In this article the Nüwa interviews Chinese-American writer, artist and Daoist practitioner Deng Ming-Dao. Many will have come across Ming-Dao’s popular book 365 Tao, which is a series of daily meditations on Daoist themes. Other well-known books include Scholar-Warrior, which is an introduction to various aspects of Daoist practice, and Chronicles of Tao, which details the life and times of his teacher, Master Kwan Saihung. Our conversation has been broken into two parts. Part one is biographical and explains how Ming-Dao found his way to Daoist practice. Part two is a series of more technical questions about Daoism and the nature of inner cultivation. At the end of this article you can find links to Ming-Dao’s pages and upcoming events.
Part One: Entering Daoist Practice
Deng Ming-Dao grew up surrounded by religious practice. His parents were San Francisco second-generation Chinese Americans, and his mother and her parents were devout Christian. Originally, his grandfather came over to the United States to escape poverty and famine in southern China. His mother cursed him saying, “Go, cross the sea and you will never come back.” And surely, despite many plans to do so, he never did make the journey home.
When Ming-Dao’s maternal grandfather arrived in San Francisco, the only people who were kind to him were Christians. They took him in, taught him English and showed him how to get started. In gratitude he became a Methodist. Apparently the doctrine that most impressed him was that of forgiveness, a quality that seems to have been lacking in the harsh traditional Chinese culture within which he was raised. Ming-Dao demonstrated this with the following family story: “When my grandfather was bad as a child, he would be hung by his thumbs and beaten by two uncles. His uncles beat him because it was assumed that no parent would beat their child hard enough due to parental love.” As well as Ming-Dao’s maternal grandfather, his maternal grandmother and mother were all Christians.
Did you grow up with your mother praying?
I grew up with my mother and grandmother, there was grace at every meal. At the local church I attended Sunday school as well as Chinese classes every evening, so I was always in church.
Do you think your early experiences with Christianity influenced your later development?
In a way, yes, the church was central to me. On the good side, I suppose you would say in that it sent me on a path of being interested in spirituality, committed to study, committed to self cultivation. However, it was also negative because the Church proved to be utterly incapable of demonstrating its own ideals. Later in life, I became involved with the Church on a national level and met literally hundreds of ministers, not one of whom was really true to their vows. As soon as the doors were closed out came the dirty jokes, the laughter, the mocking of their constituents, affairs, the drugs and the drinking.
I'm still trying to make the ideals instilled in me through Christianity real in my own life, but I can't do it through the church or any organisation. Sometimes I think to myself ruefully, “I’m now sixty eight, but I’m still trying to do what they told me to do at the age of ten — be a good person, study every day, try to understand the classics better.” I'm just doing the same thing, but it seems like the right thing to do.
Ming-Dao was first exposed to East Asian religious and philosophical thought through books in his mother’s library. This included the works of DT Suzuki, as well as classics like the Daode Jing. In his mid-teen years, Ming-Dao became specifically interested in Daoism and meditation, but in those days it was not easy to find mediation instruction and he didn’t meet a real master until later in life. Later, in his early twenties, Ming-Dao started practising Chinese martial arts and it was in 1981 that he met his master, Kwan Saihung. It was him who first showed Ming-Dao the connection between martial arts and meditation.
How did you first meet your master, Kwan Saihung?
We first met when I accompanied a coworker of mine and her husband who had heard about his classes. I came along to translate in case the teacher didn’t speak English. Whilst waiting, we were practising taiji push hands. Suddenly, this guy pops up out of the bushes, looking like a college jock and with a very belligerent air about him. His body was shaped like an upside-down triangle, very muscular. He’s just staring at us and I’m getting annoyed, thinking to myself, what a jerk!
When the class began, we realised that he was the teacher! Anyway, it was an impressive class and at the end I went to talk to him to find out more about who he was and his lineage. He tells me that he has had eight masters and goes on to name them. I'm stunned because they're all famous. When I asked him about the tuition fee, he mentioned that some of the money would go back to his teacher in China. Seeing as all the teachers he named were dead, I asked him which teacher he was referring to. He explained that he studied with a very old Daoist teacher who was still based in China, and that his whole purpose was actually to study Daoism. In fact, he only taught martial arts as a sideline.
So your first impressions were deceiving?
No, he was very belligerent. He was a martial artist, he couldn’t help it. The way he stood was always in an attack posture. He couldn’t just behave like he was meeting someone at a cocktail party. He’d always stand with one foot forward as as if to convey that he was ready for anything. It was subconscious.
There were times when I saw him and his manner was completely different. One day I went to see him at the park and he was really downcast. On these rare occasions it was when he got a letter from his master back in China, who would scold him for not having been practising hard enough. Despite the distance, he was adamant that his teacher could see him, and that he watched him.
How much do you know about your grand master?
I don't know much about him, I’ve seen a picture. According to my teacher he was extremely accomplished in qigong and qing gong (‘light skill’). According to my teacher, even when my grand master was old, he was extremely flexible. One of the letters my teacher got was not a scolding letter, but from the two acolytes who were taking care of him. Apparently, they were out in the rain and the master slipped and he still was able to do a twist in the air and land on his feet. He still was very accomplished when he was old.
Do you still study with your master?
No, he left about twenty-nine years ago and went on. That's the way it is. Now I don’t study with a Daoist, but continue my study in martial arts. I keep studying.
Part Two: Daoism & The Art of Inner Cultivation
What Daoist arts did you learnt from your master?
Stretching, strengthening exercises, qigong, martial arts. Everything from Five Animals Qigong up to different meditation methods. There was also a lot of philosophical discussion. For my master, everything was a direct continuum from the basic warmup all the way to meditation. And he would hold meditation to be the highest form of Daoist practice. Everything else should be supportive of that.
Would he teach and recommend practising in a way that flowed through working with the physical body, into energetic practice and finally arriving in stillness practice?
Yes, but not necessarily as a progression in a single class. This is something that you have to do as a daily practice. It is methodical, tangible and sequential. One should be able to demonstrate the role of every practice in terms of how it compounds toward meditation. You have to establish your bodily health in order to sit well. And you have to establish the breath because the breath is the transition between the conscious and the subconscious, between the physical and the mental. It's linked by energy. So unless you can build your breath and your qi, store it and circulate it, then how can you realise the potential of meditation?
There is also the activation of various energetic centres within the body, which usually lie dormant. If you activate them by flowing energy into them, they give you the gifts of what they have. Those are important things to do because they increase your spiritual ability. It also compounds towards meditation. Unlocking energetic potential is also important because it shows you how much of your actual potential would lie unrealised if you simply followed a conventional education! It’s not a question of belief or faith, you understand these things because you discovered them for yourself.
Through this kind of work you get to explore the whole of yourself, it’s not just in your head. We might have inherited a too limited view of who and what we are. Through this study we get to see our potential, our true potential. Energetic and body based work also gives you a valuable counterpoint to philosophy. You thinking is shaped by tangible discoveries through practice. Not just because a book told you.
I had a teacher who said that there wasn't much point reading the Daoist classics until you've done a minimum of three years practice. What do you think about this?
There's no one way of doing things. Some people start with the classics and then they see the practice as an expression of those classics, which it should be. Those who only study something like qigong or martial arts with not philosophical understanding are really poor. We need both. You need to be as physically accomplished as you are intellectually accomplished in order to have a basis for this kind of study.
In your opinion, how central is the notion of inner cultivation to Daoism? Is this the lens through which you would understand Daoism?
Daoism never started from a single point and it's a big mix of different practices. So, you can't say that Daoism is one thing and that inner cultivation is what it is. There are plenty of Daoists that I've met who are disdainful of inner cultivation and instead subscribe to more ‘religious’ kinds of practice like chanting and worshipping deities.
Despite this variety existing, do you feel inclined to say that something like inner cultivation is the heart of the tradition? Perhaps because chronologically it was the first form of practice to develop or because it is the form that is most likely to bring about the kind of internal transformation spoken about in the classics?
The idea of cultivation is steeped not only in Daoism, but in Chinese culture more generally. To refine yourself and make yourself a better person requires cultivation. This assumption is widespread, but the methods used are not universal. My master would say that somebody who never studied Daoism but is a great calligrapher, dyes clothes well, or has attained insight into their life can be a superior to a Daoist on the top of a mountain. This is because they are true to who they are. Being true to who you are requires a kind of distillation. You can't be a whole jumble of stuff and say you're true. There has to be a certain refinement and elegance, but that too is very widespread.
A foundational idea within inner cultivation is that, when we come to the work, we do so with a jumble of conflicting voices and identities. They pull in different directions and this is why we cannot walk a certain path. We can’t develop in a certain direction because we are so split. Do you see this kind of stilling, harmonising, and unifying of the individual as an important part of cultivation?
Yes absolutely, but that begins by not denying any of those parts. You do not develop refinement by cutting something off. If you're clumsy and maybe your left hand is not as coordinated as your right hand, you don't cut your hand off. You exercise your hand more until it equals your right. Our whole is made up of a number of parts that should coordinate with one another to make a whole. The problem is not necessarily in the parts themselves, but in the orchestration of the parts that make the whole. That's what our practice is about — practice is the joining of all those parts. This is one reason why the study of qi is so important — all these parts need qi to function, and so we must study and cultivate it.
As well as harmonisation, is part of the process not also about release and letting go? I sometimes think about the spiritual path as one in which eventually everything must fall away.
Looking at the Daode Jing, it talks about simplicity, about severing learning and generally discusses loss in a positive way. What people forget is that you have to have something in order to lose it. You have to have learning before you can sever it. You don’t sever learning by not going to school and being dumb. Also, we need to think about what it is that we are losing. We all have traumas, faults, ignorant beliefs, doubts. We’d all like to get rid of these. But I think people need to be careful. Many think they can just throw everything out, but if you're on a ship and you have to lighten the load, you throw away the nonessential. You don't throw the captain overboard. We have to be very clear about that.
And when it comes to our basic physical and psychological functions, do we throw these things away, or do we throw away the superfluous use of these things? The idea in many classics is that we are naturally whole and good, but that this is forgotten and interfered with, usually as a result of excessive learning and socialisation. According to the classics, if you open yourself as it naturally is, it will be empty. Empty doesn't mean that there's nothing there. Empty means that it is undefinable. So as soon as you make a distinction, there is definition. And as soon as you have definition, there is limitation. And as soon as you have a limitation, that's a potential impediment. Don't you want to throw all that away?
This is similar to the idea that one has to practise doing (wei) before non-doing (wuwei). There’s also that well known saying that one must first follow a specific tradition’s path, but eventually one must step off the path as well.
Daoist practice is a process. Nobody achieves Dao in a single day and so there has to be guidance to the process. Paths are limiting, but the limits set by a path serves the development of a practitioner. They just need to remember at the right time to go beyond the provisional structure that a teacher gives them. That’s where people make a big mistake. They only want to do exactly what their master told them to do. That’s not right. At some point you have to look beyond the words and live your life in a way that fulfils the words in a less literal fashion. We need to have a structure, like scaffolding when you build a building. When the building is done, you take the scaffold away. But no building gets built without a scaffold.
Many teachers, especially those associated with less tradition-based, New Age movements, degrade intellectual study. What do you think of this?
I don't agree with it. One wonders if they degrade it because they're incapable of it themselves. They'll take refuge in quotations from the Daode Jing, things about severing learning and so forth, but you have to be more clever about Daoism than that. The intellect is worthy of being honed and augmented to the ultimate degree. The same is true of the body, the same is true of energy, the same is true of spiritual insight. Don't you want to be at the ultimate level? Everybody hears that the intellect has problems, which it does, but that doesn't follow that you should get rid of it. Your body has problems, including ageing, but you're not going to go off and kill yourself. The point is to cultivate every part of yourself and the intellect is an extremely valid and central part of every person.
In your mind, what are the principle differences between Daoism and other spiritual-religious traditions?
The first big distinction between Daoism monotheistic religions is the place of nature. In Daoism, nature comes before gods, whilst in monotheistic religions god comes before nature. That has huge implications. When I say nature in the context of Daosim, I’m referring to ‘heave and earth’. Within Daoism, heaven and earth are entirely impartial. They just act; human beings are the only ones that think and plan. Heaven and earth will not favour or punish you, they will not respond to prayer. Monotheistic religions, on the other hand, believe in a sentient God that is able to listen and grant prayer.
How would you say that Daoism compares with Buddhism?
This is not an official pronouncement, but I would anecdotally that Buddhism is far more pious. It has a set of doctrines and people are praised for following them. It’s conventional in that respect. Daoism, on the other hand, holds itself far less to dogma, including its own doctrine. For example, in Buddhism it is always bad to kill, whilst in Daoism it may sometimes be necessary, and they are going to learn how to do it very effectively. Daoism seeks to use everything negative and positive for the good of the person. On the other hand, Buddhism has sets of precepts to follow. I admire that, I really do. Buddhism says there is suffering in the world and seeks to save others. Daoism says, how can suffering be used to our advantage?
Why did you personally decide to follow a Daoist path, as opposed to another?
I chafe against dogma. When I’ve been in various Buddhist or Christian institutions, the hypocrisy of the people advocating the doctrines has always been very disappointing. For example, there’s a great deal of scandal, especially sexual scandal, in the history of Buddhism in the United States. If I’m part of a community I want know that the people exhorting me to behave in a certain way are doing it themselves. There were pious people in both traditions, but they didn’t necessarily have the intellectual skill to accompany it. I met people two kinds of people. Either they were powerful and charismatic, but flawed, or they were pious, but limited. In Daoism, it’s just you on the path. Whether you fail or succeed on a daily basis is your own personal struggle.
Daoism is often passed down through traditional master-disciple relationships. How realistic is it to walk the path on one’s own?
I don’t think there’s much choice. I’ve had a number of great teachers, but they all had limitations. One ought not to adopt the limitations of one’s teachers. You go to a teacher because they can initiate you, open the door, and give you the benefit of their experience. However, all that has to be taken as points of reference. They can’t be adopted wholesale. One needs mentors, but not to be the same as them. That’s one of the flaws in asian culture — you’re meant to emulate your master exactly. Think about any of us as children — we cannot be like our parents, we are not our parents. The role of the master is to equip someone for what they need to do, not for what the master wants them to be. People mix obedience and reverence. We should be reverential and respectful of our teachers, but we do not need to imitate them.
I would like to say thank you to Ming-Dao for his time, it was an absolute pleasure speaking with him. You can get in touch with him and keep updated about his work via his website: dengmingdao.com, or Facebook page: facebook.com/dengmingdao.
Ming-Dao is also giving a series on the Shift Network that begins November 9: https://theshiftnetwork.com/Build-Your-Path-Radiant-Health-Longevity
The Nüwa Newsletter is entirely free publication, committed to bringing readers informative and thought provoking content about Daoism and the art of inner cultivation. Please consider supporting via a small donation.
Thank you for this. Over the Year's Deng Ming-Dao's books have enlivened my practice. It was good to hear him in his own words, years later.
Interesting, gives a good understanding of what Daoism is.