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.