I had the pleasure of conversing with Stuart Goodnick & Rob Schmidt, owners of Many Rivers Books & Tea in Sebastopol, on their radio program, the Mystical Positivist, on March 23, 2019:
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. It is our wish to share this practice with like-minded adepts. If this practice appeals to you, check out Bamboo Grove, our wuweidao cultivation group. If you would like an introduction to this practice, or if you have any questions, please contact us at email@example.com.
You can download a free introductory talk on Zuowang by our lineage teacher, Liu 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.