the Four Dignities

Standing Lying Walking Sitting


To live a retiring life, Taoist or otherwise, to follow hermitage ways, it might indeed be possible to embody the dictum: when hungry, eat – when tired, rest; although, as with any ‘way’, this too might take many years to master, or to make artless. For most of us it would not be practical; we cannot just retreat, leave off and take to the hidden hills. It is rather the case that if, in fact, we desire to bring something of that lost naturalness into our lives, we must track entirely differently; we must turn again, lace-up our stoutest boots, come down into the valley and with a wind at our backs wear our way with the world rather than seek to leave it.

And here, now, anywhere, right in front of us, is a means to do so. Nowadays we call it ‘meditation’, thereby attempting to tickle it into a net; we might do better to borrow the sage Chuang Tzu’s deceptively beguiling words and call it: ‘going along with things…’


In the early centuries of its journey east, following the silk, adapting to pre-existing principles (of the ‘when hungry, eat’ kind), and perhaps when formalising itself into early monastic communities, Chinese Buddhism found a seam of teaching in these, the ways of Human·Being – of standing lying walking sitting: these four. Here, they understood, was a path whereby to enter the Mind·Heart hsin. It is not, of course, that beasts and fowl do not stand, lie, walk, or sit: it is that we know we do, and by that knowledge we both signify and dignify. This was the lesson.

In Walking, just walk: in Sitting, just sit. This is the essence of going along with things: the absorption in Tao, and the Suchness of Chan.

It is a principle of such straightforward directness that it may, if we will allow it, penetrate all that we do and are, in action and repose; direct, simple even… were it not for the insertion of that little, mere, slight, ‘just’ into the midst of things – making Chuang Tzu’s guidance as darkling hsuan or lucent ming as it truly is. This is the mystery, hidden in moonlight, hidden in sunshine.

 Blinded by light you can not see it, but bring the light within and you may.

 We must begin and abide with the ordinary. Where else? Rising, standing from sleep, then walking – to undertake that which we must do; then sitting – that we might learn, perhaps. The attributes of our everyday – nothing more: and in the being with each, a present, quiet Mind. Then, after some days (months, years), we may realise that we are edging beyond the simply becoming quiet (this, of course, being a natural place of beginning). Something else is going on: it is at this liminal border that the developing of a Vital Posture* becomes useful (perhaps necessary) – in getting deeper below the surface. In developing a posture we are developing a practice. Almost without noticing it we find ourselves undergoing a kind of self-started, and yes, spiritual training. Yet we are not changed, much; our lives continue… It is important, in fact, that we do not separate-off this spiritual training as being something in any way special; we must at all times take care that in our going along with things we remain constant with our own, natural round. This is what Chuang Tzu is saying, over and over: the way is the practice, the Morning and Nightfall of our individual and then collective circa diem.


So the training, the practice, is in the same vein as learning to bake bread (being ordinary), or to read (needing study), or to layer lacquer (a specialised skill). It is a process, and it is useful; leading eventually to a personal and then inter-personal realisation.  And, as with anything worthwhile, it is an event that is continuously both happening (then past) and being created (as present). Fairly early on we understand that it is not enough to repeat or rehearse our previous endeavour; we cannot ‘get back’ to where we were, not even to where we were a few moments beforehand: No, it has to be baked fresh, spelled out, applied and polished, each day – at every opportunity. Good days, poorer days: advancing in practice then falling away won’t, and doesn’t in the end, matter. But, we will have learned this – and it is a singular verity – that we cannot go with nothing into Emptiness: we have to go through and with something. There must, in other words, be a basis of discipline*.
A famous analogy has it thus: A pot of water placed on the stove does not just boil of its own accord. It has to be heated, and each time anew. Slowly, bubbles will rise from the depth, to surface, to burst… Then faster, with steam gathering… until the twinkling moment at which it changes from not boiling to boiling: precise, instantaneous, evanescent as laughter!


What is going on


Just sit, just stand.
Our spiritual nature is unchanging, immanent: it is always present. Yet it is only when we touch it that we realise it.

The temple bell hangs in Emptiness; and is the heart so still…

What is the obstacle to stillness; from where?
The fact is that as creatures of thought and sense we attach to every single thing or emotion that happens to and in us, trying to interpret it, to work it out. However small it be, we struggle under the imperative: we must attend to it, answer it, understand it – rather than letting it go – and our hearts are not still. The temple bell, on the other hand, once struck or blown, freely lets go its sound on the wind… Ding! Ding-ding! … settling again to emptiness. If only we will let go, free up, so will our heart·mind become still.

Just walk, just lie in rest.
Ding-ding! Ding!

Furthermore, the bell when struck tolls from the whole, not only at the place where beater and bell-rim meet. In fact, it is only because of this ‘balancing other’ – its centre and the un-struck degrees of its rim – that it sounds or sustains at all.

With us, too, it is the same.
We should come at this slowly…

Every action of the body or mind defines, or is defined by, a balancing other, a completing whole: thus, movement defines and is defined by stillness, as is North by its completing compass, and vice versa.
Note here: that the ‘balancing other’ may not, necessarily or always, be in opposition to its source; neither may it/they ‘happen’ at exactly the same time. Pursuing this would lead towards an examination of karma.


Following on, we could say that meditation defines and is defined by thought and thinking, though not in the sense that one is the exact counter-part of the other, which would imply a direct opposite-ness, even outsided-ness. It is not the case that in meditation we reject thoughts and thinking or that they are absent from us, only that it is not useful for us to attend to them at that time. In this respect we must let thought fail, fail away from us.
Sit, just sit. Ding! just ding!


either ‘counter-part’, ‘opposite’, nor ‘balancing other’ offer quite the precise meaning here that we need; they are too separating, too dual. We must invent something: something more inclusive, more internal, more personal. We might try, as a suggestion: ‘inter-part’, Yes?

So, it is not that thoughts do not come whilst we meditate – they do: they are beater on rim, forming an inter-part to our whole practice – it is just that we do not follow them; we strive on (boots still laced), turn away from the imperative. Or if we do follow – and as we are all beginners, we will do so time and time again – we do not follow very far before detaching.
This is where a word of contemplation mantra may prove useful: read on.


Pushing the notion of the inter-part, just a little further – and more slowly still… It follows that not only does every thought and action define (or show in relief) its inter-part, it also defines or implies (into infinity, which means of course not only into the future but into all directions and dimensions of time simultaneously) every other thought or action that happens, or has happened, or will happen or could happen. Then, pursuing this, it could be said that in identifying oneself as a single – on one’s own, as a livingness – one is, must be, at the same moment defining oneself in the plural: as drop enters ocean, ocean enters drop… And more than this, defining every other livingness (also dying-ness) that there could be, or is, or was, or will be. I, as inter-part, define You, without separation.  You are inter-part Me. There are not Two. Every possible Other is revealed by the concept of One, without separation, including no other, no matter, no void.
Tang dynasty Chan Master Hui Hai, the Great Pearl, teaching around 800CE, writes in his treatise on Instantaneous Awakening: ‘a single syllable reveals the Mind’. He is pointing directly at WU.


That which is clear-bright, that is empty, that is shadow-dim, that is also brim-full.

Thus is the intellect boggled to a standstill. Enough!

Surely this alone gives us reason to cease the constant movement of thought… or, at the least to give us pause, to open up gaps between thoughts? Indeed, upon reflection, we will realise that this is something we do naturally, anyway; it is just that we are mostly unaware of it. When the flow and follow of our thoughts opens gaps, meditation is what pours in, into the inter-part spaces between; between our thoughts and sometimes, too, between ourselves.

Look in: the gaps will widen, increase, linger, linger longer, having a feeling as of immense space. In this sense, and taking a cue from the Heart Sutra Pranja Paramita, we could say that meditation is SPACE: gaté, gaté, paragaté, parasamgaté, Bodhi-svaha ‘gone, gone, gone beyond, altogether beyond, Awakening, fulfilled…’

For a moment the mystery is seen and felt – wherever the light wherever the dark – in the Heart. This is WU HSIN


When moment becomes moment is moment, ensuing. Room opens upon room, enfiladed… There we may lie stand walk sit: sitting tso chan/zazen, particularly, allows for awareness with duration (until we have had enough, that is*). Everything flows where nothing moves. Language, science, art – the fruits of our evolved reason – description too, begin to break down. Is it that we fall through time, or that time falls through us? Do we surround light, or are we surrounded by it? Is life breath, breath life, personal or and universal? What is the question when the answer is happening at the same time, and why? And why cling even to words when they no longer work? The tree does not call itself ‘tree’, yet it is so: it is at once both thing and event – as are we, all. At rest, at last; and even from this, from the rose petals raining unaccountably from the sky as from the thunder in the valley, Let Go!


Going along with things is means without method.

Turbid waters tumble at the weir, becoming pool: ever-spreading, ever-still…


Something on Contemplation


Happening upon the intuitive mind and using it is contemplation kuan. It arrives with meditation, un-looked for – a reflexive response – and it shines with being at rest. Sometimes, from within this quiet spontaneity, we may hear repeated or choose to repeat internally – as if unknowingly and by some mysterious means – a phrase, word, or pattern of sound: when this happens it could be said that we have come upon a personal mantra. These syllables – as contemplation – act as a guide. Turned over, like a pebble in the pocket,  they are something to draw us into, or along with, or as a means of coming back to, our meditation; once again, to open up the gaps between thoughts. Probably, if it is to matter, a personal mantra should be kept close, guarded to oneself: such mind-retrieved gifts are rare, after all.

It is more probable that we find ourselves in the company of someone who, following a particular tradition, offers us, or directs us towards such a phrase; towards a known mantra of ancient lineage and custom. In taking it up, this too must become entirely personal to us, and deeply sincere – in time revealing its heart of meaning.

Utter, whisper, intone: silently repeat…
There are, without doubt, syllables of Absolute Virtue in the world: some drenched in ritual, others profoundly and unknowably sacred; still others, of origin lost, unintelligible to us now as anything other than sound resounding – but what sound!

Finding a mantra, too, is a case of going along with – of tickling along – with things… For whatever we hear within, though it reach us from the deepest, furthest without, must arise from and be in nature – to which it will Return…

Which is sufficient.


*Chuang Tzu was writing around 250BCE(?). It should be noted that he himself was pretty much scornful of any formalising discipline… His genius, personal wisdom, enlightenment, being rare he obviously didn’t need it. As dimmer folk, living in an environment we have so much over-contrived, we must surely find a gentle discipline our necessary guide.

*For something on this see article: On the Healing in Chi Kung

*Competitive sitting is an absolute no no! Meditation time is your time and no one else’s.

Romanized words in Sanskrit are presented thus in this article.

Written to accompany the ‘tim’studio – meditations’ mini-retreat days of January & May 2013 ©