Daoist Obscurity and Developing Understanding

By Simon Weir – Qianfeng Daoism UK (ICBI)


Daoism is nature – nothing else. This being the case, why is Chinese Daoism, (I say ‘Chinese’ Daoism because there are many kinds of ‘Daoism’ throughout the different cultures of the world), traditionally steeped in obscure, bizarre, and even oddly interpreted terminology? If Daoism is ‘nature’ as I contend, then why complicate the matter of yogic development by couching all the instructional terms in a format that no one but the educationally privileged can understand? One obvious answer is that although nature is everywhere around use, within us, and part of us, at no time is it ‘simple’ in either presence or function. Nature can be complicated and if we humans want to align our inner and outer bodies with its cycles and rhythms, then we must learn to clear the mind in an appropriate manner. This often means not only changing how we think, but also how we live, as it is our modern lifestyles that cause to deviate from the path of nature (or Dao). This understanding is important as everything living in the universe appears to breathe in and out, and even the universe expands and contracts. This why Daoist systems (and there are many in China) are all united in their sharing of a common theme, namely the observation and development of the breath and the breathing mechanism, as a means to cultivate the mind and body. Absolutely no Daoist school in existence in China deviates from this method.

Awareness is not instantaneous but requires development through concentration, but what is ‘concentration’? It is the key that unlocks all Daoist practices; it is the medium or agency through which all seekers of immortality travel, and ultimately it is the fuel that makes things happen! If the mind is not focused, or in other words, if the psychic processes are not unified so that they move in a single direction guided by the Will or Intention, the wrong kind of ‘nothing’ happens. This kind of ‘nothing’ is just the ordinary ‘everydayness’ of existence and has nothing to do with the Daoist idea of ‘doing nothing’ (wu wei). An unfocused mind is the ordinary mind that is mortal. If flies after this fancy and that fancy, but never is able to settle in the present moment and appreciate the timelessness of existence. This is why there is the aging process in operation. At the cellular level, the body remains unco-ordinated by a haphazard brain that is childish in its efforts to appropriate everything it comes into contact with. This grasping is a form of psychological tension that permeates the body ells and caused them to age through excessive constriction. A tense mind leads to a tense body. Tension of mind and body signifies trapped qi. Qi that is trapped does not flow. When qi does not flow, there is biological stagnation. Biological stagnation is nothing but the mechanism of a slow death! Stagnation causes qi to congeal and turn septic in and around the organs, and this leads to illness and disease. This is why the first port of call in Thousand Peaks Daoism is the removal of physical and psychological tension.

Upasaka Lu Kuan Yu (Charles Luk), either during face to face teaching, or via the written word, would always emphasis relaxation of mind and body in the form of ‘laying down’ all worries and concerns. For modern Westerners this is not as easy as it sounds, as our entire cultural upbringing has been designed to try and to achieve as much as possible. The Eastern view is the opposite of this upbringing. In the Eastern Daoist viewpoint ‘doing less’ is seen as ‘doing more’ in a positive way. When Westerners embrace Chinese Daoism, they have to unlearn everything they have been taught and often hold dear. At the very least, this requirement leads to the understanding of the relative nature of culture and existence. This is an important point to remember that true spiritual growth cannot happen if we stay the same and do not change. Spiritual growth is change, just as free-flowing qi is life. Being suck in our ways is not cultivation, but is in fact the conserving of the very thing that perplexes us in the first place. We want things to be different, but we do not want the implications of this ‘difference’! Yet old models of being must ‘die’ if new models of being are to ‘live’. With the right kind of guidance and a mind set on change, even the most radical of transformations can be set into motion. The problem for many Westerners interested in Daoism, is that much of its English expression appears to be nonsense! Having made this point, it does not mean that Daoist terminology ‘is’ nonsense, but that it appears this way to those unfamiliar with the philosophy. An interesting point that Lu Kuan Yu made was that many Daoist technical terms are just baffling to the average Chinese person, as they are to the average Western person! This is because Daoism employs a ‘specialist’ language that sets it apart from either Buddhism or Confucianism, as each of these paths has also developed distinct terms and concepts.

The point with Daoism is that nothing is easy and that everything is earned. The perfected stage of ‘doing nothing’ constructively is a long way off at the beginning. The pain of this message is eased somewhat by the Daoist holy books, all of which say that the true Dao is ‘here’ and ‘now’! The quandary for the Daoist student is how this gap in perception should be bridged, and herein lies much of the confusion. I need to try hard to achieve something already here – how wonderfully paradoxical and obscure! This transformation cannot be easy, as the number of years spent doing it are extensive and the effort needed is arduous to say the least. I think that the unusual language of Daoism is designed to engage the intellect and force it to change. This may sound strange coming from a religion that avoids conflict on the inner and outer plane, but the intellect is a slightly different matter, as it is our capacity to think that dictates the direct in which we will travel. The human intellect is powerful, arrogant and obstinate, and if we truly want to advance as a being, it must be brought under control. The intellect just thinking about being healthy does not produce in the body and instant healthiness – this demonstrates the innate limitation of thought. No, for development to occur, proper action is also needed, but this action can only be taken if the intellect understands that it has to listen to teachings and impartially carry them out. Only then will true inner and outer peace be attained.

Although the Daoist teachings are exact at their core, it is important that Daoism does not descend into a dry list of facts that go nowhere and exclude the human imagination from the developmental process. It is exactly this imagination that fuels Daoist terminology and has created what appears to be strange and obscure labels to natural events. Qianfeng uses ‘xian tian’ or ‘before heaven’ development. If you look at the words, they appear to be confusing and meaningless – a heady combination of apparently unrelated concepts. Charles Luk described this state as being the same as the ‘original face before your parents were born’ found in Ch’an Buddhist doctrine. It is an underlying state of reality which is always present, but not perceived due to a dull or confused mind which does not possess the ability to see into its own depths. It is something like a ‘divine’ state (heaven), which pre-exists material existence (before). It might be better described as the ‘divine state that underlies all existence’, or the ‘divine state which came before’. This then explains why Daoist self-cultivation is a ‘reversion’ back through the entanglement of physical existence to a divine state which is its underlying basis. The in and out breaths are material events that happen within the divine state, but the practitioner cannot know this until the mind’s focus is sharpened by concentrating on the breaths as they emerge from nothing (xian tian), and return to nothing (xian tian). The movement of the breath has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but often the mind cannot sees this and only knows what it feels like to ‘breath’ in and out, with no depth of awareness. All the colourful language found in Taoist Yoga (Chou Pi Chen’s Classic) does not go beyond calming the body energy processes, relaxing the muscles, opening the energy channels, and allowing a gentle but incisive awareness to develop in the mind so that it can ‘see’ clearly into its own depths. Daoist terminology is obscure because it is unfamiliar. Becoming familiar with it is part of the Daoist path towards immortality. A qualified Daoist teacher is simply someone who understands this ‘code’ and correctly pass on that knowledge to a student. Daoist terminology is a set of cryptic sign-posts on the road of self-cultivation and the obscurity should be welcomed by all true students of the Dao, as it is this initial opaqueness of understanding which triggered out of its lazy existence, and into a new and thoroughly ‘bright’ future!

This article was originally published in the ICBI eJournal Patriarchs Vision (Vol. 1 no. 7, March 2015).