Classical Daoism – Is there Really Such a Thing? 4.3

Friend of the blog, Scott Barnwell, shares part 4.3 of his extensive study of classical Daoism.
You will find a lengthy PREVIEW below — footnote links send you to the article posted on his own blog. Comments are welcome here; please address comments to Scott.


Mysticism, Self-Cultivation and Longevity

Mysticism and quietistic self-cultivation practices have long been associated with the classical Daoist texts of Laozi 老子 and Zhuangzi 莊 子. The concern with longevity has primarily been associated with the figure of Laozi and the religion that deified him. In the 19th and first three quarters of the 20th centuries, Western scholars regularly described Laozi and Zhuangzi as mystics or quietists. In the past thirty years, however, these texts have been analyzed and interpreted more for their philosophy than for their religious practices or a broader holistic understanding of the spiritual and philosophical content.[1] My hope is to give both the philosophical and religious or spiritual aspects their due.

In the mid 1930’s, both Arthur Waley and Henri Maspero stressed the quietism and mysticism of the Laozi and Zhuangzi. Waley described the early Daoists as quietists who used breath-control and yoga to induce “self-hypnosis” and trance,[2] and suspected that it originated in the “cleansing of the heart” that a sacrificer or spirit medium underwent.[3] Maspero held that Laozi and Zhuangzi were mystics who, by union or identification with the Dao, participated in its immortality. They were mystics rather than practitioners of breathing and physical exercises, for Laozi “had found in ecstasy a short cut which, through union with the Dao, avoided the wearisome practices of the other [Daoist] schools.”[4] He believed that Laozi and Zhuangzi, along with Liezi 列子, Guan Yin 關尹 and Qu Yuan 屈原 were a minor branch of Daoism at the time, a Daoism whose main focus was immortality.[5]

Objecting to Maspero’s perspective, Herrlee Creel pointed out that the cult of immortality was not associated with early Daoists. The most prominent seekers of immortality were the Qin First Emperor 秦始皇帝 (c. 260 BC – 210 B.C.E.) and the Han Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (156 – 87 B.C.E.), yet neither of them were said to have any interest in Laozi, Zhuangzi, or “Daojia.”[6] The legendary Yellow Emperor (Huangdi 黃帝), who became known amongst immortality-seekers as a patron saint-type figure is likewise not connected to Laozi (or Zhuangzi) in the pre-Han sources.[7] Creel acknowledged that references to immortality, longevity and certain spiritual practices are to be found in the Zhuangzi; however, he believed these are either misinterpreted or are “isolated passages” that are over-emphasized by scholars like Maspero.[8] This is a matter to be taken seriously, especially since the early texts such as the Zhuangzi contain the writings of numerous authors, who should not be taken to have identical aims or philosophies. However, we should also be hesitant to disregard certain passages because they do not fit our own conceptions. D.C. Lau, for example, argued against any mysterious doctrines in the Laozi,[9] but admitted that chapter 10 suggests a “breathing exercise or perhaps even yogic practice.” Yet Lau suggested this is an “isolated passage” that properly belonged to a different school of immortality seekers.[10] Arguably, the Laozi is not chalk full of mystical doctrines, references to self-cultivation practices or prescriptions for longevity, but these so-called “isolated passages” need to find their place in our interpretations rather than be dismissed.

Angus Graham conceived of a “deep end” and a “shallow end” of Daoist self-cultivation practices. The deep end was authentic mystical experiences of oneness, whereas the shallow end served as a “means to relaxation, poise, loosening of habit, creativity, quickening of responsiveness … using meditative techniques to enhance [one’s] efficiency. The author of Laozi certainly sounds familiar with the deep end, but the book has had many readers who, far from sharing the Daoist renunciation of fixed goals, sought in it only a mental discipline in the service of their ends.”[11] Mark Csikszentmihalyi agrees that the authors of the Laozi were familiar with this “deep end,” but cautions that “there is nothing to show that the use of meditational vocabulary is anything but metaphorical.”[12] This is especially important to take into account with regards to the Zhuangzi as well, as most scholars recognize that many of the stories of spirit journeys and such serve as metaphors for spiritual liberation and may not describe or advocate actual practices.

Robert Allinson argues that spiritual transformation – the major theme of the Zhuangzi, in his view – is achieved by reading the “systematically and artfully arranged” text of the Zhuangzi rather than through self-cultivation practices or mystical experiences,[13] and is akin to an extended textual kōan.[14] He regards the text as “a single line of philosophical development which aims at inducing as well as describing different levels of spiritual development”[15] and would appear to regard the various passages describing self-cultivation, mysticism or shamanism to be merely instrumental to transforming the reader’s level of consciousness. While such transformation is certainly possible for readers, and may have even played a part in Guo Xiang’s editorial designs, we cannot make such assumptions about the original authors of the text. This is not to say that the original authors did not intend or hope that their writings may stimulate and foster self-transformation in their readers, but only that 1) the arrangement and ordering of specific passages is the result of later editors, not the original authors, and 2) the practices may have been a central aspect of their tradition. Allinson begins with the assumption that not only are the Inner Chapters the authentic work of Zhuangzi, but that they are deliberately written and arranged by him – an assumption I cannot support.[16]

Scholars such as Benjamin Schwartz, Ellen Chen, Randall Peerenboom, Isabelle Robinet, Livia Kohn, Jordan Paper and Harold Roth all support the view that these texts are part of a mystical tradition, or include the writings of mystics. Harold Roth, the foremost expert and defender of this view, asserts that mystical praxis is at the heart of both the Laozi and Zhuangzi (and some other texts). He maintains that the Daoists “followed and recommended to others an apophatic practice of breathing meditation aimed at the mystical realization of the Way and its integration into their daily lives.”[17] Michael LaFargue agrees that these early practitioners had “extraordinary experiences” but resists calling these mystical.[18] Indeed, many of the passages we will explore do not suggest a unitive experience but are rather examples of Quietism, or are simply quietistic in nature.

Finally, in A Daoist Theory of Thought, Chad Hansen rejects what he calls “the ruling interpretive theory,” “the ruling Confucian perspective,” and/or the “the dogmatic mystical-monist interpretation” of Zhuangzi because it removes him from the “philosophical culture” of Classical China.[19] In my view, “Zhuangzi” had a foot in both the philosophical and the religious cultures. Hansen regards the later chapters (non-Inner Chapters) to “combine Daoist ideas with the more superstitious and dogmatic positions that proliferated toward the end of the classical period.”[20] I concur with Eric Sean Nelson, who writes

Hansen rightly argues that Zhuangzi’s dao should be understood in its ancient Chinese context. He himself fails to do this in focusing on its “philosophical” context to the exclusion of its proto-Daoist “religious” context that informed the text and later religious Daoist traditions in varied ways. The significance of proto-Daoist biospiritual practices in particular should inform interpreting the Zhuangzi, given that the text is littered with references (ironic and otherwise) to the sages who cultivate reality, riding the wind and living on mist, proper breathing and longevity, as well as to emptying the self and freely responding in accordance with dao. The presence of these motifs in the Inner Chapters – including Hansen’s preferred chapter two, the Qiwulun (齊物論), which begins with a scene of meditation and concludes with the “transformation of things” – indicates that its authors were responding to beliefs and practices later associated with religious Daoism.[21]

I have used the terms quietism, mysticism, shamanism and self-cultivation. Before proceeding, it would be prudent to explain how I am using the terms.

Quietism, as I use the term, refers to the practice(s) of achieving and maintaining a tranquil, serene and unperturbed mind, possibly accompanied with a relaxed body. In such a state, the Divine, however construed, takes the lead in, or becomes the agent of one’s actions. Arthur Waley seems to have been the first to use it with regards to ancient China and the Daoists in particular. Many of the “knack-stories” in the Zhuangzi fit with this conception of quietism, as when the butcher Ding quiets his senses, empties his mind, and allows his spirit (shen 神) to guide him through the natural inherent patterns in the oxen he works with.[22] Further, the notions of spontaneous response/adaptation often appear to be examples of quietism insofar as the person, after clearing and quieting his or her mind, finds himself/herself spontaneously adapting to situations with a perfect fit, as if something divine were guiding him/her. As A.C. Graham put it: “The Daoist’s motions derive not from himself as man but from Heaven working through him.”[23] I shall use “quietistic” to refer to practices that consist of emptying and quieting of the mind, such as apophatic meditation, despite lacking explicit claims of “divine” inspiration or agency. Quietism is closely linked to mysticism, especially Harold Roth’s so-called “bi-modal” mysticism, whereby one’s mode of being is profoundly transformed by the mystic unitive experience.

In this essay, “mysticism” primarily refers to the practice(s) of achieving union with either a divinity or reality as a whole. This unitive experience is transpersonal by nature; that is, one’s sense of identity extends beyond oneself, and may be thought of as building upon the shamanic experience of communication and interaction (and possible union) with spirits and/or deities.[24] Jordan Paper mentions (the anthropologist/participant) Agehananda Bharati’s view that the mystic experience is “the person’s intuition of a numerical oneness with the cosmic absolute, with the universal matrix, or with any essence stipulated by the various theological and speculative systems of the world.”[25] Ken Wilber describes several types or stages of mysticism. It would appear that the early Chinese evidence points to what he calls “formless mysticism.” These mystics were the first to enter the “causal realm,” who entered into

the purely formless realm of sheer Emptiness, the causal of unmanifest absorption – nirvana, the cloud of unknowing, apophatic, nirvikalpa Samadhi, nirodh, cessation. But far from being a literal ‘nothing’ or stark blankness, Emptiness is the creative ground of all that is (hence ‘causal’) – a vast Freedom and infinite Openness whose very discovery means Liberation from the world of form, suffering, sin, and samsara. Whereas, in the subtle [realm], the soul and God find a communion or even union, in the causal, the soul and God both disappear into Godhead – the Atman that is Brahman, the Supreme Identity of the Sufi, ‘I and the Father are One,’ the separate self dissolves in Emptiness – and deity mysticism gives way to formless mysticism, the mysticism of the Abyss, the great Cloud of Unknowing, the Consciousness that is infinitely within and beyond the manifest world altogether.[26]

Words like “formless,” “emptiness,” “the abyss” and reference to the “creative ground of all that is” should remind us of the descriptions given in the last essay of the Dao in the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Huainanzi 淮 南子, which is also “infinitely within and beyond the manifest world.” Randall Peerenboom regards this mystical consciousness as “the state of pure, undifferentiatedness (Wu 無) as opposed to awareness of and in the distinction-laden phenomenal world (You 有)”[27] and cites Robert Forman’s description of the “pure consciousness event,” in which “one is awake and alert but devoid of any and all objects of consciousness. One entertains therein no feeling, sensation, thought, perception, or even the realization, ‘Oh, now I am having an unusual experience.’”[28] It would seem that some of the contributors to the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Huainanzi had these purportedly ineffable experiences, for, despite its invisibility and intangibility, they affirmed the reality of the underlying dynamism of the universe (i.e. the Dao). We can be fairly confident that they didn’t affirm its existence based on thorough intellectual cogitation, as the authors consistently derided this type of mental activity. However, as discussed in the last essay, the more detailed cosmological expositions are undoubtedly works of the intellect, complete with its inherent cultural conditioning and subjective concerns, regardless of whether they originated in mystical experience.[29]

Angus Graham, Lee Yearley and Harold Roth observe that for the early Chinese mystics, the mystic unitive experience is not in itself of ultimate value, but rather value is found in what is sometimes called the “extrovertive” aspect; that is, union with the Dao is but a necessary step along the way to the actual “goal” of self-transformation, of the application of the experience/insight to the mundane world.[30] In Original Tao, Roth writes

Some sources imply further that this condition of unitary consciousness is temporary and that upon returning to normal differentiating consciousness the concerns of the self that had previously characterized one’s conscious experience are no longer present. Therefore the sage thus transformed becomes selfless, impartial, unmoved by common passions and prejudices, and singularly able to respond spontaneously and harmoniously to any situations that arise and to exert a numinous influence upon them. It is no wonder that the fruits of these practices became so desirable to those who governed. It promised a sagely, almost divine clarity and the attendant wisdom not only to govern efficaciously but to also achieve total personal fulfillment.[31]

Shamanism, as I use the term, refers to a type of spirituality or religion which serves to connect human communities to other spiritual realms/entities. The shaman is one who, by means of some sort of ecstatic experience, communicates with spiritual entities to serve his or her community. This commonly involves spiritual journeys or flights to other realms, communicating with spirits, gods or ghosts (divinities) to obtain information or some other sort of aid for those whom the shaman is working. Shamanism is related, though distinct from mediumism, for, among other things, the shaman is in control, whereas the medium relinquishes control to the spirit (who possesses his or her body).[32] Most scholars of ancient China do not make this distinction, and refer to the Wu 巫 as a shaman; however, among other duties such as exorcism and funeral rites, the Wu is a medium: his or her spirit does not ascend to the heavens in the course of the trance.[33] In fact, so many duties are ascribed to the Wu in the extant literature that it may be more accurate to call them simply “ritual specialists,” as Michael Puett advocates.[34] Jordan Paper hypothesized that Xian 僊 was a term that originally referred to an actual shaman, though the evidence for this is slim.[35] K.C. Chang and some of his Chinese contemporaries have argued that shamanism was the principal religion in the Shang Dynasty.[36] The evidence for this is equally slim. David Keightley finds Shang religion, as seen on the oracle-bone inscriptions, to be too bureaucratic to be deemed shamanic, although he suspects shamanism existed prior to the Shang. For example, he writes:

The well-ordered, bureaucratic nature of the [divination] diagnosis and its record do not share the inspirational and generally non-literate activities of shamans in other cultures. Furthermore, the king whether divining about his own illness (as was usually the case) or those of others was able to make his diagnosis sur place; he took no voyage to another realm. His diviners cracked the bones, he read the cracks, he offered his sacrifices, all in a process of quasi-bureaucratic divination that took place in his cult center at Xiaotun.[37]

In some of the literature of early (southern) China, such as the poem “Departing in Sorrow” (Li Sao 離騷) by Qu Yuan 屈原 and some stories in the Zhuangzi and Huainanzi, we find shamanic spirit flights described, but the protagonist-shamans are distinctly asocial; that is, they undertake their spirit journeys for personal reasons and not in the service of the community. Åke Hultkrantz has defined a shaman as “a religio-magical practitioner who, on behalf of society and with the aid of guardian spirit(s), enters into a trance (ecstasy) to establish contact with the powers of the other world.”[38] Jordan Paper quotes Helmut Hoffman, discussing Tibetan religion: “The shaman establishes his connection with the supernatural world in trance not for the sake of his personal experience (like the mystic or ecstatic of almost all higher religions) but for the well being of the group.”[39] These spirit journeys may be thought of as higher or altered states of consciousness that the shaman accesses by various means (e.g., dance, chanting, hallucinogenic substances, etc.). It may also be understood as a kind of dream state entered while still conscious.[40] Alternately, descriptions of celestial journeys may often be allegorical, as Qu Yuan’s Li Sao surely is, often appearing to be metaphors for freedom from mundane concerns and limitations, perhaps based on (orally-transmitted) stories involving shamans (Chinese or foreign).[41] In these cases, the authors themselves were not shamans or undertaking shamanic spirit journeys. The poems of Qu Yuan and his admirers (in the Chuci 楚辭) that describe spiritual journeys do not indicate that they were professional shamans (or mediums) serving their communities, although perhaps they chose not to write about their public affairs. While some may have undertaken celestial journeys themselves, others undoubtedly appropriated the reports or tales of the phenomenon to create their poems. Livia Kohn believes that the Chuci “is among the foremost documents of shamanism in pre-Han China,”[42] where she identifies the protagonists in the poems to be shamans. Isabelle Robinet also believes the Chuci to be the product or “written remnant” of southern shamanism, of the Wu.[43] It is unclear whether they consider the authors to be shamans or not. Something resembling shamanism seems to have existed in Chu 楚, though we have no records of shamans undertaking celestial journeys to serve their communities. Moreover, in those cases where spirit journeys are described, how the ecstatic trance was induced is not mentioned, (if ecstasy was involved at all), and again, they are not called Wu 巫.

As for “self-cultivation,” Romain Graziani’s eloquent definition will suffice:

Self-cultivation comprises exercises and practices that concern the health of the body, the honing of sensory perception (chiefly seeing and hearing), the mastery of mental workings (feeling, thinking, speaking), and the efficacy of action. These exercises often take the form of a discipline of emotions, passions, and desires, ethical attention to one’s words and deeds, and meditation leading to a cosmic conscience enabling one to shed individual biases, petty worries and attachment to the ego. They imply a constant effort of the will until natural spontaneity takes over partial ways of responding and acting. Self-cultivation thus presupposes without explicitly stating it a deep faith in human moral liberty and in the possibility of perfecting oneself.[44]


Chapter 51 of the Hanfeizi  韓非子 contains the following passage:

世之所為烈士者,離眾獨行,取異於人,為恬淡之學而理恍惚之言。臣以為恬淡,無用之教也;恍惚,無法之言也。… 恍惚之言,恬淡之學,天下之惑術也。

This generation has some distinguished men, independent of the crowd, walking alone (du 獨). Choosing to be different from others, they teach (the practice) of quietism (Tiandan 恬淡) and explain it in insensible and mysterious (Huanghu 恍惚) terms. Your servant regards this quietism to be a useless teaching and (terms that are) insensible and mysterious lack (necessary) standards … Words that are insensible and mysterious and teaching (practices of) quietism are methods for confusing the world.[45]

The word I have followed Arthur Waley in translating as “quietism” is Tiandan 恬淡.[46] Tian means tranquil and peaceful and Dan means calm, indifferent or insipid. The combination of these two terms, sometimes with synonymous variants such as Dan 惔 or Dan 澹, or by themselves, appear in numerous texts that are associated with “classical Daoism.” It occurs once in the received text of the Laozi, chapter 31, where “one who possesses the Dao” (youdaozhe 有道者), or the “gentleman” (Junzi 君子)[47] is calm and dispassionate with regards to the use of weapons in an inevitable conflict.[48] It also appears (sometimes with the variants mentioned above) in several chapters of the Zhuangzi, the Huainanzi, the Chuci, the Shiji 史記 and the Lunheng 論衡 (with reference to Laozi).[49] Tiandan would appear to refer to a state of mind in which one is as lucid as calm, clean water; a tranquil and rarefied state of consciousness, which is characteristic of meditation, reverie and sometimes trance. Huang 恍 and Hu 惚, “insensible and mysterious,” appear prominently in Laozi 21 as well as chapter 14 to describe the elusiveness and difficulty of trying to conceptualize the Dao, which is comparable to the attempted descriptions by mystics of other cultures. Finally, chapter 20 would seem to be a personal account of someone who is “independent of the crowd” and “walks alone”:











The masses are bright and cheerful,

As if enjoying the Tailao ceremony,

As if climbing a terrace in spring.

I alone am calm! Giving no signs (of excitement),

Like an infant who has yet to smile.

Serene! Like the ocean;

Billowing! Like it will never stop.

The masses all have their purposes;

Yet I alone am set in my seemingly foolish ways.

I alone desire to be different from others,

And value partaking of the Mother.[50]

Although this author feels alienated from his society, he enjoys an inner peace that sustains him through a connection to the cosmic Dao, the Mother.[51] Hanfei, however, could see nothing positive about individuals such as this. Chapter 52 informs us that if we could “obtain” (de 得) and “return and abide by the world’s Mother” (fu shou qi Mu 復守其母) we will suffer no harm until the end of our days. We are cautioned:



Block the holes, close the gates: finish one’s life without struggling.

Open the holes, multiply one’s affairs: fail to reach the (natural) end to one’s life.

The holes (dui 兌) we are advised to close are the nose and mouth, the gates (men 門) are the ears and eyes.[53] This represents a conservative or quasi-ascetic approach to life, seen throughout the Laozi. Allowing our senses to take the reins leads to overstimulation, loss of acuity and perhaps even madness or death.[54] A similar message is given in chapter 56:





Block the holes, close the gates,

Blunt the sharp-edged, untie the knots,

Soften the glare, become identical to the dust,

This is called Mysterious Identity.

The middle two lines are also found in chapter 4 of the Laozi where they help describe the “activity” of the primordial ancestor, Dao. Here, it goes farther than the previous chapter’s asceticism and proposes that one can attain a state of consciousness lacking in all distinctions and achieve a mysterious identity (Xuan Tong 玄同) with reality, or, most likely, the Dao. This is achieved by (temporarily) undergoing a kind of sensory deprivation (“Block the holes, close the gates”), in addition to what Harold Roth and Randall Peerenboom refer to as “apophatic meditation.” This involves a “systematic process of negating, forgetting, or emptying out the contents of consciousness (perceptions, emotions, desires, thoughts) found in ordinary experience based in the ego-self. This systematic emptying leads to increasingly profound states of tranquility until one experiences a fully concentrated inner consciousness of unity.”[55] Many scholars hold that this involves a specific breathing practice (xishu 息術/ huxishu 呼吸術) as found in Indian and other traditions, though virtually nothing is written about this in the Laozi. Likewise, Holmes Welsh, in his examination of the Laozi’s mysticism, discovered no allusions to mystic visions nor any indication of ecstatic experiences in the text.[56]

The practice of emptying out one’s mind is explicitly advocated in the opening section of Laozi 16; which reads, “Bring about the limits of emptiness, preserve stillness in earnest” (致虛極也,守靜篤也).[57] This chapter advocates this state of mind to enable one to observe (guan 觀) the cyclical nature of the world and lives of living things, much like chapter 1’s “(Maintain a state of) abiding desirelessness, in order to observe the mysteries (of the world)” (恆無欲也,以觀其眇).[58] One can thereby understand the constants (chang 常) of the world, which brings a measure of enlightenment (ming 明) and allows one to embody the Dao. As a result, “to the end of one’s life (one will face) no danger (moshen budai 沒 身不殆). As with chapter 52, one of the benefits of this practice or approach to life is the freedom to live out one’s natural lifespan, a value or ideal we find in the Laozi, Zhuangzi and some other texts.[59]

“Stillness” or “tranquility” (jing 靜) occurs often in the Laozi and would appear to be an important concept. We have already encountered it in chapter 16, in the context of stilling or calming the mind. Chapter 15 suggests that although one may be unsettled or confused, through stillness one will gradually gain clarity (qing 清), which is another valued mental state. Hence, chapter 45 claims that “clarity and stillness (can) stabilize the world” (清靜為天下正)[60] and chapter 61 offers an analogy for success in perceiving that “the female consistently uses stillness to overcome the male” (牝恆以靜勝牡).

The above use descriptive language to offer prescriptions for desirable or valuable results, whether those valuable results occur within the practitioner or, in the case where the practitioner is a ruler or minister, in the state/world at large. The Laozi contains many passages that recommend or foster calmness of mind: stillness, tranquility, simplicity, desirelessness, and a focus on the simple necessities of life rather than luxuries or redundancies. Hence we are encouraged to “preserve equilibrium” (shouzhong 守中),[61] to abandon unnecessary and redundant moralizing and virtues indoctrination and instead “reveal one’s genuine condition, embrace one’s natural simplicity, reduce one’s private interests, and lessen one’s desires” (jiansu baopu, shaosi guayu 見素抱樸, 少私寡欲),[62] to “know contentment” (zhizu 知足),[63] and read of sages who are “disposed to stillness” (haojing 好靜) and who are “without desire” (wuyu 無欲),[64] and who “do not desire to be full” (buyu ying 不欲盈).[65]

The 55th chapter of the Laozi begins by asserting that “One who harbours an abundance of De can be compared with a newborn infant” (含德之厚者比於赤子). Infants have a pacifying presence or influence (De 德) that is difficult to resist. Although the word Xiu 修 (alt. 脩), which means to repair, maintain, refine, cultivate or adorn, is rare in Daoist texts, the previous chapter of the Laozi declares that if maintained or cultivated, one’s De will be far-reaching. Although it doesn’t disclose how one cultivates one’s De, taking infants as models may be productive. Anne Behnke Kinney observes:

Earlier schemes of self-cultivation often began with an adult practitioner who was encouraged to follow a path of progressive development toward a sagely ideal in keeping with the worthies of antiquity. Texts that promote meditation on fetal growth, however, show how reversing human development allows the practitioner to trace the path from the ‘sub-system’ of human life back to the ‘macro-system of the Dao’ … by tracing the origins of human life back to a cosmogonic process, the fetus is linked to the workings and laws of nature, rather than with the ancestors and the imperfect products of human artifice.[66]

Chapter 55 goes on to disclose that the newborn also contains a high level of potency or vital essence (jing 精) as well as (inner) harmony (he 和). The text continues:








Knowing harmony can be called (being) constant.

Knowing constancy can be called (being) enlightened.

Augmenting one’s vitality can be called inauspicious.

The heart-mind constraining the vital energy can be called forcing.

When things are in their prime and yet are fatigued:

Call this not (following) the way (dao).

Not (following) the way, (one comes to) an early end.[67]

Although scholarly consensus supports my interpretation whereby using one’s mind to enhance or control one’s vitality or vital energy is ill-advised and detrimental, it is also possible to translate the 3rd and 4th lines as “to increase one’s vitality can be called auspicious; the mind controlling one’s vital energy can be called (possessing inner) strength.”[68] Here again we find the interest in preserving one’s life, not indefinitely or unnaturally, but by not doing things that would cut it short. Chapter 42 supports this when it assures us that trying to increase or augment (yi 益) something often quickens its decrease (sun 損) and that “those who are forceful and violent will not realize a (natural) death” (強梁者,不得其死). Chapter 55’s mentioning of the mind (xin 心), essence (jing 精), vital energy (qi 氣), harmony (he 和) and vitality or life (sheng 生) would appear to connect at least this chapter to the Guanzi’s 管子 so-called “Techniques of the Mind” (Xinshu 心術) chapters that we will examine later on.

Above we saw the newborn infant being held up as an example of perfection, and earlier the author of Laozi 20 likened himself to a child who had yet to be subjected to the various stimulants of life. Chapters 28 and 10 also refer to a “state of infancy” as something to aspire to. Chapter 28 contains the recommendation to “always (ensure that) your De doesn’t depart. (When your) De never departs, there will be a return to an infant–like state (恆德不離。恆德不離,復歸於嬰兒).[69] In rhetorical question-form, chapter 10 provides some self-cultivation instruction:




Giving support to your disruptive soul[70] and embracing Unity – can you not depart from it?

Concentrating on your qi and inducing it to become soft[71] – can you become like an infant?

Washing and cleaning your mysterious mirror – can you make it flawless?

This chapter goes on to hint at how to intelligently “care for the people and order the state” (aimin zhiguo 愛民治國) and foster life without recourse to knowledge and action.[72] The lines of this chapter appear to be esoteric phrases that were understood more clearly by insiders to this tradition.[73] They would appear to be lessons for preserving and perfecting oneself as well as having practical benefits (for a ruler or government official). In chapter 23 of the Zhuangzi, Laozi offers some “guidelines for protecting life” (weisheng zhi Jing 衞生之經), which include a variation of the first two lines: “Can you embrace Oneness? Can you not lose it? … Can you be unsophisticated? Can you become (like) an infant?” (能抱一乎?能勿失乎? … 能侗然乎?能兒子乎).[74] Laozi explains further:


An infant moves but does not know what it is doing, it carries on but does not know where it is going. It’s body (is like) the limb of a withered tree, its mind is like lifeless ashes. To be like this, misfortune will not arrive and good fortune will not come. When there is neither (recognition of) misfortune or good fortune, how can such a person suffer?

Regarding becoming like an infant, the Heshanggong commentary (Heshanggong Zhangju 河上公章句) explains that “If one can be like an infant, inwardly without worrisome thought and outwardly without political action, then the essence and spirit will not go away.” (能如嬰兒內無思慮,外無政事,則精神不去也).[75] Here, as is often the case in this tradition, one’s life is being safe-guarded and equanimity is being achieved psychologically.[76] The Laozi here appears to describe a practice involving calming one’s spirit by means of soft and regulated breathing and embracing or retaining a state of being centred and undividedly focused (yi 一). Heshanggong tells us that “one who regulates one’s person exhales and inhales the essential breath, without letting the ear hear it” (治身者呼吸精氣,無令耳聞). Further, when the mind achieves a mirror-like quality that can be kept free from flaws, this allows one to “care for the people and order the state” in an unbiased, intuitive and unassertive manner.[77]

Additionally, the “Far-off Journey” (Yuanyou 遠遊) poem of the Chuci borrows the opening few characters in a line which reads, “Settling my troubled sentient-soul, to ascend the auroras, I gather up a floating cloud, and journey above” (載營魄而登霞兮,掩浮雲而上征),[78] which perhaps fleshes out the setting or domain for this type of discourse. For the Yuanyou poet, the supporting and calming of one’s soul (po 魄) is a precursor to a spirit journey to the heavens above. Many passages in the Zhuangzi, Huainanzi and Chuci speak of such celestial spirit journeys, of riding dragons or clouds to fantastic places. It is often difficult to decide whether these are descriptions of actual  shamanic or quasi-shamanic spirit journeys, are embellished accounts of (ineffable) mystical experiences of union, or are literary metaphors for liberation or some other such aim.

The last line of chapter 33 of the Laozi literally reads, “To die and yet not perish (wang 亡) is longevity” (死而不亡者壽也) and has caused people over the centuries to wonder if the author was referring to a form of immortality,[79] or that identification with the eternal Dao rendered one eternal as well. While the Confucian-sounding version of the Mawangdui recension – “To die and yet not be forgotten (wang 忘) is longevity” – has pleased modern interpreters, the Heshanggong commentary offers a more likely reading: “When the eyes do not recklessly look; the ears do not recklessly listen; the mouth does not recklessly speak; then one will not be resented or hated by the world. Therefore one lives long” (目不妄視,耳不妄聽,口不妄言,則無怨惡於天下,故長壽). In other words, to die, yet not from recklessness (wang 妄), is what is meant by longevity.[80]

Laozi 22 opens with the aphorism: “bent, then (remain) intact” (qu ze quan 曲則全), and goes on to explain that sages do not show off, brag or contend with others. In this way, they are respected and are not themselves contended with.[81] This would seem less to be counsel for a ruler, but a minister or government official from the perspective of one who has witnessed that those who are overly ambitious, assertive, who clamour for attention and strive to make a name for themselves tend to be put down, or worse, to be cut down. Laozi’s reputation for humility, modesty and staying out of the limelight perhaps derived from such observations, as did Zhuangzi’s fondness for useless trees who could remain intact (quan 全) until the end of their natural lives.[82] Such advice obviously speaks to someone who values their life. Laozi 44 begins with: “Fame our your body – which is more dear? Your body or your possessions – which has more (value)?” (名與身孰親?身與貨孰多?) and ends with: “(If you) know contentment you will not be disgraced, know when to stop you will not be endangered, (then you) can long endure” (知足不辱,知止不殆,可以長久).[83]

This valuing of life and concern for avoiding conduct that may cut short one’s life was shared by Yangzi or Yang Zhu 楊朱 (c. early 4th century B.C.E.?), a thinker caricatured and criticized in the Mengzi 孟子 (3B9, 7A26), occasionally criticized in the Zhuangzi, but endorsed by some of the authors of the Huainanzi. For example, Huainanzi 13 conceived of Yangzi’s main tenets as “Keeping your nature intact, protecting your authenticity, not allowing things to entangle your form” (全性保真,不以物累形).[84] In the summarizing last chapter, it is said of the Huainanzi’s first chapter: “If you desire a single expression to awaken to it: ‘Revere the heavenly and preserve genuineness.’ If you desire a second expression to comprehend it: ‘Devalue things and honor your person.’ If you desire a third expression to fathom it: ‘Divest yourself of desires and return to your genuine dispositions,’”[85] which clearly is “Yangism,” (or at least what the author considered Yangism).[86]

Yet we would be mistaken to conclude that the authors of the Laozi were obsessed with staying alive. Chapters 50 and 75 give warnings about striving for an “abundance of life” (sheng zhi hou 生之厚), for this can lead to death (si 死). Similarly, Alan Watts once wrote, “The more one is anxious to survive, the less survival is worth the trouble … there is a considerable and normally unexpected survival value in the very absence of anxiety to survive.”[87] Chapter 75 concludes: “Only those who do not act for the (sole) purpose of living are wiser than those who value life (immoderately)” (唯無以生為者,是賢於貴生).[88] More to the point, Laozi 7 offers an analogy where the heavens and Earth last long because they do not “live for themselves” (zisheng 自生). For this reason, sages





Subordinate their persons, yet their persons come first.

Dispossess their persons, yet their persons persist.

Is this not because they lack self-interest?

Therefore, they are able to accomplish their self-interest.

What we find here, which we also will see later with regards to the notion of Wuwei 無為, “non-purposive action” or “non-interference,” is that striving after consciously-determined goals (such as survival) is often counterproductive. The authors of the Laozi (and Zhuangzi) had faith that things will sort themselves out naturally and that desired goals are often realized by indirect means.

Despite this, Wang Chong’s 王充 (c. 27-100 C.E.) “Balanced Discourses” (Lunheng 論衡) testifies to the development of the belief that Laozi was concerned with, and was associated with longevity and immortality. He wrote,


There is a belief that by means of the way (dao) of Laozi one can transcend the world. Through quietism and dispassionateness, nourishing the vital essence, and conserving the vital breath. The length of life is based on the quintessential spirit. As long as it is unimpaired, life goes on, and there is no death. Laozi acted upon this principle. Having done so for over a hundred years, he transcended the world, and became a true Daoist sage (Zhenren).[89]

Instead, Wang argues that Laozi


practiced his way of quietism, and his life happened to be long of itself. But people seeing his longevity, and hearing of his quietism, thought that by his art he transcended the world.[90]

John Blofeld acknowledged that it is difficult to know if any kind of “formal yogic practice” is entailed in following the Laozi’s advice. However,

whatever Laozi may have intended, the fact is that the injunction [to be selfless and still] is difficult to carry out; for which reason all kinds of yogic regimens and devices were subsequently developed as aids to attainment, but such practical aids ought not be considered a departure from or perversion of his teaching; rather, they constitute a much needed development, for not all men are equally gifted with a capacity for stillness. Furthermore, the absence in the Daodejing of specific instructions on contemplative and breathing techniques does not necessarily mean that Laozi did not countenance them. In an exceptionally terse text dealing with basic principles, one would not expect to find detailed instructions of that kind.[91]

In contrast to the Laozi’s vagueness, Wang Chong writes of the “Daoists” or “dao-specialists” (daojia 道家), who “ingest vital energy” (shiqi 食氣), “abstain from eating grains” (pigu 辟穀) and “ingest drugs” (tunyao 吞藥) – or the “drugs of immortality” (busi zhi yao 不死之藥). These practitioners also argued that “guiding the vital energy (through their bodies)” (daoqi 導氣) by means of “moving, shaking, contracting and stretching” (dongyao qushen 動搖屈伸) was not only needed to ensure circulation and nourish one’s nature, but could “prolong one’s years” (yannian 延年) and lead to “transcendence of the world and never dying” (度世而不死). Wang Chong’s description of these Daoists coincides with those Sima Qian and Ban Gu referred to as fangshi 方士 “formula men/scholars,” shushi 術士, “method men/scholars,” or fangshushi 方術士. These Daoists who practiced and advocated attaining eternal life, transcendence and “ascension to the heavens” (sheng tian 升天) adopted Laozi (and Huangdi) as one of their own. For them, “attaining the Dao” (de dao 得道) meant “attaining the dao of the transcendents” (de xiandao 得仙道)[92] and one who mastered it was thus known as an “immortal, transcendent” (xian 仙, xianren 仙人, shenxian 神仙), a “Dao-person” (daoren 道人) or “Real Person” (zhenren 真人).[93] However, to my knowledge, they did not claim that Laozi practiced any physical exercises, abstained from grain or took any drugs. It is worth repeating that although the goals of transcendence and immortality gained currency prior to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.), they do not seem to have been associated with Laozi prior to the “common era.” Survival is shown to be a concern in the Laozi text, which may suggest an interest in longevity; however, longevity seems to have begun to be associated with the man Laozi in the first half of the Han, as seen in the Shiji biography of him.[94]

Before moving on to the Zhuangzi, it would be misleading to imply that the authors of the Laozi only practiced or recommended apophatic mediation. The text contains many symbols which presumably are meant to be contemplated or meditated upon and as such are kataphatic (κατάφασις) in nature, involving the use of images, symbols, words and such in one’s practice. The Laozi has many of these, including the infant (yinger 嬰兒, chizi 赤子), the mother (mu 母), the uncarved block (pu 樸), water (shui 水), the valley (gu 谷), and the female archetype (pin 牝, ci 雌). The Zhuangzi contains a number of these, but they are not as prominent, partly because of the style of writing the authors employ and partly, I suspect, because the authors were in a different lineage than those who wrote and compiled the Laozi.[95]

The Zhuangzi

The significantly larger book of Zhuangzi contains much more material on the topics under examination. Two (fictional) dialogues between Confucius 孔子 and his disciple Yan Hui 顏回 stand out and are among the most discussed episodes in the book. The first occurs in chapter 4, “People of the Present Age” (Renjian Shi 人間世), where Yan Hui informs Confucius of his aspiration to try to reform the young ruler of Wei 衛. Confucius assures him that he will likely get himself killed in the process, so Yan details a number of proposals, none of which satisfy Confucius, for Yan is approaching the task with the “mind of a teacher” (shixin 師心). Confucius finally recommends “fasting the mind” (xinzhai 心齋):

[For the rest of Scott’s article, visit: ]


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