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.