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.
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/.
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. 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 sometimes 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: “Dropping the body and dismissing concepts, leaving appearance and removing knowledge, merging with the Great Resonance – this I call sitting & forgetting.”
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.
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.
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.
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.