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 term also suggests “ripening the seed” as the text includes instructions for bringing forth a direct experience of 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.  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 of 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.