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Daoism

In this video Prof Chris Goto-Jones discusses daoism.
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So as we’ve seen in the last few sessions the connections between construct mindfulness and the various traditions of Buddhism are indeed very powerful. In fact, accepting the vagaries and creativities involved in translation and then operationalization. There is a case to be made that modern mindfulness emerges from the concepts and practices associated with the parley term of Sati. Nonetheless, just as we saw in the case of Buddhism, it seems to make sense for us to look more widely than just at those texts or traditions that use the word Sati in order to explore how more diverse thinkers and practitioners have sought to make sense of something that might resemble it.
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In other words, as we saw in the first session of this module, it’s probably a mistake to assume that the historical occurrence of a particular word describes the full extent of the philosophical resources that might be of use to us in understanding a concept or practice today. One of the most natural places for us to look for such resources regarding mindfulness, might be in the philosophy of Daoism. Which began to emerge in China in about the 4th or 3rd centuries B.C.E., thus, approximately coinciding with the formulation of the Pali Canon in India. We’ve already seen how the interaction of Buddhism and Daoism in China influenced the emergence of Chan or Zen Buddhism there.
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However, just as with Buddhism, we’re not primarily concerned here with the historical development of the rituals and dogma associated with Daoism, but simply with some of the core ideas that seem especially relevant to mindfulness today. Now the words, what can we learn from Daoism that might be of value to our understanding and our practice of mindfulness? Looking back to one of the foundational texts of Daoism, the Dao De Jing, we quickly find descriptions of the relationships between human beings and the world around them that resonate closely with those already familiar to us from mindfulness.
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In particular, early philosophical Daoism draws our attention to the idea that it is in our awareness of the world, rather than necessarily in the objective conditions of the world itself, but as suffering and disease really begins. Hence, rather than waging war or engaging in violence to bring about an end to conditions that we dislike, we should instead seek a form of internal equilibrium of consciousness that will help us to think and to act more skillfully. The Dao De Jing talks about this kind of awareness as way of experiencing what is special about a particular event by simultaneously experiencing that single event in the context of the whole.
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Rather than cultivating a narrow, conceptual focus, it calls on us to view events and mental events in as broad and spacious a manner as possible. Stepping back from them, opening to them, to give us a space in which we can recognize the way in which the particular should move in accordance with the general or the universal. Vitally, this kind of holistic awareness, which the text often glosses, our awareness of the inextricability of the one and the many Is always immediate and direct, both spatially and temporally, both in terms of space and time.
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That is proper awareness of the world is always our awareness of the here and now and of the context of this here and now as the one amongst the many. The cultivation of this kind of awareness is the beginning of the possibility of living with a kind of skillful, creative, and productive harmony in and with this world. While this is not identical to what we’ve been calling mindfulness in previous sessions, perhaps we can see how there’s a sense in which this form of awareness, with its emphasis on the establishment of a broad, open, inclusive standpoint oriented around direct immediate experience, is at least allied to an interesting for mindfulness. It sounds similar.
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Perhaps the most famous and influential concepts from philosophical Daoism and what are sometimes called the WU forms where the Chinese character WU stands for a form of negation or nothingness. For instance many of you will already know the much misunderstood term, wuwei, non-action, which might be better understood as a form of non-coercive or non-volitional action. But since we’re interested primarily in questions of awareness today, we should give a little more attention to the concept of wuzhi, non-thought or non-knowledge. Indeed, the historical records suggest that mindfulness, Sati, was first translated into Chinese using wuwei and wuzhi. The everyday meaning of the word wuzhi is simply ignorance and the reasons for this are interesting for us.
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All of the wu forms rest upon the premise that humans spend a lot of their time and energy engaged in abstract concepts and mediated experiences. Created by artificial technical knowledge, that is instead of engaging with the world directly we engage with a kind of a veneer, a construction that’s been spread over the top of it by human cleverness, separating us from the world as it really is and preventing us from touching it directly. If you like, it sanitizes our connection with nature like a window. This means that our experience of the world is transformed or even perverted by the ways that our cognitive processes work to keep reality away from us.
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Even worse, we use up a great deal of our energy and health struggling to deal with these cognitive fabrications, rather than with the world itself. Perhaps you’ll recognize elements of this model of experience and awareness from our earlier sessions about Buddhism. One of the key insights in Daoism, however, is not so much about freeing ourselves from suffering by seeing through a layer of delusion that itself causes us so much unnecessary pain. Rather it’s about seeing through to how things really are so that we can think and act more skillfully. Here the idea of being skillful involves thinking and acting in a way that is naturally harmonious with the whole and the real picture.
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It involves cultivating the ability mentally to stand back from ourselves into a more spacious, more open standpoint, to see directly, free of mediation and abstraction, including the abstractions of our own desires and theories. And to see how a particular event or phenomena is an aspect of a universal and organic whole. That is, this quality of attention and awareness not only liberates from suffering, but it also makes us into better people. Both more skillful in thought and activities and more ethical in our behaviors. Now again I suspect you might recognize elements of this model from our earlier discussions of Buddhism and especially of Zen Buddhism in the last session.
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Indeed, without wanting to be too forceful about it, I wonder whether we might see ways in which these Daoist’s ideas about wuzhi or non-thought might be similar to Buddhist ideas about right mindfulness. One of the fascinating differences is how Daoism plays with the way in which this form of attention and awareness is not only about seeing clearly, but also about forgetting or even jettisoning the cognitive patterns that we associate with cleverness and morality every day. That is, to a certain extent, wuzhi embraces the idea and the language of ignorance. The beginner’s mind, the uncarved block, and so on, as the proper goal of our cultivation.
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And if this all sounds rather anti-social or perhaps anti-cultural to you, then you might be right. There’s a real sense in philosophical Daoism, that human civilization per se, might be the origin of all our suffering, clumsiness, and immorality. Humans are maladapted to their own civilizations. Institutionalized human cleverness or civilization is precisely that layer of veneer that prevents us from directly accessing reality. It conditions us from the day we’re born to think in terms of categories, discriminations, and judgments that preoccupy our attention in place of direct experiences of the world around us. Our civilizations condition us to devalue direct experience as primitive and naive and to privilege abstract reasoned interpretations of that experience in its place.
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Hence, there’s a sense in which cultivation of mindfulness or wuzhi is an attempt to free ourselves from the confines of the idea of society itself. Indeed, the social implications of early Daoist philosophy are subject to great controversy and debate. And we’ll look at some of these issues in the next module. Like the Buddhists, Daoists have always been very much aware that this kind of insight pushes inquirers right to the edges of the possibilities of language and reason to express, since language and reason are themselves artifacts of society. Hence, the language of text like the Dao De Jing is full of contradictions and paradoxes. They often seem poetic rather than systematic. Just as we see in many Zen texts.
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And just like many Buddhist texts, these Daoists place primary emphasis on the importance of experiential knowledge as the only way to see through to the truth. Hence, wuzhi, like right mindfulness, is not something you can accomplish by, for instance, listening to me explain it to you. Instead, you need to cultivate it yourself in various formal exercises like meditations or chi gong or the martial arts and in the way you live your life every day. Looking ahead to our next session on stoicism, we might also see wuzhi as a concept that relies on the practice of spiritual exercise.
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So while it’s clear that wuzhi is not identical with mindfulness, I wonder whether you think it has enough common ground to make comparing them helpful or fruitful or interesting. In particular, it’s worth taking some time to consider how an understanding of Daoists philosophy might help us to make some sense of the way questions we might have about mindfulness practice impact on us. In particular, when we seek direct or bare experiences in mindfulness meditations, to what extent are we shedding our own maladaptive responses to mental events? And to what extent are we perhaps also shedding the maladaptive conditioning of society itself?
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Now next session, we’re going to take another step even further away from Buddhism in Asia to consider how and whether the spiritual exercises of the stoics might relate to mindfulness.

In this video, I explore the tradition of Daoism.

What are your thoughts on Daoism? What do you think about the Daoist views of suffering?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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