Daoist practice is based on a philosophical view that includes both a systematic conceptual framework and non-conceptual direct experience. It is important to apply the proper view and principles to our practice - otherwise, we will have limited results. Daoist principles are most superbly conveyed by Laozi.
Laozi ("Lao-dzuh", 老子) was a legendary sage of 6th-century BCE China who compiled his teachings into the classic text known as the Dao De Jing as he was leaving the world behind. The real Laozi may have actually been many people from various cultivation traditions. In any case, Laozi teaches that all things arise from the same mysterious source and eventually return to the source. He refers to this source, as well as its process of manifestation, as “Dao” (道). Dao means way - the way thing are, the way things go.
Laozi says: "There is something, in the form of chaos, before the birth of Heaven and Earth. Silent, vacant, standing alone and unchanging. Revolving without rest, it mothers Heaven and Earth. I do not know its name; if I must call it something, I call it Dao." Dao is the great mystery; it is beyond conception, but it expresses itself in the rise and fall of the myriad things. Laozi refers to this expression as "De" ("duh", 德). De means virtue - the inherent virtue things have by simply being what they are.
The dominant question of Laozi's day was: how do human beings find our way? Laozi's answer is to simply be what we are - to let nature unfold. This perspective opens up a relaxed way of living that is neither compulsively driven toward results nor disengaged. Letting ourselves be just as we are, with no need for improvement or transcendence, yet flowing with circumstances - this is Laozi's way, allowing an intimate experience and flawless expression of our original nature - Dao-De.
According to traditional Chinese cosmogony, originally there is nothing but an unmanifest state of undifferentiated unity, referred to as wuji (無極), literally meaning "no extremity". Wuji is traditionally symbolized with an empty circle, indicating nothingness/infinity. Wuji is also called heaven & earth (天地), respectively describing its generative brightness and receptive openness.
Mysteriously, wuji gives birth to taiji (太極), literally meaning "supreme extremity". Taiji is the way of the manifest universe, characterized by yin & yang (阴阳) - the negative and positive forces, the contracting and expanding energies which appear as darkness and light, empty and full, female and male, etc. Taiji is traditionally symbolized with a double-fish symbol indicating a unified dynamic polarity. Yin & yang combine in infinite variations to generate the myriad things in a process of continuous transformation.
When wuji gives birth to taiji, heaven emits its internal yang into earth, forming "post-celestial yin", referred to as water or vital-substance (jing, 精) and "post-celestial yang", referred to as fire or vital-energy (qi, 氣). The experience of water and fire is referred to as vital-spirit (shen, 伸). Worlds and creatures thus consist of the dynamism of jing, qi & shen. The quality of our lives depends on the quality of these “three treasures”.
The natural progression of life is birth, growth, maturation, decline, and death. The stresses and temptations of life deplete and exhaust jing, qi & shen, hastening our decline and death. Daoist practice is a process of cultivating the three treasures within ourselves to preserve and nourish our vitality in order to slow down and reverse this process, extending our lives but more importantly retaining some vitality at death.
Cultivating jing-qi-shen involves nourishing ourselves with a proper diet, getting restful sleep, avoiding conduct that leads to depletion and exhaustion, and practicing methods of sitting and moving meditation. Of key importance is aligning and relaxing the body, stabilizing the breath, and calming the heart-mind. With proper practice, the fire of the heart descends to the lower dantian (丹田, "elixir field") in the belly, where it can heat the water of the kidneys.
This internal “cooking” process is referred to as neidan (内丹, "inner elixir") or "internal alchemy", as it refines jing, qi & shen into a precious elixir that remains unharmed at death. The elixir is in fact nothing other than our original nature before birth. Laozi refers to the discovery of the elixir as spirit-illumination (shen ming, 伸明).
The marrow of Laozi's philosophy is the principle of wuwei-ziran. Wuwei (“woo-way”, 無為) literally means “non-action”. This does not mean inaction or inertia, however. Laozi says: "In Dao, daily lose. Lose and again lose until wuwei. Wuwei, but not buwei (無不為)." (Ch. 48). Buwei is no-action, not doing anything. Non-action can only really be known by its counterpart, ziran. Ziran (“dzi-zhan”, 自然) literally means “self-so”, meaning “naturally so”, “of itself” or “spontaneously arising”. When we have wuwei, ziran is natural action according to the situation - action arising of itself.
Zhuangzi tells a great story about wuwei-ziran in his Chapter 19. Confucius is walking through the woods with his disciples, and they happen upon a grand waterfall. To their dismay there is a raggedy old man writhing around in the roiling waters. At the bottom of the falls, the old man disappears, subsumed by the current of the river. The disciples run after the man, intending to save his life. But suddenly the river spits him out and he laughs his way to the riverbank unharmed. Amazed, Confucius asks the old man: “Sir, how do you do that?” The old man responds: “Oh, I don’t do anything in particular, I just follow the water. I don’t resist it and I don’t dare to make my own path, and somehow it always leaves me unharmed.”
This story epitomizes wuwei-ziran: spontaneous and responsive, uncontrived and yielding to circumstances - not the result of cleverness, effort, or strength. Action arising of itself. Wuwei-ziran is also captured in the old Chan (Zen) saying: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.” This principle is the foundation of all meditation and qi-cultivation taught at Old Oak School of Dao.