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Dao: History and Meaning
Mar 31, 2021

Reading time 12 min.

Different forms of contemplative practices have been one of the key elements in Daoist tradition. This essay will appear in four parts dealing with:

1. History and definition of contemplation in Daoist texts

2. Contemplative practices and concept of body-mind

3. Contemplation and dietary practices

4. Contemplation and art of medicine

In these short essays I define contemplative practices, look historical relevance and how has it affected the development Chinese medicine and what does it has to do with ideals of art of medicine. Some concepts presented might no longer fit to current understanding of Chinese medicine, but they have played consequential role in formulation of ideas and have been influential cultural context for ancient doctors who wrote some of the foremost classics of Chinese medicine. While reading these essays please keep in mind, that heart and mind are same word (xīn 心) in Chinese.

Defining Daoist contemplation

To be able to track down history of contemplative practices we first need to be able to define what we mean by contemplation. Modern practitioners usually prefer to use trendy terms like mindfulness often defined as conscious awareness and non-judgmental acceptance. While this might work well for some forms of practices, for more historical study we have to to rely on Daoist and Chinese Buddhist terms, definitions and context.

Mindfulness research literature often takes terms sati (Pāli) and smṛti (Sanskrit), which directly translates to Chinese niàn 念, to mean contemplation and mindfulness. Niàn means memory or recollection; to think on or to reflect upon something; to read or study. In Daoist context this term can be used for studying scriptures and contemplating or holding an object or idea in mind. Sometimes this is done by concentrating on a deity.

However, most of the Daoist texts use term guān 觀 in Chinese literature. It translates to looking and observing. Very often it is used in connection with word nèi 內 which means inner or internal to denote the nature and direction of observation. Therefore nèiguān 內觀 could be translated as inner observation. Nèiguān also serves as literal translation of Buddhist concepts of vipassanā (Pāli or vipaśyanā in Sanskrit). Inner contemplation or nèiguān is set of practices where one directs his awareness within himself. In different types and stages of the practice object of awareness can be body as whole or some part like an organ. Object can be an emotion and how it is experienced within body-mind in level qì or energy. Many of these techniques concentrate on breathing. Some of the breathing meditations are similar to what is described in Buddhist Ānāpānasati Sutta (Pāli) or Ānāpānasmṛti Sūtra (Sanskrit). However Daoist practitioners often start their practice by concentrating on subtleties of breathing felt on lower abdomen instead the mindfulness of breathing itself.

The aim of contemplation has usually been, especially in Daoist practice, to be able to slowly shift ones attention to mind itself. This is usually seen as the key element of the practice in Daoist context as the “real” contemplation is apophatic in nature, striving to attain total emptiness and complete negation or detachment from desires, concepts and contents of the mind. This emptiness is obtained by silencing the mind with sustained non-interfering observation or Nèiguān. The famous Qīngjìngjīng 清靜經 explains:

能遣之者,内觀於心,心無其心;外觀於形,形無其形;遠觀於物,物無其物。三者既悟,唯見於空。觀 空以空,空無所空。所空既無,無無亦無。無無既無,湛然常寂。寂無所寂,慾豈能生?慾既不生, 即是真靜。

“These [desires] can be removed by internally contemplating the heart (mind). The heart is not this heart. Externally contemplating form. The form is not this forms. From distance contemplating things. These things are not these things. After these three have been realized and [you are] just seeing these as emptiness, contemplate this emptiness with emptiness. Emptiness does not exists in emptiness. In [this] emptiness there is still [further] non-existence. Non-existence of non-existence is also non-existing. [When] non-existence of non-existence is non-existing, there is deepest and eternal stillness. In stillness [where even] stillness does not exists, how could desires arise? When desires cannot arise, it is true peace.”

Despite the epilogue by Gě Xuán 葛玄 (164–244) who attributed the text to goddess Xīwángmǔ 西王母, in reality the text is probably written during early Tang-dynasty (618 – 907)[1]. The wording is clearly influenced by Buddhism but it gives the essential idea about contemplative practice and its apophatic nature. Following this nature we can start tracing contemplative practices through history. This nature is crucial for understanding continuation of the practice, its ideals and importance to Chinese medical and philosophical culture.

Early views and history of contemplative practices in China

Nèiguān practices that flourished in China during Tang-dynasty (618 – 907) are usually thought to have their origin in Buddhism. Buddhism started spreading to China during the 2nd century CE and one of the most well known Buddhist missionaries during the time was Ān Shìgāo 安世高 (c. 148 – 180) who translated Buddhist texts to Chinese language[2]. Among these texts there was also Ānāpānasati Sutta containing outlines of same idea used in practice of nèiguān. But even before that the practice was already well known in China. One of the oldest and synonymous expression to nèiguān is kǎonèishēn 考內身 which can be found from scripture titled Báixīn 白心 or Purifying the mind. In Báixīn there is a passage which says:


“Desires and affections [arise from] our own body. First we understand our emotions, ruling sentiments and six harmonies by looking inside the body. Then we’ll know images after which we understand movement of emotions. By knowing movement of emotions we then understand cultivation of life (yǎngshēng).”

I translate kǎonèishēn here as looking inside the body. It might have been more easily understood by Western readers of spiritual practices, if I had translated it to inspecting inner bodies but that might be a bit stretching for context of early Daoist texts. Therefore the word body (shēn 身) needs bit clarification. The view of body in many archaic Chinese texts was much more broad than our modern use of the word. It was not just torso with four limbs but more a vessel composed of and containing different energies, spiritual influences and essence (jīng 精). It was seen intimately connected to time and world around us. I’ll come back to nature of body-mind in next part but the important thing here is that Báixīn gives advice to turn our attention into our body-minds to become aware of emotions and mental images. Báixīn also belongs to the earliest texts using term yǎngshēng or cultivating life which later formed a central concept in many medical and religious practices.

Báixīn dates back to 285 – 235 B.C. being from last period of Jìxià Academy (Jìxià xuégōng 稷下學宮)[3]. It is included in collection of political and philosophical texts named Guǎnzǐ 管子. The collection contains three other meditative texts namely Xīnshù shàng 心術上, Xīnshù xià 心術下 and Nèiyè 內業. Both Xīnshù texts speak of emptiness of the heart or mind. “Empty it (mind) from desires and Shén (Spirit) enters its domain. Clean from impure and Shén will remain in its place.” (《心術上》:虛其欲,神將入舍。掃除不潔,神乃留處。)

Xīnshù texts expand the ideas presented in older text called Nèiyè and transform individual meditation practice to fit the fields of economics and politics. They advocate importance of contemplative mindfulness practice to rulers and bureaucrats. The ideal ruler must remain detached from confusion of emotions and doubts. Their mind must remain clear in order to rule efficiently. Xīnshù xià states that:

心安,是國安也。心治,是國治也。… 治心在於中,治言出於口,治事加於民;故功作而民從,則 百姓治矣。

“When mind is peaceful nation is at peace. When mind is governed nation is [under] governance…When governed mind stays at its center and controlled words come out of mouth then governed actions are guiding the subjects. Thus good results are achieved and people will follow. In this way the common people are governed.”

Many texts from Huáng-Lǎo School promote contemplation to gain understanding of laws of governing people and contemplation was seen as a mean to understand universal way or law which also controlled the society. This discourse is highly interesting when we compare it to modern mindfulness movement and especially mindful leadership where we see similar claims and uses. Meditative texts of Guǎnzǐ do not demand worship, divination or other ritualistic techniques. They are plain and simple self cultivation practices written by the literati to other members of ruling class of their time. The fact that these texts were included in highly political text collection gives us an impression that these practices were wide spread and not known only in religious circles. This is especially evident as many of the texts in Guǎnzǐ belong to strict Legalist school that saw tradition and softer values as weakness to be cut down[4].

The Guǎnzǐ collection also includes scripture called Nèiyè 內業 or Internal practice, which is probably the oldest of surviving Chinese meditation manuals and dates back to circa 325 B.C. The poetic style of Nèiyè suggests oral tradition and therefore even older origin.[3] Nèiyè presents very clear and plain description of meditation. Its themes are similar to many Tang-dynasty meditation texts and Nèiyè defines connection of man to universe, reason for contemplation, different attitudes and key elements for practice. The text begins with idea how human being is connected to cosmos:


“From the essence of every being comes their life. Below it gives birth to five grains, above forms the constellations. Its flow between heaven and earth we call as spirits and gods. When it is stored within center of chest we call him a sage.”

During writing of Nèiyè the idea of essence (jīng 精) was still developing. The essence was seen as something having nature of divinity or spirit. Later it became described more substantial and bit liquid like as in texts like Huángdì Nèijīng Sùwèn 黃帝內經素問. The concept of Jīng-Shén 精神, which is usually translated as life-force or vigor it still retained its early intangibility. Some of the early texts see essence as one of the “bodily spirits” or shén.

The text proceeds defining how all the sorrows arise from the heart and they are ended with the heart. The heart was seen to effect everyone around us, bringing with it our fortunes or misfortunes. Only cultivation of the heart was seen as means for real moral development and thus Nèiyè states that:


“Rewards are not sufficient to encourage virtue, nor punishments enough for disciplining. [Only] when qi-mind is obtained, that what is under the heaven will be subjugated. Only when heart-mind is stopped that what is under the heaven will obey.”

Same idea of shedding false morals, ethical values and empty rituals and replacing them by true nature was recurring theme in even earlier Zhuāngzǐ 莊子.

Author(s) of Nèiyè also pondered how or what in the mind can observe itself:


“How to explain that which is in peaceful heart? [When] I (ego) and heart are regulated, officials (organs) are regulated. [When] I and heart are at peace, officials are in peace. One regulating them is heart. One pacifying them is heart. There is heart hidden within heart. In the center of the heart there is another heart! This heart within heart is the voice before the words. From the voice follow forms, from the form follow the words. From the words follow actions and from the actions follow governing. [From that which] is not governed follows chaos and from the chaos follows death.”

As non-controlled mind was seen as main reason for chaos and destruction the often emphasized benefit from cultivation was freedom from internal conflict and outer catastrophes. In Nèiyè this freedom is describes thus:


“Without confusing thoughts within, one is externally without evil and disasters. Heart maintained in the center and form is maintained externally. [Thus one does] not encounter heavenly calamities nor face human troubles [therefore] we call him a sage.”

Freedom from human suffering later became exaggerated more and more until it became immortality and total untouchability during Han-dynasty and was still aim of contemplative practitioners during Tang-dynasty. See for example text called Preserving Shén and refining Qì.

The themes of freedom, emptiness and cultivation of heart were also present in many other writings of the time, but were often less instructive and more ambiguous in their poetic or prosaic expression. Of these texts Dàodéjīng 道德經 and Zhuāngzǐ are famous examples. Zhuāngzǐ for example describes fasting of the heart in following quote:


“[Yán] Huí said: Could I ask about fasting of mind?

Zhòng Ní answered: When having singular will, you’ll not hear with ears but you hear them with heart. When not hearing with heart you’ll hear them with qì. Hearing stops to listening with ears. Heart stops to symbols. The Qì is emptiness that receives things. Only Dào gathers in emptiness. Emptiness is fasting of the heart.”

Dàodéjīng as the best known Daoist text has collected many different translations around it. The text describes contemplation in its 16th chapter:


“Reaching the utmost emptiness and guarding stillness and honesty, 10 000 things are working in union. Contemplating this, I’ll return. Countless humans and beings all return to their root. Returning to the root is called stillness. It is also described as returning to life (fù mìng is literally returning the destiny). Returning to life is called eternity. Knowing eternity is called enlightenment. Not knowing eternity [you just] arrogantly cause disasters. By knowing eternal you’ll accept. From accepting follows fairness. From fairness follows completion. From completion follows heavenly and from heavenly follows Dào. From Dào follows continuation and [then even] disappearance of body is not fatal.”

Considering this particular chapter we have to take into account that Dàodéjīng, as we now read it, was edited by Wáng Bì during early third century. The chapter found from the Mǎwángduī excavation, dating to second century B.C.[5] is very similar but a century older Guōdiàn[6] version does not mention contemplation at all. The importance of observing with empty mind is prominent in many other chapters as well.

Taking into account textual evidence about these contemplative practices and the idea of using them for returning to original state or to finding true nature had clearly been already developed before end of Warring States period. The Chinese still remained isolated from India centuries after writing the meditative texts of Guǎnzǐ or Dàodéjīng and Zhuāngzì. It was only at the first and second centuries during which trading of goods and thoughts between China and India really begun. If we consider the possible dating of historical Buddha to be somewhere around the commonly agreed 566–486 B.C.[7], it is hardly likely that Buddhist influence at the time could have induced such a wide spread of contemplative ideology in China. Buddhist tradition speaks of teachers Ārāḍa Kālāmalta ja Uddaka Rāmaputta as well reputed teachers, so we can say that these practices were also more wide spread in India during that time. But with lack of active trade routes, cultural exchange and having textual sources showing more wide spread cultural use of the contemplative ideas in China, we may conclude that it is highly likely that contemplative practices were developed independently in China and the Buddhist influences merged to Chinese contemplative ideologies and practices only later.

Rise of Buddhism in China however sparked new interest in contemplative practices. Old texts were edited, new texts were written and older classics were interpreted from viewpoint more fitting to contemplative practices. Zuòwàng lùn 坐忘論, which quotes heavily on Dàodéjīng and Zhuāngzǐ, is good example of reinterpreting older scriptures. The spread of Buddhism also influenced other areas of practices like dietary taboos and ethical codes. What remained the same was apophatic nature of contemplative practice. To quote a Tang-dynasty text called Nèiguānjīng 內觀經 – Classic of inner contemplation:


“Dào cannot be put to words. By mouth it cannot be given or obtained. [By having] constantly empty heart and tranquil spirit, Dào naturally returns to its residence.”

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