Jing, Qi, & Shen (精氣神)

Jing-Qi-Shen.jpgLet’s look at the basic concepts of “jing”, “qi”, & “shen”.  These are collectively known as the “Three Treasures” (sānbǎo, 三宝) of internal alchemy.  They are often translated as “body”, “breath”, & “mind”, which is a good trio but not really a complete translation.  It’s helpful to understand these terms, and the view behind them, to effectively practice Daoist cultivation.

Jing (精) is vital-essence – the tendency for form & substance to appear in the world, our tendency to become embodied creatures.  We receive jing from our parents at conception and from our mother during gestation.  Jing is associated with fluids and contains our ancestral DNA; the Chinese consider it to hold our fate or destiny – “Heaven’s command” regarding our unique capacities and pre-dispositions.  The quality of our jing depends on the quality of our parents’ jing during conception and gestation, as well as our own conduct in life, particularly our movement and nutrition.

Qi (氣, pronounced “chee”) is vital-energy – movement, breath, time, change.  The ever-revolving walk of Dao.  The unfolding movement of our jing.  Qi is associated with wind and fire.  But it is also often used as a shorthand for everything, including jing & shen.  Qi can refer to different kinds of energy in different contexts.  In internal alchemy it generally refers to heat and movement.  We have internal qi, and there is also the qi of the environment and cosmos.

Shen (神) is vital-spirit – awareness.  The experience of jing-qi.  According to Daoism, we have 5 kinds of shen, associated with the 5 phases/elements (Wood, Fire, Soil, Metal, & Water).  The 5 shen are different aspects of consciousness.  In the Daoist view, shen is not entitative in nature but is more like drops from a boundless ocean.  Our original shen emerges fresh and pure from the unborn origin, but as it splits into 5 it takes on conditions based on our jing & qi, as well as how we manage our mind.

Jing, qi, & shen are all really the same “stuff” – just different parts of a tripartite spectrum.  Jing is the most coarse, shen is the most fine.  These correspond to Earth, Humankind, & Heaven, respectively.

Jing, qi, & shen exist in two states, known as xiantian & houtian.  Xiantian (先天) translates as “before Heaven” or “pre-celestial” and refers to our innate nature before being shaped by the winds of Heaven.  Houtian (後天) translates as “after Heaven” or “post-celestial” and refers to our acquired condition based on how the winds have shaped us and how we have conducted ourselves.

The Three Treasures collectively comprise our life.  The three traditional deities of ritual Daoism – San Qing (三清) or Three Purities – are simply symbolic representations of the Three Treasures in their pure, unmanifest form.  What appears to be deity worship in Daoist ritual is actually a way of re-calibrating our post-celestial jing, qi, & shen to their original, pure condition.

There is a lot more we can say about these terms; this post is simply intended to present basic definitions for reference in future discussions.

Heaven, Earth, & Humankind

Tien-Di-RenThe fundamental triad of Chinese philosophy is Heaven, Earth, & Humankind.  Let’s look at what these terms mean as a whole and individually, and how they relate to meditation & qi-cultivation.

Heaven (tiān, 天) in the manifest world is the wide-open sky, but in Chinese philosophy it refers to pure yang – the creative source.  Pure motivating light.  It’s not some special place where believers go but rather is the original impetus of all manifestation.  It relates to spirit/awareness.

Earth (dì, 地) in the manifest world is the solid ground beneath our feet, but in Chinese philosophy it refers to pure yin – a wide-open field.  Earth receives the motivating activity of Heaven, enabling it to manifest.  While it relates to material like the planetary earth or our body, the meaning is more like the mother that receives a seed from father and nurtures it to life.

Humankind (rén, 人) – or what I prefer to translate more broadly as “sentient beings” – is the fruit of the union of Heaven & Earth.  While in the manifest world Heaven is above and Earth is below, the understanding in Chinese philosophy is that first Heaven initiates, then Earth nurtures, then life emerges forth.

Collectively, Tian-Di-Ren represent the vertical structure of the cosmos.  But structure isn’t really the correct word, because the Chinese view of the cosmos is not material but energetic.  A more appropriate word would be process – the vertical process of how things come into being.

Heaven acts in the field of Earth, then Earth processes it and gives birth to some resultant thing.  All life springs up from the Earth below, it doesn’t just fall from Heaven.  Even birds nest on the Earth.  But just as mother must be fertilized by father, the Chinese understand this springing up of life as an upward bounce from the descending qi of Heaven.  (Hence the lines of the Zhou Yi Jing start at the bottom and then rise upward).

In Laozi’s meditation & qi-cultivation, we model our practice on Dao.  As Laozi says, “the motion of Dao is return”.  So a primary aspect of Daoist cultivation is returning human beings to pure yang.  Shifting from the generative to the returning direction is called neidan or internal alchemy.

To embody the returning motion of Dao, we first align ourselves with the vertical axis of Heaven & Earth – in sitting, standing, and/or moving forms.  Then we become empty like Earth and let the qi drop all the way down.  “Empty the heart-mind and fill the belly.”  With regular practice over a period of time, qi will eventually stir in the lower dantian and start to rise on its own.  This is the reverse bounce.  According to neidan, a true human is one who not only lives as a result of Heaven acting upon Earth, but who can reverse the generative process of Heaven & Earth – drop the qi all the way down and bounce back to Heaven.

One Thing

Daoism has a great many fascinating conceptual principles and practice methods.  But our Daoism is really only about one thing – bringing in the raw, creative power of Dao.

If we’re always doing this or doing that – even if it’s some fascinating and profound spiritual practice – Dao will just keep yielding to our movement forever.  It’s not very assertive – it just sits back, staying hidden and silent, allowing us to do as we please.

But if we take up the mantle of yin – empty ourselves completely – this provides a space for the shy power of Dao to come through.  As Laozi suggests, it’s like we have to become a passive, quiet, and submissive maiden to encourage the reluctant Dao to bring forth its own yang.

If we’re not clear about this one thing, then it really doesn’t matter whether we can perform the myriad methods – we’re simply technicians operating in the dark.  But if we are clear about this one thing, then we can use the myriad methods to effectively support our practice.

The raw power comes down from above and enters though the top of the head.  The entry point is the soft spot just in front of the crown – the fontanel.  We want to keep this spot soft like a newborn baby’s.  We also want to avoid too much thinking or exertion and just let the incoming power settle down to the lower dantian.  From there it will gather and grow, rebounding to reach the fingers and toes and every pore of the skin, pervading the entire body.  It’s like bathing in a sweet elixir all the way through.  Foundational practices are so important to enable us to receive this power without collapsing or going crazy.  Keeping the head open and the base stable in formal practice and the moment-to-moment informal conduct of our daily lives is the central method of wuweidao.

Hexagram 42

“Yi” (Hexagram 42) courtesy of LiSe Lotti Voute.

Staying with Reality – A Look at Dao-De (道德)

Let’s look at the term Dao-De.  This is of course the title of Laozi’s Dao De Jing, the pithy seed-text that inspired one of the most complex & elaborate – and insightful – religious traditions in world history.

Dao-De translates directly as “way-virtue”.  It is commonly translated as “the Way and its Virtue” – but that translation is a bit lofty and remote.  What does it mean?  Let’s look at each character and come up with a fresh translation.

The character Dao (道) consists of 3 parts: grass + itself + walking.  Grass growing by itself.  This image serves as a metaphor for the spontaneous emergence of worlds & creatures from the primordial origin – the eternal procession of birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death.  The Great Thoroughfare.  Dao is not some remote cosmic power but the very process of our own experience unfolding moment-by-moment, of itself.

The character De (德) also consists of 3 parts: upright + heart + stepping.  Stepping with an upright heart.  Upright suggests verticality, which in Chinese means alignment with Heaven.  Stepping on Earth in alignment with Heaven means conducting ourselves moment-to-moment in accordance with the unfolding Dao, with acceptance, humility, and benevolence.

Dao-De then is staying with the natural movement of Dao, letting ourselves dissolve into the Great Thoroughfare.  Keeping our heart aligned with Heaven amidst the changes of Earth.  This means not straying into the past or future, not wanting things to be other than as they are, simply staying with reality.  Not resisting reality is what Laozi calls “wuwei”.

In the context of meditation & qi-cultivation, this view of Dao-De means our practice methods are not geared toward reaching any particular destination but rather are ways to walk on the very ground beneath our feet.

How do we stay with reality?  The Daoist tradition gives us 10,000 methods, but central to them all: watch your step.  “Sitting quietly, doing nothing – spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”

Philosophy or Religion?

There has been a lot of rumination and debate in the West about whether Daoism is a philosophy or a religion.  This started when early Western observers (primarily Jesuit missionaries) perceived a disconnect between the “philosophy” they read about in Laozi, Zhuangzi, and other early Daoist texts, and the actual “religious” practices they observed in Daoist ritual.  A perspective grew in the West during the 20th-century that there were in fact two Daoisms – the original pure philosophy, and the latter-day religion.

Chinese Daoists don’t tend to recognize any such bifurcation, and 21st-century scholars have largely debunked the notion of two separate Daoisms as they have continued their research and discussions with actual practitioners.

Indeed, early Daoist texts do not recommend the kind of complex & elaborate ritual practices that came later.  As we know, Laozi & Zhuangzi emphasize simplicity and naturalness.  We also know that much of the religiosity of later Daoism appeared as a nativist response to the introduction of Buddhism from India.  So there may be a case for distinguishing the original Daoism from later traditions.  But many of the practices of Daoist ritual actually pre-date Laozi, dating back to pre-Daoist shamanism.  Many “Daoist” practices are not necessarily Daoist but were forms of shamanism that Daoism embraced.  More importantly, however, is the dynamic and harmonious interplay of these practices with the various aspects of Daoist “philosophy”.

Let’s look at the meaning of the words philosophy & religion.  Philosophy comes from the Greek philosophia, meaning “lover of knowledge” – it implies using rational analysis to satisfy an appetite for understanding.  Religion comes from the Greek religare, meaning “binding” – it implies offering sacrifice and relying on a deity for some kind of deliverance.  So we can say philosophers are rational thinkers in search of insight into the nature of reality, whereas religious adherents faithfully bind themselves to a higher power.

Daoism is neither of these.  Based on the above definitions, we could say philosophy concentrates qi in the head, and religion concentrates qi in the heart.  Daoism at its basis relaxes qi from the head and heart, letting it gather in the belly and likewise letting it circulate all over.  Indeed, there are many philosophical concepts underlying Daoism that are important to understand, such as the cosmogeny of wuji, taiji, yin-yang, and the five phases of qi – not to mention how wuwei relates to these concepts.  And there are numerous ritual practices, precepts, and even deities – but in Daoism these are all simply ways of cultivating qi and expressing Dao-De.

Daoism is a system – or rather a broad family of varied systems – of qi-cultivation with a philosophical basis in ancient Chinese thought and various methods of hygiene, meditation, & ritual.  Is this philosophy or religion?

KAAT!

The mountain shadow moves with the sun.

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.

_/\_

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.

View-Method-Fruition

Our tradition emphasizes the importance of View-Method-Fruition.  This trinary mechanism functions as a circle of “Great Completion” (大圓).

View is our perspective – how we see ourselves and how we see reality.  The character guàn (觀) shows a heron watching something, meaning to keenly perceive – this character also means Daoist temple.  Our view informs how we relate to the world, how we approach our formal practice methods, and what we expect to “get” out of our practice.

Method refers to our various formal practices of hygiene, meditation, & ritual, as well as our informal conduct.  The character yòng (用) shows a water bucket, indicating a useful device.  Methods are means to achieving a desired end result – like using a bucket to water a tree.

Fruition refers to the ripening experience resulting from practicing methods with a view.  The character guǒ (果) shows a tree bearing fruit – the successful achievement of the goal, the whole purpose of the bucket.

View-Method-Fruition correspond to Heaven, Earth, & Humankind – Heaven being the primary inspiration, Earth being the field of activity, and Humankind being the resulting fruit of the union of Heaven & Earth.

From this perspective, we can see the importance of looking into our view – what am I?  What is reality?  If method is a bucket, view is the water – we can put something else into the bucket but when we pour it onto the tree it’s not going to have the same effect.  Our practice needs to align view & method in order to ripen the fruit.

In the broad suite of spiritual or energetic practices out there, each is inspired by a particular view.  In the West today we have many opportunities to learn practice methods, but their transmission doesn’t always include the underlying view – the view is actually often stripped out in order to make the method more palatable to our existing views.  For example, we can learn yoga, meditation, or taiji by people who tell us we are free to apply our own beliefs to them.  This is the American way – show me what you’ve got, but don’t tell me how to think.  Wonderful.  But practicing Daoist methods without the corresponding view does not lead to the intended fruition.

This is particularly important when approaching the non-conceptual contemplative meditation & qi-cultivation of Laozi.  The method is simple but the view is paramount.  If we are pushing for results, Laozi’s method is futile.  If we are looking to get saved or to become a superhuman being, his method is worthless.  So in our school we study Laozi’s text as a “view” manual for meditation & qi-cultivation.  Laozi may not include many technical points, but his view-teaching deeply informs the proper method of contemplative meditation & qi-cultivation.

Not all Daoist texts and practice methods are aligned with Laozi.  Alchemical Daoism has a great deal of complex concepts that are important to understand in order to practice its methods effectively.  And the methods tend to be quite complex and elaborate.  Laozi’s contemplative Daoism by comparison doesn’t rely on many concepts so much as an atmospheric qi-quality shared between mentor & disciple in the context of Laozi’s teaching.  The corresponding method is simply abiding in that atmosphere.

My Daoist teacher was a view-teacher; he didn’t spend much time on method instruction.  Just enough for it to carry water to the roots.  If you’re studying a Daoist art, I encourage you to tap your teacher to ask about the underlying view of the practice.  In our tradition, when our practice starts to ripen, the view becomes ever more clear and the method becomes ever more effective.  This is the circle of Great Completion.

Hygiene, Meditation, & Ritual

As we’ve discussed, Daoism is a highly complex and elaborate system of cultivation.  In my 25 years of practicing with numerous teachers in different traditions, I’ve observed that most, if not all Daoist practice methods, fall primarily into one of three broad categories: hygiene, meditation, or ritual.  Although these distinctions may ultimately dissolve, as most methods are in fact forms of all three, I nevertheless think this breakdown is helpful as we approach the gate, particularly given our Western cultural context and the fractured nature of the transmission of Daoism to the West.

Hygiene.  Hygiene refers to Daoist health practices, including qigong, martial arts, acupuncture/massage, herbal medicine, and diet.  Even arts like painting, music, gardening, and fengshui can be considered ways of supporting our health and well-being.  One of the features that distinguishes Daoism from Buddhism is its greater emphasis on healing practices.  So Daoists are often known for good health and long lives.  The Daoist term for hygiene is yangsheng (养生), meaning “nourishing life”.  The majority of Daoist arts we see in the West today are various forms of yangsheng fairly disconnected from any orthodox tradition of meditation or ritual.  Westerners are increasingly interested in health & healing but not so commonly interested in ritual, so “non-religious” Daoist hygiene practices have found broad appeal here.  Traditionally yangsheng arts are indeed intended to help everyone live a better life, but for Daoist cultivators, yangsheng is more a matter of supporting and empowering our base of jing & qi so that our practices of meditation & ritual are effective.

Meditation.  There are many Chinese words for meditation, the most broad being “da-zuo” (打坐), which just means “sitting”.  There are endless methods we can undertake when sitting, from counting breaths to focusing on energy centers or pathways, reciting mantras, or visualizing deities.  There’s also the non-conceptual wuwei meditation of Laozi, which we emphasize in our school.  Many Westerners view meditation as a remedy for some problem – from high blood pressure to original sin – but for Daoists it’s either a way to enhance the power of ritual, a process of alchemical transformation, or simply a platform for appreciating our natural luminosity.  In the West today, there’s a great deal of interest in non-denominational, indeed medical meditation.  This is viewing meditation as merely a form of hygiene, which is fine, but such approach is far removed from what meditation has been in numerous traditions for millennia, and it really misses the central point.  Daoist meditation is about coming face to face with our nature – our true nature before birth.  So I distinguish it from hygiene & ritual as it has a distinct purpose.

Ritual.  Ritual – daojiao (道教) – is what many Western observers consider the “religious” aspect of Daoism.  The vast majority of Daoism throughout the ages has been a form of ritual practice.  Maintaining altars and temples, keeping precepts and chanting scriptures, casting spells and crafting talismans, and interpreting the calendar and divining auspices are central Daoist practices.  These methods are largely ways to benefit the lives of people or communities, to pacify the dead, and to help communities thrive with healthy harvests or peaceful relationships.  But they also provide a means of supporting and expressing the contemplative and alchemical experience of Daoist cultivators.  The robust traditions of Daoism have developed and maintained highly elaborate and complex ritual practices throughout the ages.  And yet there has also been a robust yet less visible hermit tradition of personalizing and distilling ritual down to its basis.  Fundamentally, ritual is a formal expression and engagement in the Dao.

From the perspective of our tradition, all human beings practice each of these categories to some extent.  Hygiene is simply taking care of ourselves – breathing, moving, and eating to support our base of jing & qi.  Formal yangsheng practices work with these natural systems to normalize and optimize jing & qi.  Meditation is also a natural inclination, driving us to find various ways to get out of our head and into the “zone”.  Daoist meditation follows this natural inclination to open us into a stable contemplative experience.  We’re also already undertaking ritual, be it conscious or not.  What we do repetitively each day, how we mark special occasions.  Daoist cultivators ritualize our everyday activities as a way of observing Dao.  Daoist ritual is an act of formally embracing the cycles of nature to acknowledge or evoke a shift in qi.  Having a focused, formal daily ritual ceremony is such a wonderful practice, it’s unfortunate how scarce it has become in our society.

Our formal engagement in each of these categories is up to us.  None of these areas is necessarily central, but certain traditions or individuals may treat one as more central than another.  Most important is the view we take into our practice methods – why are we doing this and what do we intend to “get” out of it?  There’s so much to be unpacked in the sections above – this is such a shallow scratching of the surface, but I think the context it sets is important.  I’ll be unpacking these areas a bit in future posts, but much is really more the purview of in-person training.

I hope this discussion helps to set some context about the array of methods out there and how they fit into the larger picture of Daoist cultivation.

What is Wu-Wei (無為)?

無-oraclebone 為-bigseal

Wuwei is probably the most inspired concept in all of human history.  Laozi coined this term in the Dao De Jing, and it is indeed the central theme of the text.  Laozi did not develop the basic cosmogony of Daoism – the waxing & waning of yin & yang was already well understood long before, and numerous other Daoist theories & practices are not necessarily inspired by Laozi.  What Laozi presented was wuwei – how the Dao functions in the world and how the sage conducts himself.  Although this term is important in all Daoist traditions, different traditions have different interpretations of what it means.  Let’s look at the old characters* from the perspective of our tradition.

The old character for wu (無) shows a person (人) holding wood (木) in either hand.  Perhaps because of the homophones for shaman (巫) and dancer (舞), it is typically understood as a dancing shaman holding ritual sticks.  I also see a person in the forest – a homeless hermit with nothing to his/her name, or a person holding “the uncarved block” – grasping unmanifest simplicity.  I also notice the entire character conveys the image of fire (火), and the modern traditional character places the radical for fire (灬) at the bottom, so the image of burning wood (i.e. transformation) may be important to understanding the meaning of wu.  Taking the gestalt of these images, I see a homeless shaman-sage conducting a ritual dance in order to transform or banish something.  The image is of ritual practice transforming something from one state to another.  This ritual represents what Hindus call the dance of Shiva.  What Brahma creates, Shiva destroys.  Shiva is not a devil; Shiva is that aspect of Dao that moves things along – transformation through destruction.  So wu means emptying things out, purging and moving them along, sending spirit up and leaving only ashes below.  It can also mean having nothing – no home or belongings, no agendas or delusions.  Wu is commonly used to denote nothingness or the lack of something.

The old character for wei (為) shows a claw above an elephant.  Whereas hand (手) represents skillful activity, claw (爪) implies exertion of force.  In ancient China, elephant (象) symbolized strength and intelligence.  So wei means cleverly wielding strength – deliberate, intentional activity undertaken in order to achieve some result.  Leading the elephant where you want it to go.  The character for elephant also means form or appearance, so another meaning could be to claw at appearances, which also implies exerting force to get something.  Most of Daoism throughout history has indeed consisted of undertaking intentional methods in order to achieve specific results.  Interestingly, when the character for person is added to the left, it generates another character wei (偽) that means false pretense, artificial, or contrived.  I think wei also suggests the magical “getting what you want” practices that exist within Daoism.

What does it mean when we put these two words together?  The Dao De Jing has no punctuation marks and the language is very terse, so terms like wuwei can be read separately as wu & wei or together as a single concept.  Some schools interpret wuwei as using emptiness (wu) in order to achieve certain results (wei); others interpret it as using intention (wei) in order to push things along to another state (wu).  In our tradition, we view wuwei as a single concept that describes the way nature functions.

Wu is our state before birth.  Before our mother & father were born, what were we?  Long after our children pass away, what are we?  In our practice, we become intimate with the nothingness that precedes, underlies, and outlasts our lives.  Our tradition notes that no matter how much effort (wei) we apply in shaping the world to meet our desires, wu always comes along and transforms our creations back into nothingness.  Even if we make some huge mark on the world, eventually that mark passes away.  Wuwei invites us to try something different.  What would it be like to apply wu to our wei?  Extinguish all effort.  Abandon strength and cleverness. This shift opens up the possibility of relating to the world (and to our practice of meditation & qi-cultivation) in a different way.  Relating without struggle & strain.

Wei is based on wanting things to be other than they are.  Wuwei is accepting things as they are, adjusting to the continuous transformations of nature.  Laozi’s practice is not about getting what we want but relaxing into the way things are.

Wuwei is how we come into the world and how we grow and change and return.  Wuwei is how water flows downstream, how clouds form and break apart, how trees grow and blow in the wind.  Nature functions through wuwei – the birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death of myriad worlds & creatures is not driven by intention and effort.  It just happens.  Like good art.  The ritual image of wu suggests personal engagement in this natural process.

Laozi said: “wuwei but not buwei” – wuwei is not “doing nothing” as a direct translation might suggest.  Daoism includes various active practices of hygiene, meditation, & ritual.  But Laozi’s tradition does not focus on practicing particular methods so much as on how we practice whatever we are practicing.  Wuwei invokes a qualitative shift away from struggle & strain, finding natural ease in our conduct moment-to-moment.  Retract the claws and dance with Shiva.

*image source: Richard Sears – thank you!

“Missing You” – The Nine Xiang-Er Mandates of Zhang Dao Ling

Did you know that the first “religious” Daoist community came up with a list of nine principles that summarize the entire Dao De Jing?

In the year 142 C.E., a certain Zhang Dao Ling had a vision of Laozi and subsequently established the Tianshi Daoist tradition – the Way of Celestial Mastery.  Attributed to him is a text called the Xiang-Er (想爾), which I like to translate as “missing you”.  In addition to a commentary on DDJ chapters 3-37, as well as numerous rules for Tianshi adepts, the text includes 9 mandates that distill Laozi’s key teaching points to guide adepts into Laozi’s fruition.  As such, they contain essential guidance for how to comport ourselves in formal meditation & qi-cultivation, as well as in informal conduct (daily life).

According to orthodox Daoism, the mandates are guidelines for how we conduct ourselves when we are fully in touch with our nature.  They are, importantly, not a list of moral rules or commandments that we impose upon ourselves – they are simply the way we actually are.  If we find ourselves out of touch with our nature (“missing you”), these mandates help to bring us back.

My teacher said “if this was all you had, it would be enough.”  In our school, we use these mandates as precepts and recite them in our daily ritual practice.  We also have unpublished commentaries about what each of these mandates mean with regard to meditation & qi-cultivation.  But it’s not really enough just to read the mandates or a commentary – they are intended to trigger an exchange between teacher & disciple that in turn triggers a process within.

I’m a little hesitant to post them without a personal discussion – these translations are provisional and need to be unpacked in the context of formal practice, but they are published in different translations anyway so here they are:

Extinguish effort (wúwéi, 無為)

Remain soft & weak (róuruò, 柔弱)

Preserve the feminine, do not initiate activity (shǒucí wùxiāndòng, 守雌勿先动)

Remain nameless (wúmíng, 無名)

Remain clear & calm (qīngjìng, 清静)

Function with competence & benevolence (zhūshàn, 诸善)

Relinquish desire (wúyù, 無欲)

Cease with sufficiency (zhīzhǐ shīrènwéi, 知止师认为)

Relax aggression (tuīràng, 推让)

With gratitude to Zhang Dao Ling.  Let’s keep his teaching alive.

Old-School or New-School Daoism?

I was recently asked whether I consider our tradition to be old-school or new-school Daoism.  Interesting question.  Here’s my response.

One of the names I’ve taken for our school is “Original Root Order” (源根派).  Let there be no mistake: we trace our lineage-inspiration to the old-school original Daoist teaching as expressed by Laozi.  And yet, as we enter into Laozi’s teaching, we come to realize there is in fact no authentic Daoist expression except that which spontaneously arises moment-by-moment.

What is often referred to as old-school Daoism can also be referred to as Daoist traditionalism.  Traditionalist schools may be brimming with millennia of accoutrements that may deeply inspire and support or, from the perspective of our tradition, may in fact weigh us down and inhibit authentic cultivation, depending on how we engage them.

On the other hand, a casual, free-wheeling approach to Daoism (which, beware, lends itself to the individualistic and self-assured nature of the Western mind), may in fact be nothing but a branch broken from its root – destined to wither and die before it bears fruit.

As it turns out, “Laozi” translates as “old-new”.  Lao (老) means elder – those who have come before us.  Laoshi means teacher.  Dao (道) itself is the ultimate lao – “that which precedes the gods”.  Zi (子) means baby or child – that which recently emerged, or perhaps that which is arising this very moment – fresh, with no accumulated merit or baggage.  We use the term De (德) to denote the moment-to-moment expression of Dao.  So Laozi means Dao-De.

The authentic Daoist experience is rooted in the unborn Dao and spontaneously expresses itself moment-by-moment.  To the extent that we lose touch with this experience, let’s take a cue from Confucius and bow to those ancients who wrote down guidelines and passed along methods to return us to this experience.  As we bow, we give reverence and receive inspiration.  But let’s not overly rely on provisional teachings and methods and thus overlook the direct, uncontrived experience of our own nature.

The training I received from my root-Daoist teacher was centered on Daoist “view” and the proper method of contemplative non-conceptual meditation (zuowang, 坐忘).  This approach was present in both the early Tian-Shi and Quan-Zhen traditions and has continued alongside various ritual and alchemy traditions throughout Daoist history.  Its presence however always tends to be overshadowed by the more remarkable aspects of those traditions.

Daoism is steeped in numerous cultural elements and social dynamics that may or may not be inspired by wuweidao.  There were few accoutrements in my training.  My teacher actively discouraged Westerners from taking on the cultural elements of Chinese Daoism.  He focused on view-transmission and playfully and adeptly shared his extensive knowledge of numerous Daoist arts – always emphasizing the essence of the art above the form.  There may be something contrived about Westerners adopting too much Chinese tradition.  We need to attend to our own ancestors.  Wuweidao is the way things are – our tradition is to stay with reality as it is and not necessarily hold to traditional forms of expression.

When his teacher, “old Master Liu”, fled from northern China during the Japanese invasion, he wasn’t able to bring much with him.  His family had perished; his temple had been destroyed.  Eventually he made his way into a cave outside Taipei, where he stayed on retreat for 20 years until he was visited by a young Euro-American savant.  After a year of training, he passed on his thousand-year old family lineage, trusting that the root of his tradition of “wuweidao” would effectively transmit to the West without the old cultural accoutrements.

Daoism in general suffered severely during the 20th century – in the civil war, the Japanese invasion, and the Cultural Revolution.  In the past 25 years, the traditions have been opening up quite a bit, and now Daoism is becoming robust once again.  That’s wonderful – it’s tempting to rejoice, but nothing in Laozi’s teaching supports us getting too excited about the waxing or waning of traditions.  Just continue.

As far as our tradition, we are carrying forward the fundamental view & method of Laozi’s wuweidao.  We’re exploring different elements of Chinese hygiene, alchemy, ritual, and more, but we are centered totally on Laozi’s non-conceptual meditation and a thorough steeping in the Dao De Jing.  My teacher opened up this text for me, as old Master Liu did for him.

So are we old-school or new-school?  All I know is: we’re keeping the cauldron warm, and sweet dew falls from above.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog.  Please contact me with any questions or if you would like to discuss.