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.