Let’s check out this Chinese character – (shù, 術). It has 3 parts – center, left, & right. In the center is the character for wood (mù, 木). Wood is one of the Five Elements or Qi-Phases; it represents young yang, springtime, morning – like a young shoot piercing through the surface of the earth. I’m not sure what the small stroke at the top means (术), but I surmise that it has something to do with the movement of wood – so I take the central character to essentially mean growth or the process of qi rising and moving and transforming.
The character on the left (chì, 彳) means stepping with the left foot. The character on the right (chù, 亍) means stepping with the right foot. If we take the left & right character together and remove the center, it means to step slowly (chìchù, 彳亍). If we put them into a single character, we get xíng (行), which means to walk or circulate – remember the Xing Qi Jade Inscription?
So what does the full character shù (術) mean? The slow stepping of wood? The step-by-step process of growth and transformation. Moment-to-moment flow of Dao. It may surprise us to learn that the character translates as “method”, “art”, or “technique”, as in wushu (wǔshù, 武術) – martial art.
We sometimes refer to our central practice of Zuowang as the method of no-method, similar to Silent Illumination Chan. But of course there’s a method to sitting appropriately, just like anything else.
I practice a Russian martial art called Systema. One of the central ideas of Systema is not focusing on techniques but rather the principles of posture, relaxation, breathing, & natural movement. Of course there are tons of techniques, but Systema lets them arise spontaneously in response to the situation. This is why I’ve always felt Systema is a marvelous expression of wuwei. It’s not about not having any techniques, but not “making” any techniques, not forcing anything onto the situation – staying precisely in the situation we’re in and responding appropriately based on the principles. Techniques arise of themselves. The nice thing about martial arts is we can test their efficacy – it’s not just a philosophical position. That unforgiving feedback is really helpful!
Shu (術) doesn’t mean we have to practice this method or that method. And it certainly doesn’t mean we need to introduce unnatural or exotic practices into our experience. It means if we’re going to practice some art – whatever it is – then we need to attend to the process of growth and transformation very carefully, step-by-step. This means staying with reality as-it-is right now.
Our tradition speaks of “method” in terms of formal practice & informal conduct. Formal practice means various arts of hygiene, meditation, & ritual, all practiced within the context of our view-teaching. Different ways to support & express our human life. But Daoism doesn’t just mean doing some formal Daoist practice. Perhaps it means staying closely attuned to the clay when spinning a potter’s wheel. Perhaps it means fully expressing each note when playing a flute. Perhaps it’s the way a deer steps through the forest, or the way a poem rises out of an inspired moment*. Is this a method or a non-method?
Step with care.
*Shout out to Heath Thompson.