Taoist Meditation: Methods for Cultivating a Healthy Mind and Body
Translated and compiled by Thomas Cleary
Publisher: Shambala Publications, Boston
ISBN–13 978–1–57062–567–1 (paperback)
Thomas Cleary is one of the foremost translators of Taoist and Buddhist texts, known for his simple, clear style and for the depth of his insight. In this small book he presents a selection of six classic Taoist texts on meditation. In these texts the reader is introduced to various ways that Taoist mystics have described meditation and the way of life that supports spiritual development. Familiarity with Taoist literature is useful for understanding these works. But spiritual seekers of any cultural background will find here valuable suggestions for living in harmony and balance, for stilling the mind, and for returning to the celestial source. The Treatise on Sitting and Forgetting emphasizes the simplicity of meditation, clearing the mind, and stilling the body. Written by Sima Chengzhen of the Tang dynasty (618–907), this text describes a method of meditation called “sitting and forgetting” or “sitting in forgetfulness.” Sitting quietly and calmly, one “forgets” everything that distracts from reality – the body, other people, things – and “remembers” the One.
When sitting and forgetting, what is not forgotten? Inwardly you do not notice your own body; outwardly you are not aware of the universe. As you mystically unite with the Way, myriad cogitations all disappear.
In the stillness of meditation one forgets those things that destroy our peaceful rediscovery of the Tao (the Way). The mind rests, and the spirit opens to oneness.
As serenity and simplicity develop day by day, worldly defilement lessens day by day. As your behavior departs further and further from the mundane, your mind becomes closer and closer to the Way. Which of the sages and saints did not get there by this route? The classic says, “Close your eyes, shut your doors, and you do not toil all your life.”
The author explains that confusion and ignorance of the mind come from the ground the mind rests on. It is necessary to sit calmly, collect the mind, detach from objects, and dwell in nothingness. Getting out of the wheel of birth and death actually depends on this practice. He offers three precepts to guide the practitioner: simplifying involvements, not craving anything, and quieting the mind. “If you diligently practice these three precepts without flagging, then even if you have no mind to seek the Way, the Way will come of itself.”
The Sayings of the Taoist Master Danyang is an anthology of beautiful sayings on enlightenment by a famous Taoist wizard of the Song dynasty (960–1279).
Master Danyang says “If you practice conscious, deliberate exercises, these are limited techniques. If you practice the principle of mindless noncontrivance, this is unlimited clear emptiness.” Noncontrivance, or cultivating an “uncontrived” state of mind, is an important concept in both Taoism and Buddhism. He explains:
Noncontrivance means not musing or mulling. Though you may act in the midst of love, desire, anger, accumulation, gain, and loss, be always uncontrived. Even when involved in things, be always unconcerned. If you concentrate totally, moreover, clarify your mind and purify your will, nourish your energy and make your spirit complete, you will drift into the land of freedom and enter the village of nothing-whatsoever.
He explains that “The substance of the Way is no mind, the application is forgetting words.” But, he adds, “Mindlessness, or no mind, does not mean being mindless like cats or dogs or bugs. It means striving to keep the mind in the realm of clear purity, and having no warped mind.” The effort to keep the mind in “the realm of clear purity” requires ever-present awareness. Without this effort at awareness, compulsive action scatters the energy and the musing, mulling mind dims the spirit:
The energy in the body should not be scattered, the spirit in the mind should not be dimmed. How do you avoid scattering energy? By not acting compulsively. How do you avoid dimming the spirit? By not keeping things on your mind.
Secret Records of Understanding the Way is a rare and remarkable collection of talks by an anonymous Taoist known only by a devotional name. This appears to be the work of the late Qing dynasty (1644–1911).
The author advises, “Strive to break through material form, empty your body and mind, and become lively and fluid.” He explains that it is possible to mix with society without being infected by materialism. “Develop your character in relation to the outside world as much as you can.”
I have explained the mechanisms of mysticism … in hopes that each individual may find out what it is to be human, and return home, to permanent realization of the state of fulfillment of higher development.…
He assures the seeker that, as long as one doesn’t stop walking, one will eventually reach the peak. There is no need to run. What is essential is sincerity:
True practice is total sincerity. It is not a matter of avoiding the world or leaving society. And neither does it depend entirely on deliberate sitting and reciting scriptures. The essential thing is to refine away the false within the true….
Secret Writings on the Mechanisms of Nature is a collection of excerpts from 163 sources. Here we have admonitions and instructions of great Taoist luminaries describing meditation, spiritual alchemy, Yin and Yang, the value of emptying the mind, and lifting the attention to the mystic pass. For example, Master Shouyang says:
When you go into retreat to work on the path of return, you should sit straight in a quiet room and turn your awareness inward. Congeal the spirit on the ground of the gateway of life, aware but not fixated, conscious of it at first, then afterward forgetting it. Empty the mind and solidify the spirit, not sticking to material form yet not falling into empty oblivion. With open awareness undimmed, consciously nurture silent shining.
He explains that before you realize it, positive energy arises ecstatically, and you are as if intoxicated.
Zhang Sanfeng’s Taiji Alchemy Secrets presents the teachings of a semi–mythological alchemist of the Ming dynasty. In spiritual alchemy, once the human mentality is set aside, the celestial mind comes back. Once human desires are purified, the celestial design is always present. The process of spiritual development is likened to the transformation from iron to gold. This text can be hard to decode, as the process of spiritual development is spelled out in minute detail, step-by-step, using elaborately symbolic language, such as, “When spirit enters energy, it forms an embryo; when energy cleaves to spirit, it crystallizes the alchemical pill.” The Anthology on the Cultivation of Realization, by an unknown author, was discovered and published in 1739. It appears to be of the Ming Dynasty.
The author says that selflessness, objectivity and clarity lead to correct action:
Superior people observe things in terms of principle – right or wrong, good or bad, they deal with them accordingly. This is called selflessness. Selflessness results in objectivity; objectivity results in clarity. Clarity results in dealing with events accurately and comprehending the nature of things.
Each of the texts in this book has its own character. Some are written in complicated symbolic language, and others are utterly simple. Some make observations about physical health, and others focus on spiritual development through meditation. But overall the book impresses on the reader one indelible message – that the disciple is responsible to guard and control his mind and bodily habits to support his meditation effort, while still maintaining harmony in his daily life.
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