well.  From the perspective of our tradition, ding-guan is not something we achieve by effort.  Actually effort obstructs our experience of ding-guan.  Laozi’s method requires neither intense concentration nor compulsive mindfulness.  We settle into our posture, breathe naturally, and maintain an open gaze.  This is our formal method of sitting meditation.  Practicing regularly over a period of time, this method reveals the inherent presence of ding-guan.  We don’t have to reach to get there – just stay where we actually are.

“Missing You” – The Nine Xiang-Er Mandates of Zhang Dao Ling

Did you know that the first “religious” Daoist community came up with a list of nine principles that summarize the entire Dao De Jing?

In the year 142 C.E., a certain Zhang Dao Ling had a vision of Laozi and subsequently established the Tianshi Daoist tradition – the Way of Celestial Mastery.  Attributed to him is a text called the Xiang-Er (想爾), which I like to translate as “missing you”.  In addition to a commentary on DDJ chapters 3-37, as well as numerous rules for Tianshi adepts, the text includes 9 mandates that distill Laozi’s key teaching points to guide adepts into Laozi’s fruition.  As such, they contain essential guidance for how to comport ourselves in formal meditation & qi-cultivation, as well as in informal conduct (daily life).

According to orthodox Daoism, the mandates are guidelines for how we conduct ourselves when we are fully in touch with our nature.  They are, importantly, not a list of moral rules or commandments that we impose upon ourselves – they are simply the way we actually are.  If we find ourselves out of touch with our nature (“missing you”), these mandates help to bring us back.

My teacher said “if this was all you had, it would be enough.”  In our school, we use these mandates as precepts and recite them in our daily ritual practice.  We also have unpublished commentaries about what each of these mandates mean with regard to meditation & qi-cultivation.  But it’s not really enough just to read the mandates or a commentary – they are intended to trigger an exchange between teacher & disciple that in turn triggers a process within.

I’m a little hesitant to post them without a personal discussion – these translations are provisional and need to be unpacked in the context of formal practice, but they are published in different translations anyway so here they are:

Extinguish effort (wúwéi, 無為)

Remain soft & weak (róuruò, 柔弱)

Preserve the feminine, do not initiate activity (shǒucí wùxiāndòng, 守雌勿先动)

Remain nameless (wúmíng, 無名)

Remain clear & calm (qīngjìng, 清静)

Function with competence & benevolence (zhūshàn, 诸善)

Relinquish desire (wúyù, 無欲)

Cease with sufficiency (zhīzhǐ shīrènwéi, 知止师认为)

Relax aggression (tuīràng, 推让)

With gratitude to Zhang Dao Ling.  Let’s keep his teaching alive.