Taoism and meditation

- through Francois Leclercq

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Deciphering the various meditative techniques of Taoism.

What is Taoism? Under the apparent unity of a well-known term hides a myriad heterogeneous works and practices. We can consider as "Taoist influence" a thought, a medicine, an alchemy, a mysticism, exorcisms, religious cults, gymnastics and even sexual techniques... Much more than a school, Taoism appears as a nebula which would hide its center well. To try to see more clearly, the librarians of the first imperial dynasty organized this nebula into two categories: Dao Jia and Dao Jiao. The first collected philosophical texts and the second the field of magical, medical, ritual considerations... If we had to find an axis for the Dao Jiao, it would be the quest for immortality or, as Laozi puts it best: "Feed life". (yangshen). Qigong, Taiji-chuan and Chinese medicine follow this principle. But what is this aim of “nourishment of life” based on? It takes on meaning in relation to what the Dao Jia harbors deep and initiating thoughts. Thus, to understand what meditation can consist of in Taoism, it is necessary to refer to the ancient writings of the fathers of this motley movement: Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi.

But before seeing how the meditative horizon specific to Taoism unfolds, let's focus on the very meaning of this term dào or tao. It is commonly translated as “way”. If this translation is not false, it does not fully account for all the richness of the sinogram. It is in fact composed of two parts: the element on the right designates the idea of ​​movement, the going, of something that involves and involves us. The left element signifies both straightness and order or ordering. If we associate these two meanings, we obtain that of “regulation”. The dào, much more than a way or a static path, is like a current (in the oceanic sense), which animates as much as it regulates. It is therefore not so much a question for the practitioner of taking a path as of letting himself be carried away by a ground swell capable of transforming his entire existence by placing it back in a more original regularity, more vital than the regulations born of conventions. , circumstances and whims of the will. Thus Liezi puts it: “The practitioner enters the great loom of the dào, the back and forth of the shuttle, the series of transformations which start over tirelessly. »

Meditate in the horizon of the dào?

Meditation is usually called "Chán" in Chinese. This term is the phonetic transliteration of the Sanskrit dhyâna which is one of the names of meditation in Buddhism. Despite its foreign origin, the Taoists also use this word to designate their meditative practices, mainly those aimed at appeasement, the deepening of silence and rest (jìng). Moreover, the influence of Buddhism cannot be reduced to nominal borrowing alone. The various schools of Taoism have largely taken up Buddhist meditative techniques of mindfulness of breath, body and thought in order to cultivate a very basic sense of peace. Thus the term "Chán" designates for them a set of practices dedicated to the tranquility of the body as well as the mind.

But there is another word, this one strictly Taoist, to signify all of the so-called meditative practices and which very appropriately names the original aim of meditation within the horizon of the dào: xiu lian. The first term (xiu) is usually translated as "practical", but it must be understood from the ideas of repair, fixing and then decoration or ornamentation. It is thus an activity of improvement operated from a consolidation and an embellishment. The second term (liàn) is most interesting. It literally means “to select by fire” – meaning to pass through the trial of fire. It is found in expressions relating to the art of forging metal, refining oil or extracting alcohol. Xiu liàn is a term of alchemy and thus conceives Taoist meditation as a practice of transformation, of transmutation where the spirit becomes body and the body spirit, reunited then in a renewed vitality.

The meditative alchemy

Whether Western or Eastern, alchemy is based on the same principle of the fundamental unity of reality. It rejects the dualism of body and mind and tries through its many practices to restore their native communication. Taoism, both in its speculations and in its practices, is based on this principle which it often expresses in tales such as in the Liezi collection where we speak of a master who has reached such a degree of freedom that he can play a trick on a quack doctor, by changing the physiology of his body at each of his visits. Or the story of this musician who manages, because of the depth of his concentration, to create a season with each plucking of the strings of his zither. These are just images that should not be taken literally. The image is well suited to alchemical thought which deliberately borrows the symbolic language, because the imaginary is an intermediate dimension which allows the circulation between the intelligible and the sensitive.

Through increasingly fine attention, the Taoist meditator enters his body as if into a secret country, a world within the world, to which he gradually awakens by perceiving a set of correspondences.

Thus, almost from their origins, Taoist practices have always sought to reach the mind through the transformation of the body. During the first Han imperial dynasty, these practices were often pharmacological. By making and taking pills that concentrated highly active ingredients, practitioners sought to achieve immortality. Under this term, we must certainly understand what it commonly means, but also see in it a form of integral awakening, both of the body and of the mind. However, this “external” path to immortality was not without its dangers. Among the selected substances that went into the composition of the pills was cinnabar. This mercury derivative, highly toxic, often produced the opposite result to that expected... Thus, this external alchemy was gradually replaced by an internal alchemy based this time on concentration exercises aimed at revealing and then releasing the body's resources. subtle. The influence of Buddhist meditation and Indian yogas is clearly perceptible in this change of method. Through increasingly fine attention, the Taoist meditator enters his body as if into a secret country, a world within which he gradually awakens by perceiving a set of correspondences. Each organ corresponds to a flavor, a color, an element, a state of mind, a season, a planet...

Meditating thus basically consists in re-establishing in all one's freedom the communication of everything with everything or, as Zhuangzi said, “in finally allowing oneself to be moved by infinity. »

The dao of the meditator

The legitimate question that must now be asked is that of "how?" ". Since Taoism spans almost three thousand years and has branched out into multiple branches, it is impossible to give here a single clear path of meditation. But returning to the trunk, that is to say to the work of Laozi, the Dao De Jing, we were able to find in chapter XVI a set of fundamental steps which seem, once put together, to outline an essential path of meditation:

1. Go back to the root (gui gen)

2. Reach the height of the void (xu jì)

3. Firmly keep (du) the rest (jing)

4. Restore the initial (ming)

5. To be ordinary (chang)

6. See clearly (ming)

7. Welcome everything – collect everything (rong)

8. To be fair (gong)

9. To be whole (quán): Guodian version – To be king (wang): Wang Bi version

10. Be Heaven

11. Be the Dao

12. Live long (mo shen bu dai – the whole body without decline)



1. The image of the root is ubiquitous in Taoism. To meditate on the root amounts to establishing oneself in the non-manifest, in what is neither this nor that, in the indeterminate, at the crossroads of possibilities. Therein lies, for Laozi, the source of all vitality. Zhuangzi puts it this way: “Look within yourself at the opening of the dark chamber from which the light is born. »

2. To do this, the practitioner literally stands "nowhere." Beyond or below the yes and the no, the white and the black, “beyond good and evil” as Friedrich Nietzsche said, outside the game of opposites. This is called "xu ji", the sharp point of nothing.

3. When one stands at the point of nothingness, serenity appears, the absence of trouble – because trouble arises for the Taoists from partiality, from duality, from this to the detriment of that and vice versa. Laozi then insists: the practitioner must keep this point of rest, establish himself there fully without allowing himself to be distracted.

4. True rest is the disposition most faithful to the root. Once disposed, the practitioner can be initiated, that is to say enter into relation to the initial, to the principle of all things. It is said to be ming in Chinese and means both what begins and what commands.

5. When one enters into relation to the initial and reestablishes the command of it in oneself, it is possible to become ordinary. The pinnacle of the Taoist life is to finally manage to lead a truly ordinary life, that is to say, one that is perfectly faithful to the simple and natural order of things as they are. It's gotten to this point that meditation can fit into all of the most mundane and innocuous practices. Thus, Zhuangzi tells the story of a butcher who accomplished his dào by simply deepening the art specific to his profession.

6. When everything is settled, reinitiated and well ordered, then one can become intelligent. The practice then does not consist at all in being clever or ingenious, but, as we say well in French, in being truly intelligent with the world, people and the ever-changing variety of situations.

7. Being of intelligence with all that arises, the practitioner can welcome everything, reject nothing. It becomes, as Confucius said, “the offering vessel of the world”. This is what the term rong means: what welcomes by gathering.

8. Welcoming everything does not mean mixing everything. Thus, the practice of welcoming follows as much as corresponds to that of discernment, that is to say of justice understood as the ability to attribute to each thing and each being its fair share.

9. When everything is welcomed and everything is in its place, then true unity arises which is never reducible to the uniformity of the merged, but to the harmony of the joined good. "Keeping one" is one of the maxims of Taoism that must be understood from the whole, that is, when everything communicates with everything. As Liezi says: “It was at that moment, when all that was in me came to an end, that my eyes became my ears, my ears my nose and my nose my mouth. Everything was one. »

10. Becoming like Heaven can characterize the state of full freedom. Everything is open, clear and without limits. It is once again Liezi who characterizes this state very well with the expression “riding the wind”: “My mind condensed, while my body relaxed to the extreme; my bones and flesh became like air; I lost the feeling that I was heavy on my seat, that I was leaning on my feet; finally I left with the wind, towards the east, towards the west, in all directions, like a dead leaf carried away, without realizing if it was the wind that carried me away, or if it was me who rode the wind. »

11. This state of perfect freedom amounts, for Laozi, to being like the dào. Our actions cease to be the clumsy expression of our particular wills. It is no longer us who act, but the dao itself in us, that is to say the very "movement" of reality or nature. Thus, according to Zhuangzi: “Projects and ideas limit the heart. Then learn to listen with the dào itself. Without intention, fully open to what is, empty and active like the dào. The Way thus purifies the heart and the mind. »

12. The end of this path, of which Laozi mentions the stages, is thought of as a return to life itself. Becoming truly alive again is what being immortal is for a Taoist and meditation is, in this perspective, the most elementary practice there is: the in-depth exercise of living for good!

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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