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.

Author: Wuming Chuan