What is Our Body?

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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.

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.