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Chinese 坐忘
Literal meaning sitting forgetting

Zuowang (simplified Chinese: 坐忘; pinyin: zuòwàng) is a classic Daoist meditation technique, described (Kohn 2008a:1308) as, "a state of deep trance or intense absorption, during which no trace of ego-identity is felt and only the underlying cosmic current of the Dao is perceived as real." Zuowang originated during the late Warring States period (475-221 BCE), formed the Zuowanglun title of a Tang dynasty (618-907) treatise on meditation, and continues in Daoist contemplative practice today. This ancient Daoist practice compares with zuochan "sitting meditation" in Chinese Buddhism and jingzuo "quietly sitting" in Neo-Confucianism.


  • Terminology 1
  • Classical usages 2
    • Zhuangzi 2.1
    • Huainanzi 2.2
    • Zuowanglun 2.3
  • Modern interpretations 3
  • Modern research 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


In terms of Karlgren 1923:366), or "'to lose' (from memory)" (Schuessler 2007:507).

Accurately translating zuowang is problematic. Compare the remarkable similarities among dictionary translation equivalents.

  • "be in a state of mental abstraction" (Herbert Giles 1912)
  • "to sit in a state of mental abstraction" (Robert Henry Mathews 1931)
  • "oblivious of oneself and one's surroundings; free from worldly concerns" (Liang Shih-chiu & Chang Fang-chieh 1971)
  • "oblivious of one's surroundings, free from worldly concerns" (Lin Yutang 1972)
  • "① be oblivious of oneself and one's surroundings ② be free from worldly concerns" (John DeFrancis 2003)

Kohn explains translating wang as "oblivion".

Zuowang 坐忘 "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. I translate wang as "oblivion" and "oblivious" rather than "forgetting" or "forgetful" because the connotation of "forget" in English is that one should remember but doesn't do so, or – if used intentionally – that one actively and intentionally does something in the mind. None of these holds true for what ancient and medieval Daoists were about. This is borne out both by the language and the writings: the word wang in Chinese consists of the character xin for "mind-heart," usually associated with conscious and emotional reactions to reality and the word wang for "obliterate" or "perish." The implication is – as indeed described in the sources – that one lets go of all kinds of intentional and reactive patterns and comes to rest in oneness with spirit and is ready to merge completely with Dao. (Kohn 2010:1)

The synonyms yiwang 遺忘 and wangque 忘卻 mean "forget; oblivion".

Daoist zuowang meditation had parallels in other Chinese religions and philosophies. The practice of jingzuo 靜坐 "quiet sitting" was first recorded in the (3rd century BCE) Legalist classic Hanfeizi. Neo-Confucian leaders like Zhu Xi (1130-1200) and Wang Yangming (1472–1529) advocated jingzuo meditation. (Jingzuo shiwei 静坐示威 is the modern Chinese word for "sit-in"). The Chinese Buddhist practice of zuochan 坐禪 "sitting meditation" (namely, Japanese zazen) uses the word chan "meditation; abstraction; trance", and zuosi 坐思 "sitting contemplation" uses si "think; consider; deliberate". Compare the Buddhist word zuowang 坐亡 "sitting death; passing away while sitting in meditation", which is the ideal manner of death for eminent monks and nuns.

Classical usages

Warring States period.


The Daoist Confucianism: li "rites; ritual; morals", yue 樂 "music" (see Classic of Music), ren "benevolence; human-heartedness; altruism", and yi "justice; righteousness; significance" (compare the Daodejing 18).

"I'm making progress," said Yen Hui.
"What do you mean?" asked Confucius.
"I have forgotten rites and music."
"Not bad, but you still haven't got it."
Yen Hui saw Confucius again on another day and said, "I'm making progress."
"What do you mean?"
"I have forgotten humaneness and righteousness."
"Not bad, but you still haven't got it."
Yen Hui saw Confucius again on another day and said, "I'm making progress."
"What do you mean?"
"I sit and forget."
"What do you mean, 'sit and forget'?" Confucius asked with surprise.
"I slough off my limbs and trunk," said Yen Hui, "dim my intelligence, depart from my form, leave knowledge behind, and become identical with the Transformational Thoroughfare. This is what I mean by 'sit and forget'."
"If you are identical," said Confucius, "then you have no preferences. If you are transformed, then you have no more constants. It's you who is really the worthy one! Please permit me to follow after you." (tr. Mair 1994a:63-64)

Roth (2003:18) refers to the

The Zhuangzi has other allusions to meditation. Yan Hui asks Confucius about xinzhai 心齋 "fasting of the mind" (4, tr. Mair 1994a:32), and two chapters discuss the question "Can you really make your body become like a withered carcass and your mind like dead ashes?" (2, 24, tr. Mair 1994a:246). Harold Oshima (1983:67) clarifies that for Zhuangzi, "forgetting" means to empty the

The Xuanxue (lit. "Arcane Learning") "Neo-Daoist" philosopher Guo Xiang (d. 312 CE) redacted the Zhuangzi text, and wrote a commentary, which explains zuowang.

In a state of sitting in oblivion, what could there be unforgotten? First one forgets all outer manifestations (ji 迹), then one also forgets that which causes the manifestations. On the inside, one is unaware that there is a self (shen 身), on the outside one never knows that there is heaven and earth. Thus one becomes utterly empty and can unite with the changes, leaving nothing unpervaded. (tr. Kohn 2008a:1308, cf. 2010:17)

Guo refers to the Xuanxue philosophical distinction between ben 本 "root" (Daoist underlying ground of Being) and ji "traces" (apparent Confucian virtues), "as everything is a trace of the Ultimate Truth, neither real because is not the Truth, nor false because it is its manifestation" (Robinet 2008:275). In addition, "Guo Xiang interprets the attained state of oneness as one of going along with the changes, adding an ecstatic element of transformation to the basically enstatic notion of oblivion" (Kohn 2008a:1308).

Compare the above Zhuangzi translation by Victor H. Mair with the following.

  • "I neglect my body and allow it to become effete; I discard my intelligence; so that, divesting myself of all corporealties [sic] and permitting all knowledge to flow away I have become as one who has attained to complete perspicuity of vision. This is what I mean by sitting in in perfect abstraction." (Frederic H. Balfour 1881:81)
  • "My connexion with the body and its parts is dissolved; my perceptive organs are discarded. Thus leaving my material form, and bidding farewell to my knowledge, I am become one with the Great Pervader. This I call sitting and forgetting all things." (James Legge 1891:257)
  • "I have discarded my reasoning powers. And by thus getting rid of body and mind, I have become ONE with the Infinite. This is what I mean by getting rid of everything." (Herbert Giles 1926:89)
  • "I smash up my limbs and body, drive out perception and intellect, cast off form, do away with understanding, and make myself identical with the Great Thoroughfare. This is what I mean by sitting down and forgetting everything." (tr. Burton Watson 1968:90)
  • "I let organs and members drop away, dismiss eyesight and hearing, part from the body and expel knowledge, and go along with the universal thoroughfare. This is what I mean by 'just sit and forget'." (A. C. Graham 1981:92)
  • "I cast off my limb and trunk, give up my hearing and sight, leave my physical form and deprive myself of my mind. In this way, I can identify myself with Tao. This is the so-called 'sitting and forgetting'." (Wang Rongpei 1999:111)

The translators render datong 大通 as "Great Pervader," "the Infinite," "Great/ universal/Transformational Thoroughfare," and "Tao." Mair (1994:13) explains that "Transformational Thoroughfare" follows the Huainanzi graphic variant (or copyist's error) of hua 化 "transform; change; convert" for 大 "big; great".



The (c. 139 BCE) philosophical compendium Huainanzi includes another version of the anecdote about Yan Hui explaining zuowang to his teacher Confucius.

"I am making progress," said Yan Hui.
"What do you mean?" asked Confucius.
"I have forgotten Rites and Music."
"Not bad, but you still haven't got it."
Yan Hui saw Confucius on another day and said, "I am making progress."
"What do you mean?"
"l have forgotten Humaneness and Rightness."
"Not bad, but you still haven't got it."
Yan Hui saw Confucius again on another day and said, "I sit and forget."
"What do you mean 'sit and forget'?" Confucius asked with surprise.
"I slough off my limbs and trunk," said Yan Hui, "dim my intelligence, depart from my form, leave knowledge behind, and immerse myself in the conduits of transformation. This is what I mean by 'sit and forget'."
"If you are immersed," said Confucius, "then you have no preferences. If you are transformed, then you have no more constants. It is you who is really the worthy one! Please permit me to follow after you."
Therefore the Laozi says:
"When nourishing your ethereal soul and embracing the One –
can you not let them go?
In concentrating your qi and attaining softness,
can you be like an infant?" (12, tr. Major et al. 2010:468-9)

The Huainanzi version appends a Daodejing (10) quotation, which is not found in the Zhuangzi. Besides some minor differences – such as exchanging li and yue with ren and yi, and writing huatong "Transformational Thoroughfare" for datong "Great Thoroughfare" – these two versions are conspicuously similar. Major et al. (2010:432) caution against concluding that the Huainanzi compilers drew upon the Zhuangzi. Roth (1991) suggests that the received Zhuangzi text may have been compiled, along with the Huainanzi, at the Huainan court of Liu An.


The twelfth zuowang meditation. The text has survived in two editions: one in Zhang Junfang's Yunji Qiqian 雲笈七籤 and Xu Song's Quan Tangwen 全唐文, and another in the Daozang. A shorter Zuowanglun copy was inscribed on a stele erected on Mount Wangwu in 829.

According to Kohn (2008b:1310), "The text in either of its versions outlines the practitioner's gradual progress toward the Dao in seven steps: I. "Respect and Faith" (Jingxin 敬信); 2. "Interception of karma" (Duanyuan 斷緣); 3. "Restraining the Mind" (Shouxin 收心); 4. "Detachment from Affairs" (Jianshi 簡事); "True Observation" (Zhenguan 真觀); 6. "Intense Concentration" (Taiding 泰定); 7. "Realizing the Dao" (Dedao 得道)."

Modern interpretations

Schools of East Asian Buddhism adopted zuowang practices, notably Chinese Chan, Japanese Zen, and Tibetan Dzogchen.

Through its practice, adepts eliminate all sensory perception and the conscious mind as inherently dualistic and potentially misleading, avoiding the use of the sensory apparatus in attaining higher states. 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. (Kohn 2010:6)

Daoists today use zuowang to mean a specific form of practice involving loss of self and conscious thought.

Victor H. Mair, polymathic Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, explains zuowang [wikilinks added].

Tsowang ("sit-forget") is the technical term in early Taoism for meditation. It corresponds roughly to Buddhist ch'an (i.e., Zen, from Sanskrit dhyāna) but more specifically to samādhi ("conjoining"), a trance state in which the mind loses itself in the object of contemplation. This may be thought of as complete obliviousness. There are numerous precise stages and states in Indian meditation. In general, they may be described, in Patanjali's term, as various types of citta-vṛtti-nirodha ("mental-action-control"). The highest levels are the various types of trance (śamana, "calming, pacification") in which the yogi becomes one with the universe and in which all trace of mental activity ceases. Similar trance states are described in the Chuang Tzu, although here the emphasis is less on the voiding (śūnyatā) of the mind than it is on "bodilessness" (videha) or exteriorization. (1994b:13)

Liu Xingdi of the Leigutai Temple in Shaanxi says:

Zuowang is allowing everything to slip from the mind, not dwelling on thoughts, allowing them to come and go, simply being at rest. It is important to take a good posture to still the body and calm the mind. Otherwise qi disperses, attention wanders, and the natural process is disturbed. Just remain empty and there is no separation from Dao. Then wisdom will arise and bring forth light, with is the clear qi of the person. Do not think too much about the theory of this, otherwise you are sure to disturb the mind. It is like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. To think about stopping it halfway is a futile exercise. Just trust the inherent natural process. (Shi 2005:6)

Shi Jing, leader of the British Taoist Association, explains:

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 only see the world as a place to fulfill personal ambition and desire. (2006:11)

Eva Wong, author and Quanzhen practitioner, says:

Zuowang is a dropping of conceptions. When we drop conceptions, what we have is the natural emergence of the natural self, the natural celestial mind, which has been with us all the time. It is only because of our conceptions that we can't experience it. So when we practice zuowang, we are simply saying that here is a method where we can begin to drop conceptions. (Shi 2007:8)

Modern research

Research on meditation has examined basic zuowang relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and attentional control, which Kohn (2010:124) says, "have a profound impact on human physiology and neurology, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and creating an inner state of receptivity and caIm."

Santee (2012) compares Herbert Benson's "Relaxation Response" with Daoist zuowang meditation practices. Benson (2000:104-106) cites the clazssic Zhuangzi passage on Yan Hui's zuowang as an example of culturally diverse methods for evoking the relaxation response and reducing chronic stress.

The psychiatrist Charles E. Stroebel's "Quieting Reflex" (1989) also uses concentration for healing. Kohn (2010:124) describes it as "somewhat closer to Daoist practice," notably the notion of qi circulating through meridians and organs.

The holistic psychologist John Diamond's "Behavioral Kinesiology" (1978), which is based upon the controversial applied kinesiology, involves social, physical, and psychological measures to enhance bodily well-being, which Kohn (2010:124) finds to be "very much in agreement with those described by Sun Simiao and Sima Chengzhen."

Livia Kohn concludes.

To sum up, while many of the practices associated with oblivion as an integrated system are still present today—as much as zuowang itself is still practiced in Daoist communities—the focus for the most part has shifted toward the more immediate gratification of modern desires: stress release, pain control, healing, and enhanced success and well-being. In addition, there are certain branches of modern science: such as kinesiology and energy medicine, that allow the integration of traditional Daoist views of body and mind into a contemporary scientific framework and are shaping current new developments. (2010:124)

See also


  • Balfour, Frederic Henry, tr. (1881), The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua; Being the Works of Chuang Tsze, Taoist Philosopher. Kelly & Walsh.
  • Benson, Herbert and Miriam Z. Klipper (2000), The Relaxation Response, Harper Collins.
  • DeFrancis, John, ed. (2003), ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, University of Hawaii Press.
  • Giles, Herbert A., ed. (1912), A Chinese-English Dictionary, 2nd. ed., Kelly & Walsh.
  • Giles, Herbert Allen, tr. (1926), Chuang Tzǔ: Mystic, Moralist, and Social Reformer, Kelly & Walsh.
  • Graham, A.C. (2001), Chuang-tzu: The Inner Chapters, Hackett Publishing Company.
  • Karlgren, Bernhard. 1923. Analytic Dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese. Paul Geunther.
  • Kohn, Livia (1987), Seven Steps to the Tao: Sima Chengzhen's Zuowanglun, Steyler Verlag.
  • Kohn, Livia (2008a), "Zuowang 坐忘 sitting in oblivion," in The Encyclopedia of Taoism, ed. by Fabrizio Pregadio, 1308-1309.
  • Kohn, Livia (2008b), "Zuowang lun 坐忘論 Essay on sitting in oblivion," in The Encyclopedia of Taoism, ed. by Fabrizio Pregadio, 1309-1310.
  • Kohn, Livia (2009), Daoist Body Cultivation and Behavioral Kinesiology, Daoist Studies
  • Kohn, Livia (2010), Sitting in Oblivion: The Heart of Daoist Meditation, Three Pines Press.
  • Legge, James, tr. (1891), The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Taoism, Part I, Oxford University Press.
  • Liang Shih-chiu 梁實秋and Chang Fang-chieh 張芳杰, eds. (1971), Far East Chinese-English Dictionary, Far East Book Co.
  • Lin Yutang, ed. (1972), Lin Yutang's Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
  • Mair, Victor H., tr. (1994a), Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu, Bantam Books.
  • Mair, Victor H. (1994b), "Introduction and Notes for a Complete Translation of the Chuang Tzu," Sino-Platonic Papers 48.
  • Major, John S., Sarah Queen, Andrew Meyer, and Harold Roth (2010), The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China, by Liu An, King of Huainan, Columbia University Press.
  • Mathews, Robert H., ed. (1931), Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, Presbyterian Mission Press.
  • Oshima, Harold H. (1983), "A Metaphorical Analysis of the Concept of Mind in the Chuang-tzu," in Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu, edited by Victor H. Mair, University of Hawaii Press, 63-84.
  • Robinet, Isabelle (1993), Taoist Meditation: The Mao-shan Tradition of Great Purity, SUNY Press, original French 1989.
  • Robinet, Isabelle (2008), "Chongxuan 重玄 Twofold Mystery," in The Encyclopedia of Taoism, ed. by Fabrizio Pregadio, 274-6.
  • Roth, Harold D, (1991), "Who Compiled the Chuang Tzu?," in Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts: Essays Dedicated to Angus C. Graham, ed. Henry Rosemont Jr., Open Court Press.
  • Roth, Harold D. (2003), "Bimodal Mystical Experience in the Qiwulun," in Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi, edited by Scott Cook, SUNY, 15-32.
  • Santee, Robert (2012), "Sitting in Forgetfulness and the Relaxation Response: An Inquiry into Managing the Physical and Psychological Symptoms of Chronic Stress," Sixth International Conference on Daoist Studies.
  • Schuessler, Axel. 2007. ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese. University of Hawaii Press.
  • Shi Jing (2005), "An Interview with Liu Xingdi," The Dragon's Mouth, British Taoist Association, 3:2-8.
  • Shi Jing (2006), "Sitting and Forgetting: An Introduction to Zuowang," The Dragon's Mouth, British Taoist Association, 1:10-13.
  • Shi Jing (2007), "Interview: Eva Wong – Quanzhen," The Dragon's Mouth, British Taoist Association, 1:4-8.
  • Stroebel, Charles Frederick (1989), QR, the Quieting Reflex, Berkley.
  • Wang Rongpei, tr. (1999), Zhuangzi (Library of Chinese Classics: Chinese-English edition), Foreign Languages Press.
  • Watson, Burton, tr. (1968), The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, Columbia University Press.

External links

  • Zuowang Meditation, Sitting and Forgetting, Michael P. Garofalo
  • Daoist Zuowang Meditation, Tao Directory
  • On Sitting in Oblivion, Daoinfo
  • Zuowang Meditation: Forgetting to Remember, Lori A. Furbush
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