Sunday, July 17, 2011

Zuowang: "Sitting and Forgetting"

A while back I offered to write some reviews of books on Daoism for the publisher of an academic press. The publisher is a woman by the name of Livia Kohn, who is a fairly important person in the academic study of the Daoist religion as well as a practicing Daoist herself. The publishing house she runs is Three Pines Press, which is committed to publishing books about Daoism. They also publish a yearly journal about Daoism, the Journal of Daoist Studies. (I had an opinion piece published in their "Forum on Comtemporary Practice" in the last issue.)

The first book that I've decided to review is by Ms. Kohn herself, and it is titled Sitting in Oblivion: The Heart of Daoist Meditation.

It's a very good introduction to a key Daoist spiritual practice which I tend to call "sitting and forgetting", but which she translates as "Sitting in Oblivion" and which is often referred to as Zuowang.

What makes this book so useful is the fact that Kohn is a Westerner, a scholar and a practitioner. What this means is that she can write definitively about the practice using her own words and by making references to the modern Western cultural milieu. This makes the book far, far, far more intelligible than if she were a Chinese practitioner who had a hard time explaining herself to a Western audience. And as a practitioner, she understands exactly what is and is not important in the experience of "sitting and forgetting", which is something that an academic without any grounding in the practice could not possibly do.

In addition, Kohn adds translations of eight short Daoist texts on "sitting and forgetting" at the end of the book. These are texts that non-Chinese readers (and probably most non-Daoist Chinese readers too) will never come across.

As such, this book is probably the best academic introduction to "sitting and forgetting" that people are probably ever going to come across. If you want to learn what a book can teach you about "sitting and forgetting", this is probably the best source that I have come across.

I've been holding off on writing this review for months. Partially, this is because I have been really busy doing other things. But another part comes from a sort of inarticulate reticence. After long deliberation, I think I've figured out the different elements of this funk.

First of all, I really liked the first part of the book. Kohn is a good writer and she seems to really understand the subject. It was when I got to the end and tried to wade through the translations that I got bogged down. I've never been a fan of the metaphorical language of most religious Daoist texts. I like clear, precise essays. I know that I cannot expect this sort of thing from ancient sources, but that doesn't mean that I have to like what they do offer.

Secondly, I'm a little concerned about a lot of these sorts of texts because I wonder if reading them might be counter-productive. The school where I was taught "sitting and forgetting" did absolutely nothing at all to explain what it was that we were being exposed to. We were told to "just sit" and figure it out for ourselves. This might seem bizarre to modern Westerners who expect to have some sort of theoretical explanation for everything that they do, but I can't help but think that the "figure it out for yourself" bit is pretty important to the whole exercise.

Of course, memory plays tricks and the meditation sessions I attended were a long, long time ago. It might be that the Daoshi who taught us felt that the translation available wasn't up to the task of explaining what was going on. But be that as it may, I still think that my experience has taught me that there is precious little that a teacher can give to the student beyond his or her own personal example. Ultimately, everyone has to "figure it out for herself"----both on the pillows and throughout just about every other part of their life.

I came to this conclusion as I felt myself going through different stages in the process of "sitting and forgetting". I went through a stage where I kept falling asleep---it ended. I went through another stage where I was in incredible pain---it ended. I went through a stage of crazy boredom----it went away. I also went through a stage where I was hallucinating and having what seemed to be genuine psychic experiences----they too went away. The insight that I gained from these experiences was that these were not "impediments" to "sitting and forgetting", they were absolutely key to the process itself. A trite way of saying this would be to be that they "build character" in the individual.

If a teacher explained all of these points and held the hand of the student all through these different stages, he would gain a whole lot less benefit from the experience.

As for the weird experiences that people talk about with regard to meditation, I've had more than a few. I've had experiences of seen visions, a couple times felt that I was experiencing some sort of divine "oneness" with the world. I've also felt weird energies flowing through parts of my body. When I mention these experiences to others, a lot of people think that they signify something pretty darn important. But when I had them happen to me, I had the overwhelming feeling that they were pretty much trivial. They didn't result in any sort of world-altering experiences and they didn't make me a better man.

To cite one example, I once totally automatically walked out to meet a friend that I had every reason to believe was working in a factory that day. As I stepped out of my office and went across campus to meeting him, I purposely walked directly to a curb and at the exact moment I stepped onto it, he drove up in his car, stopped and I got in. "What, you might ask, was the cosmic result of this divinely ordained meeting?" We drove to a strip joint and had a few beers. All the genuinely psychic experiences of my intense meditation practice were all similarly absurd and mundane.

When I think of it, though, of what real significance are most religious experiences? St. Francis, for example, was supposed to have manifested stigmata. Exactly how did that butter anyone's parsnips?

Over the years I've come to the conclusion that there are significantly different types of meditation practice and some of them are of very limited value and others potentially acutely dangerous. Recently I've had this ambivalence reinforced by reading a blog that I subscribe to called "Down the Crooked Path". Whomever creates this blog puts a lot of effort into finding examples of religious leaders (mostly Buddhist and Yogic) who are abusing the trust placed in them. As well, she also has the odd post that shows examples of people who have suffered psychiatric problems as a result of pursuing specific types of practice.

These examples lead me to consider two very important things about meditation.

First of all, beyond the practical insignificance of any "miracles" that come from meditating, it appears that people can be very adept at some types of meditation and still be sex-crazed, materialistic, power-mad boobs. What this tells me is that these forms of meditation do not seem to be the "path to wisdom" that they are portrayed as being. Why do them if they don't work?

Secondly, it would also seem that some of these forms of meditation are also potentially harmful. If they don't really seem to work (i.e. make people who are really good at them into wise human beings), and, they could really hurt you, again, why do them?

Having said the above, I would suggest that there are different types of meditation. To that end, I think that "Holding onto the One", as suggested in the Nei-Yeh, is a pretty healthy form of meditation. It is not aimed at entering into trance states, or any sort of state at all, but instead is a form of mindfulness practice. It also seems to be very useful to have some sort of very minimal----but very regular---practice that incorporates some sort of physical movement. Taijiquan fits the bill perfectly, but there are also forms of walking meditation that I've done for years and are much easier to learn. The point is, that a lot of people in our world find themselves with "scattered" minds. A short, regular, "Holding onto the One", taijiquan and walking meditation practice do a really good job of helping people become a little more focused. But the emphasis should be on regular practice, not long duration. If you do stuff like this too much, there is the risk of sliding into trance meditation, which doesn't seem to me to be terribly helpful.

Of course, as in all cases, I'm ready to be corrected by someone who can show me the error of my ways. The only real reason why I post most of these things is because I've been doing this stuff for so long and I don't see many people out there that seem to know that much more than I do. Maybe someone will get some value from my babbling.


baroness radon said...

I respect Livia Kohn's work and you have inspired me to acquire this volume.

I think, as you point out, there are many types of meditation practice, but I also believe a good teacher (a guide) is invaluable, just as a good teacher of qigong or taichi or even brush painting is important--if only to be there and "correct" mistakes.

Your experience with meeting your friend after a session, even if it was just to have some drinks, suggests to me that you tapped into something. Synchronicity? Psychic vision? Whatever. I think it's cool.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Yes. A good teacher is probably useful. Unfortunately, I don't think that they are all that common.

I think that there are so many bad teachers in the world that it is pretty important to encourage people on spiritual paths to develop self-reliance. For sure, people who have to "figure it out for themselves" will end up following blind alleys. But they will know that they could be doing so. It is far worse to have a trusted guide lead you into a blind alley, simply because you cease to consider the idea that he is doing so.

Geez. I've become such a cynic!

baroness radon said...

My teacher (Chinese) gave me some invaluable advice. I was having an insurmountable problem with someting, which seemed to me an obstacle, during meditation. He told me, "Don't worry about it. It's all metaphor. Do the best you can."

Needless to say, he explained the metaphors. It's the people who take the metaphor at face value that get into trouble, I think.

I don't think you are cynical, really, I think you have just made tremendous, honest...progress? Achievement?

Every few months I come across something by one of the "bad teachers" (who usually charge a lot of money). They manipulate the metaphors.

Anonymous said...

any possibility to restore the original instruction you got from your master?

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


What do you mean by "restore"? I don't really understand what you are asking.

Anonymous said...

re "Aug 24, 2011 8:42:00 PM"
well, first of all, thanks for answer. and sorry for being not clear. i meant "recall" or just "publish". so: any chance to publish the instruction you got from your master? thanks in advance

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


That would be a long story. So what I'll do is write my next blog post on the subject.

Anonymous said...

re "Aug 25, 2011 5:48:00 PM"
this is very interesting answer :-)
i think a book, at least a small one, would be appropriate... but i understand how difficult it is to get one out (time- and money-wise). but the subject deserves it. there are some self-publishing services like and others, or electronic versions...
so looking forward to your next post :-)
thank you