Daoism aims at studying Dao, conforming to it and obtaining it. The life expected by Daoism is one rich in morality. Therefore, life is basically directed towards understanding Dao and establishing virtues.
Dao can be received but not taught:
Dao has no shape or image, and cannot be grasped directly by the senses. Those who have obtained Dao can tell you their feelings, but cannot give it to you; you can empty your mind to hail its arrival, but you cannot get it from others. This characteristic of Dao can be described as being able to be received but not taught. Therefore, understanding, studying and obtaining Dao are determined not by others, but by oneself. Some people always expect to find an eminent master who will transmit secret formulas to them, and then obtain Dao at once. But as a matter of fact, the study of Dao depends on one’s own comprehension. The instructions from eminent masters can only point out the approximate direction at most and show the way a bit when one has questions, but it depends on oneself whether one will be enlightened or not. Daoism has always attached importance to seeking instructions from eminent masters. If not instructed by masters, a person’s course may end up very roundabout, as he will grope all by himself. Certain profound and subtle methods in cultivating Dao especially require instruction. However, the instructions cannot replace one’s own study and practice. Only if a person comprehends and cultivates Dao by himself, can he obtain Dao for himself.
Discard attachments in order to understand Dao:
There exists the problem of how to start, since a person must study and understand Dao by himself. Study in its general sense means the gradual accumulation of knowledge, and the knowledge becomes richer and richer over time, and one’s wisdom reaches higher and higher levels after accumulation over a long period of time. But from what can one proceed in studying Dao, since Dao has no form or image and can be received but not taught? Dao is an integral whole which has neither bound nor handle, nor can it be divided, so surely it is impossible to study and grasp it from its parts or sides, and even impossible to enter the profundity of Dao at all. Therefore, the way to understand Dao is quite different, even entirely different from the usual way of seeking knowledge. Laozi says, “To study requires to increase day by day, while to understand Dao requires to discard every day. One should discard again and again, until he reaches the state of Non-Interference. In this state, one may get everything done.” What should one discard? As a matter of fact, to discard means to decrease the interference of common sense. Common sense refers to knowledge about concrete things. Yet Dao is different from any concrete thing. However, people are used to beginning the process of understanding Dao in the same way as they would pursue knowledge about concrete things. They always try to start with some image or some terminology or concept to analyze and comprehend Dao. They do not understand that Dao cannot be grasped with names or language, neither can it be analyzed logically. Laozi says plainly that ‘the Dao that can be described is not the Eternal Dao; the name that can be named is not the Eternal Name. The Dao being pursued in Daoism is the great Dao that is eternal and transcends all concrete things and laws. It goes without saying that this great Dao is omnipresent, and it originally exists in human bodies.’ The problem is that ordinarily people are used to seeking after external knowledge, and conceal the nature of Dao they originally possess. Hence they cannot find out the direction of Dao. A person can clarify the embodiment of Dao only if he reduces his pursuit of trivial knowledge, and especially gives up the habit (which is formed during the period of seeking ordinary knowledge) of stressing memorization of terminology, concepts, and concrete principles. In brief, it is necessary to empty the mind to study and understand Dao. Emptiness houses Dao, so Dao gradually comes to live in an empty mind. One can awake to the true essence of the great Dao only if he understands it in calmness.
Don’t confine yourself to existence or non-existence, and reach the extremely mysterious and abstruse state:
Dao is empty, and one should empty, calm, enlighten and purify his mind in order to understand Dao. But emptiness and calmness are absolutely confined to the lifeless empty state. Common people are accustomed to the experience of daily life. Once they mention non-existence, they think that means having nothing. Once they talk about keeping to Dao, they think that means keeping firmly to emptiness. When Daoist believers talk about existence and non-existence, they regard them in an interrelated and dialectical way. This requires people to attain a higher goal and surpass the distinction between existence and non-existence. The first chapter of Laozi says, “One should have no desire to observe the sublimity of Dao, and one holds desire to observe its limit. These two things have the same origin but different names, and both of them mean mystery. The mystery of mysteries is the door to various kinds of sublimity.” This means people can comprehend the mystery and sublimity of Dao only if they have no desire in their heart. If they are desirous to observe Dao, they will only create boundaries to Dao. Being with and without desire originate from the same source but have different names. Both of them are mysteries, or different aspects of mystery. Cheng Xuanying gave an explanation to this: ‘mystery means profundity, and also means detachment. Both the two states of mind of being with and without desire, and the ways of observing subtlety and that of observing sublimity originate from the same great Dao. They have the same source but different names. But in spite of their different names, they originate from the same Dao, namely profundity. The profound mystery is summed up as non-attachment to principles. One should be attached neither to existence, nor to non-existence. Non-attachement to either of them is therefore called mystery.” Dao is abstruse, firstly because it is confined neither to existence nor to non-existence. So those trying to comprehend Dao must follow their own nature and try to comprehend it in a way confined neither to existence nor to non-existence. But it is not sufficient to be merely detached from existence and non-existence. One should further emphasize the mystery of mysteries, namely the Twofold Mystery, and further get rid of one’s attachment to ‘Non-attachment’. Cheng Xuanying says that people with desire are attached to existence, while people without desire are attached to non-existence. So we use mystery to make him get rid of the two-fold attachment. Fearing that those who study Dao will be attached to the “mystery”, we now put forward a further mystery to get rid of this latter problem. In this way, people are not only not attached, but also not attached to non-attachment. This means to get rid of the rid, so we say the mystery of mysteries”. We say one has a correct understanding of Dao only when he reaches the extreme mysterious and abstruse state.
Be soft and don’t strive:
Dao is mild in nature. Laozi says, “softness is the function of Dao”. Of course those who practice Dao must comply with the natural law of the great Dao, keep to mildness, never compete for first place nor seek priority over others. Volume 89 of the Seven Slips of a Cloudy Satchel says that the Supreme Venerable Sovereign has said that the law of nature is to benefit rather than harm all things, and that the norm of sages is to act naturally rather than compete. Laozi requires people to be kind like water. The perfect goodness is like water. Water is good at benefiting all things instead of contending with them. It dwells in low places where no one would like to stay, hence it comes close to Dao. This forms a sharp contrast to some people who are eager to compete for the first place and are fond of seeking fame and gain, and place personal interests above all other things.
One should observe nine norms when studying Dao:
The study and cultivation of Dao does not merely aim at understanding the general idea of Dao. What is more important is to practice what Dao advocates. This requires people to observe some basic norms. The Seven Slips of a Cloudy Satchel puts forward nine principles that must be observed.
Firstly, keep to harmony: Everything under heaven connotes Yin and Yang. The vital breaths of Yin and Yang keep acting upon each other, and thus things keep unifying themselves. Sages follow the laws of Heaven and Earth. They are not confined to common customs or common people. “It is most important to keep to harmony”.
Secondly, keep to the spirit: This means to guard one’s spirit and prevent it from chasing external things and getting exhausted.
Thirdly, keep to the Vital Breath: Blood and the Vital Breath are the essence of human beings. Filled with the Vital Breath, human beings won’t be invaded by calamities or harmful breath. When one is tied down by desires, his spirit will be exhausted and his inner Vital Breath will consequently be insufficient. He who cultivates Dao must purify his heart, reduce his desires and protect and nourish his Original Vital Breath.
Fourthly, keep to benevolence: Fearless of the threat of death, righteous people can be moved by benevolence, but cannot be compelled by force. Those who cultivate Dao regard the human world as unimportant, so they are not tied up; regarding all things as trivial, they will not be perplexed; regarding life and death equally, they are fearless; indifferent to changes, they are wise and won’t be dazzled. They are more able to keep to benevolence than common righteous people are.
Fifthly, keep to simplicity: One should get rid of filth and worries, and understand the way of balance and harmony in Nourishing one’s Life. As for food, it’s sufficient to allay one’s hunger, and as for clothing, it’s adequate to cover the body and keep out the cold. One should never be greedy. Simplicity can certainly be achieved if one doesn’t exercise his wits too much.
Sixthly, keep to constancy: It is inevitable that people become powerful, lowly, poor or rich, but those who have secured Dao will not change their original intention no matter how their conditions change.
Seventhly, keep to pureness: One should have his mind as pure as water, and have no greedy or filthy ideas, and shouldn’t indulge in his desires.
Eighthly, keep to fullness: The sun and moon will begin to wane when they reach the full. One shouldn’t attempt to be perfect, but should never be self-satisfied. He must increase his virtues every day, and not dare to be violent.
Ninthly, keep to gentleness: Only being gentle can conform to the way of simplicity. To be specific, one should have no happiness, anger, joy or bitterness, regard all things as mysteriously identical, and make no distinction between right and wrong, harmonize and soften his Vital Breath, and balance his body so as to drift along with Dao.
Nine difficulties in the study of Dao:
To study Dao is not easy, but to understand and keep to Dao is even more difficult. Laozi said that when hearing of Dao, the best scholars assiduously practice it; the average scholars half remember and half forget it; and the worst scholars burst into laughter about it. If the worst scholars do not laugh about it, it is not the true Dao. Dao is different from common knowledge, so to know Dao is easy while to believe in it is difficult; to believe in Dao is easy while to practice it is difficult; to practice Dao is easy while to secure it is difficult; to secure Dao is easy while to keep to it is difficult. To keep to Dao and not to lose it should be what Daoist priests seek after. There are nine difficulties in keeping to Dao. The first difficulty is the burden of life, the second is the obstruction of elders and betters, the third is entanglement with wife and children, the fourth is anxiety about fame and gain, the fifth is unexpected calamities, the sixth is the restraint of the blind teacher (the teacher who is blind to logic), the seventh is incorrect views, the eighth is weak will, and the ninth is wasting time. There may be hope of success only if one eliminates the interference of these nine difficulties and withstands trials.
Passing through the barriers:
The nine difficulties are just the main obstructions. In fact, the road-blocking tiger-obstacles in the way of studying Dao are far more numerous than those difficulties. The eminent Daoist priest Liu Yiming of the Dragon Gate sect of the Qing dynasty called these obstacles the ‘barriers’. He wrote the Book of Passing Through Barriers, which specially analyzes each barrier and points out the correct way to pass them. He listed as many as 50 barriers. They are:
The barrier of intelligence
The barrier of disputation
The barrier of non-persistence
The barrier of disbelief
The barrier of illusion
The barrier of bookishness
The barrier of lack of definite views
The barrier of life and death
The barrier of willfulness
The barrier of physical body
The barrier of lust
The barrier of delusion
The barrier of karma
The barrier of hidden evil
The barrier of attachment to appearances
The barrier of complacency
The barrier of wealth and gain
The barrier of the female elixir
The barrier of coldness and hotness
The barrier of destitution
The barrier of craft
The barrier of flaunting
The barrier of the stove fire
The barrier of the fear of hardship
The barrier of excessive drinking
The barrier of disrespect
The barrier of glory and rank
The barrier of decline in aspiration
The barrier of fear of difficulty
The barrier of disgrace
The barrier of deep love
The barrier of loftiness
The barrier of quick results
The barrier of suspicion
The barrier of carelessness
The barrier of heavy debt
The barrier of waste of time
The barrier of emptiness
The barrier of nothingness
The barrier of arrogance
The barrier of false understanding
The barrier of pretence
The barrier of envy
The barrier of giving oneself up
The barrier of irritability
The barrier of anger and hatred
The barrier of laziness
The barrier of cowardice
The barrier of others and oneself
The barrier of adversity
Some of these barriers are characteristic of inner alchemy, but most of them will be encountered in the general process of studying and cultivating Dao. Liu Yiming held that passing these barriers can enable those who study Dao to be healthy good persons, ascend to a higher level from a low one, reach the distant from the near, and not until then can they get instructions from eminent teachers and then gradually begin to hear of the great Dao.
The accumulation of merits is the foundation:
To eliminate various barriers is but the prerequisite for the study of Dao, and to withstand the trials of the nine difficulties represents a strong Daoist aspiration. Only thus can one be assured that one will not give up halfway. To study Dao actively should be founded on merits. Ge Hong, the ‘master Who Embraces Simplicity’ of the Jin dynasty, said that according to the middle section of the Book of the Jade Lock, to establish merits is the most important thing, and the second important thing is to eliminate demerits. Those who cultivate Dao take it to be their biggest merit to deliver people from danger and disaster, to protect people from calamities, and to cure people of their illness so as to make it impossible to die for nothing. It is important for those who want to be immortals to take loyalty, filial piety, harmony, obedience, benevolence and fidelity as their essential qualities. If they merely search for Daoist magic Skills blindly but neglect the practice of virtues, they will never be able to secure longevity. All the other Daoist believers of successive generations also held this view, which is identical to the view of urging others to do good works and doing good works oneself.
To study and practice Dao, one should learn all sorts of Skills, such as Refining the Vital Breath, dietetics, Gymnastics and so on. Inner Alchemy was also highly valued after the Song dynasty. But no matter what method is used, to accumulate merits is always the foundation. At ordinary times, a person should cultivate and examine himself constantly, restrain his body and mind, and consolidate his foundation of virtues. Only by doing this can one make consistent progress in his understanding of Dao and establishment of virtues.
Self-dependence and unfetteredness:
Philosophical Daoism advocates the freedom that transcends all the external trammels of fame, gain, and status, reveals one’s own nature, and shows highly one’s personality. The Perfect Man of the Southern Flower calls it the Unfettered Excursion, which is customarily known as Unfetteredness. He holds that small knowledge is not to be compared with the great, and that a finch can never understand the giant Peng bird that flies as high as 90,000 li. Owing to the limitations of their circumstances and outlook, it is always difficult for ordinary people to shake off the yoke of different restraints. Those who have obtained Dao know that there is still infinity beyond infinity, compared to which the time and space of personal life are so small. So people may be able to shoulder the duties of their office. Their conduct may conform to the customs of the district, and their virtue may satisfy the sovereign so that he enjoys the trust of the country. Thus they preen themselves like little sparrows. A person of noble character follows the laws of nature to ride on the transformation of Breaths, and thus makes an excursion into the infinite. Then what has he to depend on? Therefore it is said that the Perfect Man has no “self”, the Divine Man has no achievement, and the Sage has no Name. It is quite hard to achieve the three “no”s mentioned above. Owing to the limitations of their outlook, ordinary people always regard fame, power, high position and great wealth as their goals, so they are swayed by considerations of loss and gain, always tied up, and often worried and not free. Those who have obtained Dao lead a simple life without worldly desires, regard position and health as fleeting clouds, never seek fame or gain, and never preoccupy themselves with worldly affairs. Hence their spirit can communicate with the divinities of Heaven and Earth and does not depend on outside matters. So naturally they can shake off the yoke of human nature and attain an unfettered and self-dependent plane.
Attain Dao through gradual cultivation:
To attain Dao is the final pursuit for those who try to understand Dao and accumulate merits. The process of obtaining Dao is one of accumulating merits gradually and reaching a higher spiritual state. Some people hold that those with a high power of understanding can suddenly realize the supreme great Dao. But there are seldom such people. The so-called sudden realization by common people refers to the sudden attainment of enlightenment and realization of truth after the pursuit, exploration and comprehension over the years, so it should be grounded on gradual cultivation.
Sima Chengzhen of the Tang dynasty wrote The Heavenly Hermit to advocate gradual practice, and he divided the cultivation of Dao into seven stages in his Discourse On Sitting in Oblivion. The first stage is faith: one should firmly believe that he can attain Dao through Sitting in Oblivion. The second stage is the elimination of preoccupations: this means to break free from the bonds of this world and not to be tied up by worldly affairs. Break free from the old bonds of worldly affairs, and don’t form new bonds. The third stage is restraint of the mind: the mind is the master of the body and the commander of one hundred spirits, and the key to Sitting in Oblivion is to restrain the mind and transcend this world. The fourth stage is the simplification of affairs: it means to handle affairs leisurely, and to deal with matters without being tied up. One should know that life and death are a matter of destiny and shouldn’t seek what is not destined. One should discern what is proper and shouldn’t undertake what is improper. One should distinguish matters and compare their significance, “get rid of those unimportant to life and discard those unnecessary for life”. As for high or low position, honor and rank, one should never take them into consideration. The fifth stage is perfect perception. One should perceive good or bad luck, fortune or misfortune prior to their occurrence, know the branch through perception of the root, and reduce action every day. Not until his body gradually becomes quiet and his mind leisurely, can he perceive sublimity. The sixth stage is supreme concentration: this means one should manage to “have no intention to concentrate and all concentration is achieved”, that is to say, the mind is not fixed on quietness and concentration, but quietness and concentration arise incessantly and everywhere. When one looks like a withered tree and one’s heart is like dead ashes; when one is not startled by a thunderbolt strong enough to split a mountains; when one is fearless in the face of a bayonet charge; when one regards fame and gain as transient and look upon life and death as ulcers—-when one has attained this stage, one is not far from obtaining Dao. The seventh stage is attainment of Dao: as for one who has secured Dao, “his body is one with Dao, so he is always alive; his mind is one with Dao, so he has a good command of all the skills”. Therefore, for him there is neither life nor death, and he won’t be harmed when going through water and fire. He determines both life and death, and he can easily come in and go out of life and death. These seven stages mentioned by Sima are actually the Cultivation and Refining methods of Visualization and Sitting in Oblivion of the Highest Clarity sect The concrete steps of other Refining methods may not be the same, but they are alike in essence and differ only in details. The gradual practice of Dao, the restraint of the mind and of listening, purification and calmness of the mind and spirit, and the like are of instructive significance for every person who studies and cultivates Dao.
Author: Liu Zhongyu
Translator: Gou Bo
(Courtesy of: Taoism Culture & Information Centre)