Daoism, like China, is multi-faceted, eclectic and adaptive. It is by definition hard to pin down; the first line in its premier text insists that it is so:
Any Way that you can speak of is not unchanging.
At some point, a chord is struck within you, your interest is piqued, and you decide to look further into the life practices of ancient China. Almost immediately you are overwhelmed with choice. “Should I learn Taichi, or Qi Gong? If so, what type? I like Zen stories, but is that the same as Chan? What about Kung Fu? Or is it Gong Fu? Should I study the Yi Jing, or Lao Zi, or learn Feng Shui? What should I do, if I want to be healthy, or maybe wiser than I am right now?” If all one wants is a weekend hobby, most areas in the world now offer classes that can serve as an introduction to at least some of these activities.
But if you want to go deeper, any of these can be a path leading one towards that secret garden that is the inner core of Daoism and Buddhism: a unity of being that is ultimately supportive and nourishing. Some of the paths do not lead very far towards that goal, it is true, and many are so overgrown it is now impossible to proceed down them safely and sanely. After a certain point on the route to this garden a guide is necessary for almost all wayfarers, but guides who have traversed the whole path and returned are few, and they seldom — if ever — advertise.
Furthermore, if one is starting from a different place (like a different culture, or the mindset of a bygone era) the path will naturally follow a different course. This is why, every so often, there has been a need to re-forge pathways for new feet and changing terrain. As noted above, Lao Zi discusses this idea, in the very first chapter of his Dao De Jing, which says in paraphrase:
One may speak of “a path” but there is no single unvarying “Path”, any more than there is only one name for an object. You can name things, for convenience, but over time those names will change. If you are stuck on the name, you are trapped in the Ten Thousand Things. Look beyond, to the reality where there is no name. Cut away your desire for objects and you will see how they separate you from everything; when there is no desire for objects (and the satisfactions they bring), you will begin to observe Subtlety!
One need not be a philosopher, however, to grasp his essential point: do not get caught on the externals. Underlying those externals is a balance of body and mind and heart that can itself allow a healing sustenance to flow to you and through you. This flow can be blocked if one becomes obsessed with the external trappings: “Only my Padded Dragon-Queen Kung Fu style is any good, all the rest are fake!”
The Zhong He Ji (Book of Balance and Harmony)1 by the 13th century Daoist Li Dao-Chun spends several chapters warning about the dangers of becoming trapped in what he terms “sidetracks and auxiliary methods,” and emphasises the importance of calm openness as a mode of living:
There are thirty-six hundred methods in Taoism; people each cling to one and consider it fundamental. Who knows this opening of the mysterious pass is not in the thirty-six hundred methods? When you are calm and stable, careful of attention, the celestial design is always clear, open awareness is unobscured; then you have autonomy in action and can deal with whatever arises.
(The Book of Balance and Harmony, Li Dao-Chun)
Similarly, “a path” may be appropriate and beneficial for a certain person at a certain time, and yet inappropriate and detrimental for another person or another stage of life. For a physical example, in martial arts, hard external martial arts styles are best suited to those under 40 years of age; after 40 softer internal styles will be less damaging to the body. Speaking philosophically, unguided study of the Yi Jing (Classic of Change) in youth could foster a fixation on divination. I witnessed an extreme case of this, once, among the young hip elite in Aspen, Colorado: “No! Before we choose a restaurant, I must consult my Yee Chiing!” However, after one has spent a lifetime witnessing change in all aspects of living, a study of this classic could prove most enlightening for recognising the universal principles underlying all manifestation, principles sometimes known as the “celestial mechanism.”
In terms of heart and mind, there is a strong tendency to become unbalanced here as well, too “otherwordly”, so “spiritual” that one can no longer function effectively in society – one can become only a pampered hothouse flower, existence dependent upon artificial quietism and support.
The true aim is to live as fully as possible, recognising and encouraging the development of all one’s faculties, and during the course of this, learning to access a deeper source of sustenance for this process. Those practices that emphasise stretching, movement across a broad range of motion and the quieting down of compulsive mental and physical activity are most likely to prove to be all-around beneficial.
First establish a firm foothold in daily activities within society. Only then can you cultivate reality and understand essence.
Secret of the Golden Flower (Cleary translation)2
Thus up to a certain point any of these life practices, these paths, can be helpful or they can be harmful, depending upon how they are approached. A light touch and a feeling for balance and rightness are the best criterion. In general, precise movements requiring focused concentration on the positioning, tensing and relaxing of the body are ideal. This will, at the least, help rectify our society’s over-concentration on mental activity that is focused outward.
As Lao Zi advised: empty the mind, and fill the belly! Of course, one can’t fill it with just anything. It has to be the right stuff in the right amount, and at the right time! But that is another topic …
1. The Book of Balance and Harmony, translated and with an introduction by Thomas Cleary, 1989, North Point Press, New York.
2. Having studied the original in Chinese, it is my opinion that the Cleary translation is incomparably better than the Wilhelm translation.
These articles, hosted here in mainly pdf form, were originally written for The Lantern, a hard-copy journal of Chinese medicine published in Australia.
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