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.

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.

_/\_

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.