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 previous blog).  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 schools that promote “mindfulness”.  What a burden.  Observing in wuweidao 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.  Compulsive mindfulness is destabilizing, so let’s give it a rest.

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.

Clear & Calm: A Look at “Qing-Jing” (清靜)

Today I want to discuss one of the most common and important terms in all of Daoism: “qing-jing”.

Laozi first used this term in Dao De Jing chapter 45: “Qing-jing rectifies all under Heaven”.  Zhang Dao-Ling included it as is one of the nine “mandates” of the Tian-Shi Daoist tradition (2nd-century CE), and the Qing-Jing scripture, written during the Tang Dynasty, is recited by Quan-Zhen Daoists today.

To understand the phrase let’s look at each character individually first, and then look at them together in the context of meditation & qi-cultivation.

The character for qing (清) includes the radical for water and the character for natural bluish-green color, so we can translate it as something like “clear blue water”.  It’s the opposite of muddy water.  So it is often translated as clear or pure.  But the character is not only a noun, it can also be a verb or adjective, so we can also say it is to clear something out or to have a clear view.

The character for jing (靜) includes the same character for clear blue water and also the character for contention.  The meaning is to calm down contention – the image is like turbulent rapids coming to rest in a pool.  So it is often translated as stillness or tranquility.  It essentially means to be calm or to calm down, to settle, or to maintain a calm demeanor.

Together we can consider qing-jing to mean to clear out murkiness and calm down agitation.  Clarity relates to shen (spirit), while calm relates to qi (energy).  We want the processes of clearing shen and calming qi to happen together, like mud settling down and leaving the water clear.  Of course we all know that to let mud settle we have to leave it alone, not hasten to push it down.  That’s wuwei.

So the initial method in Laozi’s Daoism is called jing-zuo – “calm-sitting”.  It involves important points of posture, letting the breath be natural, and resting in open awareness.  This method allows mud to settle.  As our qi calms down and our spirit clears up, we invite the great qing-jing to come visit.  As it turns out, our context is already clear & calm – great clarity, da-qing (大清), is wide-open space; great calm, da-jing (大靜), is the ever-present stillness underlying all movement.  These are also called Heaven & Earth.

Clarity is opening the upper dantian.  Calm is settling into the lower dantian.  Calm relates to heat, clarity to light.  When the upper dantian opens, the clear water lets in sunlight.  As the 4th-century BCE Neiye says, “great clarity perceives great luminosity”.  Some Daoist schools discourage open meditation because it may leave us vulnerable to possession.  I think they are correct if we have not established stability in the lower dantian.  The Neiye also says, “if you can calm the heart-mind, you will naturally establish stability”.  Calm provides a stable base that grounds out incoming energies – this allows us to enjoy open luminosity while protecting us from possession.  Grounded stability is really important for this practice.  Love the mud.

The reason calm-sitting is considered initial is not the method so much as the view.  We generally need to calm down in order to enter into Laozi’s practice.  But really qing-jing is not a goal – it’s an aspect of our nature.  So Laozi’s sitting is not really a method to clear the shen and calm the qi – it’s a platform for appreciating Heaven & Earth.  In our sitting, if our method is correct, we will come to notice a feeling of stability below and openness above – like dropping the anchor and opening the sunroof – this is qing-jing.  It’s not a concept, it’s an energetic experience.  I hope you experience this great open stillness.  Laozi’s adepts enter effortlessly, relying on da-qing & da-jing.

Indeed Heaven & Earth continue to generate murkiness & agitation.  Like a stream going from pool to riffle, pool to riffle.  Of course this is not a problem, it’s just how things are.  So the next step in Laozi’s practice is to abandon the quest for clarity & calm – just rely on Heaven & Earth and let things come and go naturally.  That’s non-dual wuweidao.

What are we to do?  Let’s abandon rumination and just sit calmly for a while every day.

Old-School or New-School Daoism?

I was recently asked whether I consider our tradition to be old-school or new-school Daoism.  Interesting question.  Here’s my response.

One of the names I’ve taken for our school is “Original Root Order” (源根派).  Let there be no mistake: we trace our lineage-inspiration to the old-school original Daoist teaching as expressed by Laozi.  And yet, as we enter into Laozi’s teaching, we come to realize there is in fact no authentic Daoist expression except that which spontaneously arises moment-by-moment.

What is often referred to as old-school Daoism can also be referred to as Daoist traditionalism.  Traditionalist schools may be brimming with millennia of accoutrements that may deeply inspire and support or, from the perspective of our tradition, may in fact weigh us down and inhibit authentic cultivation, depending on how we engage them.

On the other hand, a casual, free-wheeling approach to Daoism (which, beware, lends itself to the individualistic and self-assured nature of the Western mind), may in fact be nothing but a branch broken from its root – destined to wither and die before it bears fruit.

As it turns out, “Laozi” translates as “old-new”.  Lao (老) means elder – those who have come before us.  Laoshi means teacher.  Dao (道) itself is the ultimate lao – “that which precedes the gods”.  Zi (子) means baby or child – that which recently emerged, or perhaps that which is arising this very moment – fresh, with no accumulated merit or baggage.  We use the term De (德) to denote the moment-to-moment expression of Dao.  So Laozi means Dao-De.

The authentic Daoist experience is rooted in the unborn Dao and spontaneously expresses itself moment-by-moment.  To the extent that we lose touch with this experience, let’s take a cue from Confucius and bow to those ancients who wrote down guidelines and passed along methods to return us to this experience.  As we bow, we give reverence and receive inspiration.  But let’s not overly rely on provisional teachings and methods and thus overlook the direct, uncontrived experience of our own nature.

The training I received from my root-Daoist teacher was centered on Daoist “view” and the proper method of contemplative non-conceptual meditation (zuowang, 坐忘).  This approach was present in both the early Tian-Shi and Quan-Zhen traditions and has continued alongside various ritual and alchemy traditions throughout Daoist history.  Its presence however always tends to be overshadowed by the more remarkable aspects of those traditions.

Daoism is steeped in numerous cultural elements and social dynamics that may or may not be inspired by wuweidao.  There were few accoutrements in my training.  My teacher actively discouraged Westerners from taking on the cultural elements of Chinese Daoism.  He focused on view-transmission and playfully and adeptly shared his extensive knowledge of numerous Daoist arts – always emphasizing the essence of the art above the form.  There may be something contrived about Westerners adopting too much Chinese tradition.  We need to attend to our own ancestors.  Wuweidao is the way things are – our tradition is to stay with reality as it is and not necessarily hold to traditional forms of expression.

When his teacher, “old Master Liu”, fled from northern China during the Japanese invasion, he wasn’t able to bring much with him.  His family had perished; his temple had been destroyed.  Eventually he made his way into a cave outside Taipei, where he stayed on retreat for 20 years until he was visited by a young Euro-American savant.  After a year of training, he passed on his thousand-year old family lineage, trusting that the root of his tradition of “wuweidao” would effectively transmit to the West without the old cultural accoutrements.

Daoism in general suffered severely during the 20th century – in the civil war, the Japanese invasion, and the Cultural Revolution.  In the past 25 years, the traditions have been opening up quite a bit, and now Daoism is becoming robust once again.  That’s wonderful – it’s tempting to rejoice, but nothing in Laozi’s teaching supports us getting too excited about the waxing or waning of traditions.  Just continue.

As far as our tradition, we are carrying forward the fundamental view & method of Laozi’s wuweidao.  We’re exploring different elements of Chinese hygiene, alchemy, ritual, and more, but we are centered totally on Laozi’s non-conceptual meditation and a thorough steeping in the Dao De Jing.  My teacher opened up this text for me, as old Master Liu did for him.

So are we old-school or new-school?  All I know is: we’re keeping the cauldron warm, and sweet dew falls from above.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog.  Please contact me with any questions or if you would like to discuss.

Sudden-School Daoism

Today I want to talk about “sudden-school” Daoism.  I’m not sure this term has been used before so maybe I’m coining it now.  But historically there was a lot of debate in Buddhist circles, particularly Chinese Zen (Chan), about whether awakening was a gradual process or a sudden event.  In the end, the sudden-school won out, and gradual-schools were deemed lesser, incomplete paths.

Daoism is a little different.  We must not deny the role of gradual progress.  Laozi observed that a large tree starts as a tiny sapling.  If we are undertaking qi-cultivation of any kind, be it Taijiquan, calligraphy, or Daoist ritual practice, there is a lot to learn, and there is absolutely no such thing as suddenly mastering such arts.  Qi doesn’t work that way – it grows gradually.

However, we have options in how we view this growth.  If we are looking for some grand award or release when we compete our development, then in fact we are practicing a lesser, incomplete path.  I would call it a dualistic path because we’re distinguishing between our present “lesser, incomplete” condition and a desired, refined condition.

Another option is to view our practice not as a means toward an end but a way to engage and express the ever-present Dao.  This shift in view puts everything in a different perspective, and indeed it is sudden, not a gradual shift.  It’s not really something we can work toward – it’s not like we need to do a bunch of gradual practice before our view can open up.  No.  Let’s view our nature as it is right now.  Your next move expresses the ever-present Dao.

This shift isn’t really a grand event, it’s more like “oh, yeah, that’s right” – and suddenly now we’re engaging everything in a totally different manner.  Let’s proceed to engage our practice methods so they can gradually bear fruit.  But let’s not burden the sapling with the false view that it is incomplete and will only realize its nature once it touches the sky.  It’s already touching the sky.  Let its growth be a gradual expression of the ever-present Dao.

Welcome to “sudden-school” Daoism.

What is Contemplative Daoism?

Welcome to my new blog.  Let me begin by addressing the approach we take to cultivating Dao in the “contemplative” Daoist tradition.

Daoism consists of a broad array of numerous and varied traditions each cultivating Dao in its own peculiar way.  While each is rooted in ancient Chinese thought, different traditions often have totally different and even conflicting interpretations of fundamental concepts, methods, and goals.  Daoists tend to accept other traditions as legitimate paths.  There is no universal Daoist path – different approaches may suit different people at different stages.  They don’t all necessarily lead to the same result.  Regardless of our approach, it’s important to clearly understand the distinct view underlying our practice methods if we want them to bear their intended fruit.

We can say that among the numerous traditions, there are generally two broadly-defined streams flowing through Daoism – often interweaving with one another, yet nevertheless distinct.  My teacher classified these two streams as “Alchemical Daoism” and “Contemplative Daoism”.

Alchemical Daoism views our uncultivated condition as either flawed, vulnerable, or incomplete.  Therefore its goal is to improve and refine our experience, ultimately transforming ourselves into an exalted state.  Some traditions cultivate shamanistic waidan (external alchemy) empowerment methods, such as talismans, divination, or spell-casting.  Other traditions cultivate neidan (internal alchemy) methods to refine jing into qi into shen into xu, ultimately into Dao.  Alchemical fruition is considered a grand accomplishment, and the success rate is somewhat low because the required commitment is so great and there are so many potential pitfalls.

Contemplative Daoism is different.  We view our uncultivated condition as nothing other than the flawless and pristine, pure qi of Dao.  To the extent that we find ourselves “missing the Dao”, this is a result of our own self-generated delusion, bolstered by cultural conditioning and habitual misuse of qi.  Since birth, we have been cultivating this or that, which has shaped our current experience.  How do we resume our natural, uncultivated intimacy with Dao?  The contemplative path says Dao is not something we can achieve – and it is not something we can lose.  As my teacher said: “we don’t get there by effort, we’re simply there by nature”.  If we hold this view, we engage our practice methods in a totally different manner.  And fruition doesn’t bring any sense of grand accomplishment, just a feeling of natural ease and subtle illumination.

Alchemical Daoism has a lot to learn and achieve – many complex, esoteric concepts and practice methods.  It’s inherently a gradual, transformative process, and there needs to be an intimate connection between teacher and student and a close, careful transmission over a long period of time.  There’s often a tight tribe with strong lineage-identity helping one another along.  These traditions tend to be robust in nature, generating numerous cultural treasures – behold all the splendid temples, altars, and robes.  These traditions also tend toward esotericism and distinguishing between marginal “outdoor” students and trusted “indoor” disciples.

By comparison, there’s really not much to learn in the contemplative path.  It’s like a wide-open valley that accepts numerous and varied paths unto itself but commits to none.  We may take on various methods, but rather than relying on them for progressive transformation, we simply play with them to find ways to express our experience of the ever-present Dao.  Our methods are about staying with our natural experience rather than trying to transform it.  This stream doesn’t really generate a strong sense of lineage affiliation.  While adepts may find intimacy with fellow cultivators, there’s not as much of a club mentality and less dependence on a teacher.  There are, however, important guidelines for how we comport ourselves – but these are self-arising principles, not something developed but observed and noted by adepts that came before us.  Laozi called this path “wuwei” (無為), meaning “uncontrived”.  The uncontrived naturalness of wuwei doesn’t draw attention to itself.  In this sense it’s inherently a form of secret or hidden Daoism.  And yet wuwei adepts don’t hold a strong of sense of esotericism, because contemplative secrecy is innate – not something that can be exposed, so it need not be withheld.  This path doesn’t culminate in a sense personal accomplishment but a relaxed realization of how things actually are.

Interestingly, alchemical paths may naturally lead to an empowered contemplative experience, and contemplative paths may give rise to naturally-arising alchemy.  We are a contemplative school, yet we find alchemical paths fascinating and enriching – a way to express and embellish and indeed support our natural experience.  We are an alchemical school, but we only really value that alchemy that supports or expresses a natural contemplative experience.

This is the view of our school.  I look forward to sharing additional blog-posts.  The theme will be Laozi’s contemplative Daoism, but who knows exactly where it will lead.  If you want some basic info on Daoism or our school, see our website at www.oldoakdao.org.  If you are interested in receiving blog posts or if you found this blog of interest or would like to discuss, please contact me – I look forward to corresponding with you.