Stable Gaze: A Look at “Ding-Guan” (定觀)

Now let’s look at the term “ding-guan”.  This is an interesting term that is quite similar to “qing-jing” (see Clear & Calm post).  In fact, it’s just a different way of describing the same energetic experience, although I think it provides additional perspective.

Laozi did not use this term, but he did use each character individually.  Chapter 37: “Without desire, there is calm, and all under Heaven will settle (ding) of itself.”  Chapter 16: “Remaining utterly calm, the myriad things merge together; I thereby observe (guan) returning.”  The Tang-Dynasty Ding-Guan scripture describes a gradual method of settling into calm observance.

The character for ding (定) shows a person under a roof.  It means to put something in its place, to confine or fixate.  Ding is sometimes used to translate the Buddhist word Samadhi – one-pointed concentration.  So it also means to concentrate, to focus, or to reach a state of non-arising pure awareness.  I can’t think of a single word to perfectly translate ding, but how about “stability”.

The character for guan (觀) shows a heron watching something.  Perhaps a fish, perhaps open space.  Like its sharp bill, its awareness is penetrating.  So guan means to adeptly observe or notice phenomena.  Guan is also the term for Daoist temple – a platform for observing reality.  Let’s translate it as “gaze”.

Ding & guan individually describe opposing poles of awareness – we can subdue the fire or we can direct it outward; together they describe a state of stable, uncontrived awareness.  Neither held down nor projected outward but nevertheless stable & open.  Calm & clear.

While it is possible to treat ding as a goal, in Laozi’s wuweidao we see it as something that just happens of itself when we calm down.  We don’t want to approach ding with effort.  When it arises of its own, it’s an easy, reliable base, providing root-power to our practice.  My Zen teacher (Zen Master Seung Sahn) always said pursuing one-pointed concentration is a mistake.  Too much focus obstructs our view.  When we calm down and relax into our base, qi effortlessly stabilizes and gathers into a nice ground for sitting.

It’s also possible to over-emphasize observing as a method – like pro-active “mindfulness”.  From the perspective of Laozi’s tradition, observing is not something we have to “do” – if we remain calm and present, we cannot help but notice the myriad activity in our senses, emotions, and mind.  Things come & go of themselves; we don’t have to actively watch them come & go.

While it’s helpful to look at ding & guan separately, in reality they are different ways of describing a singular experience.  If this sounds like a precarious balancing act, then I have not described it well.  From the perspective of our tradition, ding-guan is not something we achieve by effort.  Actually effort obstructs our experience of ding-guan.  Laozi’s method requires neither intense concentration nor compulsive mindfulness.  We settle into our posture, breathe naturally, and maintain an open gaze.  This is our formal method of sitting meditation.  Practicing regularly over a period of time, this method reveals the inherent presence of ding-guan.  We don’t have to reach to get there – just stay where we actually are.

Clear & Calm: A Look at “Qing-Jing” (清靜)

Today I want to discuss one of the most common and important terms in all of Daoism: “qing-jing”.

Laozi first used this term in Dao De Jing chapter 45: “Qing-jing rectifies all under Heaven”.  Zhang Dao-Ling included it as is one of the nine “mandates” of the Tian-Shi Daoist tradition (2nd-century CE), and the Qing-Jing scripture, written during the Tang Dynasty, is recited by Quan-Zhen Daoists today.

To understand the phrase let’s look at each character individually first, and then look at them together in the context of meditation & qi-cultivation.

The character for qing (清) includes the radical for water and the character for natural bluish-green color, so we can translate it as something like “clear blue water”.  It’s the opposite of muddy water.  So it is often translated as clear or pure.  But the character is not only a noun, it can also be a verb or adjective, so we can also say it is to clear something out or to have a clear view.

The character for jing (靜) includes the same character for clear blue water and also the character for contention.  The meaning is to calm down contention – the image is like turbulent rapids coming to rest in a pool.  So it is often translated as stillness or tranquility.  It essentially means to be calm or to calm down, to settle, or to maintain a calm demeanor.

Together we can consider qing-jing to mean to clear out murkiness and calm down agitation.  Clarity relates to shen (spirit), while calm relates to qi (energy).  We want the processes of clearing shen and calming qi to happen together, like mud settling down and leaving the water clear.  Of course we all know that to let mud settle we have to leave it alone, not hasten to push it down.  That’s wuwei.

So the initial method in Laozi’s Daoism is called jing-zuo – “calm-sitting”.  It involves important points of posture, letting the breath be natural, and resting in open awareness.  This method allows mud to settle.  As our qi calms down and our spirit clears up, we invite the great qing-jing to come visit.  As it turns out, our context is already clear & calm – great clarity, da-qing (大清), is wide-open space; great calm, da-jing (大靜), is the ever-present stillness underlying all movement.  These are also called Heaven & Earth.

Clarity is opening the upper dantian.  Calm is settling into the lower dantian.  Calm relates to heat, clarity to light.  When the upper dantian opens, the clear water lets in sunlight.  As the 4th-century BCE Neiye says, “great clarity perceives great luminosity”.  Some Daoist schools discourage open meditation because it may leave us vulnerable to possession.  I think they are correct if we have not established stability in the lower dantian.  The Neiye also says, “if you can calm the heart-mind, you will naturally establish stability”.  Calm provides a stable base that grounds out incoming energies – this allows us to enjoy open luminosity while protecting us from possession.  Grounded stability is really important for this practice.  Love the mud.

The reason calm-sitting is considered initial is not the method so much as the view.  We generally need to calm down in order to enter into Laozi’s practice.  But really qing-jing is not a goal – it’s an aspect of our nature.  So Laozi’s sitting is not really a method to clear the shen and calm the qi – it’s a platform for appreciating Heaven & Earth.  In our sitting, if our method is correct, we will come to notice a feeling of stability below and openness above – like dropping the anchor and opening the sunroof – this is qing-jing.  It’s not a concept, it’s an energetic experience.  I hope you experience this great open stillness.  Laozi’s adepts enter effortlessly, relying on da-qing & da-jing.

Indeed Heaven & Earth continue to generate murkiness & agitation.  Like a stream going from pool to riffle, pool to riffle.  Of course this is not a problem, it’s just how things are.  So the next step in Laozi’s practice is to abandon the quest for clarity & calm – just rely on Heaven & Earth and let things come and go naturally.  That’s non-dual wuweidao.

What are we to do?  Let’s abandon rumination and just sit calmly for a while every day.