Guarding the One is a term which originated with Taoist masters in ancient China. The One referred to the universal energy (chi) from which all forms arise— Tao, the Great Way as it manifests in the energy of Chi. Guarding the one was a meditative approach, involving deep concentration, and building inner energy, cultivating and keeping the chi within the body.
When Buddhist masters came to China, they were exposed to the native Taoist traditions, and the result was a new style of Buddhism known as Chan (later Zen in Japan). Early Chan masters borrowed the idea of Guarding the One from Taoists and used it to mean focusing the mind single-pointedly, stabilizing and calming the mind. Tao-hsin and Hung-Jen (the 4th &5th patriarchs) used the phrase “guarding the one without moving.” This is a one-pointed meditative technique. As we sit, I offer you this theme, and urge you to use this opportunity to really practice your focus and concentration. You can focus on the breath, on the hara in the lower belly, on a koan. If you practice shikantaza your focus can be more expansive, but this requires even greater depth of concentration.
The early Taoist version of this practice meant much the same, except that they emphasized more the building and preserving of energy. The One was not just a focus in meditative practice, but the One itself, ‘the primordial vital energy underlying all . . . the pure power of life.” (Livia Kohn, “The Taoist Experience” p. 192) Guarding the One was seen as a foundation of health and long-life. In Zen we don’t traditionally talk much about energy. However it is there. When we practice focused meditation, our inner energy builds. When we come out of retreat, we typically feel a sense of stable, nourishing energy, which is called joriki in Japanese Zen. This is the chi. In fact in our lineage Maezumi Roshi had a period during his career when he explored the Taoist roots of the teachings, and particularly the teachings on chi, and how we can build and channel it throughout our body. We are blessed to have this day to practice in this way. Take this time to develop your concentration and nourish yourselves inwardly.
At the same time in considering your life beyond sitting meditation, there are also methods for how this approach can be practiced throughout one’s days by being present and focused in whatever you are doing and saying, such that the distinction between doing, saying, and thinking disappear, and an increased experience of harmony and oneness manifests. In this way we can stay centered, and “guard the one” in whatever we are doing.
To summarize, “guarding the one” gives stability to the mind, but also supports health and longevity. The idea is through quiet inner concentration, we nourish and build inner energy, keeping it in the body, maintaining the integrity of ones being. Today our one-day retreat is a perfect opportunity to work with this idea of guarding the one— practicing meditative focus, and nourishing our inner energies. In doing so, we can also recognize ways we can bring this concentrative presence into our lives outside of retreat.
Along that line, before we go back into our sitting meditation, I want to share some further thoughts that have been with me recently as I have contemplated the notion of guarding the one. I see this as having profound implications, not just for oneself but for the world. Yes, we find the One within ourselves, and we concentrate inwardly in our meditation. At the same time, the One is present in all beings and all things. Thus “Guarding the One” is a peacemaking mission — guarding and protecting that which unites us, that which is most important — the universality of life itself, the energy at the heart of all beings, which everyone is an expression of. In this sense, all of our practices: precepts, peacemaking, ritual, council, along with meditation, are forms of “guarding the one”. Let’s dedicate this day and our ongoing practice to Guarding the One, protecting and nourishing the very heart of life, not only in ourselves, but in all beings.