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Mysticism, Self-Cultivation and Longevity

(Part 4.4 – – – Part 4.2 – – – Part 4.1 – – – Part 3 – – – Part 2 – – – Part 1)

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, (e.g. the “sharp-edged” and “knots”), 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 peak 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 subtleties (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 do not (focus on their) 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 meditation. 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):


Hui said: “I dare to ask what fasting the mind is?”


Confucius replied: “You (must) consolidate your aspirations. Listen not with your ears but with your mind. Listen not with your mind but with your vital breath! Listening stops at the ears, the mind stops with matching (tallies). As for the vital breath, (when the mind is) empty,[96] it reacts to things. Only the Dao settles in emptiness. (Thus, attaining) emptiness is fasting the mind.”


Yan Hui said: “When I, Hui, had not yet accessed my (true) source of agency, it solidly resided in Hui; (but) having accessed the (true) source of agency, Hui has not yet begun to exist. Can this be called (being) empty?

夫子曰:「盡矣。… 為人使易以偽,為天使難以偽。聞以有翼飛者矣,未聞以無翼飛者也;聞以有知知者矣,未聞以無知知者也。瞻彼闋者,虛室生白,吉祥止矣。夫且不止,是之謂坐馳。夫徇耳目內通而外於心知,鬼神將來舍,而況人乎!」

The Master said: “Completely! … Human agency is easy to contrive, Nature’s agency is difficult to contrive. You’ve heard of how to fly with wings, yet have not yet heard of how to fly without wings. You’ve heard of knowing with knowledge, yet have not yet heard of knowing without knowledge. One whose gaze is shut in, the empty room (i.e. one’s mind) will generate illumination, and the advantages will remain. Now, when they do not remain, this is called galloping while sitting still. Allow your ears and eyes to penetrate within and disregard your mind and knowledge. Ghosts and spirits will then come to associate with you, how much more other people!

This episode is dense with content. Zhai 齋, “fasting” was normally performed to purify one’s body prior to important religious rites. Here, zhai refers to an apophatic meditative practice that empties the mind of all obstructions and distractions, presumably so that afterwards the adept can respond spontaneously and without prejudice to whatever happens to occur. Lao Dan 老聃 (i.e., Laozi), in chapter 22 similarly instructs Confucius: “You (must) fast, cleanse your mind, wash clean your quintessential spirit, purge your knowledge” (汝齋戒,䟽𤅢而心,澡雪而精神,掊擊而知!). Yan Hui’s mind, on the other hand, was instead filled with ideas and potential ways (daos) of carrying out his self-appointed task.[97]

As we saw in the Laozi and see also in the Zhuangzi, the mind, functioning optimally, can also be likened to a mirror which reflects back no more and no less than what is before it, if it is kept clean.[98] A kind of sensory deprivation is encouraged, whereby one (temporarily) looks inward, ignores auditory stimuli, and the mind, which normally “matches tallies” (fu 符) – that is, matches the names (ming 名) one has for things with the actual realities (shi 實) it encounters – is “disregarded” or placed “outside” (wai 外) so that one’s qi 氣, “vital breath, vital energy” can interact and resonate with or react to (dai 待) things.[99] Chris Fraser explains,

This seems to be a matter of perceiving directly by means of the qi, rather than through the cognitive processing of the heart [mind]. “Perceiving” is probably not the right word, however; the idea is more likely that when the channels through the sense organs are cleared, qi will permeate and flow through the body, allowing events outside the body to directly prompt responses.[100]

Passages in the Liezi 列子 and Wenzi 文子 address this issue also. In Liezi 4, a disciple of Laozi, Geng Sangzi 亢倉子[101] claims that he could “see and hear without using his ears and eyes” (視聽不用耳目). He explains this by saying “My body mixes with my mind, my mind with my vital breath, my vital breath with my spirit and my spirit with non-existence” (我體合於心,心合於氣,氣合於神,神合於無). He admits that he does not know (buzhi 不知) how he does it, for it is simply “knowing that occurs-of-itself” (zizhi 自知). This “knowing that occurs-of-itself” corresponds to the Zhuangzi’s “knowing without knowledge” (wuzhi zhi 無知知), which refers to intuition or the use of the knowledge or know-how that resides in the unconscious mind. Wenzi 5 reads: “The highest learning uses the spirit to listen, mediocre learning uses the mind to listen, the lowest learning uses the ear to listen” (上學以神聽,中學以心聽,下學以耳聽), where spirit (shen 神) takes the place of the Zhuangzi’s vital breath (qi 氣), but undoubtedly refers to the same thing. The explanation continues, advocating “emptying the mind (to achieve) clarity and stillness” (xuxin qingjing 虛心清靜) and being “without thinking and planning” (wusi wulü 無思無慮).

Yan Hui discerned that when he emptied himself of his ego-self, his agency originated from “Heaven” or “Nature” (Tian 天), which can be considered transpersonal quietism. The emptiness within is not vacuous and impotent, but rather generates an illuminating intuition – the “knowing without knowledge.” Further, this potency and insight has unlimited attraction and influence, enabling one to even commune with ghosts and spirits. Alternately, “ghosts and spirits will then come to associate with you” (鬼神將來舍) could be read as “the ghostly and spiritual will come to reside inside,” which has some parallels in other texts such as Huainanzi 12, Wenzi 1 and Zhuangzi 22 (e.g., 神將來舍) and the Guanzi: Xinshu shang (神將入舍). This would suggest a mediumistic experience of being filled with a spiritual presence.[102] Angus Graham believed that after “fasting his heart,” “the self dissolves, energies strange to him and higher than his own (the ‘daemonic’ [鬼神]) enter from outside, the agent of his actions is no longer the man but Heaven working through him …”[103]

Skeptics might consider this approach (dao) impractical and even laughable (xiao 笑), and indeed, Laozi affirmed this was the usual response to his similar simple approach.[104] It might be the case that the stilling of the mind and the cultivation of this felicitous empty and open mind is what the Daoists referred to as their “wordless teaching” or “apophatic teaching” (buyan zhi jiao 不言之教), the “dao that was no dao” (budao zhi dao 不道之道).[105] As well, this silent teaching probably draws from the Daoists’ skepticism of the ability of language to foster genuine insight and affirms the necessity of learning intuitively, rather than by spoken or written doctrines. This calls to mind some assertions made regarding shamanism. For example, Michael Ripinsky-Naxon writes,

A true shaman-neophyte can refine his shamanizing skills by serving as an apprentice to a master shaman, but, unlike a medicine man or a sorcerer, he must acquire these abilities by intuition, as it were, which is enhanced in the course of his initiatory experiences – that is, through the teachings of the spirits – and not by learning a specific body of doctrines.[106]

The phrase “Only the Dao settles in emptiness” (唯道集虛) is an interesting one.[107] Variations of this conviction are found in a few other texts, such as Huainanzi 14’s “Emptiness is the dwelling place of the Dao” (虛者,道之舍也), the Mawangdui Dao Yuan text’s “‘One’ is (the Dao’s) nickname, emptiness its dwelling place” (一者其號也,虛其舍也), and Hanfeizi 8’s “Discard likes, discard dislikes and empty the mind in order to serve as the Dao’s dwelling place” (去喜去惡,虛心以為道舍).[108] The Neiye states that the Dao will only reside (chu 處) in a mind that is still (jing 靜), that in a mind that experiences anxiety, grief, joy and anger (you bei xi nu 憂悲喜怒), the Dao will not reside. For something that was supposed to be omnipresent, it seems puzzling to suggest that it could come and go, gather and disperse. The most likely explanation is that the various writers were writing about a family of psychosomatic or physio-spiritual states that they cultivated and used various metaphorical terms to identify them. We will find that the Neiye and other Xinshu texts sometimes use dao 道, jing 精, qi 氣, shen 神 and de 德 synonymously or near-synonymously.[109] It is likely the full apprehension of, union with, or embodiment of the Dao that is held to be realized only in an empty mind.[110]

The second fictional exchange between Confucius and Yan Hui occurs in chapter 6, “The Great Ancestral teacher” (Da Zongshi 大宗師), and runs as follows:















Yan Hui called to Confucius and said: “I’ve progressed.”

Confucius asked: “How so?”

“I’ve forgotten benevolence and duty.”

“Good! But that’s not enough.”

On another day he returned to see him and said: “I’ve progressed.”

“How so?”

“I’ve forgotten ritual and music.”

“Good. But that’s not enough.”

On another day he returned to see him and said: “I’ve progressed.”

“How so?”

“I sit in forgetfulness (zuowang 坐忘).”

Confucius became uneasy and asked: “What is sitting in forgetfulness?”

Yan Hui said: “(I let my) limbs and body fall away, attenuate my faculties of hearing and seeing, separate from my form and cast off my knowledge, and unite with the Great Interface. This is sitting in forgetfulness.”

Confucius said: “(If you are) united (with the Great Interface), then you are without preferences. If you transform, then you are without habitual ways of acting. You truly are an outstanding person. I, Qiu, beg to follow after you.”

Once again we have an apophatic practice described, this time using the metaphor of forgetting (wang 忘) instead of fasting (zhai 齋).[111] “Benevolence and duty” (renyi 仁義) and “ritual and music” (liyue 禮樂) were the primary moral virtues and domains of study that the Ru 儒 – literati and/or “Confucians” – focused on.[112] To have Yan Hui forgetting them and to have Confucius utterly impressed with him would surely have produced laughter (or annoyance) in the ancient listener/reader. Lao Dan also speaks to Confucius about “forgetting oneself” (wangji 忘己) in a later chapter.[113] Unlike the first anecdote, the passage of time that would naturally be required to master a discipline of “forgetting” or “fasting” is explicitly expressed. In addition to “forgetting,” Yan explains that his sensory perception is restricted and his self-awareness is eliminated. A transpersonal unitive experience is surely indicated by “unite with the Great Interface” (同於大通), which many scholars take to be the Dao.[114]

Chapter 2, “Discourse on the Equality of Things” (Qiwulun 齊物論) begins with the following:



Ziqi of the southern suburb sat, leaning back at his table. Admiring the heavens, he sighed. Vacant, as though he had lost his mate. Yancheng Ziyou stood in attendance before him and said, “What is this? Can the form really become like a withered tree and the mind like lifeless ashes? The one who now leans back at his table is not the one that formerly did so.”

Ziqi said: “It is certainly good of you to stop and ask me about it. Just now I lost myself, do you understand that?”[115]

Ziqi here is found to be in a state of reverie or trance, with a vacant look on his face and his body and mind seemingly lifeless. “I lost myself” (wu sang wo 吾喪我), Ziqi informs Ziyou, meaning perhaps that his spirit had temporarily left his body.[116] In a similar way Liezi, after meeting this master of the southern suburb, once entered a trance where it is said that his “form and spirit were not mated with each other” (xingshen buxiangou 形神不相偶).[117] That Ziqi appeared dead thus makes sense, as the permanent loss of one’s spirit was believed to result in death.[118]

The 4th century C.E. editor and commentator Guo Xiang 郭象 suggested that he had “forgotten himself” (ziwang 自忘), in the same manner as described earlier,[119] and in chapter 24, Xu Wugui 徐無鬼 tells the ruler of Wei 魏 that the highest quality dogs are ones that have “lost themselves” (wang qi yi 亡其一) and the highest quality horses appear completely undisciplined and have also “lost themselves” (sang qi yi 喪其一). In the case of Ziqi (and perhaps Yan Hui discussed above), the complete loss or transcendence of one’s sense of self was a temporary phenomenon, whereas the dogs and horses maintained it perhaps forever. But the difference is most likely negligible, for both Yan Hui and Ziqi surely retained a sense of their transpersonal experiences, significantly informing their day-today lives.[120]

Chapter 21, “Tian Zifang” (田子方), contains one of many anecdotes of Confucius learning something from Laozi (Lao Dan). In this particular anecdote, Confucius arrived to see Laozi just as he had finished washing his hair; “(sitting) so still, it was as if he was not a (living) person” (zheran si feiren 慹然似非人). Bewildered, Confucius asked him: “Just now, master, your form was as depleted as a withered tree, as if you had left all things behind and separated yourself from your person in utter solitude (du 獨). Laozi explained that he was “wandering in the Beginning of Things” (you yu wuzhichu 遊於物之初). Confucius asked what this meant and Laozi told him that it was difficult to explain and difficult to understand, but proceeded to tell him of the commingling of the yin and yang energies of Heaven and Earth that produce all living things and the invisible “something” that serves as the guideline (ji 紀) – which he finally referred to as the Ancestor (zong 宗) – which is, in other words, the Dao.

Confucius asks what it means to “wander” (you 遊) there. Laozi appears to evade the question, instead answering with: “To achieve this is the ultimate of beauty, the ultimate of ecstasy. To achieve the ultimate of beauty and wander at the ultimate of ecstasy, call this the Ultimate Person” (夫得是,至美至樂也,得至美而遊乎至樂,謂之至人). Confucius asked the method by which this state could be achieved, whereby Laozi informed him that it involved not being distressed (ji 疾) or troubled (huan 患) by unexpected changes that may come one’s way and when “joy, anger, grief and happiness do not enter into one’s chest” (喜怒哀樂不入於胸次). In short, it is achieved by the attainment of equanimity, one of the most valued states espoused in the Zhuangzi, which is often expressed in terms of De, “virtue” or “character.” For example, chapter 15, “Ingrained Convictions” (Keyi 刻意), reveals that the De of a sage is characterized by the condition of serenity or equanimity (Danran 澹然) and kept intact when “anxieties cannot enter” (youhuan buneng ru 憂患不能入). Thus is it said: “Sorrow and joy are defects of De … likes and dislikes are deficiencies of De. Therefore, the heart-mind lacking anxieties and indulgences represents the ultimate in De” (悲樂者德之邪 … 好惡者德之失。故心不憂樂德之至也).[121] One who can carry on in this way is liberated (jie 解) from all suffering.

Confucius was highly impressed and inferred that this was only possible through such teachings (yan 言) of “cultivating the mind” (xiu xin 修心). However, Laozi denied this, saying:


As for a stream’s relation towards its trickling sound: it does nothing (wuwei), as this attribute manifests of itself (ziran). As for the Ultimate Person’s attitude towards his/her character (De): it is not cultivated and yet living things are unable to stay away from him/her. Like how the heavens are naturally high, the Earth is naturally abundant, the sun and moon naturally bright. What is there to be cultivated?

As we will see later, this rejection of or caution towards active cultivation, refinement or “doing” is something we find throughout the early Daoist literature. My interpretation of what Edward Slingerland has called the “paradox of Wuwei[122] is that these early thinkers/practitioners recognized that deliberate striving towards any goal creates resistance, and forcing things to happen is quite often either ineffective or produces mediocre results. On the other hand, reaching any goal, whether that be carving up oxen or governing a state, cannot be done by being completely idle and doing absolutely nothing. There was an efficacious way to go about things; which is indirect, involves the emptying of the mind, and allows our unconscious mind, or spirit (shen 神) to guide us.

The methods of quietism are shown throughout the Zhuangzi to play a role in the various “knack stories” in the text. The role they play is essential to the efficacy the various adepts display, what Graham has referred to as the “advantages of refusing self-consciousness.”[123] In the Laozi, Huainanzi and other “Daoist” or “Huang-Lao” texts these methods are advocated as helpful – if not necessary –  to governing effectively. These examples in the Zhuangzi however show that it is not only governing that this approach can apply to.

In chapter 3, “The Essentials in Caring for Life” (Yangshengzhu 養生主), Cook Ding 丁 reported that it took more than three years to reach his level of expertise, which involved “using my spirit to go at it rather than using my eyes” (以神遇而不以目視). For Ding, “perception and understanding come to a stop” (guanzhi zhi 官知止), and his “spirit moves where it wants” (shen you xing 神欲行). He explains that he can then “rely on the natural patterns … and follow what is inherent” (依乎天理 … 因其固然).[124] The cook’s lord, Wenhui 文惠, senses that this quietist approach can be used to “care for/nourish life” (yangsheng 養生) in general. In the Xinshu shang, (to be discussed below) we read “Empty (the mind) of desires and spirit will enter its abode” (虛其欲,神將入舍), which is comparable to what Cook Ding did.[125] Guidance provided by spirit is perfect. So we find in the Huainanzi, when the spirit “is used to see, there is nothing not seen, when used to hear, there is nothing not heard, when used to act, there is nothing not completed successfully” (以視無不見,以聽無不聞也,以為無不成也).[126] Whether this “perfection” is meant to be taken literally or hyperbolically is another matter. No doubt there were those in this tradition who took it more literally than others, and no doubt, as we will continue to see, that paradox and hyperbole play a significant role in the “style of argumentation” used by those in what are considered Classical Daoist texts.

Chapter 19, “Understanding Life” (Dasheng 達生) contains most of the knack stories in the Zhuangzi. One involves Confucius encountering a hunchback adept at catching cicadas. We find out that it takes a long period of time to reach his skill level, which involves removing everything but cicada wings from his awareness, which Confucius interprets as keeping his “will undivided” (zhi bufen 志不分) and his spirit “concentrated” (ning 凝).[127] Another relates the technique of Woodcarver Qing 慶, who made bellstands so well they seemed to be the work of spirits. The ruler of Lu 魯 asked what his technique was, but Qing denied he had a technique, and explained that he simply “fasts in order to still his mind” (齋以靜心).[128] After seven days he had eliminated all concerns until “suddenly” (zheran 輒然): “I forget my four limbs and body” (忘吾有四枝形體也). Then his skill is concentrated (zhuan 專) and all “outside distractions fade away” (wai huaxiao 外滑消) and he can perceive the “Heavenly nature” (tianxing 天性) of the trees he is considering using. Both of these are obviously affiliated with the “mind-fasting” and “sitting in forgetfulness” parables discussed earlier.[129] The essence of all of these “knack stories” and of the two dialogues between Confucius and Yan Hui is that efficacy is achieved by maintaining equanimity, impartiality, empty/open-mindedness and unself-consciousness. For as Confucius tells Yan Hui in another conversation, “If external concerns weigh heavily upon our minds, internally we will be incompetent” (外重者內拙).[130] By being calm and collected, and by being impartial and open-minded, one can “let go” and allow a spontaneous and “spiritual” response actualize or emerge.

The Zhuangzi is littered with references to people with extraordinary abilities. Most of these abilities can be linked with what is considered shamanism in other cultures. In the Zhuangzi, the majority of examples seem to be used to encourage the reader or listener to not only open his or her mind, but to advance the value of freedom or liberation.[131] However, there can be no certainty regarding this. Some of the authors of the anecdotes which incorporate these individuals and/or their abilities were relying on second-hand accounts or popular lore. But some of them probably were personally familiar with such transpersonal states of consciousness and others appear to have built upon or transcended the shamanic spiritual journey and entered a more ineffable, mystical dimension.

Chapter 1 of the Zhuangzi, “Carefree Wandering” (Xiaoyao You 逍遙遊), contains a number of fables and parables that seem aimed at opening our minds beyond their current limitations. Little birds and insects have more restricted perspectives than that of the huge Peng 鵬, whose flights take it to the farthest extremes of the world. In the same way, “small understanding does not reach great understanding” (xiaozhi buji dazhi 小知不及大知). We read of Liezi 列子, who possessed the ability to fly:

列子御風而行,泠然善也,旬有五日而後反。 … 此雖免乎行,猶有所待者也。若夫乘天地之正,而御六氣之辯,以遊無窮者,彼且惡乎待哉!

Liezi harnessed the wind and travelled comfortably and adeptly, not returning for fifteen days … Here he could leave off moving (on foot) yet he still had to rely on something. But suppose he could ride upon that which keeps the heavens and earth in order and harness the fluctuations of the Six Elemental Energies and thereby wander into the inexhaustible, what then would he have to depend on?

Liezi’s quasi-shamanic, supernatural ability to ride the wind is deemed limited by the reliance on the wind; but the author suggests one can transcend this limitation by “concerning oneself” with the grander forces of the universe and thus wander in the inexhaustible (wuqiong 無窮), which suggests a mystical unitive experience.[132]

Also in chapter 1, Jian Wu 肩吾 relates a story he heard from Jie Yu 接輿,[133] to Lian Shu 連叔:


In the distant mountains of Gushe, there dwell spirit-men.[134] Their flesh and skin are as (pure as) snow and are as accommodating and as shy as virgins. They do not eat the five grains, (but) inhale the wind and drink dew. They ride cloudy vapours and harness flying dragons and wander out beyond the Four Seas. With their spirits concentrated they can cause living things to be free from flaw or disease and the season’s harvest to ripen.

Jian Wu refused to believe the story, but Lian Shu affirmed and added to it:


These men, with their inner potency (De), will everywhere extend to all living things, considering them to be one whole. The people of this generation seem bent on disharmony, why would they distress and burden themselves, considering the (conduct of) the world their business? These men: nothing can harm them. Great floods could reach the heavens, yet they would not drown; great droughts could melt metal and stone and scorch the mountains, yet they would not burn …

These “Spiritual People” (Shenren 神人) are first described as physically pristine and who sustain themselves not on the usual coarse foodstuffs but on dew and wind. They can access the entire world via shamanic journeys on clouds and dragons and can positively affect the lives of all living things.[135] These supernatural abilities are affirmed throughout the Zhuangzi and Huainanzi. Zhuangzi 2  contains a description of the Ultimate Person (Zhiren 至人), who is “spiritual” or “spirit-like” (shen 神), is immune to fire and cold, never experiences fright or concern for life and death, benefit and harm, and can also ride the cloudy vapours, mount the sun and moon and wander beyond the Four Seas. Zhuangzi 6 describes the “Real Person” (Zhenren 真人) in much the same way, “entering water yet not getting wet, entering fire yet not burning” (入水不濡,入火不熱) and being immune to fear (li 慄).[136] Master Lu 盧生, the famous 3rd century B.C.E. fangshi 方士, enticed the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty with this ideal of the Zhenren, adding the necessity of practicing quietism (Tiandan 恬倓).[137]

As seen in Wang Chong’s Lunheng and numerous later Daoist texts, these idealized individuals and their abilities were felt to be fully realizable by many. For the authors of the Zhuangzi, the psychological states were certainly held to be attainable, whereas the physical feats may have less to do with actual physical abilities and more with a psychological condition of fearlessness, equanimity, and open-mindedness towards human potential.[138] In Zhuangzi 21, Liezi’s friend Bohun Wuren 伯昏無人 tells him Ultimate Persons can “ascend to peer into the azure heavens, descend into the Yellow Springs and exhaust themselves in examination of the Six Directions, (yet their) spirits and vital energies do not vacillate” (上闚青天,下潛黃泉,揮斥八極,神氣不變), or perhaps, “because their spirits and vital energies do not vacillate.[139] This description describes shamanic abilities/experiences, and in Zhuangzi 19, Liezi asks Guanyin 關尹[140] about these Ultimate Persons and their supernatural abilities. Guanyin tells him that they can achieve these feats not by knowledge, skill or daring but because of their “preservation of pure qi” (chunqiu zhi shou 純氣之守). The heavenly or natural aspect of themselves are thus preserved intact (tian shou quan 天守全) and their spirits are invulnerable (shen wuxi 神無郤). Unimpeded, they can “wander where all things begin and end” (遊乎萬物之所終始) and “merge with that which makes all things” (通乎物之所造), which suggests a mystical state of union with the Dao.[141]

Zhuangzi 6 is well-known for advancing the inevitability and acceptance of death as an inseparable part of the endlessly transforming universe. Yet remarkable transpersonal states of consciousness are affirmed, as well as shamanic spirit journeys. One parable tells of three friends, Zi Sanghu 子桑戶, Meng Zifan 孟子反, and Zi Qinzhang 子琴張, who alike could “ascend to the heavens, wander in the misty fog and meander in the limitless” (登天遊霧,撓挑無極)[142] and “live in mutual forgetting without end” (相忘以生,無所終窮). One day Zi Sanghu died and “returned to the Real” (fan qi zhen 反其真) and Confucius’ disciple Zigong 子貢 reported to him their unorthodox mourning behaviour. Confucius says that they are men who “wander outside the realm/rules” (you fangzhiwai 遊方之外) while he “wanders inside the realm” (you fangzhinei 遊方之內). They are men who “join together with the Maker of Things” (yu Zaowuzhe 與造物者), “wander with the unified vital energies of Heaven and Earth” (遊乎天地之一氣), “forget their organs and leave behind their ears and eyes” (忘其肝膽,遺其耳目) and who, “oblivious, drift uncommitted beyond the dust and grime, carefree in working on doing nothing in particular” (芒然彷徨乎塵垢之外,逍遙乎無為之業).[143] These men transcended the world, sometimes engaging – after apophatic meditation – in shamanic flight or mystical union.

The same experience is affirmed in chapter 7, “Responses to Emperors and Kings” (Ying Diwang 應帝王), where an asocial or even anti-social “nameless man” (Wumingren 無名人) also intended to “join together with the Maker of Things” (與造物者), to “ride upon the Mangmiao bird out beyond the Six Extremities, wander in the village of Nothing Whatsoever, and retire in the fields of Vast Wasteland” (乘夫莽眇之鳥,以出六極之外,而遊无何有之鄉,以處壙埌之野). He had no interest in offering methods of governing, but in response to nagging questions by “Skyroot” (Tiangen 天根), he proclaimed that the world will be governed simply by “allowing one’s mind to wander in indifference, joining one’s energies with obscurity, spontaneously complying with things and not indulging in personal bias” (遊心於淡,合氣於漠,順物自然而無容私焉). Again, this outrageous and impractical advice is not meant to offer up specific methods or policies, but is rather what they considered invaluable psychological preparation for governing.

The repeated assertions in the Zhuangzi (and Huainanzi) of ascension (deng 登, shang 上) and wandering (you 遊/游) in unearthly places presumably refer to transpersonal mystical experiences. In the Chuci, and some places in the Zhuangzi and Huainanzi, named mythical places are identified as the destinations traveled to in these spirit journeys. For example, Zhuangzi is said to have “tread to the Yellow Springs (below) and ascended to the vast sky (above)” (跐黃泉而登大皇),[144] and we read of a journey to “the village of God” (Dixiang 帝鄉) and the mountains of Kunlun 崑崙. However, when a practitioner experienced a unitive state of consciousness, where there no longer existed a “self” and an “other,” or a “self” and “the rest of reality,” description became difficult, especially in an ancient culture unaccustomed to such experiences. This may explain the puzzling “locales” we find adepts ascending or wandering to in the Zhuangzi, such as “the village of Nothing Whatsoever” (wuheyou zhi xiang 無何有之鄉), “the Gates of the Inexhaustible”  (wuqiong zhi men 無窮之門), “the Wilderness of the Limitless” (wuji zhi ye 無極之野), “the Great Abyss” (dahe 大壑), and “the Great Emptiness” (daxu 大虛).

In Zhuangzi 6, Zikui of the southern earldom (Nanbo Zikui 南伯子葵) observed that Nu Yu 女偊 was long in years but still had the complexion of a child. Nu Yu replied that she[145] had heard or learned the way of the sage (shengren zhi dao 聖人之道).[146] Zikui asked of he could learn it from her, but she assured him that he was ill-suited. She then proceeded to describe the progress she had one with student, Buliang Yi 卜梁倚, who, although he was not versed in the way of the sage, had the potential talent (cai 才) to master it. She said:


I carried on and instructed him for three days, after which he was able to disregard the world. Having disregarded the world, I carried on, and after seven days he was able to disregard things. Having disregarded things, I carried on, and after nine days he was able to disregard (his) life. Having disregarded (his) life, he was able to perceive with the clarity of the morning light.[147] With the clarity of the morning light, he was then able to perceive independently (of bias). Perceiving independently, he was then able to be free from the notion of time. Being free from the notion of time, he then was able to enter what is neither dead nor alive. That which extinguishes life does not die and that which engenders life is not alive. As for the kind of thing it is, there is nothing it does not send off, nothing it does not welcome back, nothing it does not destroy, nothing it does not bring to completion. The name (of this practice) is “Surrounded in Peace.” As for being “Surrounded in Peace,” (once we are) surrounded, then (we will be) complete.

Once again we find a description of an apophatic practice of emptying out one’s mind, of disregarding or putting outside (wai 外) everything in one’s normal consciousness. One can then experience and respond to the world free from all personal and cultural biases. That which engenders and extinguishes life, which sends out and receives back all things, is what other “Daoist” writers call the Dao. The outcome of this practice is identified as Ying Ning 攖寧, what I have glossed as “Surrounded in Peace.” Ying 攖 is a troublesome word, which most translators gloss as “turmoil” “disturbing.”[148] Angus Graham brings to bear the usage found in the Mohist Canons where it would appear to mean “to coincide.”[149] Yet ying – as ying 嬰/縈 – can mean “surround, entwine, encircle,” and this appears to make sense here.[150] James Legge’s “Tranquility amid all Disturbances” is also appropriate.[151] The episode ends with Zikui asking where she learned this practice, to which she responds with a lineage of nine humourously fictional people, which may be a satirical jab at the notion that lineage was important.

The practice of disregarding the external world and internal concerns and biases would seem to lead to a transpersonal experience of oneness, a unitive state where individual things cannot be distinguished. This is not a permanent state, (except perhaps in death), and the practitioner or mystic eventually returns the world and resumes acting and interacting with the world as we know it. A passage in chapter 2 also relates the different stages of this practice, yet does so in terms of a hypothetical progression of human consciousness – or rather, a description of the deterioration or degradation of human consciousness:


The people of ancient times, their understanding had reached the ultimate heights. What heights? They were those who apprehended that there was not yet (a world of) things. The Ultimate! That exhausts it: one cannot add anything to that! Next were those who apprehended (a world of) things, yet there were not yet any divisions. Next were those who apprehended divisions (between things), yet there were not yet the  acceptable and unacceptable. When the acceptable and unacceptable became promoted, it is from this which diminishes (one’s embodiment of) the Dao. That which diminishes (one’s embodiment with) the Dao (is also) that from which attachments become complete. But is there really completion and diminishment? Or is there really no completion or diminishment?

The ultimate (zhi 至) in consciousness is that of the complete oneness of everything: everything is part of oneself, though there is no sense of self either. Then there is the awareness of things, but they are still interconnected and inseparable. Then comes the awareness of distinct things – such as individual people, trees, houses, lamps and swords – but none of these are deemed acceptable and unacceptable, right and wrong, or good or bad. When the mind begins this judging and labeling, one’s acquaintance with or embodiment of the Dao is diminished (kui 虧); one becomes estranged from the inherent oneness of all things.[152] When this happens, as it does for all people, one forms attachments to these preferences and they become complete, or hardened.[153] The author questions whether our embodiment of the Dao can truly be diminished and whether there truly is a hardening or completion of our preferences. He goes on to say that we are indeed estranged and inculcated as long as we maintain or act on these prejudices and preferences; however, if we stop, then we cease to be so: “(If) completion and diminishment exist, then, (for example), we have Zhaoshi playing his qin; (if) completion and diminishment do not exist, then we have Zhaoshi not playing his qin” (有成與虧,故昭氏之鼓琴也;無成與虧,故昭氏之不鼓琴也。).[154]

No practice is described on how to stop applying our hardened preferences and return to the oneness of the Dao. Being that the message is being delivered metaphorically through a hypothetical progression of human consciousness, we should not expect to be provided with a practice. However, we have already been familiarized, in general terms, with the practice: the apophatic “fasting of the mind” and the “sitting in forgetfulness.” Although the analogy with the development of the human mind from its beginnings in the womb to adulthood is not mentioned, it is remarkably apt, for the fetus is unself-aware and unaware of a world of things. After birth, it takes time before an infant can begin to distinguish one thing from another and self from other. Then come the distinguishing of individual separate things and eventually preferences of what is acceptable and unacceptable and of right and wrong develop, with the help of one’s parents and the rest of society. Elsewhere we have seen the infant being held up as something to emulate by Laozi (or in the Laozi), and, among other things, this suggests a similar focus towards returning to (fugui 復歸), or recovering the mind of a child, returning to the “uncarved block” (pu 樸) that we once were, and which also can describe the Dao itself.[155] Whether a meditative discipline of emptying the mind and experiencing the mystical unitive state or the reversion to an infant-like state, the return to the mundane, everyday world is not optional. Nevertheless, the experience has been repeatedly affirmed to have lasting effects on a person’s perspective and conduct in the world, and thus, as Graham and Roth have asserted, this is the valued outcome or end of such endorsed practices.[156]

Other contributors to the Zhuangzi contend that we can simultaneously embody the oneness of everything as well as entertain and act on our individual human preferences. In chapter 6 of the Zhuangzi, the Zhenren 真人, or Real Person, is one who “does not use the human to help out the ‘Heavenly,’ or natural” (不以人助天); however, the Zhenren is one in whom “the Heavenly and the human do not defeat each other” (天與人不相勝也). The Huainanzi expands on this:


If one understands the “Heavenly” and not the human, then one will lack the means to interact with people; if one understands the human and not the “Heavenly,” then one will lack the means to wander with/in the Dao.[157]

Put another way, we are advised to adopt the perspective of the Dao (Daoguan 道觀), in which all things are one, but we cannot truly function in the world this way and must also entertain the human perspective, the perspective of individual things (wuguan 物觀).[158] Like a monkey-keeper mentioned in Zhuangzi 2, we best be able to perform a “double-walk” (liangxing 兩行) and accommodate the perspectives of others and our own human biases.

With regards to the concern for health and longevity, we have already encountered the mysterious Shenren 神人 of Gushe mountains who ingest nothing but air and dew and whose complexion was as pure as snow; additionally, they are said to be invulnerable to burning, drowning, (and probably other dangerous extremes). We have also read of Nu Yu 女偊, whose complexion was that of someone much younger. That inner perfection resulted in outer perfection was a common belief in the Warring States era and after.[159] Often this was due to the conviction that the accumulation of the purest energies within automatically entailed physical health and aesthetic quality. However, all readers of the Zhuangzi will notice that physical deformity does not entail imperfection; indeed, most of the ugly or deformed individuals in the text are portrayed as sages, or at least as possessing something enviable. For example, as Paul Goldin has drawn attention to, one of four friends in Zhuangzi 6 began to become deformed and ill, his “yin and yang energies” (陰陽之氣) being out of harmony; however, his mind was at ease and without concern.[160] Here psychological equanimity and the realization that life and death are in fact one entity (yitizhe 一體者) are being endorsed and are epitomized in these masters. True masters cannot be identified by their physical condition.[161]

In chapter 5 of the Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi tells Huizi 惠子 that true sages “do not let likes and dislikes internally harm their persons” (無以好惡內傷其身) and entails “always going by what occurs naturally and not (striving to) increase/benefit life” (常因自然而不益生). Laozi 42 makes the claim that trying to increase or augment (yi 益) something often quickens its decrease (sun 損).[162] Huizi doesn’t understand, however, and asks how one can even have a body/person if he or she doesn’t strive to benefit or increase one’s life. Preoccupation with life is not a concern for Zhuangzi, and he criticizes Huizi for expelling (wai 外) his spirit (shen 神) and overtaxing or exhausting (lao 勞) his vital essence (jing 精). For Zhuangzi, psychological health (inner peace, openness, etc.) are more important than physical survival; or rather, physical survival is dependent on psychological well-being. Serenely accepting what life brings and declining entanglements allows one to “finish one’s natural (allotment of) years” (zhong qi tiannian 終其天年).[163]

In the 11th chapter, “Remaining In and Accepting” (Zaiyou 在宥), we encounter the Yellow Emperor seeking advice from one master Guangcheng 廣成子 on how to nourish and support all living things in his lands. Master Guangcheng felt that the emperor was not up to the task and the emperor withdrew and proceeded to live in a secluded hut. After three months he returned to master Guangcheng and humbly asked him about how to govern one’s person (zhishen 治身) so as to live a long time (changjiu 長久). This question pleased the master, who proceeded to tell him to suspend the use of his senses, to “embrace the spirit by means of stillness, (so that) the form will automatically straighten itself” (抱神以靜,形將自正).[164] When he can maintain stillness and purity, when he can refrain from stressing his body and agitating his essence; then he can live a long time. With the suspension of the senses (and the mind), the careful tending to one’s internal state (nei 內) and closing (bi 閉) the gates to the external world (wai 外), one’s “spirit will protect the form” (shen jiang shou xing 神將守形), enabling long life. Not only that, but by preserving his person (shen 身), all things will “become sturdy of themselves” (zizhuang 自壯), which addresses the Yellow Emperor’s former inquiry. As for master Guangcheng, he declares, “I have preserved Oneness in order to dwell in inner peace, therefore I have maintained my person for 1200 years and my form has yet to undergo the usual decay” (我守其一以處其和,故我修身千二百歲矣,吾形未常衰), and after a few more bits of wisdom, offers these parting words:


Thus, I will leave you, entering through the Gates of the Inexhaustible to wander in the Fields of the Infinite. I will join with the brilliance of the sun and the moon; I will join with the regularities of the heavens and the earth. Those who approach me will be tied back, those who remain distant from me will be bewildered. All people advance towards death, yet I alone will persist!

Among other things, we find here again a practice of meditation that restricts sensory perception, aims at stillness and tranquility, and relies on the spirit to guide and protect us. Rather than efficacy in one’s activities, the ability to long endure (changjiu 長久) is the fruit of this practice, or, perhaps, is another benefit of this practice. Moreover, the transient shamanic or mystical experience is framed as a way to achieve immortality, as one becomes one with the universe and shares in its permanence. The “I alone will persist” (wo du cun 我獨存) should probably not be taken to indicate that there is an “I” or “ego” that continues to exist, since personal death is rendered meaningless once identification with the universe is realized. While master Guangcheng does give advice on how to achieve longevity, he also shows that death need not be feared, especially if one can realize union with the world.[165] Nevertheless, the fear of death and the consequent quest for ways to achieve immortality were fueled by such stories and taken more literally than perhaps they should have.[166]

Finally, in part 3 of this series, we saw that in the 15th chapter, “Ingrained Convictions” (Keyi 刻意),  the author singled out five groups of people. These were:

1)   The “men of mountains and valleys” (shangu zhi shi 山谷之士), who were high-minded social critics concerned with nothing but their own pride (kang 亢).

2)   The “men who wish to bring peace to the world” (pingshi zhi shi 平世之士), who were itinerant, moralistic teachers concerned with nothing but repairing (the world) (xiu 修).[167]

3)   The “men of the courts” (chaoting zhi shi 朝廷之士), who were career-minded political advisors or officials concerned with nothing but governing (zhi 治).

4)   The “men of rivers and seas” (jianghai zhi shi 江海之士), who wished to flee from the world (bi shi 避世) and to be idle (xia 暇), whose only concern was non-interference (wuwei 無為).

5)   The “men who guide and stretch” (daoyin zhi shi 道引之士), who “huff and puff, exhale and inhale, expel the old air and intake the new, (practice) bear strides and bird stretches, concerned with nothing but longevity” (吹呴呼吸,吐故納新,熊經鳥申,為壽而已矣). These men were focused on “caring for their forms” (yangxing 養形) and emulating Pengzu 彭祖, who supposedly lived for over a thousand years.

The author argued that repairing and governing the world, achieving longevity and the like could all be realized by quietist means, by one whose tranquility (danran 澹然) is unlimited (wuji 無極). Such a person embodies the “Way of Nature” (Tiandi zhi Dao 天地之道) and possesses the “characteristics of a sage” (shengren zhi de 聖人之德). The author lists and expounds many quietist self-cultivation terms and practices: the sage rests in “quietude” (tiandan 恬惔), “placid indifference” (jimo 寂漠), “emptiness” (xuwu 虛無), and “non-interference” (wuwei 無為). Resting in these, “anxiety is unable to enter (his/her mind) and noxious qi-energies are unable to gather (inside his/her body)” (憂患不能入,邪氣不能襲). Such a person “leaves behind knowledge and contrivance” (qu zhi yu gu 去知與故),[168] “does not ponder and plan, does not prepare or plot a course ahead of time” (不思慮,不豫謀), instead, “following the patterns of Nature” (xun Tian zhi li 循天之理). Rather than a way to care for the physical form (xing 形), as the aforementioned practitioners of daoyin 道引 (導引), “guiding and pulling” practiced, quietism was the “way of caring for the spirit” (yangshen zhi dao 養神之道), culminating in “becoming one with the spirit” (yushen weiyi 與神為一); or, in other words, preserving the most spiritual and essential (jing 精) vital energies-forces, not allowing them to become impaired or diminished (kui 虧). The author declares that one who can do such a thing, who can “embody purity and (one’s) genuine, untouched condition” (ti chunsu 體純素), can be called a Zhenren 真人, a “True Person” or “Real Person.”

Guanzi’s “Techniques of the Mind” (Xinshu 心術) Chapters

The Guanzi 管子 anthology contains four chapters, or texts, that focus on quietistic self-cultivation and its application to governing and understanding the world. These are: the “Inner Workings” (Neiye 內業), “Techniques of the Mind, Upper Section” (Xinshu shang 心術上), “Techniques of the Mind, Lower Section” (Xinshu xia 心術下), and the “Purified Mind” (Baixin 白心). The Neiye is generally considered the oldest of these, with (Western) scholars such as Angus Graham, Allyn Rickett and Harold Roth supporting a 4th century B.C.E. date. As mentioned in the last essay, “Cosmogony, Cosmology, and the Dao,” the Neiye is closer to 3rd and 2nd century B.C.E. texts such as the Huainanzi and the syncretic/Huang-Lao materials in the Zhuangzi in its vocabulary (e.g., jing 精, qi 氣, shen 神, xin 心, and its discussions on the emotions) and focus on self-cultivation.[169] The other three texts are generally believed to have been written in the 3rd or possibly 2nd century B.C.E. and appear to be later than the Neiye. Although there are many theories about who authored these texts, there is virtually no evidence and thus should be considered anonymous (just as the authors of the Laozi and the Zhuangzi).[170]

The Neiye would appear to be a collection of stanzas on quietist self-mastery or even the “will to power.” In addition to longevity (changjiu 長壽), maximizing one’s vitality (sheng 生), and making it so that no living things will cause one harm (hai 害), the practitioner of these quietist methods will possess wisdom (zhi 智) and be able to comprehend (de 得, zhi 知) and cause to transform (hua 化) all living things (wanwu 萬物). He (or she) will be able to foretell favourable and unfavourable consequences (xiongji 凶吉) without resorting to external means such as divination[171] as well as attain the ability to “go to the limits of the heavens and Earth” (qiong Tiandi 窮天地), “cover the Four Seas” (bei Sihai 被四海), “understand the world” (zhi tianxia 知天下), and “circulate completely through the Nine Regions” (panman Jiuzhou 蟠滿九州). With such perfection attained, all affairs will be successful (cheng 成), control of things (shi wu 使物) and submission and obeisance of the world (tianxia fu 天下服,tianxia ting 天下聽) will be realized, and the people will be as close as brothers (dixiong 弟兄).[172]

While all of this is facilitated by accumulating, storing and perhaps refining one’s vital essence (jing 精), breath/energy (qi 氣) or Dao within the heart, it all depends on attaining a tranquil and still heart-mind. For example:





Overall, the Dao lacks a fixed place,

(Yet) in a ‘good heart-mind’ it will stay.

With the heart-mind still and one’s vital breath ordered,

The Dao may then remain.


Cultivate the heart-mind, still one’s intentions, then the Dao can be apprehended.

憂悲喜怒,道乃無處 … 靜則得之,躁則失之。

(In a heart-mind that entertains) grief, anxiety, joy and anger, the Dao will not stay.

If (your heart-mind is) still, you will apprehend it, if agitated, you will lose it.



When one’s heart-mind is able to maintain stillness,

The Dao will automatically become stable.

These four sayings speak of Dao, not as an omnipresent, cosmic ancestor, but as something which, although never far from us, comes (lai 來) and goes (wang 往).[174] The text speaks similarly of spirit (shen 神) and of qi 氣 , jing精, and de 德, “inner power.” Michael LaFargue argues that this shows that the authors did not  have a systematic psychological theory that we need to unpack by finding a distinct place for all of these terms.[175] LaFargue suggests that Dao here (and elsewhere) refers to a hypostatized “quality of mind.”[176] These passages resemble the “fasting of the mind” parable from the Zhuangzi examined earlier, where the Dao “settles in an empty (mind)” (Dao ji xu 道集虛), which would likely be considered still and tranquil.[177] The “Finishing One’s Allotted Years” (Jinshu 盡數) chapter of the Lüshi Chunqiu similarly speaks of getting rid of various excesses – including excessive emotions – as well as the essential energies (jingqi 精氣) settling or collecting (ji 集) inside birds, animals, precious objects and sages. Moreover, the Neiye also contains the recommendation to “Diligently clean out its abode and vital essence will automatically arrive” (敬除其舍, 精將自來) and the “Techniques of the Mind, Upper Section” (Xinshu shang) instructs: “Empty (the heart-mind) of desires and spirit will enter its abode; if the cleansing does not purify it, spirit will not stay” (虛其欲,神將入舍,掃除不絜,神不留處).[178] There is also some similarity with some chapters of the Laozi, such as 10 and 16, although the Laozi contains little or no discussion of eliminating/reducing emotions or attracting or manifesting shen, qi, or jing.[179] The Laozi is concerned, however, with eliminating or reducing desire (yu 欲), which we will examine in another essay.

Not only are emotions and desires singled out as obstacles to a tranquil mind, so are external stimuli and the senses: “do not allow things to disorder the senses and do not allow the senses to disorder the mind” (不以物亂官,不以官亂心).[180] The ruler could only achieve an orderly kingdom or state if his heart-mind was orderly, and this was considered impossible he if he could not calm and still his heart-mind. The term jing 靜 appears 12 times in this short text and is proclaimed to be the determining factor as to whether shen神 will enter (or manifest?) within and whether the mind can thereby be ordered (zhi 治), as opposed to disordered (luan 亂). To facilitate this inner stillness and calm, one should get rid of “grief, joy, happiness, anger, and the desire for profit” (憂樂喜怒欲利), for then one’s “heart-mind will revert to equanimity” (xin nai fan qi 心乃反齊) and harmony (he 和) will be attained.

While “grasping the One” (zhiyi 執一) and “preserving the One” (shouyi 守一) may refer to the mystical unitive experience, the meaning of yi 一 “one” is ambiguous.[181] The quietistic cultivation practice endorsed in the Neiye thus may not have mystical union as one of its aims. However, it is not implausible to interpret the passages that affirm that the Dao (or jing or shen) will stay in a tranquil and still mind as another way of expressing mystical union with it.[182] In this case, the “loss of the Dao” refers to the discontinuance of communion/union or awareness of it and, despite its omnipresence, it ceases to guide or inform one’s life.

The Huainanzi

In the Han Documents’ “Treatise on Literature” (Hanshu Yiwenzhi 漢書 • 藝文志), the Huainanzi is listed under the category of Zajia 雜家, the “Mixed, Heterogeneous or Syncretic Jia.” Zajia is described as a “combination of (the ideas/practices of) the Ru and Mo” (兼儒、墨) and a “blending of (the ideas/practices of) the Ming and Fa” (合名、法) traditions. Oddly, this leaves out the ideas/practices of Daojia 道家 and Yinyangjia 陰陽家, both of which are clearly present in the Huainanzi. This mystery is compounded by the fact that Sima Tan, (who had no Zajia category), claimed that it was Daojia that selected the best of the Ru, Mo, Ming and Fa.[183] While the Huainanzi itself does not explicitly claim that it is a Daojia or Daoist text, (which no text in fact does), Wang Chong, in his Lunheng, associated Liu An, the patron of scholars who wrote the Huainanzi, with Daojia, referred to his book as a “Daoist book” (Daoshu 道書),[184] his retinue as “scholars of Daoist methods” (daoshu zhi shi 道術之士), and reported, (with disbelief), that Liu An “ascended to the heavens” (sheng Tian 升天) as an immortal/transcendent (xian 仙), a phenomenon first attested in the Zhuangzi.[185]

Additionally, Harold Roth and Roger Ames/D.C. Lau have argued that, despite its syncretic nature,  the text nevertheless draws on and develops the philosophies and practices found in the Laozi and Zhuangzi most substantially. The Introduction to the complete English translation of the Huainanzi by Roth, John S. Major, Sarah A. Queen and Andrew Seth Meyer says that Harold Roth believes that “despite the broad array of pre-Han sources from which it draws, in its cosmology and methods of self-cultivation, it remains squarely within a tradition of both philosophy and practice that borrows from earlier Daoist sources, including the four ‘Xinshu’ texts of the Guanzi, the Laozi, and the Zhuangzi. In his [Roth’s] view, these sources are treated by the Huainanzi authors as the ‘root’ or foundation of the entire work.”[186] Similarly, Ames and Lau claim that “In the Huainanzi, Daoism serves as the primary ore, being alloyed with the concerns and perspectives of competing schools to produce a more malleable and practical amalgam” and refer to the Huainanzi as espousing (one brand of?) “syncretic Daoism.”[187]

We have already taken notice of the cosmogony and cosmology of Dao that the Huainanzi adopts and develops from the Laozi and Zhuangzi (in Part 4.2 of this series of essays), and here I would like to provide some examples of mysticism and self-cultivation that appear in the text that also seem to derive from this tradition.

As found in the Zhuangzi and Xinshu texts, the spirit (shen 神) is regarded as the most beneficial and efficacious ruler of, or guide for, the body, as it regulates one’s vitality and thus should be cared for or nourished (yang 養). Chapter 7 of the Huainanzi, “Quintessential Spirit” (Jingshen 精神), adopts the Zhuangzi’s paragons of perfection, the Zhenren 真人, and asserts that their


“inborn nature is merged with the Way. Therefore, they possess it but appear to have nothing. They are full but appear to be empty. They are settled in this unity and do not know of any duality. They cultivate what is inside and pay no attention to what is outside. They illuminate and clarify Grand Simplicity; taking no action, they revert to the Unhewn. They embody the foundation and embrace the spirit in order to roam freely within the confines of Heaven and Earth. Untrammelled, they travel outside this dusty world and wander aimlessly in their taskless calling. Unfettered and unhindered, they harbor no clever devices or cunning knowledge in their minds.”[188]

A portion of this passage is also found in chapter 12 of the Zhuangzi, where Confucius is found describing those who rely on the “techniques of the Murky Chaos clan” (Hundunshi zhi shu 渾沌氏之術), which his disciple Zigong 子貢 was exposed to (unsurprisingly) in Chu 楚.[189] The Zhenren are described as mystics, focussed on an inner experience of Oneness.[190] “Taking no action” (wuwei 無為) and “reverting to the Unhewn” (fu pu 復樸) also call to mind the Laozi (as we will see later). The description continues:

… 見事之亂,而能守其宗。若然者,亡肝膽,遺耳目,心志專于內,通達耦于一 … 形若槁木,心若死灰。忘其五藏,捐其形骸。不學而知,不視而見,不為而成 …大澤焚而不能熱,河、漢涸而不能寒也,大雷毀山而不能驚也,大風晦日而不能傷也。… 同精於太清之本,而游於忽區之旁。… 契大渾之樸,而立至清之中。… 甘瞑于大宵之宅,而覺視于昭昭之宇,休息于無委曲之隅,而游敖于無形埒之野。居而無容,處而無所,其動無形,其靜無體,存而若亡,生而若死,出入無間,役使鬼神,淪於不測,入於無間,以不同形相嬗也,終始若環,莫得其倫。此精神之所以能登假于道也,是故真人之游也。

“…While seeing the chaos of affairs, they are able to preserve their Ancestor. Beings like these, negate obsession and fear (liver and gall) and cast aside sensory perceptions (ears and eyes). Their mental activity is concentrated internally and penetrates through to comport with the One … Their bodies are like withered wood; their minds are like dead ashes. They forget the Five Orbs; lose their physical frames; know without studying; see without looking; complete without acting … Great marshes may catch fire, but it cannot burn them. Great rivers may freeze over, but it cannot chill them. Great thunder may shake the mountains, but it cannot startle them. Great storms may darken the sun, but it cannot harm them … They merge their vital essence with the Root of Great Purity and roam freely beyond the boundless … They identify with the artlessness of the Great Unhewn and take their stand amid the supremely pure … They behold the dwelling place of Total Darkness and contemplate the lodging place of Total Brightness. They rest in the realms of the Unfettered and roam in the fields of the Nebulous. At rest, they have no appearance. In place, they have no location. In movement, they have no form. In stillness, they have no body. They are present yet seem to be absent. They are alive but seem to be dead. They emerge from, and enter into, the Dimensionless and employ ghostly spirits as their servants. They plunge into the Fathomless and enter the Nonexistent … This is how their Quintessential Spirit is able to verge upon the Way; this is the roaming of the Zhenren.”[191]

Again, there are many parallels with the Zhuangzi here, and possibly indicates that the author drew upon that text, (although, perhaps not yet known as the Zhuangzi). Again, the Zhenren are described as mystics or quasi-shamans who, through quietist, apophatic and ascetic means, enter trances and either travel (spiritually) to unearthly places or become one with everything (i.e., dissolve into nothingness or undifferentiatedness). All of this suggests that the authors, like those of the Zhuangzi, valued and endorsed a dynamic and profound freedom. Whether they personally enjoyed the experience or states of consciousness described here or rather pieced together second-hand accounts, we cannot know.

Earlier we saw a syncretist author of chapter 15 of the Zhuangzi, “Ingrained Convictions,” claim that all the aims of various groups could be realized by quietist means. One of the groups were those who practiced what Donald Harper has called “macrobiotic hygiene,” which in this case is physical exercises and breathing exercises designed to maintain one’s health and increase longevity. These practitioners are mentioned again in a few places in the Huainanzi; for example, in chapter 7 we find:


“If you huff and puff, exhale and inhale, blow out the old and pull in the new, practice the Bear Hang, the Bird Stretch, the Duck Splash, the Ape Leap, the Owl Gaze, and the Tiger Stare: This is what is practiced by those who nurture the body. They are not the practices of those who polish the mind”[192] … Thus even though the body disappears, the spirit is never transformed into something else. If you use what is never transformed in response to transformations, (even though) a thousand alterations and ten thousand evolutions, you will not have begun to reach a limit. What transforms returns to the Formless; what does not transform is born together with Heaven and Earth.”[193]

This passage claims that only one’s spirit is eternal and that it is not like the body (“form”) which undergoes transformation and returns to the formless. Thus, the men who “nurture the bodies” (yangxing 養形) are, if not wasting their time, focusing on secondary matters. Zhuangzi 15, from where this passage has a parallel, appears at first to suggest that death is simply a well-deserved rest, but as the chapter goes on there is a concern with “the way of nurturing the spirit” (yangshen zhi dao 養神之道), and one who is adept at this is called a Zhenren 真人. The Zhuangzi 15 author admits that the physical and breathing exercises may contribute to one’s longevity (shou 壽), but that is all.[194] Huainanzi 11, “Integrating Customs” (Qi Su 齊俗), also points to its limitations:


“Wang Qiao and Chi Songzi exhaled and inhaled, spitting out the old and internalizing the new. They cast off form and abandoned wisdom; they embraced simplicity and returned to genuineness; in roaming with the mysterious and subtle above, they penetrated to the clouds and Heaven. Now if one wants to study their Way and does not attain their nurturing of the qi and their lodging of the spirit but only imitates their every exhale and inhale, their contracting and expanding, it is clear that one will not be able to mount the clouds and ascend on the vapors.”[195]

Wang Qiao and Chi Songzi nurtured their vital energies (yang qi 養氣)[196] and lodged the spirit (chu shen 處神) in addition to breathing practices and “contracting and expanding” (qu 詘, shen 伸) – which equates to the Daoyin 導引 exercises mentioned in the Zhuangzi and elsewhere.[197] Longevity wasn’t a major concern of these mystics or transcendents. Their ascent to the heavens, perhaps simply symbolic for emancipation from mundane existence and its entanglements,[198] was understood by Wang Chong, centuries later, to be associated with Laozi and Huangdi and to Daojia, as well as Fangshi 方士, the “masters of techniques.”[199] Despite Wang Chong’s disbelief in heavenly ascension and immortality, he did accept that the breathing and physical exercises could foster a healthier body and lead to longevity, just as they had for Pengzu 彭祖. Near the end of his life, when apparently the fear of impending death was upon him, he composed a book on the various exercises for extending life and practiced them, as well as ingesting various medicines (yao 藥), but managed only meagre success in his practice of them and eventually concluded that our lives/fate (ming 命) cannot be extended (bu yan 不延).[200]

Criticism of a different sort can be found in the work of Yan Zun 嚴遵 (c. 80 – 0 B.C.E.). In his Laozi Zhigui 老子指歸, we find :


“Greedy for life, the advantage of longevity, only afraid of not obtaining it. Strongly held in the mind’s intention, close up the ears and eyes. Guiding and pulling, stretching and walking, shaking the hundred parts. Spit out the old, inhale the new, huffing and puffing, inhaling and exhaling. Wearing clothing of the five stars, drinking and eating from the sun and moon. Both form and spirit labouring, never experiencing a rest. This is governing one’s person by Youwei, purposive activity.”

For Yan Zun, governing one’s person by Wuwei 無為, non-purposive activity, was superior, and would appear to grow from his fondness for the Laozi and Zhuangzi.[201]

The quietist approach to self-cultivation is also expressed in the following passages from Huainanzi 2:


“Tranquility and calmness are that by which the nature is nourished. Harmony and vacuity are that by which Potency is nurtured. When what is external does not disturb what is internal, then our nature attains what is suitable to it. When the harmony of [our] nature is not disturbed, then Potency will rest securely in its position. Nurturing life so as to order the age, embracing Potency so as to complete our years, This may be called being able to embody the Way.”[202]

水之性真清而土汩之,人性安靜而嗜欲亂之。… 神清者嗜欲弗能亂 … 神清則智明矣

“The nature of water is clear, yet soil sullies it. The nature of humans is tranquil, yet desires disorder it … If the spirit is clear, lusts and desires cannot disorder it … If the spirit is clear, then consciousness is illumined.”[203]

Although the Laozi does not talk of nature (xing 性) or spirit (shen 神) as the Zhuangzi, Xinshu texts or the Huainanzi do, we may recall chapter 15 of that work endorses clarity (qing 清) and affirmed that stillness/tranquility (jing 靜) clarifies that which is muddy (zhuo 濁), which metaphorically refers to the mind or spirit. We also have witnessed the problematic nature of desire (yu 欲) in the Laozi and Xinshu texts, (and will again in a later essay).

One final passage, from Huainanzi 7, describes an apophatic practice that allows one to connect with the ancestor (Zong 宗) – which we have seen is the Dao – and Grand Simplicity or Supreme Purity (Taisu 太素), which may signify the mystic experience of oneness. This experience of oneness allows one to reconcile one’s mortality and identify with the immortality of the Dao.

… 除穢去累,漠若未始出其宗,乃為大通。清目而不以視,靜耳而不以聽,鉗口而不以言,委心而不以慮,棄聰明而反太素,休精神而棄知故,覺而若眯,生而若死,終則反本未生之時,而與化為一體。死之與生,一體也。

“If you eschew the dust (of daily living) and relinquish attachments, you will be as calm as if you had never left your Ancestor and thereupon will become grandly pervasive. Purify your eyes and do not look with them; still your ears and do not listen with them; close your mouth and do not speak with it; relax your mind and do not think with it. Cast aside clever brilliance and return to Grand Simplicity. Rest your Quintessential Spirit and cast aside your wisdom and contrivance. Then, you will be awakened but seem to be obscured; you will be alive but seem to be dead. In the end, you will return to the foundation of the time before your birth and form one body with transformations . Then, to you, death and life will be one body.”[204]

An application of the inner cultivation practices examined here to governing is also found in the Daoyuan 道原 text from Mawangdui, which declares that only true sages can examine the formless Dao and understand the “substantiality of the insubstantial” (虛之實). These sages, if they can attain a state of openness or emptiness (虛), can “comprehend/merge with the essences of the heavens and earth” (通天地之精), and if they can achieve a state “without likes and dislikes” (無好無惡) and “without desires” (無欲), then the world will achieve harmony and, if occupying the position of king, “(all) beneath the heavens will submit” (天下服).”

The sage-kings and role-models mentioned in other texts like the Odes (Shi 詩) and Documents (Shu 書) are not spoken of in anything resembling the descriptions found in the Laozi, Zhuangzi or Huainanzi. They do not become one with the heavens and earth (or the Dao), do not engage in apophatic meditation and do not undertake spirit journeys. Longevity is valued, but only in the sense of advice pertaining to not recklessly cutting short one’s life, which we do find in the Laozi and Zhuangzi. The Mozi 墨子 is similar in lacking discourse on the topics discussed here.

When we come to texts by the Ru 儒, or Confucians, we find references to introspection, but always for the sake of maintaining one’s moral integrity, not in the manner found in the above “Daoist” texts or for the same reasons. A few passages in the Mengzi 孟子 and Xunzi 荀子 use some similar terminology and appear to pertain to similar practices. However, on further inspection, these are quite distinct, and further Confucian moralistic goals.

In Mengzi section 2A2, Mengzi (c. 4th century B.C.E.) is presented as saying to Gongsun Chou 公孫丑 that since the age of forty he has had an “unmoved mind” (budongxin 不動心), which amounts to a still or unperturbed (jing 靜) mind. Mengzi is asked if there is a way (dao 道) to achieve this unmoved mind and he answers in the affirmative. He gives examples of a couple of known “warriors” who “maintained (their) courage” (yangyong 養勇) in all situations. Their “unmoved minds” held steady in the face of physical adversity, but Mengzi then argues that having a mind that was unmoveable in the face of moral adversity, that is, staying true to one’s sense of right and wrong, required much “greater courage” (dayong 大勇). The discussion then moves into the relationship between one’s qi 氣, one’s “bio-spiritual energy” or “vital energy” and one’s “will” or “intention” (zhi 志). Mengzi says:




Now the will is the leader of  the vital energy; vital energy is the (energizing) filler of physical body.

When the will attends to something, the vital energy follows behind.[205] Therefore it is said,

‘take hold of your will and do not abuse your vital energy.’[206]

Mengzi continues:






When the will is focused, it moves/activates the vital energy,

(But) when the vital energy is focused, it moves/activates the will.

Now, stumbling and rushing about, these are due to the vital energy (being in control),

And it comes back to moving (agitating) one’s mind.

The analogy continues between physical activity and moral activity. Mengzi argues that morally, one is better off to be in control over one’s vital energy, over that which enables one’s “decisions” to manifest in one’s actions. When one just allows one’s vital energy to manifest itself without any direction, one’s action will be morally erratic. (This plausibly applies also to one’s control over one’s emotions.) We may recall that we earlier interpreted “心使氣曰強”  from Laozi 55 as “When the mind controls the vital energy, this is called ‘forcing things’” and the Neiye, where we are informed that vital energy “cannot be stopped through force” (不可止以力). Mengzi would thus seem to have a more favourable view towards being in firm control over one’s energies (and thus over one’s actions) than the author of the Laozi 55’s tenet. But Mengzi did affirm that one should not “do violence to” (bao 暴) our vital energies, and acknowledged that forcing things, like a foolish farmer who tries to help (zhu 助) his rice plants grow by pulling on them, is counterproductive.[207]

Mengzi is cited as feeling himself to be good at nourishing or maintaining (yang 養) his “surging vital energies” (haoran zhi qi 浩然之氣), but submits:

難言也。其為氣也,至大至剛,以直養而無害,則塞于天地之間。其為氣也,配義與道;無是,餒也。是集義所生者,非義襲而取之也。行有不慊於心,則餒矣。… 必有事焉,而勿忘[208],勿忘,勿助長也。

It is difficult to explain. These vital energies are, in the highest degree, vast and unyielding. Nourished with moral rectitude and not impeded, it will fill the space between Heaven and Earth.  They are energies which unite righteousness and the Dao. Deprived of these and they will atrophy. It is born of accumulated rightness and cannot be appropriated by anyone through a sporadic show of rightness. Whenever one acts in a way that falls below the standard set in one’s heart, it will starve … You must work at it and never let it out of your mind . At the same time, while you must never let it out of your mind, you must not forcibly help it grow either.”[209]

Bryan Van Norden calls this surging or flood-like (haoran 浩然) vital energy “ethically informed qi,” meaning that, over time and with training, our vital energy will consistently lend its energy only to acts that are right 義. Van Norden writes: “The qi gives one the moral stamina to persevere in the face of dangers, challenges, and setbacks. Among the highly cultivated, this reservoir of fortitude is so deep that it is essentially inexhaustible (or ‘flood-like,’ as Mengzi puts it).”[210] Robert Eno puts it this way:

“Mengzi is portrayed as a warrior for righteousness, whose force of energy (qi 氣) is under the firm command of its general, the zhi, which remains in unified alignment with the dao of righteousness (yi 義). This form grasp of a moral compass, the product of long training, has made Mengzi’s heart-mind impervious to potentially destabilizing situational influences.”[211]

The views expressed here are not those we have seen in the “Daoist” texts, where nourishing one’s vital energy is done for the purposes of increased efficacy, longevity, or to wander with the Maker of Things. Mengzi offers no criticism of those who did, so there is no reason to think he was arguing against them. Some, like Arthur Waley, have read much more into this singular passage. Waley argued

“The passage in which Mengzi discusses his breathing technique is hopelessly corrupt and obscure. But that deep and regular breathing calms and fortifies the mind is a matter of common experience. That a definite technique of breath-control, practiced over long periods, can reach a point at which ordinary consciousness is voluntarily suspended, would not by denied by anyone familiar with Zen or with Indian yoga. But how far Mengzi went in yoga technique, what exactly was the nature of his ‘flood breath,’ haoran zhi qi, it is impossible to say. He himself, when asked what the phrase meant, replied: ‘It is difficult to say.’ As it was capable of ‘filling everything between Heaven and Earth’ it was clearly envisaged as something supra-normal, something more than the air that goes in and out of the lungs. Yet it  is wrong to call it spirit, energy, passion or the like; for none of these words include the idea of ‘breath,’ whereas Mengzi’s qi, whatever else it may be besides, is first and foremost ‘breath.’”[212]

The trouble here, is Waley’s insistence on understanding qi here as “breath” and neglecting the importance of yi 義 “righteousness” in Mengzi’s explanation. But the context described above indicates, in all due respect, his mistake. While Zhuangzi and his followers may have had experiences wherein their vital energies seemed to have filled up the space between the heavens and earth (Tiandi zhi jian 天地之間), or, perhaps, that a separation between the qi within and that without was non-existent, there is reason to believe that they would not accept that rectitude (zhi 直) or righteousness (義) were involved, never mind essential.[213] Additionally, allowing righteousness to “atrophy” or “starve” (nei 餒) is very reminiscent to the Zhuangzi anecdote regarding “sitting in forgetfulness” (zuowang 坐忘), wherein forgetting righteousness is encouraged.[214]

The Confucian Xunzi 荀子 (c. 3rd century B.C.E.) briefly criticized both Laozi and Zhuangzi. He criticized Laozi for overstressing the value of yielding[215] and Zhuangzi for being obsessed and blinded by the natural and being ignorant of humanity.[216] He is believed to have been influenced by Zhuangzi by many scholars, especially in chapter 21, “Dispelling Obsession” (Jiebi 解蔽), although this is not explicit, and a more careful statement would be that he seems to have been influenced by those who expressed a similar view of the mind to some of the authors of the Zhuangzi (and the Neiye). An example from Xunzi 21 is:


“What do people use to know the Dao? I say that it is the mind. How does the mind know? I say it is by its ability to be empty (xu 虛), focused (yi 壹/一), and still (jing 靜). The mind never stops storing; nonetheless it possesses the potential to be empty. The mind never lacks diversity; nonetheless it possesses the potential to be focused. The mind never stops moving; nonetheless it possesses the potential to be still. Humans from birth have awareness. Having awareness, there is memory. Memories are what is stored, yet the mind has the potential to be empty. Not allowing what has previously been stored to interfere with what is being received in the mind is called being empty. The mind from birth has awareness. Having awareness, there is perception of difference. Perception of difference consists in awareness of a combination of things at the same time. Awareness of a combination of things all at the same time entails diversity; nonetheless the mind has the potential to be focused (on one thing). Not allowing one thing to interfere with the other is called being focused. When the mind is asleep, it dreams. When it relaxes it moves of its own accord. When it is employed in a task, it plans. Thus the mind never stops moving; nonetheless it possesses the potential to be still. Not allowing dreams and fantasies to bring disorder to understanding is called being still.”[217]

The passage goes on to say the mind is like a basin of water, that when straight (zheng 正) and unmoved (wudong 勿動), the muddiness (zhuo 濁) gives way to clarity (qing 清), allowing one to better to see things as they are. But even a slight disturbance will muddy the mind and one’s perception. Xunzi argues that the way to maintain a stable (ding 定) mind is to “guide it with principles, nourish it with clarity and let no things introduce bias” (導之以理,養之以清,物莫之傾). The result is that one will then be able to “fix what is true and false” (ding shifei 定是非, ding ranfou 定然否) and “relieve oneself of doubt and uncertainty” (jue xianyi 決嫌疑). There are numerous parallels with the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Huainanzi in this section.

Laozi 15 also affirms that through stillness (jing 靜), muddiness gives way to clarity. A passage in Zhuangzi 7 speaks of sages’ minds as empty (xu 虛) and mirror-like (ruojing 若鏡), and as a result, their minds “do not go after or invite in, respond but do not store” (不將不迎,應而不藏). For the author of the Zhuangzi passage, this allows them to “cope with things without getting injured” (勝物而不傷). In Zhuangzi 13, the minds of sages are still, not because they deem that good, but because they have reached the stage where nothing can agitate or disturb their minds (nao xin 撓心). Their minds are thus like the “reflectors of Heaven and Earth, mirrors of the myriad things” (天地之鑒也,萬物之鏡也). And we have seen in Huainanzi 2 the view that the mind is best when “the external does not confuse the internal (i.e. the mind)” (wai bugu nei 外不滑內), and that when the mind or spirit is clear, desires cannot disorder it.

Xunzi and the authors of these texts all acknowledged that a composed and tranquil mind was a boon and they, and others,[218] found the mirror analogy to be useful. Xunzi held that the mind always stores (cang 藏) but that it nevertheless had the potential to be open-minded and receptive, which he identified as emptiness (xu 虛). The ideal found in Zhuangzi 7 seems to be a more profound state of emptiness, one which does not store. But it is unlikely that the Zhuangzi author advocated a state of chronic amnesia,[219] and it’s point seems to be the same as Xunzi’s: do not let prior experiences or preconceptions bias our interaction and responses to the world.[220] Xunzi argued that the mind has the potential to be unified or focussed (yi 壹/一), that although the mind has experienced and stored a myriad different things, these can exist in harmony, not interfering with each other and allowing us to focus and concentrate on one thing at a time.[221] In Zhuangzi 4, we saw Confucius instructing Yan Hui to “focus his intentions” (若一志), and the Neiye contains the prescription to “Preserve unity/your focus and discard all disturbances” (守一而棄萬苛). With regards to the mind’s potential for stillness (jing 靜), Xunzi proposed that despite the fact that people’s minds are always busy, are always in motion, even when asleep, if they don’t allow this commotion to “disorder (one’s) knowledge” (luan zhi 亂知), one can be said to possess composure or stillness. While the authors of the “Daoist” texts no doubt valued maintaining one’s composure, not letting anything harm or disturb one’s mind or spirit, they also advocated a deeper sense of stillness (and emptiness), experienced while in meditation, during which one’s mind certainly does not “gallop while one sits” (zuochi 坐馳).[222]

Thus, although Xunzi used some of the same terminology and recognized some of the same beneficial psychological states, the similarities are relatively superficial. Both he and Mengzi were true Confucians, that is, ru 儒 who “worshipped” Confucius and his moral vision, and they did not advocate any sort of apophatic meditation or transpersonal states. With regards to proper methods of cultivating our vital energies and mind, Xunzi argued that “in general, with regards to regulating one’s vital energies and nurturing one’s mind, nothing is as direct as conforming to ritual propriety, nothing more essential than acquiring a teacher, and nothing more efficacious than unifying one’s preferences” (凡治氣養心之術,莫徑由禮,莫要得師,莫神一好。).[223] Many of the cryptic sayings in the Laozi and the wild stories found in the Zhuangzi would likely have been viewed as advancing nothing but confusion in the world, just as the quote by Hanfei in the head of the section in this essay on Laozi expresses. Neither Mengzi nor Xunzi would counsel their students to practice quietism, to relinquish control of themselves and allow the spirit or heavenly part of ourselves (Tian 天) to guide us, nor did they show any interest in wandering (you 遊) with the Great Ancestor, or “drifting uncommitted beyond the dust and grime” (彷徨乎塵垢之外).

One final text to look at is the Hanfeizi 韓非子, originally known as the Hanzi 韓子, purporting to be the works of Han Fei 韓非 (c. 280—233 B.C.E.), a member of the royal family in the state of Han 韓 (not the dynasty of Han 漢). His work was listed under the Fajia 法家 grouping in the Hanshu 漢書,[224] but Sima Qian 司馬遷 seems to have regarded him as having a strong Laozi influence, saying that although he took pleasure in learning about Form-and-Name, Law/Standards, and (Political) Techniques (xingming, fa, shu 刑名法術; i.e., typical Fajia specialties), he (invariably) “returned to Huang-Lao” (歸本於黃老). Although Han Fei was not likely the author of all of the material in the Hanfeizi, chapters that show a Laozi influence such as “The Way of the Ruler” (Zhudao 主道) and “Brandishing Authority” (Yangquan 揚權) are sufficiently consistent with the views expressed throughout the text and thus counts as evidence that he was familiar with at least parts of the Laozi and appropriated some of its ideas to serve his agenda. These chapters are not particularly relevant to the topics being discussed here, but the Hanfeizi also contains two chapters which explicate and illustrate the Laozi[225]: chapter 20, “Explicating Lao(zi)”(Jie Lao 解老) and 21, “Illustrating Lao(zi)” (Yu Lao 喩老). Many have doubted Hanfei’s authorship of these two chapters, and I count as one.[226]

Rather than dwell on this problem, I wish to direct attention to a few things in the Jie Lao commentary that have parallels with other views/practices we have seen in other texts. Commenting on Laozi 38, the author of Jie Lao remarks that when one’s “spirit does not leak to the outside, one’s body remains intact” (神不淫於外則身全), and an intact body can be called (having) De 德. This is achieved through not acting (wuwei 無為), not desiring (wuyu 無欲), not thinking (busi 不思) and remaining useless (buyong 不用).[227] These are semi-quietistic and semi-ascetic practices that facilitate keeping our body intact and allow us to finish our natural years (jin tiannan 盡天年).

The author goes on, surprisingly, to defend the traditional Confucian virtues of benevolence (ren 仁), duty (yi 義) and ritual propriety (li 禮) that Laozi 38 disparages,[228] and then criticizes, yet contributes to the clarification of the “Daoist” practice of emptiness (xu 虛):


The reason why not acting and not thinking are valued as a means to emptiness is said to be because they remove constrictions on the mind.[229] Now, those without the (proper) methods accordingly regard not acting and not thinking as (true) emptiness. The minds of those who regard not acting and not thinking as true emptiness never forget emptiness, and this is to be constricted by (the desire to achieve) emptiness. True emptiness is said to be (the state) where there are no constrictions on the mind; now, to be constricted by (the desire to achieve) emptiness is not (true) emptiness. One who is empty may engage in not acting but does not regard not acting as a constant (practice). If one does not regard not acting as their constant (practice), then one is (truly) empty.[230]

The author is attempting to interpret the third line of Laozi 38: “One with Superior De does not act, yet nothing is not done” (上德無為而無不為).[231] The highest or most superior manifestation of De (shangde 上德) is found in one who is not focused on or even conscious of possessing it; hence, one’s mind is “empty” of such things. Not insisting on making wuwei 無為, “not acting” – which the author apparently interpreted literally – a constant practice also fosters complete emptiness or open-mindedness (xu 虛). Presumably the author is pointing out a problem he observed in those who advocated the message in this chapter (and possibly other texts, such as the Zhuangzi, which advocate psychological emptiness). One will never achieve an empty or open mind if one is obsessed with attaining an empty or open mind. As Randall Peerenboom suggests, however, “Although that may be the case during the time and at the point that one is consciously doing so, the objection loses force once one empties oneself of any intention of becoming empty.”[232] No doubt, the more adept practitioners were well aware of this last obstacle to attaining emptiness and took the final step.[233]


While not going as far as Waley or Maspero once did, the authors of the Laozi and Zhuangzi (and the Xinshu texts, Liezi and Huainanzi) do appear to have practiced some form of quietistic self-cultivation for the purposes of greater efficacy, peace of mind, and longevity. These quietistic and often  apophatic  practices, with or without a controlled breathing practice, crop up again and again and would seem to be a distinctive characteristic of these texts and the traditions which wrote and compiled them. Moreover, mystical or transpersonal states are described in a number of places, suggesting that one’s sense of self is either reduced to nothing or expanded exponentially. Emulating the Dao also has this transpersonal quality, even if at first the emulation is a calculated and self-conscious activity. The concern with longevity found in these texts would appear to be nothing more than the desire to live to old age, avoiding reckless and unnecessary activity and, especially in the Zhuangzi, reducing psychological stress. While other thinkers of the time mentioned that certain courses of action would lead to death (or in the case of a ruler, the loss of his kingdom), the authors of the aforementioned texts, in agreement with Yang Zhu, placed more importance on it.

This series will continue, with Part 4.4 most likely on Wuwei.

[1] Except when discussed by scholars of religion, who often mention these texts in their studies of the later Daoist religion. Perhaps the stress on philosophy and “denigration” of the more religious aspects is largely due to the fact that these texts have been studied and written about primarily by professional philosophers, who lack both expertise and interest in this facet of the early Chinese thinkers. Another reason, I believe, is that the standards for evidence have risen: sweeping generalizations about mysticism (and the worldview behind the early Chinese texts) are generally no longer acceptable, (although modern philosophers are not immune to this generalization error as well).

[2] The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, Grove Press, 1958, pp. 44, 116-17, (originally published in 1934).

[3] Ibid. p. 43-4.

[4] Taoism and Chinese Religion, University of Massachusetts Press, 1981, p. 415-16, translated by Frank A. Keirman Jr. (First published in French in 1971; written in the 1930’s?). Toshihiko Izutsu largely follows Maspero and considers the “world-view of Laozi and Zhuangzi as a philosophical elaboration or culmination of [a] shamanic mode of thinking; as, in other words, a particular form of philosophy which grew out of the personal existential experience peculiar to persons endowed with the capacity of seeing things on a supra-sensible plane of consciousness through an ecstatic encounter with the Absolute and through the archetypal images emerging out of it.” (Sufism and Taoism, University of California Press, 1983, p. 300)

[5] Ibid. p. 413-16.

[6] “What is Taoism” in the Journal of the American Oriental Society 76.3, 1956, p. 148; – later reprinted in What is Taoism? And Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History, University of Chicago Press, 1970. Sima Qian states that Emperor Wu’s grandfather, Emperor Wen 文帝, was fond of the teachings of Daojia (Shiji 23) as was his grandmother Empress Dou 竇, but this appears to be a different kind of daojia than what fell under that label in Wang Chong’s time; i.e., a tradition interested in immortality.

[7] Sima Qian, of course, coined the term Huang-Lao 黃老 to identify Daoism in the Shiji, though immortality is not said to be a concern. It was not until the later Han where both Huangdi and Laozi are connected to immortality.

[8] “What is Taoism,” p. 147.

[9] Tao Te Ching, Chinese University Press, 1996, p. xxxv-vi. (Originally published in 1963.)

[10] Ibid. p. xxxvii.

[11] Disputers of the Tao, Open Court Publishers, 1989, p. 235. Graham also considered Zhuangzi a mystic and suspected the Neiye 內業 provided the earliest insights into mystical oneness in China.

[12] “Mysticism and Apophatic Discourse in the Laozi” in Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi, SUNY, 1999, p. 41.

[13] Chuang-Tzu for Spiritual Transformation: An Analysis of the Inner Chapters, SUNY, 1989, p. 8.

[14] Ibid. p. 9.

[15] Ibid, p. 10.

[16] See Part 3 of this series, regarding the nature of the book of Zhuangzi.

[17] Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 173. Paul Goldin believes Roth to have presumptuously overstated his case, and writes “In reading virtually any complex metaphor as a veiled reference to meditation and controlled breathing, Roth succeeds only in reducing the text, not explaining any ‘hidden meaning’ that others have missed. If the Daode jing could be plausibly characterized as an esoteric treatise of ‘apophatic inner cultivation techniques,’ it would hardly have enjoyed its remarkably wide readership; and we must count it against Roth’s interpretation that no traditional Chinese commentaries (including Daoist ones, such as the Xiang’er commentary 想爾注) ever understood the text as such” (review of Teaching the Daodejing; Edited by Gary D. DeAngelis and Warren G. Frisina, Oxford University Press, 2008, in The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 128.4, 2008, p. 750).

[18] Tao and Method, SUNY, 1994, p. 178.

[19] A Daoist Theory of Thought, : A Philosophical Interpretation, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 266.

[20] Ibid. p. 272.

[21] “Questioning Dao: Skepticism, Mysticism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi” in The International Journal of the Asian Philosophical Association, 2008, 1.1, p. 8.

[22] Zhuangzi 3, “The Essentials in Caring for Life” (Yangshengzhu 養生主).

[23] Disputers of the Tao, p. 191. Cf. Chuang-tzu: The Inner Chapters, Hackett, 2001, p. 69. (Originally published in 1981).

[24] See Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Shambhala, 1995, esp. note 26 from p. 572-76.

[25] The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism, Ross Erikson, 1976, p. 25, quoted in Jordan Paper’s The Spirits Are Drunk, SUNY, 1995, p. 127.

[26] Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy, Shambhala, 2000, p. 154-5.

[27] Law and Morality in Ancient China: The Silk Manuscripts of Huang-Lao, SUNY, 1993, p. 179.

[28] Robert Forman, “Paramārtha and Modern Constructivists on Mysticism: Epistemological Monomorphism Versus Duomorphism” in Philosophy East and West 39.4, 1989, p. 396, cited in Law and Morality in Ancient China p. 179.

[29] See Cosmogony, Cosmology, and the Dao, esp. sections after Zhuangzi 12 and Huainanzi 14 quotations.

[30] Cf. “Some Issues in the Study of Chinese Mysticism: A Review Essay,” China Review International, 2/1, 1995, p. 160. Cf. Angus Graham’s The Book of Lieh-Tzu, Columbia University Press, 1990, p. 6-7. (Originally published in 1960.) Cf. “The Perfected Person in the Radical Chuang-tzu” in Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu, Victor Mair ed., University of Hawai’i Press, 1983, p. 131.

[31] p. 125.

[32] Jordan Paper writes, “shamans request the spirit(s) to come and assist them; mediums are usually involuntarily possessed, at least at first, by spirits who control them … the shaman remains aware and in partial control of the situation, while the medium is understood by her or his community to have relinquished all control to the spirit.” (The Spirits Are Drunk, p. 86-7). Many scholars treat both as examples of shamanism. See also Michael Winkelman’s discussion of important differences in Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing, (Praeger Publishers; 2nd edition, 2010, p. 168-9), who points out that in contrast to shamans, mediums are predominately women, living in agricultural societies, which fits quite well with the ancient Chinese Wu.

[33] To my knowledge, this activity is never ascribed to a Wu. David Hawkes noticed this as well (The Songs of the South: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets, Penguin Books, 1985, p. 42; originally published in 1959). Another type of spirit medium in early China was the Shi 尸 (屍) who impersonated or incorporated the spirit of his deceased ancestor during certain funeral ceremonies. The zhuzi 祩子 in Mozi 31, “Explaining Spirits, Lower Section” (Minggui xia 明鬼下) also appears to be a spirit medium.

[34] To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 107 passim.

[35] The Spirits Are Drunk, p. 55-7.

[36] See his Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China, Harvard University Press, 1983.

[37] “Shamanism, Death, and the Ancestors: Religious Mediation in Neolithic and Shang China (ca. 5000 – 1000 B.C.)” in Asiatische Studien, 52.3, 1998, p. 807. Moreover, obtaining and reading the cracks would be redundant if the “diviner” had made a spirit journey to obtain information from the spirits themselves.

[38] Native Religions of North America: The Power of Visions and Fertility, Waveland Press, 1998, p. 140. (Originally published in 1987.)

[39] Symbolik der Tibetischen Religionen und des Schamanismus, Anton Hiersmann, 1967, p. 103, quoted in The Spirits Are Drunk, p. 151. Paper quotes (and adopts) both of these standpoints in The Spirits Are Drunk, p. 51-2, 151.

[40] If I understand him correctly, Ken Wilber considers the shamanic experience a form of “subtle-realm deity mysticism” as opposed to “causal realm formless mysticism.” Cf. Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy, Shambhala, 2000, p. 13, 235 n14. In the Lunheng 論衡, tian 殄 is identified with dream-sleep and death (e.g., “夢、殄、死,一實也”) and with mediums (wu 巫), whom the spirits of the dead talk through. “Trance” would seem to be the best translation of tian 殄 in this context, even though tian normally means to exterminate, eliminate, exhaust, submerge, empty – which, perhaps, is suggestive of what happens to our normal consciousness in times of trance.

[41] Regarding the allegorical nature of Li Sao, David Hawkes observes that the “‘Fair One’ who rejects him [Qu Yuan] is the weak-minded, vacillating king who rejected his policies, and that his unsuccessful quest for a suitable ‘mate’ among the goddesses and legendary princesses who inhabit the spirit world which he journeys through after his rejection is an allegorical survey of the political alternatives: employment in one or other of the neighbouring states. His conclusion is that all are equally bad and that his only real alternative is death” (The Songs of the South, p. 67).

[42] The Taoist Experience: An Anthology, p. 250; Cf. Early Chinese Mysticism: Philosophy and Soteriology in the Taoist Tradition, Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 83-4.

[43] Taoism: Growth of a Religion, Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 35-6, translated by Phyllis Brooks.

[44] “The Subject and the Sovereign: Exploring the Self in Early Chinese Self-cultivation” in Early Chinese Religion. Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski, Brill, 2007, p. 462.

[45] Hanfeizi 51, “Loyalty and Filial Piety” (Zhongxiao 忠孝).

[46] Arthur Waley, Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, Doubleday, 1956 (1939), p. 154 and The Way and its Power, p. 43.

[47] Junzi 君子 is a “Confucian” term that is extremely rare in the texts classified as Daoist. This is the only occurrence in the Laozi, whose authors preferred the term “sage” (shengren 聖人).

[48] Some versions have Tiandan 恬憺. The Guodian and Mawangdui versions of this stanza have unusual characters in the place of Tiandan, something like 銛龍. See Robert Henricks’ Lao-tzu: Te-tao ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts, Random House: Modern Library Edition, 1993, p. 217 n10, (originally published in 1989) and The Guodian Laozi: Proceedings of the International Conference, Dartmouth College, May 1998, Sarah Allan and Crispin Williams eds., Society for the Study of Early China, University of California, 2000, p. 226.

[49] Zhuangzi 10, 11, 13, 15; Huainanzi 2, 20, 21; Chuci Yuan You” 遠遊; Shiji 6 and Lunheng 24 and 80. Additionally, in Zhuangzi 33’s account of Laozi and Guan Yin, we find them described as “serene (dan 澹), residing alone (du 獨) with spiritual luminosity (shenming 神明).” Tianyu 恬愉, “serene and content” and Tianmo 恬漠, “serene and aloof” also appear throughout the Huainanzi.

[50] This is basically the received Chinese text. As usual, variants occur in other versions. For example, the Mawangdui texts have “vapid, like the ocean, indistinct, like it lacks that which to stop” (忽呵其若海,望(恍)呵其若无所止). The received text does not have the word “desire” in the second-last line, but the ancient Fuyi 傅奕 version as well as that which is embedded in the Xiang’er commentary 想爾 have it. The Mawangdui texts both have it (though preceding du 獨) and Rudolf Wagner points out that Wang Bi’s text must have had it since his commentary does (A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing: Wang Bi’s Commentary on the Laozi with Critical Text and Translation, SUNY, 2003, p. 183.). The dropping of yu 欲 “desire” seems to have originated in the Heshanggong recension.

[51]> In a somewhat similar vein, sages are described in Zhuangzi 5 as those who do not get entangled with others: “Since (they) receive their sustenance from Heaven/Nature, of what use are others?” (既受食於天,又惡用人?).

[52] The last character lai 逨 is from the Guodian version of this passage (replacing the received text’s jiu 救 “to save,” otherwise the text here is from the received version.

[53] See the Guanzi Xinshu shang for explanation of 門 and Gao Yu’s 高誘 commentary to the Huainanzi for explanation of 兌.

[54] E.g. Laozi 12. The last parable in Zhuangzi 7 tells of “Hasty” (Shu 儵) from the south and “Sudden” (Hu 忽) from the north who try to repay “Murky Chaos” (Hundun 渾沌) for his hospitality by drilling seven holes (eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth) in him so he can experience the world as they do. Unfortunately, this kills him. Like Laozi 52, then, being open and exposed to the world has undesirable effects. Hundun did quite well without them. While I don’t believe that these thinkers proposed permanent enclosure within ourselves and never venturing out into the world, the Daoist tradition did tend to endorse reclusion, non-involvement in worldly affairs as well as more psychological reclusion, as in introspection and meditation. Notwithstanding this instruction to close the gates to the outside world, these authors/practitioners may have also endorsed the seemingly contrary advice found in chapter 3.3 of the Lüshi Chunqiu regarding the need to remain open to the world: “Use the new and expel the stale, so that the circulation within your veins remains free-flowing. The essential energies will be renewed each day, and harmful energy will be completely expelled, and you will reach your natural lifespan” (用其新,棄其陳,腠理遂通。精氣日新,邪氣盡去,(及)〔終〕其天年); (John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel, The Annals of Lü Buwei: A Complete Translation and Study, Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 102). This is because these sayings are context-bound guides, not universal, exceptionless laws or precepts (See The Tao of the Tao Te Ching: A Translation and Commentary by Michael LaFargue; SUNY, 1992, pp. 203-205.)

[55] Harold Roth, Original Tao, p. 125. Cf. Randall Peerenboom’s Law and Morality in Ancient China: The Silk Manuscripts of Huang-Lao, SUNY, 1993, p. 179. Apophasis comes from apo (ἀπό) “away from, other than” and phasis (φάσις) “speech, expressibility.” See Roth’s explanation of why he believes it is appropriate in Original Tao, p. 228 n1.

[56] Taoism: The Parting of the Way, Beacon Press, 1971 (1957), pp. 59-82. Chapter 10, discussed below, may contain an explicit reference to a specific breathing practice.

[57] Many variations of these opening lines exist. The Guodian version of these lines read shou zhong du ye 獸中䈞也, where the use of zhong 中 instead of jing 靜 may be significant. Robert Henricks suggests “cautiously guard the void” or “cautiously guard the centre” (Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, p. 60), although “earnestly preserve it (emptiness) within” is also possible.

[58] This is the Mawangdui version of this line.

[59] Zhuangzi 4, 6 and 20 and Huainanzi 7 and 9 contain the expression “finish one’s natural years” (zhong qi tiannian 終其天年), as well as some other variations.

[60] This is the received version, though I read 正 as 定, as found in the Guodian version, and implicitly adopt the Mawangdui version’s 可以為(天下正). Chapter 37 also affirms that stillness (jing 靜) will foster the self-stabilization (ziding 自定) of all living things (Guodian) or the world.

[61] Laozi 5.

[62] Laozi 19.

[63] Laozi 44; literally, to know when one has enough or what is sufficient.

[64] Laozi 57.

[65] Laozi 15. “Natural simplicity” (pu 樸) and the issue of “desire” (yu 欲) will be taken up in later essays.

[66] Representations of Childhood and Youth in Early China, Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 157.

[67] Xiang 祥, “inauspicious” normally means “auspicious,” but occasionally means the opposite. The Heshanggong commentary (老子河上公章句), written perhaps in the late Han dynasty, proposes that xiang means “long-lasting” (chang 長). Lao 老, “fatigued” in the third last line normally means “old, aged” but the derived meaning of “fatigued, exhausted” is found in the Chunqiu Zuozhuan 春秋左傳 and Hanfeizi in reference to the condition of soldiers after long battles. This is clearly the meaning here. The last line is not included in the Guodian version of this stanza.

[68] The only translators I have found to interpret these two lines in this alternative manner are Richard Wilhelm (1978) and Moss Roberts (2001). Harold Roth translates the first line in a positive way but not the second (The Guodian Laozi: Proceedings of the International Conference, Dartmouth College, May 1998, Sarah Allan and Crispin Williams eds., Early China Special Monograph Series, University of California, Berkley, 2000, p. 157), as does Sarah Queen in her translation of a quote of this passage found in Huainanzi 12 (The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China by John S. Major, Sarah A. Queen, Andrew Seth Meyer and Harold D. Roth, Columbia University Press, 2010, p. 452), and this seems appropriate in the context provided.

[69] In Zhuangzi 8, we find that in the “age of perfect De” (至德之世), the people “were alike in their ‘ignorance,’ their De not departing” (同乎無知,其德不離). This “ignorance” would be a child-like ignorance, that of unprejudiced open-mindedness. Likewise, in Zhuangzi 22, it is said that after engaging in a certain apophatic practice: “you will see with the eyes of a newborn calf” (汝瞳焉如新生之犢).

[70] Ying po 營魄 was taken by the Heshanggong commentator to be another way of saying hun 魂 and po 魄, a pair of souls that came to be regarded as inhabiting every human being. This has been an influential interpretation of this difficult line; however, I do not find it very plausible. For one thing, it is hard to imagine why the author would not just write hunpo 魂魄 if that is what he intended, as it was not an uncommon word or expression. But more importantly, one of the meanings of ying 營, (which admittedly could mean a handful of different things) is “confused, disruptive, troubled, disorderly” and is found in similar contexts with this meaning. For example, in Huainanzi 1 it is assured that although sages are exposed to various exciting stimulants such as music, dance and hunting, “these are unable to disrupt (營) their essential spirit, disorder their vital energy or will, or cause their minds to be enticed so that they lose their true nature” (不足以營其精神,亂其氣志,使心怵然失其情性). In the commentary to Laozi 6, Heshanggong says that the “lungs store the po” (肺藏魄) and the (possibly) Han medical text Huangdi Neijing Lingshu黃帝內經 • 靈樞 says that the “lungs store the breath (qi) and the breath is the dwelling place of the po” (肺藏氣,氣舍魄). This suggests that a breathing practice was involved with supporting or calming one’s po, though the Laozi itself does not explicitly say so. See note #71.

[71] What qi 氣 means here is not clear. The author may be recommending making one’s breathing soft and gentle (rou 柔), like an infant’s, or he may be recommending softening or making more pliant our vital energy. The Huangdi Neijing Suwen 黃帝內經 • 素問 declared that yangqi 陽氣, when soft, nourishes our muscles (yangjin 養筋), which presumably remain soft and pliant, (like an infant’s). Laozi 76 also makes the observation that living things begin soft and flexible and move towards being hard and inflexible. See note #70.

[72] That is, knowledge and action derived from conscious, deliberate and purposeful thinking, as opposed to intuition.

[73] See Michael LaFargue’s The Tao of the Tao Te Ching, p. 61.

[74] Laozi goes on to quote from Laozi 55 discussed in part above.

[75] Alan K.L. Chan’s Two Visions of the Way: A Study of the Wang Pi and the Ho-Shang Kung Commentaries on the Lao-Tzu, SUNY, 1991, p. 143.

[76] As we will later see, the authors of the Zhuangzi place more value on mental equanimity than on physical survival. The “Inner Workings” (Neiye 內業) and “Techniques of the Mind, lower section” (Xinshu xia 心術下) texts (to be discussed below) also have some parallels.

[77] On the other hand, the expression “embrace Oneness” (baoyi 抱一) may indicate that a mystical unitive state of consciousness has been reached through this gentle breathing practice. In the Heshanggong commentary, “One” signifies not union with the Dao, but the “essential energy/breath of supreme harmony” (太和之精氣). See Alan Chan’s Two Visions of the Way, p. 130.

[78] Paul W. Kroll “An Early Poem of Mystical Excursion” in Religions of China in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., Princeton University Press, 1996, p. 160. Cf. Hawkes’ Songs of the South, p. 196.

[79] For example, Wang Chong 王充 discussed something called “corporeal liberation” (shijie 尸解), which he suspected meant that one supposedly emerged anew from one’s corpse, like a cricket leaving its chrysalis (蟬之去復育) whereby one can be considered a Transcendent or Immortal (xianren 仙人). (Lunheng 論衡 24: “Daoist Falsehoods” (Daoxu 道虛). (Cf. Shijie 尸解 entry by Russell Kirkland in The Encyclopedia of Taoism II, Fabrizio Pregadio ed., Routledge, 2007, p. 896-7) A passage in Huainanzi 7 also seems pertinent: “Thus even though the body disappears, the spirit is never transformed into something else … What transforms returns to the Formless; what does not transform is/was born together with Heaven and Earth.” (故形有摩而神未嘗化者 … 化者,復歸於無形也;不化者,與天地俱生也。) (The Huainanzi, p. 251, Roth trans.)

[80] Accordingly, the Qunshu zhiyao 群書治要 (7th century C.E.) records the line as 死而不妄者壽. As seen on many excavated manuscripts found in recent years, the ancient scribes often abbreviated the characters, usually writing just the phonetic component. Here, that would be 亡, leaving later interpreters the difficult task of wondering whether 亡 is the correct character or whether it is an abbreviated form of another word. Those who created the Mawangdui recension decided on 忘, “to forget,” whereas the Heshanggong recension decided upon 妄, “to be reckless.” In a similar way, Wang Zhen 王真 (c. 9th century C.E.) in his Daodejing lunbing yaoyishu 道德經論兵要義述 quoted Laozi 64 to explain: “If you are careful at the end as in the beginning, your affairs will not fail. Is this not longevity?” (慎終如始,則無敗事,非壽而何?). In the Mawangdui text “Nine Rulers” (Jiuzhu 九主) 忘 stands for 妄.

[81] See also Laozi 24.

[82] E.g. Zhuangzi 4 and 20.

[83] Such passages speak against the Mawangdui wording of chapter 33 discussed above: the authors of the Laozi (and Zhuangzi) were not the least concerned with making a name for themselves and being remembered.

[84] The Huainanzi, p. 501, trans. By Sarah Queen, John Major and Michael Puett.

[85] 欲一言而寤,則尊天而保真;欲再言而通,則賤物而貴身;欲參言而究,則外欲而反情。, slightly modified trans. by D.C. Lau and Roger T. Ames in Yuan Dao: Tracing Dao to Its Source, Ballantine Books, 1998, p. 8.

[86] Some writings found in the later chapters of the Zhuangzi and the earlier chapters of the Lüshi Chunqiu are believed by some scholars, like Angus Graham and Harold Roth, to be written by followers of Yang Zhu’s, or so-called “Yangists.” This attribution has some justification, but see Paul Goldin’s review of Roth’s A Companion to Angus C. Graham’s Chuang Tzu (University of Hawai’i Press, 2003) in Early China 28, Society for the Study of Early China, 2003, pp. 204-210. Hanfeizi 50 would appear to offer a criticism of Yang Zhu, for a subject who would not risk his life for material benefit (e.g. reward from his lord) is a useless one, according to Hanfei. Mengzi 3B9 similarly criticizes Yang Zhu for teaching that one has more obligation to oneself than to one’s lord.

[87] The Two Hands of God: The Myths of Polarity, Collier Books, 1963, p. 9.

<[88] Huainanzi 7 paraphrases this chapter when it says, “Why is it that common people are not able to complete the full course of their lives and, along the way, die young by execution? ‘It is because they set too much store in living. Now only those who are able to not make living their concern are able to attain long life’” (夫人之所以不能終其壽命,而中道夭于刑戮者,何也?以其生生之厚。夫惟能無以生為者,則所以得生[長]也。). (Translated by Harold Roth in The Huainanzi, p. 245. This and the Laozi 75 quote could, in fact, be seen as an explicit criticism of Yang Zhu.

[89] Lunheng 24: Daoxu pian 論衡 • 道虛篇; trans. by Alfred Forke, Lun-Hêng: Part I Philosophical Essays of Wang Ch’ung, 1907, p. 346, modified. (This would seem to be based on the Heshanggong commentary to Laozi 54, which contains many of the same terms and phrases.) Aiqi 愛氣 “conserves the vital breath” is my translation, for ai 愛, in addition to meaning “love” or “care for,” also means “to be stingy (with)” or “frugal.” For example, commenting on Laozi 59, the author of Hanfeizi 20 says the one who “cares for his Jingshen” (愛其精神) is what is meant by being frugal (se 嗇). Forke translates it as “cherishes the spirit.”

[90] Ibid. p. 347, modified.

[91] Taoism: The Road to Immortality, Shambhala, 1978, p. 45-6. Donald Harper speculates that “there existed an ancillary literature, either written or oral, to explain the program of cultivation allusively described in the [Laozi].” (“The Sexual Arts of Ancient China as Described in a Manuscript of the Second Century B.C.” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 47.2, 1987, p. 561)

[92] In the Shiji, written as: 僊道; Hanshu: 神僊之道.

[93] Wang regarded Liu An 劉安, the king of Huainan (淮南) to have been one of these people, as were the “scholars of dao techniques” (daoshu zhi shi 道術之士) that he patronized and who contributed to the Huainanzi book. Wang reports that books say that Liu An transcended the world  when he “died.” Wang seems completely unaware of Zhuangzi.

[94] Shiji 63, where Sima Qian says that “apparently” (gai 蓋) Laozi lived 160-plus years, though “some say” (huoyan 或言) he lived over 200 years by means of “nourishing longevity” (yang shou 養壽), whatever that entails.

[95] With the exception of water, when the aforementioned symbols do occur in the Zhuangzi, they are discernibly derived from the Laoist tradition.

[96] As far as I know, this reading is unique, for most translators render 氣也者虛 as declaring the qi itself to be empty. Yet this is not very meaningful in English. An alternative is to translate xu as “amorphous” or “indeterminate” rather than “empty,” and that “fasting the mind” is the practice of attaining a mind filled with amorphous qi in which the Dao can gather. I find this alternative too convoluted. Guo Xiang 郭象 (252-312 C.E.) may have interpreted it the way I have, as he comments that the Dao gathers in the chest (Dao jiyu huai 道集於懷) of one who has “emptied his heart/mind” (xu qi xin 虛其心), (Zhuangzizhu 莊子注). Harold Roth believes that this passage has to do with breathing practice and thus translates 氣也者,虛而待物者也 as “But to focus on the vital breath is to be empty and await the arising of objects” (Original Tao, p. 155).

[97] Erich Fromm once wrote about “being persons” as opposed to “having persons,” who essentially follow this recommended approach, for they “approach a situation by preparing nothing in advance, not bolstering themselves up in any way. Instead, they respond spontaneously and productively; they forget about themselves, about the knowledge, the positions they have. Their egos do not stand in their own way, and it is precisely for this reason that they can fully respond to the other person and that person’s ideas.” (To Have or To Be?, Continuum, 1999, p. 34; originally published in 1976).

[98] Zhuangzi 7 ends with the advice: “Be empty, that is all. Perfect Persons use their minds like mirrors, neither projecting nor anticipating; responding but not holding onto. Therefore, they can overcome things (obstacles) and suffer no harm.”  (虛而已。至人之用心若鏡,不將不迎,應而不藏,故能勝物而不傷。) There is a similar passage in Huainanzi 6 (i.e., 聖人若鏡,不將不迎,應而不藏,故萬化而无傷。). Chris Fraser has recently cautioned, “The text does not imply that the perfected person has simply become a mirror, which automatically, objectively, yet passively reflects its environment without exercising agency—without any input of its own … The emphasis of the metaphor here seems instead to be that the virtuoso responds to situations spontaneously, from a blank, fluid mindset, without fixating on or forming attachments to things” (“Heart-Fasting, Forgetting, and Using the Heart Like a Mirror: Applied Emptiness in the Zhuangzi”; forthcoming in Conceptions of Nothingness in Asian Philosophy, JeeLoo Liu and Doug Berger, eds., Routledge; quoted from page 12 of a pre-print found at http://cjfraser.net/publications/applied-emptiness-in-the-zhuangzi/).

[99] Dai wu 待物 is usually translated as “waits on things,” however, dai could also mean “to react to, to respond to, or to deal with” (Thesaurus Linguae Sericae: http://tls.uni-hd.de/home_en.lasso). For example, Hanfeizi 8 contains a quasi-parallel: “The sage holds onto the important thing, and from all directions they [i.e., the regional rulers] come to make their contributions. Unassertive and empty he is, ready to react sensitively (虛而待之), and quite naturally things will follow his lead” (聖人執要,四方來效。虛而待之,彼自以之。). (Trans. by Christoph Harbsmeier, TLS website). Also, Mengzi 1B11: “The regional rulers have many plans to attack me; how should I respond to them?” (諸侯多謀伐寡人者,何以待之?) The Chuci 楚辭 poem Yuanyou 遠遊 also advises the reader to be empty and thus better able to respond to things (虛以待之).

[100] “Psychological Emptiness in the Zhuāngzǐ” in Asian Philosophy 18:2, 2008 , p. 129.

[101] Written as 庚桑子 in Zhuangzi 23 and Zhuangzi’s brief biography in Shiji 63.

[102] Lai she 來舍 simply means “come to reside/dwell with” or “come to one’s dwelling” and not “reside/dwell within,” though the Xinshu shang’s “ru she 入舍” does denote entering a (metaphorical) dwelling.

[103] Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters, Hackett, 2001, p. 69, (originally published in 1981). Similarly, Lee Yearley affirmed that “people possessed by the daemonic cease to be normal agents, that is agents who manifest either dispositional or reflective drives. Instead, such people are empowered by higher forces, transformed by transcendent drives” (“Zhuangzi’s Understanding of Skillfulness” in Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi, Paul Kjellberg and Philip J. Ivanhoe eds., SUNY, 1996, p. 176). The final line “how much more with other people!” (er kuang ren hu 而況人乎) would appear to support the interpretation of the spirits associating with the adept, as other people surely do not enter inside of the adept as well!

[104] Laozi 41.

[105] This “wordless teaching” (不言之教) is introduced in Laozi 2 and 43, Zhuangzi 5 and 22, Huainanzi 9, Wenzi 2 and 6 and the Chunqiu Fanlu 20 (a Huang-Lao chapter/text). The Guanzi Xinshu xia and Xinshu shang have the corresponding “wordless words”  (buyan zhi yan 不言之言; the Neiye: buyan zhi sheng 不言之聲), as does Lüshi Chunqiu 26.1, where we find: “With earnestness, one’s spirit will respond to others; how can using words compare to this? This is called ‘wordless words’” (誠有之則神應乎人矣,言豈足以諭之哉?此謂不言之言也; Cf. ch. 18). The “dao that was no dao” or the “dao that does not dao” (budao zhi dao 不道之道) is found in Zhuangzi 2 and 24, Huainanzi 1, 6, 8, and 15 and Wenzi 1, 2 and 7. Of course, there is also the enigmatic famous first words of the Laozi: “daos can be dao-ed, but they are not lasting daos” (道可道也,非恆道也).

[106] The Nature of Shamanism: Substance and Function of a Religious Metaphor, SUNY, 1993, p. 66.

[107] I follow Edward Slingerland (Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 183, 316 n27) in believing the passage should be read 唯道集於虛, much like in chapter 20, where we find 鵲 … 集於栗林. Guo Xiang also read it this way, commenting: 虛其心則至道集於懷也。(Zhuangzizhu 莊子注).

[108] Cf. Huainanzi 2 and Wenzi 1: 虛無者,道之舍 and Wenzi 3: 虛無者,道之所居. Compare with the Guanzi: Xinshu shang, which says 德者,道之舍.

[109] Another possibility is that rather than the Dao, the passage refers to a dao, a way of acting, which, in this reading, will only manifest in an empty and open mind. However, the presence of wei 唯, “only,” yields an odd “Only a dao settles in emptiness.”

[110] Huangdi 黃帝, the legendary “Yellow Emperor,” gives this advice in Zhuangzi 22, “Knowledge Wanders North” (Zhi Beiyou 知北遊): “Do not ponder, do not plan – (then you can) begin to understand the Dao; do not stay still and do not undertake endeavours – (then you can) begin to rest in the Dao; do not follow and do not guide – (then you can) begin to apprehend the Dao” (無思無慮始知道,無處無服始安道,無從無道始得道).

[111] An anecdote in chapter 11 advocates some of the same apophatic practice described here, this time as a way of “nourishing” (yang 養) the mind.  The mystical-sounding “(join in the) Great Sameness of oceanic boundlessness” (Datong hu xingming 大同乎涬溟) also occurs. All of the advice given is done reluctantly by the fictitious Hong Meng 鴻蒙, “Vast Delusion,” to persistent questions about how to set the world in order. Several expressions from the Laozi are included in this episode, and Datong 大同 may be the same as or related to Laozi 56’s Xuantong 玄同.

[112] As well, many early sources indicate that students sat (zuo 坐) when learning, (as did the teachers).

[113] Zhuangzi 12: 忘乎物,忘乎天,其名為忘己。忘己之人,是之謂入於天。 Herrlee Creel felt it prudent to point out that the expression zuowang 坐忘 occurs “only in a single passage in the Zhuangzi, not at all in the Laozi, and once in the Huainanzi; the latter is a version of the same incident reported in the Zhuangzi” (“What is Taoism,” JAOS, p. 147 n82). While true, this only suggests that the name “zuowang 坐忘” had not become the accepted name of a specific meditation practice, and not, as he argued, that it was an impertinent or marginal concern/practice. But the apophatic practice, and the connection to forgetting does appear elsewhere, for another example: Zhuangzi 28 contains a parable that ends with “One who achieves the dao forgets his mind” (致道者忘心). See Chris Fraser’s forthcoming paper (“Heart-Fasting, Forgetting, and Using the Heart Like a Mirror: Applied Emptiness in the Zhuangzi” for more on the forgetting motif. For the language of forgetting in the works of non-Chinese mystics, see Robert K.C. Forman’s “Mysticism, Constructivism, and Forgetting” in The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy, Robert Forman ed., Oxford University Press, 1990.

[114] The Taiping Yulan: Meiwang 太平御覽·迷忘 (10th century C.E.) contains an abbreviated version of this anecdote and instead of Da Tong 大通, the “Great Interface” has Da Dao 大道, the “Great Dao.” Chapter 12 of the Huainanzi also contains this anecdote and has “dong yu hua tong 洞於化通” – “reach up to the transforming interface.” The use of hua 化 instead of da 大 does seem appropriate, since Confucius’ concluding remarks refer back to “uniting” (同) / “reaching up to” (洞) and “transforming” (化), the latter of which doesn’t appear in Yan Hui’s explanation in the Zhuangzi version. I have retained the Zhuangzi’s version here, though I am not committed to it. My choice of “interface” for tong 通 is meant to indicate the locus of “penetrating,” “communicating,” and “exchanging” or “circulating,” – all meanings of 通.

[115] An abbreviated version of this dialogue is found in Zhuangzi 24, but Ziqi’s name is written as 南伯子綦: Ziqi of the southern earldom. Bo 伯 is perhaps a phonetic loan, as both it and guo 郭 contain the same vowel and final: i.e., *–ak in Old Chinese. Another variation of his name is Ziqi of the eastern suburb (東郭子綦), in Zhuangzi 27, where he is also the teacher of Yancheng Ziyou 顏成子游, who took nine years to reach the “Great Mystery” (Damiao 大妙).

[116] One modern word for “trance” in Chinese is Shishen 失神, literally “loss of spirit.”

[117] Liezi 4. See also the poem Yuanyou 遠遊 in the Chuci 楚辭, where we find “My spirit darted forth suddenly and did not return; My form withered and decayed, left behind, alone” (神儵忽而不反兮,形枯槁而獨留。), trans. By Michael Puett in To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Divinization in Early China, Harvard University Asia Center, 2002, p. 217.

[118] Huangdi Neijing 黃帝內經: Suwen 素問 and Lingshu 靈樞.

[119] Zhuangzi zhu 莊子注.

[120] Harold Roth refers to the former as an introvertive mystical experience and the latter an extrovertive one (“Bimodal Mystical Experience in the ‘Qiwulun 齊物論’ Chapter of the Zhuangzi 莊子” in Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi, SUNY, 2003, p. 25-6).

[121] Cf. Zhuangzi 5: “De is the cultivation of complete (inner) harmony” (德者成和之脩也). See my paper “The Evolution of the Concept of De 德 in Early China” in Sino-Platonic Papers 235 , 2013.

[122] Cf. Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China.

[123] Chuang-Tzu, p. 135.

[124] The author of Hanfeizi 20, commenting on Laozi 59, claims that the sage, acting from a state of emptiness (xuwu 虛無), “submits to and follows the Daoli” (服從於道理); that is, the patterns of Nature.

[125] Later in the parable we discover that this approach is “inadequate” to deal with difficult or “knotty” (zu 族) sections, wherein he must concentrate further. Interpretation is tricky here though, for although Cook Ding sees (jian 見) the upcoming difficulty, it may be that his spirit is still guiding his hand and does not indicate that he self-consciously tends to the difficult part. Mair translates this part as “I cautiously restrain myself, focus my vision, and slow my motion” (怵然為戒,視為止,行為遲) (Wandering on the Way, Bantam Books, 1994, p. 27); however, the text contains no “I” or “my” to specify agency. Perhaps Ding simply finds himself being cautious and slowing down, and shi wei zhi 視為止 may be read more literally as “perception comes to a stop.”

[126] Huainanzi 7.

[127] Also found in Liezi 2.

[128] The Zhuangzi text has 齊 instead of 齋 for “fast,” which is a common variant/abbreviation. The Taiping Yulan has 齋.

[129] Zhuangzi 19 also tells of a ferryman who could handle a boat with the efficacy of a spirit. He explains that a good swimmer can handle a boat well because he “forgets” (wang 忘) the water, hence “(anxiety) does not obtain entrance to his abode (i.e. mind)” (buderu qi she 不得入其舍). Another story tells of Confucius witnessing a man dive into dangerous waters only to see him emerge safely. Although he denies having a special way (dao), his way in fact involves “following the way of the water and not acting according to his personal goals” (從水之道而不為私). Both of these stories are also found in chapter 2 of the Liezi, which contains more like them. Ronnie Littlejohn has argued that the “extra” stories in Liezi 2 were once likely to have been included in the Zhuangzi – the 52 chapter edition mentioned in the Hanshu – but were later removed by Guo Xiang. See “The Liezi’s Use of the Lost Zhuangzi” in Riding the Wind with Liezi: New Perspectives on the Daoist Classic, Ronnie Littlejohn and Jeffrey Dippmann eds., SUNY, 2011.

[130] Zhuangzi 19, Liezi 2 and Lüshi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋: Quyu 去尤, where it is written as: 外有所重者,泄蓋內掘 (and is introduced by “Zhuangzi says” 莊子曰).

[131] Donald Harper does not believe that “the Zhuangzi’s ideal of the spirit-being as condonation of macrobiotic hygiene or nascent xian [仙] ideas, nor does it necessarily allude to the Zhuangzi’s own program of cultivation. The spirit-being is fashioned to serve as yet another image of perfect freedom which stands in contrast to human endeavors (like the Peng bird which opens “Xiaoyao yu”). The Zhuangzi is concerned with the cultivation of the spirit in connection with matters beyond bodily well-being, long life, and immortality; it does not share the goals of medical macrobiotic hygiene or the xian cult. (Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts, Kegan Paul International, 1998, p. 113).

[132] See Jordan Paper’s The Spirits Are Drunk, SUNY, 1995, p. 133.

[133] This is the infamous “Madman of Chu,” (Chu Kuang 楚狂).

[134] All translators known to me render shenren 神人 here as a singular “spirit-man.” However, later in this episode is reference to the “four masters” (sizi 四子) of the distant Gushe mountains, so I believe the former should be plural.

[135] Lisa Raphals notes that this passage “suggests the view that a realized sage can have a nurturing effect on the world at large by acting at a distance. The Zhuangzi makes no suggestion that these salvic effects are intended; they appear to be a beneficent byproduct of self-cultivation practices.” (“Metic Intelligence or Responsible Non-action? Further Reflections on the Zhuangzi, Daode jing, and Neiye” in Daoism and Ecology, N.J. Girardot, James Miller and Liu Xiaogan eds., Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 309) Nonetheless, these spirit-people and the like are always portrayed as benign. Chapter 12 also has a description of the Shenren 神人, whose “spirits ascend riding the sunlight, with their bodily forms completely extinguished” (上神乘光,與形滅亡); a state referred to as “enlightened and emancipated” (Zhaokuang 照曠).

[136] Similar claims are made of the Zhenren in Zhuangzi 21, the Zhiren 至人 in Zhuangzi 19, and of “one with the Ultimate De” (Zhidezhe 至德者) in Zhuangzi 17. The Huainanzi contains parallel passages with the Zhuangzi, describing Zhenren in chapter 7 and the “one who has obtained the Dao” (dedaozhe 得道者) in chapter 1. Chapter 2 of the Liezi also contains accounts of such extraordinary individuals, including the inhabitants of the “land of the Huaxu clan” (華胥氏之國). Liezi 2 writes “enter water and not drown” (rushui buni 入水不溺), which may be the intended meaning of the Zhuangzi’s rushui buru (入水不濡), “enter water and not get wet.”

[137] Shiji 史記 6, (Qin Shihuang Benji 秦始皇本紀); See Burton Watson’s Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty, Columbia University Press, 1995, p. 56-7 (originally published in 1993). Master Lu’s account of the Zhenren claimed that they “could endure as long as the heavens and earth” (yu Tiandi jiuzhang 與天地久長).

[138] Stephen Eskildsen writes: “In saying that the ‘utmost man’ is impervious to fires, freezing, thunderstorms, and death, the Zhuangzi describes his inner equanimity and freedom. Later Daoist immortality seekers hoped to gain invulnerability at both the spiritual and physical levels, and sought to do so through self-imposed austerities. In their view, the inner virtue acquired through the austerities would somehow be accompanied by the attainment of physical immortality and supernormal powers. The Zhuangzi, however, makes no such promise” (Asceticism in Early Taoist Religion, SUNY, 1998, p. 3, emphasis mine). In the later Daoism, especially the Shangqing 上清 Daoist tradition, practitioners were instructed to visualize themselves undertaking spirit journeys, interacting with internal gods, etc. in the pursuit of self-perfection. See Stephen Eskildsen’s “Mystical Ascent and Out-of-Body Experience in Medieval Daoism” in the Journal of Chinese Religions 35, 2007, The Encyclopedia of Taoism I, pp. 118 ff., and Isabelle Robinet’s Taoist Meditation: The Mao-Shan Tradition of Great Purity, SUNY, 1993.

[139] This anecdote is also found in Liezi 2; see Graham’s The Book of Lieh-tzu, p. 38-9.

[140] Guanyin 關尹 is the person associated with Laozi in Zhuangzi 33 and came to be believed to be the person Laozi transmitted his wisdom to in Shiji 63.

[141] Jordan Paper translates Tonghu 通乎 as “communicate with” instead of “merge with” and thus sees this description being more shamanic than mystical (The Spirits Are Drunk, p. 55). This anecdote is also found in Liezi 2.

[142] Wu 霧 “mist/fog” is something which dragons and shamans traveled in: see the Chuci, Hanfeizi, Huainanzi, Lunheng, and even the Shenzi 慎子.

[143] This appears to be the basis of the account of Zhuangzi in chapter 33: 上與造物者遊,而下與外死生無終始者為友. The latter phrase: “oblivious, drift uncommitted beyond the dust and grime, carefree in working on doing nothing in particular” (芒然彷徨乎塵垢之外,逍遙乎無為之業) is also found in chapter 19, Huainanzi 2 and 7 and Wenzi 2 and 3, with some variant graphs.

[144] Zhuangzi 17. Wei Mou 魏牟 (a.k.a. Elder Zimou 公子牟) explains to the philosopher Gongsun Long 公孫龍 that his intelligence and wisdom was too limited compared to the vast and deep ocean-like understanding of Zhuangzi. Further, Zhuangzi “begins in Dark Profundity (始於玄冥) and returns to the Great Interface (反於大通).”

[145] Nu 女 is the word for woman, and all translators treat this person as an old woman. However, chapter 24 mentions a Nu Shang 女商, which no one treats as a woman. The latter is an expert in the “Confucian” classics and was presumably a Ru 儒 advisor to the marquis of Wei 魏 and thus not likely a woman. So Nu Yu 女偊 here might not be a woman either. I will follow my predecessors in regarding Nu Yu a woman, though I would not use this anecdote for certain proof of the existence of female practitioners of quietism or mysticism in the pre-Han era.

[146] Nu Yu actually says simply “the dao” here, but goes on to specify the dao of the sage (聖人之道).

[147] Reading chaoche 朝徹 as chaoche 朝澈.

[148] Both Victor Mair and Brook Ziporyn translate it as “turmoil,” Paul Kjellberg as “disturbing” and Burton Watson “strife.”

[149] See Harold D. Roth’s A Companion to Angus C. Graham’s Chuang Tzu, University of Hawai’i Press, 2003, p. 27. See also Ian Johnson’s The Mozi: A Complete Translation, Columbia University Press, 2010, p. 430-3.

[150] See Axel Schuessler, ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, University of Hawai’i Press, 2007, p. 575 (for 嬰) and 576 (for 縈).

[151] The Texts of Taoism: Part I, Dover, 1962, p. 246 (originally published in 1891).

[152] Later in this chapter, it is affirmed that “the Dao has never begun to have divisions,” (道未始有封); thus, the experience of oneness is an experience of the Dao.

[153] This seems to be the obvious meaning of the expression “ai zhi suoyi cheng 愛之所以成,” which Watson and Graham translated as “love becomes complete.” Mair and Legge both rightly translated ai 愛 as “preferences” and Ziporyn as “cherishing.”

[154] The qin 琴 is a kind of zither.

[155] Laozi 32.

[156] It is claimed by many that this “spiritual transformation” is a gradual process, requiring numerous experiences, usually through a regular practice of meditation. For example, Ken Wilber writes, “But all of those peak experiences, no matter how profound, are merely temporary, passing, transient states. In order for higher development to occur, those temporary states must become permanent traits. Higher development involves, in part, the conversion of altered states into permanent realizations … This is where meditative states become increasingly important. Unlike natural states (which access psychic, subtle, and causal states in the natural sleep cycle, but rarely while awake or fully conscious) and unlike spontaneous peak experiences (which are fleeting), meditative states access these higher realms in a deliberate and prolonged fashion. As such, they more stably disclose the higher levels of the Great Nest, higher levels that eventually become, with practice, permanent realizations.” (Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy, Shambhala, 2000, p. 15-16).

[157] Huainanzi 18, “Among the People” (Renjian 人間).

[158] These terms are used in Zhuangzi 17.

[159] This is explored thoroughly in Mark Csikszentmihalyi’s Material Virtue: Ethics and the Body in Early China, Brill, 2004.

[160] Paul Goldin, “A Mind-Body Problem in the Zhuangzi?” in Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi, SUNY, 2003, pp. 226—247.

[161] Romain Graziani discusses this in his “The Subject and the Sage: Exploring the Self in Early Chinese Self-Cultivation” in John Lagerwey and Mark Kalinowski’s Early Chinese Religion: Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), Brill, 2009, p. 508—511. I am skeptical about his position on the supposedly pre-Zhuangzi  archaic view that gifted individuals were deformed, for his source texts are late in date (Cf. ibid. p. 505—507).

[162] Additionally, we also have Laozi 55’s “Augmenting one’s vitality can be called inauspicious” (yi sheng yue xiang 益生曰祥), mentioned earlier.

[163] Zhuangzi’s praise of uselessness (wuyu 無用, bucai 不材) also serves to realize this goal. Although the Zhuangzi encourages the reader to accept the inevitability of death and to refuse to regard death as something to be feared, there are a number of anecdotes like those which show Zhuangzi refusing to take public office on grounds that, like a tortoise or ox, he would rather be alive and unencumbered. This suggests that his acceptance of death pertained primarily to a natural death, and he would refuse any disposition, course of conduct, or career which would jeopardize living out one’s natural years.

[164] Huainanzi 14 contains a parallel passage: 故廣成子曰:「慎守而內,周閉而外。多知為敗,毋視毋聽。抱神以靜,形將自正。不得之己而能知彼者,未之有也。」

[165] The folly of the preoccupation with “preserving one’s life” (cunsheng 存生) is addressed in Zhuangzi 19 and it is asserted that “If affairs are abandoned then the body will not toil. If we set aside our preoccupation with life then the vital essence will not diminish. Now if the body’s energies are kept intact and the vital essence is restored then you become one with the heavens” (棄事則形不勞,遺生則精不虧。夫形全精復,與天為一。) (Roth, Original Tao, p. 171).

[166] A parable in chapter 12, “Heaven and Earth” (Tiandi 天地), similarly describes a true sage (shengren 聖人) as one who, after thousands of years (qian sui 千歲), when he finally wearies of the world, “ascends (as an xian-transcendent?), mounting upon white clouds until he arrives at the Village of God” (上僊,乘彼白雲,至于帝鄉).

[167] Most translators regard xiu 修 as referring to self-cultivation here. Both are mutually-entailing, in my opinion. They endorsed repairing the world through the cultivation of morality and etiquette.

[168] I translate gu 故 as “contrivance” here, following a suggestion made by Glen Dudbridge to Matthias Richter cited in Richter’s “Cognate Texts: Technical Terms as Indicators of Intertextual Relations and Redactional Strategies” in Asiatische Studien 56, 2002, p. 552 n6. Cf. Ibid pp. 551-7.

[169] Harold Roth lists a number of terms that he maintains date the Neiye to the 4th century B.C.E. in Original Tao, p. 213 n45. These (I believe) derive from his “Redaction Criticism and the Early History of Taoism” in Early China 19 (1994) which I have not seen and am unable and possibly unqualified to judge. As already mentioned in my Zhuangzi essay (quoting Carrozza’s “A Critical Review of the Principal Studies on the Four Manuscripts Preceding the B Version of the Mawangdui Laozi”), using terms to date texts is of limited value. Moreover, the Guanzi is marred by many corruptions and “corrections” and no scholar has tried to translate the text without making innumerable emendations, making knowing the original language/vocabulary even more tenuous.

[170] Harold Roth flatly asserts “There is little doubt that these texts [all of the Xinshu chapters] were written by Daoists at Jixia,” (Original Tao,  p. 25) yet there is very little evidence to support such a stance.

[171] The passage that mentions this is also found in the Xinshu xia and, put into the mouth of Laozi, in chapter 23 of the Zhuangzi.

[172] Harold Roth has downplayed the political application of inner cultivation that exists in the Neiye. While it is not as prevalent as in the other Xinshu texts and related texts like the Laozi and the Huainanzi, it is still there. See Yuri Pines’ Envisioning Eternal Empire : Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era, University of Hawai’i Press, 2009, pp. 39-41. This (relative) lack of political application of inner cultivation practice serves to support Roth’s belief that the Neiye pre-dates the Laozi. Roth has argued that this political application must logically come after the inner cultivation tradition developed (Original Tao, p. 187). This is no doubt true, but that does not mean that after this was done, all cultivators applied it to governing. Those who assembled the Neiye could have remained largely disengaged from politics, leaving that application for others to elaborate on.

[173] The Chinese text of the Guanzi I use includes the emendations that W. Allyn Rickett (Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China, Vol. II, Princeton University Press, 1998) and others have made to this very corrupt text. For example, in this passage I accept the emendation of 處 for 愛.

[174] By this, I do not mean to suggest that the Dao-as-cosmic-ancestor is a static entity: it is clearly dynamic. But there is little indication in the Laozi (or the Zhuangzi) that the Dao can enter or exit a person’s heart-mind. The Neiye does contain passages that speak of the Dao in similar ways to the Laozi as well, yet, as Harold Roth acknowledges “there is virtually nothing in the Laozi to parallel the concrete representation of the Way in terms of the early physiological concepts of vital energy and vital essence found in Inward Training [Neiye]. Perhaps also related to this is the strong emphasis on the mind and on the practice of inner cultivation in Inward Training, an emphasis with few parallels in the Laozi” (Original Tao, p. 147).

[175] Tao and Method, SUNY, 1994, p. 181-4. Allyn Rickett suggests that the different usage of terms occurs because each of the various stanzas existed as an independent unit before being assembled together in the Neiye (Guanzi Vol. II, p. 28-9; Cf. p. 30 n37). Presumably, this fluid use of terms is due to multiple authorship.

[176] Ibid. p. 184-5.

[177] See also Laozi 16 discussed above, with its instruction on being empty and still.

[178] We also find in the Neiye: “There is a spirit naturally existing in the body, sometimes leaving and sometimes arriving: none can comprehend it. If lost, (one’s mind) will certainly be disordered; if obtained, (one’s mind) will certainly be ordered” (有神自在身,一往一來,莫之能思。失之必亂,得之必治。). This talk of “a” spirit entering (and exiting) an abode is explained later to metaphorically refer to a guest house (guan 館) receiving an esteemed guest and not of a spirit entering into a spirit medium. This does not mean, however, that there is no connection to mediumism or the rites or procedures they went through in preparation for becoming a suitable vessel. Angus Graham felt that the meditation practice in these texts descended from shamanic trance (Disputers of the Tao, pp. 100, 104.) For a position contrary to Graham’s, see Michael Puett’s To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Divinization in Early China, p. 116.

[179] Although the Laozi speaks often of De 德, it does not suggest anything like the Neiye’s prescription to “daily renew” (rixin 日新) it. The Lüshi Chunqiu’s “Placing Oneself First” (Xianji 先己) recommends daily renewing one’s essential energies (Jingqi 精氣), further supporting Rickett’s, LaFargue’s and others’ view that these terms are interchangeable in (multi-authored) texts like these and resist systematic explanation.

[180] Neiye.

[181] In some places in the text it refers explicitly to the “one word” or “one teaching” (yiyan 一言). Yi can mean one, single, whole, concentrate, uniform, identical, etc. Harold Roth argues for the mystical interpretation, (Original Tao, p. 115-118 and p. 138-142), though the passages are complex. “Preserve the One and discard all disturbances” (shouyi er qi wanke 守一而棄萬苛) may refer to a state of mystical union with the Dao; however, this is immediately followed by “(you can then) see profit and not be enticed, see harm and not be anxious” (見利不誘,見害不懼), both of which one would not “see” while having a unitive experience. “Preserving the One” thus may instead mean preserving a calm and focussed (yi 一) mental state while interacting with the phenomenal world. The same is true of the passage urging the reader/practitioner to “grasp the One (and) do not lose it” (zhiyi bushi 執一不失). Nevertheless, I would not like to argue strongly against the possibility that practitioners experience a unitive experience with the Dao.

[182] Angus Graham suggests just this: “This may well be the earliest Chinese interpretation of the experience of mystical oneness. In opening myself to the inflow from outside I become the quintessential which as the purest and most freely circulating qi pervades and unifies everything in the universe, and my insight into things meets no obstruction anywhere” (Disputers of the Tao, p. 102).

[183] Shiji 130 : 道家 … 因陰陽之大順,采儒墨之善,撮名法之要 …. Perhaps this can be explained by viewing it as a rhetorical claim intended to show the superiority of Daojia.

[184] Lunheng 論衡: Shujie 書解.

[185] Lunheng: Daoxu 道虛.

[186] The Huainanzi, Columbia University Press, 2010, p. 32

[187] Yuan Dao: Tracing Dao to its Source, Ballantine Publishing, 1998, p. 7. For a dissenting opinion, see Sarah Queen, “Inventories of the Past: Rethinking the “School” Affiliation of the Huainanzi” in Asia Major 14.1, 2001, who writes that the Huainanzi’s authors “never aligned themselves with any one tradition” (p. 52). But it is unclear what would count as evidence of alignment. The Zhuangzi has more parallel passages than any other text in the Huainanzi and Laozi or the Laozi is (explicitly) treated as an undisputed authority. However, she is right to call into question the affiliation of the Huainanzi, and makes a number of good points in this and other works.

[188] The Huainanzi, p. 248, Harold Roth trans.

[189] See Graham’s Chuang-Tzu, p. 187, and his defense of his interpretation on p. 186. The line “Untrammelled, they travel outside this dusty world and wander aimlessly in their taskless calling,” is also found in chapter 6 and 19 of the Zhuangzi.

[190] We may recall that in the last essay on Dao, Huainanzi 14 defined the Zhenren as “those who can return to that from which they were born, as if they had not yet acquired physical form” (能反其所生,若未有形) and “those who have not yet begun to differentiate from the Grand One” (未始分於太一者也) (The Huainanzi p. 537, Queen trans.)

[191] The Huainanzi, pp. 248-50, Roth trans.

[192] However fitting, the phrase “not the practices of those who polish the mind” (bu yi gu xin 不以滑心) should be regarded as speculative, for gu xin 滑心 appears elsewhere in the Huainanzi meaning “confuse the mind.”

[193] The Huainanzi, p. 250-1, Roth trans.

[194] We may recall that Sima Qian reported (Shiji 63) that in his time Laozi had a reputation for having lived well over a century by means of “cultivating Dao” (xiu dao 脩道) and “nurturing longevity” (yang shou 養壽), but unfortunately doesn’t indicate what that entails or means.

[195] The Huainanzi p. 414, Andrew Meyer trans.

[196] This practice may be the precursor of qigong 氣功.

[197] Another text that describes a breathing practice and deals with qi 氣, jing 精, and shen 神 is the “Ten Questions” (Shiwen 十問), an excavated bamboo text found at Mawangdui 馬王堆. The concern is again longevity and is sought by the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi). Donald Harper has discussed the relevant passage (Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts, Kegan Paul International, 1998, p. 146-7) as has Michael Puett (To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-divinization in Early China, p. 209-10), though Thomas Cleary’s translation also shows some insight into the practice (The Taoist Classics, Volume One, Shambhala, 2003, p. 422).

[198] A passage in Huainanzi 20 reads: “Wang Qiao and Chi Song removed themselves from the milieu of polluting filth and left the dust of the world behind. They inhaled the harmony of yin and yang, imbibed the essence of Heaven and Earth, breathing out and expelling the stale, breathing in and inhaling the new. Dancing in the void they lightly rose up, riding on clouds and floating on fog. You could say they nurtured their natures …” (王喬、赤松去塵埃之間,離群慝之紛,吸陰陽之和,食天地之精,呼而出故,吸而入新,蹀虛輕舉,乘雲遊霧,可謂養性矣 …) (The Huainanzi p. 809-810, Sarah Queen and John Major trans.)

[199] Wang also reports that Wang Qiao was known for abstaining from consuming grains (piqu 辟穀) and that this aided him and others like him in becoming immortals/transcendents (Xianren 仙人) (Lunheng 24).

[200] Lunheng 85, 自紀篇. His book was called “Nurturing Life/Nature” (yangxing 養性), in 16 pian. Huainanzi 20 says Wang Qiao’s and Chi Songzi’s practices also involved yangxing 養性.

[201] Hanshu 72. Another example is found in Yan’s commentary to Laozi 55: “not acting purposely to be empty, yet emptiness arises of itself; not acting purposely to be still, yet stillness manifests of itself; not (purposely) resting one’s spirit, yet the spirit settles of itself; not (purposely) harmonizing one’s vital energies, yet the vital energies balance themselves” (不為虛而虛自起,不為靜而靜自生,不休神而神自定,不和氣而氣自平。)

[202] The Huainanzi, p. 103, Roth trans.

[203] The Huainanzi, 101, Roth trans.

[204] The Huainanzi p. 255-6, Roth trans. Slightly modified.

[205] Or, “the will is the highest, the vital energy comes next.”

[206]  Or “With a firm control of one’s will, one’s vital energy will not be unruly.”

[207]> The alternative and positive interpretation of Laozi’s 心使氣曰強 – “the mind being in control of one’s vital energy is called possessing inner strength,” mentioned earlier, would find full support from the Mengzi presented here.

[208] Following the emendation by D.C. Lau in Mencius: A Bilingual Edition, The Chinese University Press, 2003, p. 62 (first edition published in 1984)

[209] Highly modified trans. by D.C. Lau, Mencius, p.63.

[210] Mengzi, Hackett Publishing, 2008, p. xxxix.

[211] “Casuistry and Character in the Mencius, Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations, Alan K.L. Chan ed. University of Hawai’i Press, 2002, p. 201.

[212] Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 85-6; originally published in 1956.

[213] Alan K.L. Chan doesn’t agree with the mystical reading, writing: “Ethics and spirituality are not mutually exclusive; nevertheless, the concept of a transcendent ego remains alien to Mengzi, and haoranzhiqi arises out of ‘accumulated rightness,’ not meditation or mystical contemplation.” (“A Matter of Taste: Qi (Vital Energy) and the Tending of the Heart (Xin) in Mencius 2A2” in Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations, Alan K.L. Chan ed. University of Hawai’i Press, 2002, p. 58)

[214] Chapter 19 of the Laozi also proposed “discarding righteousness” (qi yi 棄義).

[215] Xunzi 17.

[216] Xunzi 21.

[217] Translation based on John Knoblock, Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works, Vol. III, Books 17-32, Stanford University Press, 1994, p. 104.

[218] E.g. the Shenzi 申子, the GuanziXinshu xia” 管子 • 心術下.

[219] Funny enough, a story in chapter 3 of the Liezi tells of a certain Huazi 華子 who suffered from, or in his view, was blessed by, chronic forgetting or amnesia. See Graham’s translation on pages 70-72 of his The Book of Lieh-tzu.

[220] See Chris Fraser’s examination of this Zhuangzi 7 passage in “Psychological Emptiness in the Zhuangzi,” p. 136-7.

[221] I find much confusion in the understanding of this notion of yi 壹. Lee Yearley explained: “Although the mind receives a variety of things, it contains and distinguishes among those separable items; therefore it can be called unified. This claim is more subtle, but essentially the idea is just that the mind contains separate, diverse objects … Through its unity one masters the Way – that is, one sees a diversity of elements, but keeps them separate and in proper order” (“Hsün Tzu on the Mind: His Attempted Synthesis of Confucianism and Taoism” in the Journal of Asian Studies, 39.3, 1980, p. 471-2). I fail to understand why this is characterized as Unity, however. Later, he describes it more in the sense of focusing: “As unified, it can distinguish among things and yet choose to unify itself around particular objects or tasks” (ibid. p. 472, italics mine). Angus Graham felt that “Xunzi holds that knowledge depends on differentiation but that the heart must nonetheless remain basically one to unify its knowledge however diverse, not accepting one item at the cost of another” (Disputers of the Tao p. 253). But surely Xunzi rejected some things and accepted others. Kim-chong Chong writes: “Knowledge involves the capacity to distinguish between things and to perceive different aspects of things. The heart-mind is not split or paralyzed by these distinctions and differences. Xunzi refers to this as the capacity for “unity.” In other words, the heart-mind has the capacity to make sense of distinctions and differences, and to cope with them in one way or another” (Early Confucian Ethics: Concepts and Arguments, Open Court, 2007, p. 118). Finally, Aaron Stalnaker regards yi 壹 to be referring to the mind’s ability to become “unified in its handling and synthesis of diverse ideas and experiences” (“Aspects of Xunzi’s engagement with early Daoism” in Philosophy East and West 53.1, 2003, p. 107) and again, “Without ‘unity’ no one could understand complex phenomena, whether social or natural, nor could anyone deliberate effectively on practical matters with distant consequences, nor could one focus sufficiently on the Confucian Way to succeed in remaking one’s innate impulses in a more suitable, sagely form.” (p. 108) Except for the last part regarding focusing on the Confucian way, he seems to be arguing that one needs to synthesize and maintain a unified picture of the world, a worldview that leaves nothing out and where there is no dissonance or conflicts it in. I am not so sure Xunzi is making this point. I find interpreting yi 壹/一 as the ability to focus one’s attention to be more apt.

[222]> Zhuangzi 4, Confucius-Yan Hui anecdote.

[223]> Xunzi 2, “Self-Cultivation” Xiushen 修身.

[224]> Hanshu Yiwenzhi 漢書 • 藝文志.

[225] Or perhaps one or more proto-Laozis, for there is no evidence that a complete 81-chapter Laozi existed at the times these commentaries were written. (See Sarah Queen a “Han Feizi and the Old Master: A Comparative Analysis and Translation of Han Feizi Chapter 20, “Jie Lao,” and Chapter 21, “Yu Lao” in the Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei, Paul R. Goldin ed., Springer, 2013, p. 203-4.

[226] See Hagop Sarkissian “Laozi: Re-visiting Two Early Commentaries in the Hanfeizi” M.A. Thesis, University of Toronto, 2001, Sarah Queen’s “Han Feizi and the Old Master: A Comparative Analysis and Translation of Han Feizi Chapter 20, “Jie Lao,” and Chapter 21, “Yu Lao,” (in the Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei, ed. By Paul R. Goldin, Springer, 2013) and Tae Hyun Kim “Other Laozi Parallels in the Hanfeizi” in Sino-Platonic Papers 199, March 2010, 47-9. Wiebke Denecke’s The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Thought from Confucius to Han Feizi, (Harvard University Asia Center, 2010) makes a respectable case for Hanfei’s authorship of the Jie Lao chapter (pp. 288-300), but I remain unconvinced. How and why these two commentaries were incorporated into the Hanfeizi remains an intractable question.

[227] Buyong 不用 “remaining useless” is tentative, for while 不用 literally means “to not use,” it is not clear what the author is suggesting. Perhaps yong is an abbreviation of yongli 用力, “expend effort” or ziyong 自用, “to act wilfully” or “be opinionated.”

[228] I count this as evidence calling into question Hanfei’s authorship, as he was not a champion of these virtues and preferred ruling with rewards-and-punishment (shangfa 賞罰) (see, e.g., chapter 14 Jian Jie Shi Chen 姦劫弒臣). Denecke argues that Hanfei supports the virtues of ren, yi and li because they help maintain “social distinctions and proper hierarchies,” (The Dynamics of Maters Literature, p. 293 ff.), but if true, we should expect him to defend them elsewhere in text, but we do not. Sarkissian argues that this demonstrates a Mengzian 孟子 influence on the author, whom he does not believe to be Hanfei (“Laozi: Re-visiting Two Early Commentaries in the Hanfeizi,” p. 66-8).

[229] Yi 意 does not really mean “mind” but rather ideas, awareness, intention, etc. However, I think “mind” captures the sense best here.

[230] My translation has benefited from those of Hagop Sarkissian, Sarah Queen and Randall Peerenboom (Law and Morality in Ancient China, p. 151).

[231] 上德無為而無不為 is the form of this line found in Hanfeizi 20 and a few other texts, but more often appears as 上德無為而無以為, which I translate as “One with Superior De does not act/interfere and lacks reasons to act/interfere.” (See my “The Evolution of the Concept of De 德 in Early China, Sino-Platonic Papers #235, 2013, p. 52.

[232]  Law and Morality in Ancient China, 320 n13.

[233] This “final step” is addressed more frequently in the Daoist-influenced Buddhist tradition of Chan or Zen 禪. The Huainanzi and Laozi Zhigui also address this issue: “If I constantly want to reside in emptiness, then I cannot become empty. If I do not make myself empty and become empty spontaneously, none of my goals will not be met.” (常欲在於虛,則有不能為虛矣。若夫不為虛而自虛者,此所慕而不能致也。, Huainanzi 11, translated by Andrew Meyer in The Huainanzi, p. 417); “not acting purposely to be empty, yet emptiness arises of itself; not acting purposely to be still, yet stillness manifests of itself…” (不為虛而虛自起,不為靜而靜自生 …), Laozi Zhigui. (A shorter version of the Huainanzi passage is found in Wenzi 文子 3.13.18: 欲在於虛,則不能虛,若夫不為虛,而自虛者)