One Thing

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.

Hexagram 42

“Yi” (Hexagram 42) courtesy of LiSe Lotti Voute.

Staying with Reality – A Look at Dao-De (道德)

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.”

Philosophy or Religion?

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?

KAAT!

The mountain shadow moves with the sun.

What is Our Body?

身-seal.svg

The Daoist idea of body is quite different than the common Western notion of a material bag-of-bones inhabited by a singular soul.  The character for personal body (shen, 身) indeed shows a pregnant woman and is a homophone for the word spirit, suggesting the notion of the body as an abode for spirit.  Daoists however see “bodies” as circuits of energy proceeding through time.  In addition to our personal body, Daoists also recognize other bodies within which we live and cultivate – namely, the familial body, the communal body, and the universal body.  As Laozi indicates in Dao De Jing Chapter 54, meditation & qi-cultivation is not just a personal practice.

Our personal body (身) comes into being at conception – it is born, grows, matures, declines, and ultimately dies.  We can discuss it in terms of jing, qi, & shen (精氣神) – a bundle of channels condensed into form.  We inherit yang channels from our paternal ancestors and yin channels from our maternal ancestors, and they combine together to form a unique person of mixed bloodlines.  Our personal channels form a closed-circuit within which is “inside” and without which is “outside”.  While this personal body exists in the moment, Daoists also see it as extending through time like a dragon – the entire story of the body is the body.  The unbroken thread of our body extending from conception to death is our personal dragon-body.  From this perspective, anything we do remains ever a part of our personal body.  Per Laozi, cultivating our personal body – really staying with our experience – brings about authenticity (真德).

Our personal body is but one small expression of a larger body called the familial or ancestral body (家).  Daoists view our familial body as a single body with countless physical expressions and intertwining bloodlines running through time.  The body of our bloodline past, present, & future.  This body has a certain essence (jing, 精) shared by blood-relations that governs our personal appearance, capacities, and health.  As we become familiar with our own jing, we come to know our ancestors.  Normally in the West we identify with our physical body and may share some feeling with parents, siblings, cousins, and a few generations upward, but we often don’t feel much connection to the countless generations that came before.  It’s interesting to communicate with people from Asian cultures or Native Americans who feel a much stronger connection to their ancestors.  I’ve even spoken to fifth-generation Anglo-American farmers who speak of their family four generations back in the first person.  These folks are living more in their ancestral body.  From this perspective, we can see why traditional Chinese appear to worship their ancestors – they are attending to this larger body that serves as the basis of our personal body.  Per Laozi, cultivating our familial body brings about plentitude (餘德).

Another body is the tribal or communal body.  Laozi breaks it down further into village body (鄉) and national body (國) – the idea is belonging to communities at varying scales.  It could be a club, gang, team, political party, church, or sangha.  Daoists don’t always form “horizontal” communities in the sense of Buddhist sanghas or Christian churches but do hold strongly to a “vertical” sense of communal connection between mentors & disciples or lineage ancestors & descendants.  We each belong to many communities – our nation, friends, colleagues, etc. – so we exist in numerous communal bodies.  Members of a communal body share an energetic resonance (qi, 氣).  Per Laozi, cultivating our communal bodies brings about longevity and abundance (長豐德).

Our universal body (天下) is all-inclusive, containing all worlds & creatures past, present, & future.  When we cultivate from the perspective of this body, we see beyond our personal considerations and also tend to loosen our family identification and community affiliations.  This lightens up the passion of the “us & them” mentality often bred by tribalism.  This body relates to the spirit (shen, 神) that pervades all worlds & creatures.  Per Laozi, cultivating our universal body brings about all-pervasiveness (普德).

In the context of meditation & qi-cultivation, our mentors share their views, methods, & qi with us, resulting in a transmission that transforms the vibrations of our personal body, which in turn affects our familial body and other communal bodies.  If our familial body is like water (jing/shui), then our communal body is like wind (qi/feng) – the qi-resonance we share with our community.  Spiritual traditions tend to be either tribal or universal in nature.  Martial and ritual traditions in particular tend to be quite tribal.  The tribal feeling is the power of the communal body.  It gets interesting if we practice with multiple cultivation communities (a taboo in Chinese culture).  If we are receiving subtle qi-transmission then the vibrations of the different communities will cross paths with one-another and create a resulting compound.  We may find ourselves in conflict, as different communal bodies may be at odds with one another.  Daoist magical traditions place great importance on the power of the communal body and often prohibit members from participating in other practicing communities.  My most inspiring teachers however had a distaste for tribal identification.

Certain methods of meditation & qi cultivation draw upon personal, ancestral, or communal energies for support and transformation.  Laozi’s wuweidao accepts the presence of these bodies but does not emphasize any of them.  Laozi’s method of sitting meditation, which we refer to as zuowang, means “sitting & forgetting” – we forget our personal, familial, and communal bodies as we dissolve into the universal body.  The term zuowang comes from Zhuangzi, who said: “I smash up my limbs and body, drive out perception and intellect, cast off form, do away with understanding, and make myself identical with the Great Thoroughfare.  This is what I mean by sitting down and forgetting everything.” (Tr. Burton Watson).

Buddhism emphasizes the importance of “leaving family” if we want to attain enlightenment – this view reflects Shakyamuni Buddha’s original gesture of abandoning his wife & baby in his pursuit of truth.  Thus, monks leave their family, cut their hair, avoid having sex, get a new name, and wear only monk’s clothes.  This pointed shift cuts off family influences to cultivate the Buddhist communal body in pursuit of the universal body (Dharmakaya).  Although the tradition of leaving family eventually made its way into Daoism, from a Daoist perspective, it is not really possible to cut off our family body – our ancestors are present in every cell in our body – so our cultivation is less a matter of transcending our familial body and more a matter of helping our ancestors relax into Dao.

Thus in Laozi’s practice we let our bodies be what they are.  There is no need to emphasize any of them or deny any of them.  We don’t need strong tribal affiliations or to be tribeless loners.  We don’t need to strongly identify with our family or leave them.  We don’t need to develop or avoid personal gongfu skills.  When we open up into the universal body, we see the context of self, family, and community.  And when it comes time to act, we do so in the appropriate body – when hungry we eat, at the holidays we return home to family, and we participate as appropriate in our various communities.  All within a universal context.

Most Westerners seem to approach meditation & qi-cultivation only from the perspective of the personal body – but from Laozi’s perspective, this approach is incomplete.  Accomplished Daoists may or may not have remarkable personal attainments – the image of the Daoist gongfu master is a limited image of Daoist fruition.  Swelling our personal gongfu may starve our other bodies – it alone can be no lasting accomplishment.  Fruition in Laozi’s practice means letting all of our bodies proceed as natural expressions of Dao.  Our personal body grows, matures, declines, & dies; our ancestors continue through our children until the end of the line; our teachers continue through our students until our tradition fades; our universal body continues rebirthing itself in perpetuity.  How do we ensure the full and proper expression of each of these bodies?  To do so properly is way too complex – impossible to do of our own effort.  Like producing a child or converting food into conduct.  Better to not pro-actively take on the task but rather simply observe as nature continuously informs our next move – this is Laozi’s wuweidao.

“Go Hard or Go Home”

Strolling through Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa the other day, I encountered a group of people running around doing various drills in some kind of organized fitness activity.  Their leader was a super-fit, fully engaged alpha male, shouting “C’mon, push it, PUSH IT!”  His leather work gloves hinted at some of the intense drills they must have been doing.  His T-shirt read “Go Hard or Go Home”.

I always appreciate the act of human cultivation and self-improvement.  And if you’re going to take on a view of human life, take it all the way.  His pithy mantra so captures the philosophical basis of modern culture and perhaps reflects the entire history of Western development – from falling out of favor in Eden to our long march toward perfection.  According to this view, our natural condition is deficient, pathetic even.  Uncultivated, we become fat, sloppy, and weak – common, worthless chaff.  To achieve excellence, we need to struggle and strain to overcome our wretched, imperfect nature.

From the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine, this group was demonstrating an aspect of liver qi.  The liver gets things moving – stirs up stagnation and inspires growth.  Springtime.  Determination.  To work the liver with such intensity is aggressively harnessing generative qi, what Daoists refer to as “post-celestial qi”.  Such cultivation is responsible for so many historical achievements – magnificent cathedrals, undefeatable armies, Olympian athletes.

Laozi’s perspective however tells us that all such achievements ultimately fade away into a common context of weakness.  From an alchemical perspective, we can say exerting the liver to such degree presses qi away from our center – it may produce myriad excellences, but it leaves the center without a basis for internal cultivation.  The view of pushing ourselves to overcome our natural condition is antithetical to Daoist cultivation.

Adepts in Laozi’s tradition bring a different qi-quality to their cultivation.  Daoist hygiene practices involve regular movement but not necessarily the development of special skills or massive amounts of qi.  Our demeanor outside becomes gentle and soft, unremarkable.  As Laozi observes, remaining soft and weak allows qi to gather inward.  This is the beginning point for cultivating regenerative qi, what Daoists refer to as “pre-celestial qi”.  Such practice may or may not produce remarkable generative results.  It does however bring about a profound appreciation of our natural condition.  Staying soft, staying home.

Mindfulness & Wuwei

黃-seal牝-seal

I recently attended a two-day seminar on mindfulness training in a program promoted by Google.  A Google engineer was inspired by mindfulness and decided this practice should be Google’s next gift to the world.  The program is now being taught all over the world, largely in corporate settings.

Despite my initial skepticism, I thought it was quite good – the teachers were steeped in the practice and well-versed in the latest science on meditation, and of course both were clinical psychologists because that is the route through which modern science is opening up to the benefits of meditation.  Practices included attending to the breath, feeling the body, noticing emotions, journaling, and conscious listening.

It wasn’t noted in the seminar, but mindfulness meditation per se comes from Vipassasa practice in Buddhism.  Vipassana – meaning “keen observation” – uses systematic conscious observation as a gradual method to chisel away at our illusion and impurities in order to uncover our pristine original nature.  From a modern agnostic-scientific-corporate perspective, we are chiseling away at our distractedness in order to optimize our brain function, creativity, emotional intelligence, happiness, and productivity.

It is pragmatic to meet people where they are (“skillful means”), and these practices, which are fundamentally non-cultural and non-sectarian in nature, have adapted to many different cultural and religious contexts for millennia.  Since we’re living in a largely post-religious scientific world, it probably makes sense to present these practices from a scientific perspective, as most of us trust doctors, psychologists, and scientists more than priests or shamans.

While mindfulness practice is wonderful in itself and has countless “benefits”, I am compelled to write about the distinction between mindfulness & wuweidao – they are not the same thing.

The Chinese term xin (心) translates as heart-mind.  It represents our central consciousness consisting of a harmony of 5 distinct kinds of spirit, each associated with 1 of the 5 phases of qi.  One of these spirits is yi (意), which means mind-intent.

Mindfulness practice engages the yi to look into the xin in order to gain perspective, to calm down, and to improve our ability to remain centered or to handle difficult situations.  Two Chinese words for mindfulness practice are ding & guan (定觀) – focus & observation (see Ding-Guan post).

There is a term in esoteric Daoism called the “Yellow Woman” (黃牝) – these characters are featured above.  “Use the yellow woman to harmonize yin & yang”.  The color yellow implies the qi-phase soil, which represents central equilibrium and is associated with yi.  The character for woman here – “pin” – shows an ox plowing a field, so the image is of furrows in soil.  While the process of plowing represents intentional practice (wei, 為), the open, empty grooves represent emptiness, fertility, and open potential (wu, 無).

Most traditions, including Daoist alchemy, agree that meditation practice needs to start with some degree of intentional effort, but at some point effort needs to be abandoned in order to allow our practice to ripen.  In Daoist terminology, we start with youwei (有為) – intention and control (plowing the field), and finish in wuwei (無為) – abandoning intention and control (relaxing effort).

In wuweidao, we abandon intention and control pretty much from the very beginning.  It takes some degree of intention to sit and maintain the specific points of posture, but once we’re sitting we just let everything go, leaving our cultivation to the great Dao.  We’re not actively cultivating and we’re not exerting effort to be mindful – this is an important point.  Letting our mind be as it is without placing effort or mindfulness or anything else upon it.

Mindfulness is the process of actively plowing the field.  Wuweidao by comparison is the practice of empty-mindedness – xuxin (虛心).  While mindfulness may aspire to wuwei as an ultimate goal or consider it an advanced stage, in Laozi’s practice we consider wuwei the fundamental method of nature itself and jump right in with full faith in the capacity of Dao and our own inherent virtue.

 

10,000 methods come & go

From where, to where?

I don’t know

Weary of them all

Something else arises – of itself

Can’t really call it a method

Call it wuweidao

 

*image source: Richard Sears – thank you!

Wuwei & The Zen Circle of Zen Master Seung Sahn

One of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s foundational teachings was the Zen Circle.  It highlights different experiences and approaches to cultivation and serves as a compass for our practice.  He broke the circle into 0°, 90°, 180°, 270°, and 360°.

0° represents our “before practicing” condition.  In Buddhism this perspective is characterized by discomfort (dukkha) & delusion (samsara).  In Daoism it is characterized by vulnerability to qi-disorder.  This condition is our everyday “monkey-mind”, associated with animal consciousness and basic survival.

90° represents striving to improve ourselves, to gain understanding, or to find relief from suffering.  This includes self-improvement paths such as fitness & martial arts striving to achieve excellence; therapeutic paths working to release our issues; and philosophical paths ruminating to understand reality.  In Daoism these approaches are referred to as laying the foundation – they can be an important step in rectifying discomfort & delusion to prepare us for internal cultivation.  This perspective separates human beings from other animals, but it offers limited fruition if we don’t progress to other parts of the circle.

180° represents emptiness, samadhi – a direct encounter with our original nature.  In Daoism this is referred to as infinity (wuji), pre-heaven (xiantian), or original spirit (yuanshen).  The experience of wuji transcends paths of fitness, therapy, & rumination – these paths may or may not lead to 180°.  Laozi refers to 180° as “returning radiance” – turning the light of awareness around to shine upon itself.  Gazing into the source.  This is the direction of alchemy practice.  Daoist alchemy isn’t just gazing with the mind but turning all of our qi around to flow back into the unborn origin.  There are physiological changes.  But this fruition too is incomplete – it’s a phase, similar to sleep or death.  Dao continues to generate myriad worlds & creatures, so if we are to abide in complete reality we need to not fixate on samadhi.

270° represents the realm of magic and miracles.  Playing with pre-celestial qi.  This is the realm of Daoist ritual practice, tantric Buddhism, and some kinds of yoga.  It differs from 90° because we are channeling pre-celestial qi, so it is much more subtle.  Magical practices usually focus on refining qi, improving conditions for ourselves or others, or actively treating karmic conditions to bring them to resolution.  While such “getting what you want” practices may improve conditions, they ultimately don’t offer any lasting end to discomfort and struggle.

360° represents complete reality – things-as-they-are.  Laozi, like Zen, starts and ends here.  From this perspective, there is really no need to struggle for survival, to strive for fitness, release, or understanding, to focus inward, or to play with magic.  Letting ourselves be just as we are, without distortion, without spiritual ornamentation, and without effort is wuweidao.  This means responding to things as they arise.  Importantly, 360° is located in the same position as 0°.  This is the nature of “sudden” paths – we don’t have to gradually progress along any path in order to arrive, as the destination is always at hand if we only open our eyes.  All of the other points on the circle take time to ripen.

People often misunderstand Laozi as being a philosopher, alchemist, or sorcerer, but none of these are entirely correct.  “The great Dao is wide-open, but people like narrow-paths” (DDJ 53).  Narrow-paths are 90°, 180°, and 270°.  Once we have a wide-open 360°-view, we see these paths in a larger context.  We can see their benefits and limitations.  We can engage in them without becoming entrenched in them – our motives are different because our view is different.  Laozi’s adepts may or may not practice the myriad methods – none are required or prohibited.

“My way is easy, but no one can practice it” (DDJ 70).  Pragmatically speaking, it may be difficult for us to accept that our before-practicing condition is truly complete.  We may feel the need to practice narrow-paths to experience their limited fruition before we are ready to trust 360°.  Go for it.  At 360° there is no need for self-improvement, transcendence, or magic.  There is simply a profound appreciation of our natural experience.  Zen Master Seung Sahn summed up his experience in this wonderful poem about wuwei:

Your original nature is always shining and clear;

Human beings make something and enter the ocean of suffering;

But if you don’t make anything, you are already complete;

The high mountain is always blue, white clouds coming and going.

_/\_

Emerging Phoenix

My community recently suffered  the most devastating wildfire in California history, with more than 6,000 homes burned.  As the community recovers, I am reminded of a phoenix rising from the ashes.

In Greek mythology, the phoenix is a bird that regenerates itself by dying in flames and emerging anew from the ashes.  It thus serves as a symbol of hope, recovery, and rebirth after disaster.  Let’s consider this image from the perspective of wuweidao.

People typically celebrate birth & growth and want to avoid decline & death.  In Laozi’s practice, we see these phases all as part of one continuum happening within an unchanging context.  Birth & growth inevitably lead to decline & death; decline & death inevitably lead to birth & growth.

In Laozi’s practice, we recognize all aspects of natural process as the unfolding expression of Dao.  We yield to whatever arises.  Struggling to maintain growth or to avoid decline brings about exhaustion, stiffness, & internal blockage – ironically increasing the power of decline & death.

Disaster happens; rebirth & recovery happens – like a pendulum.  Wuweidao means staying with things as they are – relaxing aspirations for what we want and resistance to what we don’t want.  Hoping to obtain, maintain, or avoid particular conditions is not really part of the basis of Laozi’s practice.

Wuweidao is about continuity – the continuously renewing stream of reality has no beginning, no end, and no interruptions.  To stay with reality, we have no choice but to experience birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death as they come.  Sometimes we need to go through destruction in order to continue.

Although one may expect such a laissez-faire view to lead to some kind of complacent stupor, if we engage this view in meditation & qi-cultivation, we find that something quite different emerges.

Yin darkness gives birth to yang radiance.  Zhuangzi thus described Laozi’s practice as “cold, dead ashes”.  While some Daoist arts look impressive and exciting, Laozi’s practice looks anything but.  We are relaxing yang-expression, letting the fire calm down to nurture the radiant embryo inside.

Laozi says: “Dao is wide-open, but people like narrow paths.”  The character for wide-open (夷) suggests barbarian tribes leveling a village to the ground.  This image is similar to wu (see What is Wu-Wei? post).  Laozi is reminding us that although we may prefer particular conditions, the field we are actually abiding in is wide-open and unconditioned – the unborn and undying field of reality.

Not only do death & disaster happen from time-to-time, but things are in a sense continuously dying and being born.  The stream of reality is like a standing wave – stable yet continuously flowing – out with the old, in with the new.  When we let this current flow, letting ourselves die moment-by-moment, we likewise find each moment fresh and new – continuously-arising inspiration.  The ten-thousand things are continuously being destroyed; the phoenix is continuously emerging.

Zen Master Seung Sahn (Part 1: Dark Night of the Seoul)

In 1994, I was having a “dark night of the soul” in the midst of college at UC Santa Barbara.  I didn’t know who I was, but I knew the answer must lie somewhere very far away.  I saw a flier advertising study abroad in China, and I signed right up.  On the way, we stopped in Korea for a week, and on a jet-lagged evening stroll, I wandered the streets of Seoul.  I made my way through a dark alley to Chogye Sah Temple, where there was a large crowd gathered.

The temple abbot approached me aggressively saying “You!” then pointed into the temple building saying “Zen Master Seung Sahn!” and shoved me inside.  I couldn’t understand a word of the Korean Dharma speech, but I watched as the master raised his stick above his head and shouted with the utmost confidence and energy, bringing the stick slamming down with a loud THUD!  I was hooked.

Afterward, as the master was blessing his fans at the gate, the abbot introduced us, and the master turned around and shot his eyes into mine, shouting, “Where you come from?!”  I experienced his question, his direction – that was transmission of Zen mind.  Emerging from that spacious moment that lasted forever, I muddled some weeny response, “uh, California”.  He shook his head and turned around, resuming his blessings.

Thus began my practice of Korean Zen.

Taking Refuge: The Three Treasures of Ritual Daoism

As ritual Daoism developed over the past few thousand years – blending ancient shamanic practices with Laozi’s insights and coming into contact with Buddhism – the concept of “Three Treasures” or San Bao (三寶) emerged.  As with any three-fold concept in Daoism, these relate to Heaven, Earth, & Humankind – or yang, yin, & the union thereof, respectively.

The Three Treasures of ritual Daoism are Dao, Jing, & Shi.  These roughly translate as way, scripture, & mastery.  (Note there are also Three Treasures of alchemical Daoism and Three Treasures of Laozi – I’m not talking about those).

Dao (道) or way refers to the primordial origin – the hidden wellspring that gives birth to myriad worlds & creatures.  Where we come from and where we go.  It also refers to the eternal procession of birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death.  The character implies grass growing by itself – the spontaneous emergence of worlds & creatures.

Jing (經) or scripture refers to the teachings of Dao – the views & methods that our lineage ancestors have passed down to us as guidance on how to encounter & embody Dao.  The character implies woven thread, referring to written teachings and also implying fundamental principle – the common thread running through the fabric of Daoist practice.

Shi (師) or mastery refers to our resulting experience when we practice and conduct ourselves according to the teachings of Dao.  It often refers to our teachers or practice community, or even hidden immortals who bring us insights.  The character implies accumulation and exaltation.  In the view of Laozi’s Daoism, mastery is abiding continuously in the wellspring amidst myriad phenomena.  Laozi sees such abiding as our natural condition.

Dao-Jing-Shi correspond respectively to Buddha-Dharma-Sangha, and the notion of taking refuge (拜) probably comes from Buddhism.  The starting point of Buddhism is the recognition that life brings discomfort (dukkha) so let’s find a way out.  Laozi doesn’t suggest we need any refuge from reality – we’re just there, perpetually, ever-embraced and supported by the primordial origin.  But he does acknowledge that human beings have a tendency to lose our way – so the Daoist approach to the Three Treasures is, to the extent that we lose touch with reality (Dao), it’s nice to have guidance (Jing) pointing us back to our natural condition (Shi).  The character for taking refuge or paying homage shows a hand placing crops on an altar – a sacrificial offering.  Giving to receive.  Daoists don’t worship deities but in ritual practice do place Dao-Jing-Shi on a pedestal to sanctify them and place ourselves in a position to receive energy and inspiration.

A traditional ritual gesture for taking refuge is to light three sticks of incense at our altar, hold them up, and recite: “I take refuge in Dao; I take refuge in Jing; I take refuge in Shi”, then bow three times and place the incense in our burner.

Real stuff comes through when we take refuge in Dao, Jing, & Shi.