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 often 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.  Finally, some observers note the modern character looks like bundled crops with seeds in the ground, suggesting an empty field after harvest, full of potential.  Taking the gestalt of these images, I see a shaman-sage conducting a ritual dance on the edge of existence & nothingness – 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.  I’m not sure about this, but whereas hand (手) represents skillful activity, claw (爪) seems to imply exertion of force.  I believe elephant (象) symbolizes strength and intelligence.  This makes sense, as 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, and 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

Xiang-Er_WMCDid 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 term also suggests “ripening the seed” as the text includes instructions for bringing forth a direct experience of 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.

Sudden-School Daoism

Today I want to talk about “sudden-school” Daoism.  I’m not sure this term has been used before so maybe I’m coining it now.  But historically there was a lot of debate in Buddhist circles, particularly Chinese Zen (Chan), about whether awakening was a gradual process or a sudden event.  In the end, the sudden-school won out, and gradual-schools were deemed lesser, incomplete paths.

Daoism is a little different.  We must not deny the role of gradual progress.  Laozi observed that a large tree starts as a tiny sapling.  If we are undertaking qi-cultivation of any kind, be it Taijiquan, calligraphy, or Daoist ritual practice, there is a lot to learn, and there is absolutely no such thing as suddenly mastering such arts.  Qi doesn’t work that way – it grows gradually.

However, we have options in how we view this growth.  If we are looking for some grand award or release when we compete our development, then in fact we are practicing a lesser, incomplete path.  I would call it a dualistic path because we’re distinguishing between our present “lesser, incomplete” condition and a desired, refined condition.

Another option is to view our practice not as a means toward an end but a way to engage and express the ever-present Dao.  This shift in view puts everything in a different perspective, and indeed it is sudden, not a gradual shift.  It’s not really something we can work toward – it’s not like we need to do a bunch of gradual practice before our view can open up.  No.  Let’s view our nature as it is right now.  Your next move expresses the ever-present Dao.

This shift isn’t really a grand event, it’s more like “oh, yeah, that’s right” – and suddenly now we’re engaging everything in a totally different manner.  Let’s proceed to engage our practice methods so they can gradually bear fruit.  But let’s not burden the sapling with the false view that it is incomplete and will only realize its nature once it touches the sky.  It’s already touching the sky.  Let its growth be a gradual expression of the ever-present Dao.

Welcome to “sudden-school” Daoism.

What is Contemplative Daoism?

Welcome to my new blog.  Let me begin by addressing the approach we take to cultivating Dao in the “contemplative” Daoist tradition.

Daoism consists of a broad array of numerous and varied traditions each cultivating Dao in its own peculiar way.  While each is rooted in ancient Chinese thought, different traditions often have totally different and even conflicting interpretations of fundamental concepts, methods, and goals.  There is no universal Daoist path – different approaches may suit different people at different stages.  They don’t all necessarily lead to the same result.  Regardless of our approach, it’s important to clearly understand the distinct view underlying our practice methods if we want them to bear their intended fruit.

We can say that among the numerous traditions, there are generally two broadly-defined streams flowing through Daoism – often interweaving with one another, yet nevertheless distinct.  My teacher classified these two streams as “Alchemical Daoism” and “Contemplative Daoism”.

Alchemical Daoism views our uncultivated condition as either flawed, vulnerable, or incomplete.  Therefore its goal is to improve and refine our experience, ultimately transforming ourselves into an exalted state.  Some traditions cultivate shamanistic waidan (external alchemy) empowerment methods, such as talismans, divination, or spell-casting.  Other traditions cultivate neidan (internal alchemy) methods to refine jing into qi into shen into xu, ultimately into Dao.  Alchemical fruition is considered a grand accomplishment, and the success rate is somewhat low because the required commitment is so great and there are so many potential pitfalls.

Contemplative Daoism is different.  We view our uncultivated condition as nothing other than the flawless and pristine, pure qi of Dao.  To the extent that we find ourselves “missing the Dao”, this is a result of our own self-generated delusion, bolstered by cultural conditioning and habitual misuse of qi.  Since birth, we have been cultivating this or that, which has shaped our current experience.  How do we resume our natural, uncultivated intimacy with Dao?  The contemplative path says Dao is not something we can achieve – and it is not something we can lose.  As my teacher said: “we don’t get there by effort, we’re simply there by nature”.  If we hold this view, we engage our practice methods in a totally different manner.  And fruition doesn’t bring any sense of grand accomplishment, just a feeling of natural ease and subtle illumination.

Alchemical Daoism has a lot to learn and achieve – many complex, esoteric concepts and practice methods.  It’s inherently a gradual, transformative process, and there needs to be an intimate connection between teacher and student and a close, careful transmission over a long period of time.  There’s often a tight tribe with strong lineage-identity helping one another along.  These traditions tend to be robust in nature, generating numerous cultural treasures – behold all the splendid temples, altars, and robes.  These traditions also tend toward esotericism and distinguishing between marginal “outdoor” students and trusted “indoor” disciples.

By comparison, there’s really not much to learn in the contemplative path.  It’s like a wide-open valley that accepts numerous and varied paths unto itself but commits to none.  We may take on various methods, but rather than relying on them for progressive transformation, we simply play with them to find ways to express our experience of the ever-present Dao.  Our methods are about staying with our natural experience rather than trying to transform it.  This stream doesn’t really generate a strong sense of lineage affiliation.  While adepts may find intimacy with fellow cultivators, there’s not as much of a club mentality and less dependence on a teacher.  There are, however, important guidelines for how we comport ourselves – but these are self-arising principles, not something developed but observed and noted by adepts that came before us.  Laozi called this path “wuwei” (無為), meaning “uncontrived”.  The uncontrived naturalness of wuwei doesn’t draw attention to itself.  In this sense it’s inherently a form of secret or hidden Daoism.  And yet wuwei adepts don’t hold a strong of sense of esotericism, because contemplative secrecy is innate – not something that can be exposed, so it need not be withheld.  This path doesn’t culminate in a sense of personal accomplishment but a relaxed realization of how things actually are.

Interestingly, alchemical paths may naturally lead to an empowered contemplative experience, and contemplative paths may give rise to naturally-arising alchemy.  We are a contemplative school, yet we find alchemical paths fascinating and enriching – a way to express and embellish and indeed support our natural experience.  We are an alchemical school, but we only really value that alchemy that supports or expresses a natural contemplative experience.

This is the view of our school.  I look forward to sharing additional blog-posts.  The theme will be Laozi’s contemplative Daoism, but who knows exactly where it will lead.  If you want some basic info on Daoism or our school, see our website at www.oldoakdao.org.  If you are interested in receiving blog posts or if you found this blog of interest or would like to discuss, please contact me – I look forward to corresponding with you.