Let’s check out this Chinese character – (shù, 術). It has 3 parts – center, left, & right. In the center is the character for wood (mù, 木). Wood is one of the Five Elements or Qi-Phases; it represents young yang, springtime, morning – like a young shoot piercing through the surface of the earth. I’m not sure what the small stroke at the top means (术), but I surmise that it has something to do with the movement of wood – so I take the central character to essentially mean growth or the process of qi rising and moving and transforming.
The character on the left (chì, 彳) means stepping with the left foot. The character on the right (chù, 亍) means stepping with the right foot. If we take the left & right character together and remove the center, it means to step slowly (chìchù, 彳亍). If we put them into a single character, we get xíng (行), which means to walk or circulate – remember the Xing Qi Jade Inscription?
So what does the full character shù (術) mean? The slow stepping of wood? The step-by-step process of growth and transformation. Moment-to-moment flow of Dao. It may surprise us to learn that the character translates as “method”, “art”, or “technique”, as in wushu (wǔshù, 武術) – martial art.
We sometimes refer to our central practice of Zuowang as the method of no-method, similar to Silent Illumination Chan. But of course there’s a method to sitting appropriately, just like anything else.
I practice a Russian martial art called Systema. One of the central ideas of Systema is not focusing on techniques but rather the principles of posture, relaxation, breathing, & natural movement. Of course there are tons of techniques, but Systema lets them arise spontaneously in response to the situation. This is why I’ve always felt Systema is a marvelous expression of wuwei. It’s not about not having any techniques, but not “making” any techniques, not forcing anything onto the situation – staying precisely in the situation we’re in and responding appropriately based on the principles. Techniques arise of themselves. The nice thing about martial arts is we can test their efficacy – it’s not just a philosophical position. That unforgiving feedback is really helpful!
Shu (術) doesn’t mean we have to practice this method or that method. And it certainly doesn’t mean we need to introduce unnatural or exotic practices into our experience. It means if we’re going to practice some art – whatever it is – then we need to attend to the process of growth and transformation very carefully, step-by-step. This means staying with reality as-it-is right now.
Our tradition speaks of “method” in terms of formal practice & informal conduct. Formal practice means various arts of hygiene, meditation, & ritual, all practiced within the context of our view-teaching. Different ways to support & express our human life. But Daoism doesn’t just mean doing some formal Daoist practice. Perhaps it means staying closely attuned to the clay when spinning a potter’s wheel. Perhaps it means fully expressing each note when playing a flute. Perhaps it’s the way a deer steps through the forest, or the way a poem rises out of an inspired moment*. Is this a method or a non-method?
Step with care.
*Shout out to Heath Thompson.
In our school, as is common in Daoist traditions, we take three distinct approaches to internal cultivation: neigong, neidan, & neiguan. The term for internal cultivation is neixiu (內修) – nei (內) means internal; xiu (修) means to study, repair, or cultivate.
The notion of internal cultivation holds prominence in Chinese traditions, particularly Daoism. But exactly what “internal” means isn’t always clear, and different traditions often define it differently. Distinguishing internal from external requires that we establish some threshold, some barrier between inside & outside. As far as I can tell, there is no absolute barrier; it just depends on where we define the threshold. I have heard people define internal to mean anything from arts that emerged within the borders of Han China, to esoteric traditions that maintain secret teachings reserved for insiders, to martial arts that cultivate the use of qi instead of li (brute strength). All of these have relevance within Daoism, but the one we’re most concerned with here is the cultivation of jing-qi-shen.
Each approach to internal cultivation has its own distinct view, method, & fruition. They don’t all necessarily lead to the same result. It’s a good idea to be clear about what our view is, and what approach we are taking in our various practices.
Neigong (內功) means internal work, practice, or skill. It means to practice with an inward focus, with the intention to develop some improved state. Gongfu is a special skill developed by arduous practice. The purpose of neigong is to improve or maintain our internal condition – nourishing jing-qi-shen to support our health and vitality, and to promote longevity. It’s like the idea of yangsheng (養生) – nourishing life, which we often refer to as qi-hygiene. Qigong, Taijiquan, & Yoga are all forms of neigong, but we can also practice natural walking or any other moving or still activities as effective neigong once we are familiar with its principles. The best neigong is that which is appropriate for our condition right now, and this changes with time and is not the same for everyone.
Neidan (內丹) means internal elixir or alchemy. Neidan is not only about improving our internal condition, and it’s not merely about well-being or longevity, but returning our experience to the state before birth. This transformation is similar to the idea of transforming delusion into enlightenment or sin into holiness. It is a gradual, progressive process with clear concepts and distinct stages, and a precious, exalted goal.
Neiguan (內觀) means internal observation. To look inside. The character for guan shows a heron’s gaze, suggesting keen observation. Guan also means “view” and is the word used for Daoist temple. It is the word my teacher chose as the title for his Dao De Jing translation, as our tradition considers Laozi’s text to be the central view-teaching manual for the practice of neiguan, which we refer to as Zuowang. Neiguan differs from the other two in that it isn’t fundamentally goal-oriented. It’s not about improvement or transformation. We can make it about these things, but that “making” is extra baggage from the perspective of our practice.
How do these approaches relate to each other? Generally, a beginner or someone recovering from illness or injury is well-advised to cultivate neigong to build up their internal health and vitality. When jing-qi-shen is smooth and abundant, then practicing neidan is possible. We are well-advised to continue practicing neigong as long as we have a body, as it provides a base for life and neidan. Neiguan is not part of this progressive spectrum. Neiguan is relevant for the beginner – it is probably a good idea to introduce neiguan from the very beginning, as it sets the stage for proper neigong. Neiguan also helps us to perceive our internal state to understand our needs. Then when we start working with neidan, neiguan is there as a neutral source of support and stabilization. As our practice of neidan comes to fruition, there we are in neiguan just as we were at the beginning. Our tradition says proper neiguan brings about neidan effortlessly, and neidan simply culminates in an empowered state of neiguan.
I invite you to consider your practice methods and make sure you are clear about which of these you are practicing and why.
The central practice method of wuweidao is sitting quietly and simply abiding in things-as-they-are. This practice has been given many names throughout history, and different traditions have approached it in different ways. Our tradition refers to it as Zuowang – Sitting & Forgetting. This term comes from the Zhuangzi, which says: “Dropping the body and dismissing concepts, leaving appearance and removing knowledge, merging with the Great Pervasion – this I call sitting & forgetting.” My teacher learned this method from a Daoist hermit who had been on retreat in a cave in northern Taiwan for 20 years.
The practice consists of a view and a method – the view of Zuowang as practiced in Laozi’s tradition is distinctly different from alchemical practices geared to bring about refinement and transformation. It’s also quite different from magical practices that manipulate qi to improve auspices. It doesn’t conflict with these practices – and in fact is often practiced in conjunction with them – yet it stands alone as something disengaged from aspirational pursuits. Wuweidao isn’t about producing some exalted state – it’s simply relaxing into our natural condition, uncontrived by effort and intention.
Laozi’s revelation is that our nature and Nature itself are inseparable, so the method of Zuowang is not about refining ourselves into something better but appreciating our nature as we actually are. This is why we sometimes refer to it as “Sudden-School Daoism” – a term borrowed from Chan/Zen Buddhism. We view Laozi’s Dao De Jing as an instruction manual for how to abide in our natural condition. But as my teacher said, the text is intended to spark conversation between teacher & student during personal transmission, as it needs to be “opened up” by an adept of the practice.
In the Tang Dynasty, as Buddhism came over the Himalayas and brushed up against Daoism, some keen-eyed monks recognized a resonance between Zuowang and the teachings of Buddha – in particular the Diamond and Heart sutras – and Chan (Zen) was born. In particular, the Caodong Chan tradition, and later the Soto Zen tradition in Japan, took the mantle of this non-conceptual meditation, placed it into the Buddhist worldview, and carried it forward as the central method for Buddhist awakening. Zuowang as practiced within Daoism seems to have taken on an aspirational quality at this time – as Daoists came to more concretely articulate their goals and distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary experience, Zuowang was increasingly viewed as a tool for accessing the Dao or attaining immortality, as evidenced in gradual-entry texts such as the Zuowang Lun. Fundamentally however, according to our tradition, Zuowang isn’t geared around any such agenda, as Laozi doesn’t presume that we’ve lost anything that we need to recover. Actually, sitting without any agenda is precisely what Zuowang is in its pure sense – simply a platform for appreciating our nature, which Laozi refers to as Dao-De.
Let’s look at the Chinese characters.
Zuo (坐) means “sit”. The character shows people on soil. Soil is the element or qi-phase of central equilibrium, so we can say this posture relates to Laozi’s “holding center” in Dao De Jing Chapter 5. The idea of sitting is not only a physical posture but a qi-posture of letting movement settle into stillness. “Letting mud settle” brings the qi in and provides a stable base for natural qi circulation and – indeed – natural alchemy to arise.
Wang (忘) means “forget”. The character shows the head & heart hiding, or the heart-mind perishing, so the idea is letting the heart-mind calm down, relaxing the qi down to the base and disengaging from thoughts & emotions. The term suggests effortless emptying, it’s not really an active technique – thus the practice embodies wuwei.
The Zuowang method in our tradition includes several precise facets that allow the practice to unfold in an easy and natural manner. It is my sincere wish to share this practice with like-minded adepts. If this practice appeals to you, check out my wuweidao cultivation group. If you would like an introduction to this practice, or if you have any questions, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can download a free introductory talk on Zuowang by my wuweidao lineage teacher, Liu Ming, at: https://www.dayuancircle.org/zuowang-introduction/, and you can purchase his invaluable translation & commentary on the Dao De Jing at: https://www.dayuancircle.org/observing-wuwei/.