Daoist “Sitting and Forgetting” and the Christian “The Cloud of the Unknown”
by Shifu Michael Rinaldini (Linchangdao)
In January of 2012, I returned to the solitude and silence of the Sky Farm Hermitage in Sonoma County, California. This Catholic hermitage has become the place for my annual Daoist solitary retreats. The following journal entries focus on my explorations between the Daoist meditation practice of zuowang, or “sitting and forgetting tradition”, and the Christian contemplative classic The Cloud of Unknowing.
Sunday, 8:30 pm
One of my goals for this retreat is to write about the common practices between the Daoist and the Christian paths. I am specifically interested in the Daoist zuowang meditation method of sitting in forgetfulness or oblivion, and the Christian fourteenth-century mystical text, The Cloud of Unknowing. Both of these ways of meditation or contemplation feature an emphasis on placing the mind’s activities into a state of forgetting or the cloud of forgetting. The Cloud, was written by an anonymous author, and it is speculated that the author was a Carthusian monk, and if not, possibly a Catholic priest living a hermetic lifestyle. I know this text from the years I devoted to discerning whether I had a monastic vocation. I even spent a short time in a Carthusian monastery in Vermont. I visited this monastery twice during my 20’s, and both times, I found the solitude and austerities too severe for me. Here are the first sentences of the introduction to The Cloud:
“This book you now hold is a rainmaker for anyone whose soul has ever felt as dry as a bone. It nameless author was a gifted teacher. Page after page, he patiently explains what contemplative prayer is and how it can end any spiritual drought-shortages of love, low levels of humility, an absence of peace.” [p. xi]
And so what are the similarities, the common practices between zuowang meditation, and the contemplative practices as presented in The Cloud of Unknowing?I’ll start my explorations with the work of Livia Kohn on zuowang, her masterfully scholastic book, Sitting in Oblivion: The Heart of Daoist Meditation. The title of the book’s introduction begins to answer my question, what is zuowang:
“Zuowang, “sitting in oblivion,” signifies a state of deep meditative absorption and mystical oneness, during which all sensory and conscious faculties are overcome and which is the base point for attaining Dao.” [p1]
“Practitioners thus strive to access what they call pure experience or “sitting in oblivion of everything” by letting go of all ordinary perception while strengthening intuition, the potency of the inborn, natural mind-a pure reflection of original cosmos in human beings. Posture and body control become essential; all analytical, dualistic thinking as well as connection to deities are radically overcome.” [p6]
Livia further elaborates on what is zuowang by going to an ancient commentator on the Daode jing and the Zhuangzi, Guo Xiang, in his
Commentary and Subcommentary to the Perfect Scripture of Southern Florescence:“Sitting in oblivion-what could one not be oblivious of? First one abandons outward manifestations, then one becomes oblivious of that which causes these manifestations. On the inside one is unaware that there is a body-self; on the outside one never knows there are Heaven and Earth. Only thus can one become fully vacant and unify with the changes, and there will be nothing that is not pervaded.” [p17]
In another context, Livia compares zuowang to Zen or Chinese Chan meditation. Her comparison also introduces the break through experience, what I refer to as the experience of cracking the matrix. (see my article, Cracking The Matrix) She says:
“Chan practice, like sitting in oblivion, reduces conscious activity and sensory meditation to zero in order to break through to this underlying connectedness, to the pure existence of mind-only. On the way to this breakthrough, practitioners work hard and sit intensely, undergoing a variety of distracting experiences: from heat and cold through trembling and shaking to hallucinations of light, visitations by specters, and visions of divine beings … The eventual breakthrough, then, is often experienced as a sudden opening of consciousness and not as the gradual emergence of a new state.
Thus Chan masters speak of “sudden” enlightenment-unlike Daoists who emphasize the slow, one-by-one overcoming of inherent patterns in gradual progress.” [p 114]
Monday, 3:17 pm
Here is a last reference to zuowang in Livia’s book. It is by Shi Jing, a western Daoist priest and leader of the British Taoist Association. Livia quotes him:
“Zuowang is to sit and forget. What we forget is the thing we hold most dearly: self, with all its opinions, beliefs, and ideals. We can be so caught up in the concept of self that we see the world as a place to fulfill personal ambition and desire.” [p 14]
So now, let’s see how the practices or advice given by the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing are so similar to the zuowang definitions we’ve encountered so far. The first thing to understand about this Christian classic is that there is a cloud of unknowing and a cloud of forgetting. The author of The Cloud explains what he means by calling it a cloud of unknowing:
“The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing. You won’t know what this is. You’ll only know that in your will you feel a simple reaching out to God. You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do.” [pXII]
As for the cloud of forgetting, the author says:
“If the cloud of unknowing makes you feel alienated from God, that’s only because you’ve not yet put a cloud of forgetting between you and everything in creation. When I say “everything in creation,” I mean not only the creatures themselves but also everything they do and are, as well as the circumstances in which they find themselves. There are no exceptions. You must forget everything. Hide all created things, material and spiritual, good and bad, under the cloud of forgetting.” [p XIII]
What’s required of the practitioner to put themselves in these clouds of unknowing and forgetting? The anonymous author says: “You only need a naked intent for God. When you long for him, that’s enough.” [pXIII]
Now that I have presented an introduction to both practices of forgetting, it’s time to go deeper into the heart of zuowang and The Cloud of Unknowing.
Tuesday, 12:30 pm
The Cloud’s author says:“Forget what you know. Forget everything God made and everybody who exists and everything that’s going on in the world, until your thoughts and emotions aren’t focused on or reaching toward anything, not in a general way and not in any particular way. Let them be. For the moment, don’t care about anything.” [p11]
The anonymous author says this is the work that is most pleasing to God. [p11] This author says the cloud of forgetting is to accompany the cloud of unknowing. The author thinks of the cloud of unknowing as a kind of separation from God, like a
darkness. Further, the author says the cloud of forgetting is “beneath you, between you and creation.” [p19] “Hide all created things, material and spiritual, good and bad, under the cloud of forgetting.” [p19]
This practice is identical to the teachings of Daoism in its non-dual approach to seeing things with the eyes of equanimity, not making distinctions, between this and that, making no choices.
“Even these thoughts are superfluous. You only need a naked intent for God.” [p24] The author raises the question of what is the problem with thoughts, especially good, devout thoughts. He responds: ” … become infected with pride and when the educated ego starts believing in its own scholarly expertise, students … become arrogant scholars instead, masters of vanity and lies …” [p27]
“As long as you are a soul living in a mortal body, your intellect, no matter how sharp and spiritually discerning, never sees God perfectly. The mind is always distorted in some way, warping our work; and at its worst, our intellect can lead us to great error.” [p29]
The Cloud’s author is as direct as any Buddhist or Daoist sage, admonishing followers to let go of everything not the Buddha, not the Dao. We are reminded of the classic Buddhist saying: If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him:
“So then, you must suppress the sharp intrusions of your thoughts that inevitably come when you sit down to do the blind work of contemplation. You must defeat them, or they’ll defeat you. So, no matter how sacred or pleasant these lucid images are, let go of them.” [p30].
And now, it’s time to explore the direct sources on the zuowang teachings. Previously, I mentioned things said about zuowang from Livia Kohn’s book Sitting in Oblivion. Let’s go deeper into her book to the sections on the different Daoist scriptures pertaining to the practices of sitting in forgetting or oblivion. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to group together all my references as if they were from the same Daoist scripture. In truth, however, there is a collection of scriptures written during the Tang Dynasty by a handful of Daoists. All the writings are loosely organized around one pivotal text, called the Zuwanglun.
“Therefore, when one first begins to study Dao one must sit calmly and tame the mind, let go of projected reality and abide in nonexistence. As one abides in nonexistence, without being attached to even one being, one naturally enters emptiness and nonbeing. Thus one joins Dao.” [p142]
And now, I say, doesn’t this sound exactly like the author of The Cloud talking. And follows is another text sounding like the stuff we are to put into the cloud of forgetting:
“When all mental arising is annihilated and no more difference is made between “right and wrong”, one can forever discard awareness and knowledge and enter the state of blind stability.” [p143]
“As long as you are a soul living in a mortal body,” quoted earlier comes up again in a Daoist scripture but in a different choice of words:
“Rather, when sitting in oblivion, what would there remain unforgotten? Only then can one say: Sitting in oblivion is the gate to long life. Laozi says: “If I did not have a body-self, what vexations would I have? If the sage therefore urges us to refine spirit and merge with Dao … then this is exactly the meaning of “casting off body-form, doing away with understanding, and smashing up one’s limbs and body.” [p160]
“Just focus on cultivating the qi of emptiness and never get involved in worldly discussions and analyses. Follow your self in spontaneity and never let wayward views obstruct your path. Thus you reach success.” [p189]
“What does sitting in oblivion mean? It means letting go of the form-body and completely forgetting the “I.” [p190]
“Acting in Dao and not seeing oneself act-isn’t that the meaning of sitting? Seeing something and not acting on it-isn’t that the meaning of oblivion? [p193]
“Wisdom unfolds only after all knowledge is forgotten.” [p201]
And finally, why even bother to think?
“I forget the vastness even of Heaven and Earth, never mind the minuteness of the hair in autumn. Resting in serenity and silence, I listen to Pure Harmony. Still, I am free, away from it all! Movement stilled, language silenced- Why ever think?” [p212]
Tuesday, 4:30 pm
Inspired from yesterday’s research, and last full day of retreat.
Forget everything, put nothing, between myself and the Great Emptiness of Ultimate Stillness. That’s the nameless Dao!
All of the quotations, with the page numbers come from the following two books discussed above.
Butcher, Carmen Acevedo. The Cloud of Unknowing, with the Book of Privy Counsel. Boston & London: Shambhala, 2009.
Kohn, Livia. Sitting in Oblivion, The Heart of Daoist Meditation. Dunedin, FL: Three Pines Press, 2010.
Michael Rinaldini (Li Chang Dao)– is the Director of Qigong & Daoist Training Center, and a 22nd generation Longmen (Dragon Gate) Daoist priest. Shifu Michael founded the American Dragon Gate Lineage (ADGL) with the support of Master Wan Su Jian from Beijing, China. He is a (Level IV) Certified Qigong Teacher by the National Qigong Association, and a certified senior Bagua Xundao Gong Qigong Teacher by Master Wan Su Jian (Beijing, China). He offers Qigong Certification Program for Advanced Trainings, and trains serious students of Daoism leading to priest ordination in the ADGL. www.dragongateqigong.com , email@example.com