One of my favorite stories that Zen Master Seung Sahn used to tell is about a monk in Korea several hundred years ago named Sok Du, which means “Rock Head”. Not the shiniest head in the monastery, but he had a very strong question. He couldn’t understand sutras so he tried Zen, but even Zen was too difficult for him, so he just practiced working around the monastery.
One day he told the resident Zen master he was tired of being so dull and confused. The master told him he needed to ask a good question. So Sok Du asked “What is Buddha?” The master answered “Juk shim shi bul” which means “Buddha is heart-mind”, but Sok Du heard “Jip shin shi bul” which means “Buddha is grass shoes”.
Huh? Sok Du was stuck. What could this mean? He didn’t understand. He didn’t bother asking the master for any explanation. In his dim-witted sincerity, he only kept this question as he continued working around the monastery. Three years later he had a major breakthrough and returned to his teacher, who verified his experience.
Zen Master Seung Sahn used this story to demonstrate how little conceptual understanding we need to wake up to our true nature. He often said: “Understanding cannot help you.”
I like this story because it demonstrates the non-conceptual nature of paths like Zen. This story would be ridiculous in conceptual schools, which require very meticulous understanding of the finer points of the teaching and very precise instruction on the correct methods of practice, often requiring many years if not decades of careful study.
Sok Du may not have realized it, but he was practicing the correct method of gong-an/hua-tou style Zen. This isn’t the same practice as wuweidao – I don’t want to conflate them, however the view is quite similar even if the qi-posture is quite different. Gong-an practice takes our aggressive energy and re-directs it toward awakening, whereas wuweidao relaxes aggression at the source. But they are both non-conceptual practices that do not rely on a sophisticated understanding of sutras or scriptures.
Recall that Laozi distinguishes Dao from learning – they are not the same thing. If our spiritual practice is based on adding layers of understanding, we are not practicing Laozi’s wuweidao.
I suppose this reads as a sort of manifesto for stupidity. A better word is probably simplicity. Laozi observes that our nature conceals itself from cleverness but reveals itself in simplicity. What are we to do?
Eat, breath, move, rest.
A question sometimes arises in people who enjoy Laozi’s laissez-faire teaching: why would we need to practice sitting meditation or any other formal practice? To be sure, Laozi’s teaching does not mandate any formal practice. Fundamentally speaking, in fact, the teaching itself need not arise.
But it does arise – this indicates the need for teaching, or at least some appetite for teaching. Laozi doesn’t recognize any grand fall from grace, but he does recognize that human beings have a tendency to lose our way. Thus, teaching & practice (Hygiene, Meditation, & Ritual) appear.
The teaching simply points to our own natural, uncontrived experience. It shifts our qi-orientation back to what is so of itself (Dao-De).
According to my wuweidao lineage teacher, we have four mandated practices: breathing, eating, moving, & resting. Everything else is details. Options for how to cultivate these mandates.
So no, we don’t need to practice sitting meditation. We don’t need to chant. We don’t need any altars, any scriptures. We don’t need any Taiji forms. We don’t need fengshui or astrology or divination.
Yet there are ways to breathe, eat, move, & rest that bring about discomfort, disease, and death before our time, and there are ways to breathe, eat, move, & rest that support natural comfort, ease, and longevity. So we sit, we chant, we keep altars, practice Taiji forms, adjust fengshui, study astrology, cast yarrow stalks to inform our conduct… we practice the myriad methods with the view of wuwei. The forms are empty, but when we cultivate them without attachment or struggle, they somehow bear unexpected fruit (View-Method-Fruition). I don’t understand, but I can say the fruit is sweet.
There is no pressure to accomplish anything in wuweidao, just methods to stay with our own uncontrived nature – which is constantly abiding, effortlessly of itself. It doesn’t need our practice. But it does seem to like our attention. Firm discipline is an expression of reverence for Dao, but it’s not about struggle. It’s just about bringing the qi back home. As our practice matures, what may appear to others to be uptight discipline, actually feels easy, maybe even a bit indulgent on the inside.
This ripening comes from a relaxed view and disciplined practice. So let’s forget about necessary or unnecessary and just settle into the ease of practice. That’s what it’s here for.
The central practice method of wuweidao is sitting quietly and simply abiding in things-as-they-are. This practice has been given many names throughout history, and different traditions have approached it in different ways. Our tradition refers to it as Zuowang – Sitting & Forgetting. This term comes from the Zhuangzi, which says: “Dropping the body and dismissing concepts, leaving appearance and removing knowledge, merging with the Great Pervasion – this I call sitting & forgetting.” My teacher learned this method from a Daoist hermit who had been on retreat in a cave in northern Taiwan for 20 years.
The practice consists of a view and a method – the view of Zuowang as practiced in Laozi’s tradition is distinctly different from alchemical practices geared to bring about refinement and transformation. It’s also quite different from magical practices that manipulate qi to improve auspices. It doesn’t conflict with these practices – and in fact is often practiced in conjunction with them – yet it stands alone as something disengaged from aspirational pursuits. Wuweidao isn’t about producing some exalted state – it’s simply relaxing into our natural condition, uncontrived by effort and intention.
Laozi’s revelation is that our nature and Nature itself are inseparable, so the method of Zuowang is not about refining ourselves into something better but appreciating our nature as we actually are. This is why we sometimes refer to it as “Sudden-School Daoism” – a term borrowed from Chan/Zen Buddhism. We view Laozi’s Dao De Jing as an instruction manual for how to abide in our natural condition. But as my teacher said, the text is intended to spark conversation between teacher & student during personal transmission, as it needs to be “opened up” by an adept of the practice.
In the Tang Dynasty, as Buddhism came over the Himalayas and brushed up against Daoism, some keen-eyed monks recognized a resonance between Zuowang and the teachings of Buddha – in particular the Diamond and Heart sutras – and Chan (Zen) was born. In particular, the Caodong Chan tradition, and later the Soto Zen tradition in Japan, took the mantle of this non-conceptual meditation, placed it into the Buddhist worldview, and carried it forward as the central method for Buddhist awakening. Zuowang as practiced within Daoism seems to have taken on an aspirational quality at this time – as Daoists came to more concretely articulate their goals and distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary experience, Zuowang was increasingly viewed as a tool for accessing the Dao or attaining immortality, as evidenced in gradual-entry texts such as the Zuowang Lun. Fundamentally however, according to our tradition, Zuowang isn’t geared around any such agenda, as Laozi doesn’t presume that we’ve lost anything that we need to recover. Actually, sitting without any agenda is precisely what Zuowang is in its pure sense – simply a platform for appreciating our nature, which Laozi refers to as Dao-De.
Let’s look at the Chinese characters.
Zuo (坐) means “sit”. The character shows people on soil. Soil is the element or qi-phase of central equilibrium, so we can say this posture relates to Laozi’s “holding center” in Dao De Jing Chapter 5. The idea of sitting is not only a physical posture but a qi-posture of letting movement settle into stillness. “Letting mud settle” brings the qi in and provides a stable base for natural qi circulation and – indeed – natural alchemy to arise.
Wang (忘) means “forget”. The character shows the head & heart hiding, or the heart-mind perishing, so the idea is letting the heart-mind calm down, relaxing the qi down to the base and disengaging from thoughts & emotions. The term suggests effortless emptying, it’s not really an active technique – thus the practice embodies wuwei.
The Zuowang method in our tradition includes several precise facets that allow the practice to unfold in an easy and natural manner. I am not inclined to publish them at this time, as I prefer to share them in person. It is my wish to share this practice with like-minded adepts. If this practice appeals to you, check out our Wuweidao Cultivation Group. If you would like an introduction to this practice, or if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.
I am holding a group introduction to Zuowang in Santa Rosa, CA, on March 3, 2019. For details, email me at email@example.com or see: https://www.facebook.com/events/359401381311047/.
You can download a free introductory talk on Zuowang by my teacher, Liu Wen Ming, at: https://www.dayuancircle.org/zuowang-introduction/, and you can purchase his invaluable translation & commentary on the Dao De Jing at: https://www.dayuancircle.org/observing-wuwei/.
Let’s look at the basic concepts of “jing”, “qi”, & “shen”. These are collectively known as the “Three Treasures” (sānbǎo, 三宝) of internal alchemy. They are often translated as “body”, “breath”, & “mind”, which is a good trio but not really a complete translation. It’s helpful to understand these terms, and the view behind them, to effectively practice Daoist cultivation.
Jing (精) is vital-essence – the tendency for form & substance to appear in the world, our tendency to become embodied creatures. We receive jing from our parents at conception and from our mother during gestation. Jing is associated with fluids and contains our ancestral DNA; the Chinese consider it to hold our fate or destiny – “Heaven’s command” regarding our unique capacities and pre-dispositions. The quality of our jing depends on the quality of our parents’ jing during conception and gestation, as well as our own conduct in life, particularly our movement and nutrition.
Qi (氣, pronounced “chee”) is vital-energy – movement, breath, time, change. The ever-revolving walk of Dao. The unfolding movement of our jing. Qi is associated with wind and fire. But it is also often used as a shorthand for everything, including jing & shen. Qi can refer to different kinds of energy in different contexts. In internal alchemy it generally refers to heat and movement. We have internal qi, and there is also the qi of the environment and cosmos.
Shen (神) is vital-spirit – awareness. The experience of jing-qi. According to Daoism, we have 5 kinds of shen, associated with the 5 phases/elements (Wood, Fire, Soil, Metal, & Water). The 5 shen are different aspects of consciousness. In the Daoist view, shen is not entitative in nature but is more like drops from a boundless ocean. Our original shen emerges fresh and pure from the unborn origin, but as it splits into 5 it takes on conditions based on our jing & qi, as well as how we manage our mind.
Jing, qi, & shen are all really the same “stuff” – just different parts of a tripartite spectrum. Jing is the most coarse, shen is the most fine. These correspond to Earth, Humankind, & Heaven, respectively.
Jing, qi, & shen exist in two states, known as xiantian & houtian. Xiantian (先天) translates as “before Heaven” or “pre-celestial” and refers to our innate nature before being shaped by the winds of Heaven. Houtian (後天) translates as “after Heaven” or “post-celestial” and refers to our acquired condition based on how the winds have shaped us and how we have conducted ourselves.
The Three Treasures collectively comprise our life. The three traditional deities of ritual Daoism – San Qing (三清) or Three Purities – are simply symbolic representations of the Three Treasures in their pure, unmanifest form. What appears to be deity worship in Daoist ritual is actually a way of re-calibrating our post-celestial jing, qi, & shen to their original, pure condition.
There is a lot more we can say about these terms; this post is simply intended to present basic definitions for reference in future discussions.
The fundamental triad of Chinese philosophy is Heaven, Earth, & Humankind. Let’s look at what these terms mean as a whole and individually, and how they relate to meditation & qi-cultivation.
Heaven (tiān, 天) in the manifest world is the wide-open sky, but in Chinese philosophy it refers to pure yang – the creative source. Pure motivating light. It’s not some special place where believers go but rather is the original impetus of all manifestation. It relates to spirit/awareness.
Earth (dì, 地) in the manifest world is the solid ground beneath our feet, but in Chinese philosophy it refers to pure yin – a wide-open field. Earth receives the motivating activity of Heaven, enabling it to manifest. While it relates to material like the planetary earth or our body, the meaning is more like the mother that receives a seed from father and nurtures it to life.
Humankind (rén, 人) – or what I prefer to translate more broadly as “sentient beings” – is the fruit of the union of Heaven & Earth. While in the manifest world Heaven is above and Earth is below, the understanding in Chinese philosophy is that first Heaven initiates, then Earth nurtures, then life emerges forth.
Collectively, Tian-Di-Ren represent the vertical structure of the cosmos. But structure isn’t really the correct word, because the Chinese view of the cosmos is not material but energetic. A more appropriate word would be process – the vertical process of how things come into being.
Heaven acts in the field of Earth, then Earth processes it and gives birth to some resultant thing. All life springs up from the Earth below, it doesn’t just fall from Heaven. Even birds nest on the Earth. But just as mother must be fertilized by father, the Chinese understand this springing up of life as an upward bounce from the descending qi of Heaven. (Hence the lines of the Zhou Yi Jing start at the bottom and then rise upward).
In Laozi’s meditation & qi-cultivation, we model our practice on Dao. As Laozi says, “the motion of Dao is return”. So a primary aspect of Daoist cultivation is returning human beings to pure yang. Shifting from the generative to the returning direction is called neidan or internal alchemy.
To embody the returning motion of Dao, we first align ourselves with the vertical axis of Heaven & Earth – in sitting, standing, and/or moving forms. Then we become empty like Earth and let the qi drop all the way down. “Empty the heart-mind and fill the belly.” With regular practice over a period of time, qi will eventually stir in the lower dantian and start to rise on its own. This is the reverse bounce. According to neidan, a true human is one who not only lives as a result of Heaven acting upon Earth, but who can reverse the generative process of Heaven & Earth – drop the qi all the way down and bounce back to Heaven.
This image comes from the Zhou Yi Jing, Hexagram 42. It’s a very old version* of the character “yi” (益), which translates as “increase”, “profit”, or “incoming power”. It reminds me of the Nei Ye (內業) – a chapter from the 4th-century BCE Guanzi treatise – which is considered the oldest writing explicitly about qi-cultivation practice.
The Nei Yi is all about how to comport ourselves (ye) internally (nei) to be an “abode for Dao”. It discusses posture, movement, breathing, eating, and managing the emotions. This is a really important text for Daoist cultivation. I recommend Harold Roth’s book “Original Tao”, which is about this text.
The image of yi features a horizontal line below, representing a stable base. One of the most important elements of qi-cultivation is establishing stability down below. In sitting meditation, this means dropping the qi to the lower dantian. In Taijiquan, it means developing “root”. Fundamentally, it means establishing stability amidst the incessant fluctuations of our heart-mind.
Two legs represent yin & yang. Stability doesn’t mean no flow. There is a continuous give & take, expansion & contraction, as we breathe in & out, eat & shit, push & yield, and as the qi rises up & down our spine. These internal changes mimic the external changes of the days and seasons.
The bowl shape represents the notion of vessel, which is the whole basis of the Nei Ye – how to be a vessel or abode for Dao. As the Nei Ye describes, this depends on staying calm and regulating our conduct so that our internal environment provides a space for Dao to enter and abide.
The three dots above represent jing, qi, & shen – all the ingredients that infuse our body. On one hand this can represent post-celestial jing, qi, & shen (embodied essence, vital energy, and spirit) – all the internal stuff of our daily life. On the other hand this can represent the primordial trinity of pre-celestial jing, qi, & shen (represented in Daoist ritual as the Three Purities) entering our body from above. They collectively represent Dao (the Nei Ye interestingly uses all these terms interchangeably).
The handles on the side represent the fact that this vessel is in our hands – it is our own conduct and practice that shapes our vessel and determines whether Dao can enter and abide.
May this image help our practice.
*Thanks to LiSe Lotte Voute for introducing me to this old character.
Daoism has a great many fascinating conceptual principles and practice methods. But our Daoism is really only about one thing – bringing in the raw, creative power of Dao.
If we’re always doing this or doing that – even if it’s some fascinating and profound spiritual practice – Dao will just keep yielding to our movement forever. It’s not very assertive – it just sits back, staying hidden and silent, allowing us to do as we please.
But if we take up the mantle of yin – empty ourselves completely – this provides a space for the shy power of Dao to come through. As Laozi suggests, it’s like we have to become a passive, quiet, and submissive maiden to encourage the reluctant Dao to bring forth its own yang.
If we’re not clear about this one thing, then it really doesn’t matter whether we can perform the myriad methods – we’re simply technicians operating in the dark. But if we are clear about this one thing, then we can use the myriad methods to effectively support our practice.
The raw power comes down from above and enters though the top of the head. The entry point is the soft spot just in front of the crown – the fontanel. We want to keep this spot soft like a newborn baby’s. We also want to avoid too much thinking or exertion and just let the incoming power settle down to the lower dantian. From there it will gather and grow, rebounding to reach the fingers and toes and every pore of the skin, pervading the entire body. It’s like bathing in a sweet elixir all the way through. Foundational practices are so important to enable us to receive this power without collapsing or going crazy. Keeping the head open and the base stable in formal practice and the moment-to-moment informal conduct of our daily lives is the central method of wuweidao.
“Yi” (Hexagram 42) courtesy of LiSe Lotti Voute.
Let’s look at the term Dao-De. This is of course the title of Laozi’s Dao De Jing, the pithy seed-text that inspired one of the most complex & elaborate – and insightful – religious traditions in world history.
Dao-De translates directly as “way-virtue”. It is commonly translated as “the Way and its Virtue” – but that translation is a bit lofty and remote. What does it mean? Let’s look at each character and come up with a fresh translation.
The character Dao (道) consists of 3 parts: grass + itself + walking. Grass growing by itself. This image serves as a metaphor for the spontaneous emergence of worlds & creatures from the primordial origin – the eternal procession of birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death. The Great Thoroughfare. Dao is not some remote cosmic power but the very process of our own experience unfolding moment-by-moment, of itself.
The character De (德) also consists of 3 parts: upright + heart + stepping. Stepping with an upright heart. Upright suggests verticality, which in Chinese means alignment with Heaven. Stepping on Earth in alignment with Heaven means conducting ourselves moment-to-moment in accordance with the unfolding Dao, with acceptance, humility, and benevolence.
Dao-De then is staying with the natural movement of Dao, letting ourselves dissolve into the Great Thoroughfare. Keeping our heart aligned with Heaven amidst the changes of Earth. This means not straying into the past or future, not wanting things to be other than as they are, simply staying with reality. Not resisting reality is what Laozi calls “wuwei”.
In the context of meditation & qi-cultivation, this view of Dao-De means our practice methods are not geared toward reaching any particular destination but rather are ways to walk on the very ground beneath our feet.
How do we stay with reality? The Daoist tradition gives us 10,000 methods, but central to them all: watch your step. “Sitting quietly, doing nothing – spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”
There has been a lot of rumination and debate in the West about whether Daoism is a philosophy or a religion. This started when early Western observers (primarily Jesuit missionaries) perceived a disconnect between the “philosophy” they read about in Laozi, Zhuangzi, and other early Daoist texts, and the actual “religious” practices they observed in Daoist ritual. A perspective grew in the West during the 20th-century that there were in fact two Daoisms – the original pure philosophy, and the latter-day religion.
Chinese Daoists don’t tend to recognize any such bifurcation, and 21st-century scholars have largely debunked the notion of two separate Daoisms as they have continued their research and discussions with actual practitioners.
Indeed, early Daoist texts do not recommend the kind of complex & elaborate ritual practices that came later. As we know, Laozi & Zhuangzi emphasize simplicity and naturalness. We also know that much of the religiosity of later Daoism appeared as a nativist response to the introduction of Buddhism from India. So there may be a case for distinguishing the original Daoism from later traditions. But many of the practices of Daoist ritual actually pre-date Laozi, dating back to pre-Daoist shamanism. Many “Daoist” practices are not necessarily Daoist but were forms of shamanism that Daoism embraced. More importantly, however, is the dynamic and harmonious interplay of these practices with the various aspects of Daoist “philosophy”.
Let’s look at the meaning of the words philosophy & religion. Philosophy comes from the Greek philosophia, meaning “lover of knowledge” – it implies using rational analysis to satisfy an appetite for understanding. Religion comes from the Greek religare, meaning “binding” – it implies offering sacrifice and relying on a deity for some kind of deliverance. So we can say philosophers are rational thinkers in search of insight into the nature of reality, whereas religious adherents faithfully bind themselves to a higher power.
Daoism is neither of these. Based on the above definitions, we could say philosophy concentrates qi in the head, and religion concentrates qi in the heart. Daoism at its basis relaxes qi from the head and heart, letting it gather in the belly and likewise letting it circulate all over. Indeed, there are many philosophical concepts underlying Daoism that are important to understand, such as the cosmogeny of wuji, taiji, yin-yang, and the five phases of qi – not to mention how wuwei relates to these concepts. And there are numerous ritual practices, precepts, and even deities – but in Daoism these are all simply ways of cultivating qi and expressing Dao-De.
Daoism is a system – or rather a broad family of varied systems – of qi-cultivation with a philosophical basis in ancient Chinese thought and various methods of hygiene, meditation, & ritual. Is this philosophy or religion?
The mountain shadow moves with the sun.