Wu Wei & Non Action & Action
Wu Wei is often translated simply as action without action or nonaction. Unfortunately, at times people think wu wei means to be passive or doing nothing. When in actuality wu wei is a very active process. A Taoist is both always acting and not acting… life is a dance between both of those extremes. This dance is wu wei. It means being aware, in action by extending out one’s senses to be a part of the larger universe. This helps a person select the minimal and natural actions that do lead the way in a Taoist lifestyle. To be part of and use what is flowing around us in both passive and active processes. Wu wei happens to be incredibly efficient since you can use natural processes and time actions to best effect. However, wu wei isn’t always the fastest path in life. At times the action of waiting for the graceful moment of action will seem as inaction to outsiders.
Generally speaking within wu wei our actions are without exaggeration or waste of expression yet are also nontrivial. Actions should promote natural harmony rather than maintain useless social restrictions.
So Non-Action is not No action.
For example, I once wrote:
No action will place a person squarely in a flock.
It must be stressed living within a culture means acting relative to that culture. If you think you might be outside the social flock, then I must ask if you are fully examining all of your actions/connections. How you obtain food, your relationships, what products you purchase or how you work in earning money all connect you back into a larger social system that you are within.
Our culture is designed to funnel the average set of actions, into the primary trends of the culture. In other words, if you do nothing except live an average or even a simple life, many of your actions are still being funneled back into reinforcing the larger system you live within. This funneling is used directly to support those in power where media, fashion and politics reinforce people to continue acting in ways that most profoundly support that system.
Wu Wei / Non-Action often implies wise choices in how you support yourself and live. Using simple and basic choices are powerful and literally can shape and move society in ways contrary to current social trends and help improve one’s culture.
No action will only result in your being channeled by the larger social forces around you.
Wu Wei, Non-Action & Non Violence
An interesting exploration of Wu – Wei can be found in Gandhi’s “Satyagraha” (“Insistence on Truth”) or methods of Nonviolent Resistance. Many people when face with violence react with violence. Wu Wei shows us how to move around acts of the greatest force (such as violence) and avoid blind reactions. Wu Wei permits us to pause, to examine options and then take what is felt to be a graceful option with least wasted energy.
Gandhi describes Satyagraha as follows:
I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.
On Nonviolent Resistance by Gandhi
Grace represents the actions of greatest potential. The ironic truth: the larger the action, the more that action disrupts alternative options or even your intended result. So nonviolence while active in response isn’t directly as forceful as violence itself. Non Violence opens up additional nonviolent options from the other side.
- Wu Wei doesn’t exclude violent actions; rather it recognizes actions impact results. Wu Wei works with a pause as a step in your actions to see all the potentials and best choose options that are graceful.
- Wu Wei doesn’t mean nonviolence. Rather violence is a forced action and to be used with wisdom. Taoists accept violence as part of life but the times it should be used is minimal.
Notice in non Violence & Satyagraha as violence is still actually present. In the quote from Gandhi, he clearly states that in Satyagraha as a person takes the violence onto themselves and turns that energy around with compassion. So Taoism and wu wei would extend Satyagraha as and not limit it only to absorbing violence. A person practicing wu wei will examine with awareness many options before taking in or inflicting violence. Violence is embraced sparingly and with well-balanced care within wu wei.
Dictionary.com has an excellent overview regarding Wu Wei and Violence.
Wu wei does not mean total passivity. Rather, it is natural, non-aggressive behavior that compels others (through shame, if for no other reason) to desist voluntarily from violence or overly aggressive conduct. Taoism, therefore, is not indifferent to violence, for it counters violence in its own paradoxical way. Ideally, Taoists do not argue or debate. They rely on proper timing to set forth what they believe to be true, and they speak out against unseemly conduct only when their words are likely to be heeded. Taoists view laws and controls as undesirable repressions of human nature.
Here is Gandhi explaining Satyagraha. Take a moment to spot where in this practice you can see wu wei in action.
There are two ways of countering injustice. One way is to smash the head of the man who perpetrates injustice and to get your own head smashed in the process. All strong people in the world adopt this course. Everywhere wars are fought and millions of people are killed. The consequence is not the progress of a nation but its decline… Pride makes a victorious nation bad-tempered. It falls into luxurious ways of living. Then for a time, it may be conceded, peace prevails. But after a short while, it comes more and more to be realized that the seeds of war have not been destroyed but have become a thousand times more nourished and mighty. No country has ever become, or will ever become, happy through victory in war. A nation does not rise that way; it only falls further. In fact, what comes to it is defeat, not victory. And if, perchance, either our act or our purpose was ill-conceived, it brings disaster to both belligerents.
But through the other method of combating injustice, we alone suffer the consequences of our mistakes, and the other side is wholly spared. This other method is satyagraha. One who resorts to it does not have to break another’s head; he may merely have his own head broken. He has to be prepared to die himself suffering all the pain. In opposing the atrocious laws of the Government of South Africa, it was this method that we adopted. We made it clear to the said Government that we would never bow to its outrageous laws. No clapping is possible without two hands to do it, and no quarrel without two persons to make it. Similarly, no State is possible without two entities, the rulers and the ruled. You are our sovereign, our Government, only so long as we consider ourselves your subjects. When we are not subjects, you are not the sovereign either. So long as it is your endeavor to control us with justice and love we will let you do so. But if you wish to strike at us from behind we cannot permit it. Whatever you do in other matters, you will have to ask our opinion about the laws that concern us. If you make laws to keep us suppressed in a wrongful manner and without taking us into confidence, these laws will merely adorn the statute books. We will never obey them. Award us for what punishment you like, we will put up with it. Send us to prison and we will live there as in a paradise. Ask us to mount the scaffold and we will do so laughing. Shower what sufferings you like upon us; we will calmly endure all and not hurt a hair of your body. We will gladly die and will not so much as touch you. But so long as there is yet life in these our bones, we will never comply with your arbitrary laws.
India did win their freedom from the United Kingdom and in this victory we can see echoes of wu wei.
Helping Others with Wu Wei
It’s strange to discover how much impact we can have in the most simple actions. How wu wei / nonaction principles can lead to big changes in the lives around you.
I usually only hear or see the effects of what I did long afterward. Today I just talked to someone I helped back a few years ago, with a few hours of conversation. Those few moments of conversation ended up forming whole new work groups and methods to do business, that then rippled out to helping countless others in substance abuse treatment.
As a Taoist, I assist in very simple ways, as quietly as possible and to move on quickly. Never to guide others beyond what fits their life. Striving always to Wu-Wei. It’s strange after 10 or 20 years how people will bounce back into me and inform me of what I built, did or said is still in use or growing.
The point is: you can make a difference, just don’t get trapped by ego or desires to make it more than what it needs to be.
Our ego likes to fool us into thinking it’s the larger “I” that is required to make a difference. That the big actions require a strong commitment of our personal energy. Truth is: “I” doesn’t make any difference in the help, rather: What made the difference was just sharing within simple acts of kindness at the right moment. It had nothing to do with me, even when being the messenger. It had everything to do with how others decided to listen and grow from simple ideas.
It’s possible to look at this in many ways, but within this Taoist style, you have the most freedom to explore unhampered the larger world, while still assisting others. While I am happy I helped, if I let myself only be defined to that process, the very definition of my help would force me to be back to continue fulfilling the endless shapes formed by the empty space of need of others.
So I help as I can and also move with what is around me as my life flows. So: I am now freely watching wild turkeys cross in front of me, embracing the wet morning rain and having the warm sun wrap around me in a blissful, peaceful moment. I still make a difference, while fully living my own life, defined by my own wonder, rather than only being defined by the problems I solved in passing in kindness.
I hope you catch the difference!
This is an important Taoist lesson about how to be free, using wu wei in how you hold yourself without attachment and then assist with kindness at the same time.
To anyone looking for this text to rehash many of the basic terms of Taoism, then I suggest be-bopping over to the expectations section.
No one person can know or represent the vast amounts of literature covering Taoism. Attempting to do so is counter-productive to accepting the Tao. As a result, the core version of this book does not discuss directly the Yin and Yang, Chi, Wu-Wei, Zhenren or ten thousand other possible Taoist topics. Very few direct references to traditional Taoist terms are used in this book. Spending energy to associate old names and trying to understand how it all relates would make the “process” of learning more important than just relaxing and being yourself.
To some: this approach will be an incentive to explore the additional wonders of the older texts. For others: this style will make the discovery of the Tao a very simple process.
Taoism has no requirements of degrees, exceptional backgrounds or previous knowledge.
Touching the Tao takes only a single breath.
Learning the Tao is simply
Tracing the Spirit
Nothing is ever missing
Between here and there in time, in the about now, it becomes time to answer the questions about Taoist terms such as Wu-Wei.
Since when does the world flow according to our statements of fact?
Wu-Wei means “not doing”, means “action thru inaction”, means “Spontaneity”, means “action without directed intention”, means… I have read pages upon pages on what Wu-Wei means, what it might mean, how the meaning varies upon scholar or parrot, and…
Now know… Moving backwards … it means: nothing.
Now after telling you, other questions pop up: “how does that relate to Tao?”, “how do I not act, and get something done?”, and, and… And questions upon questions then pile up, each question taking a person one additional question further away from understanding the Tao.
Re-wind time: if I don’t define Wu-Wei, the reverse happens, bringing it all one step closer as the directed action has been removed. Instead within an ongoing gradual conversation between you and I, spread across the pages is a more natural way of discovering Wu-Wei; as in reality, Wu-Wei is weaved throughout the entire book.
Hence by the end of the book, you will fully understand Wu-Wei without having to know its Wu-Wei. It makes sense as when you stop trying, that becomes the point Wu-Wei kicks in, and everything typically comes together as if it all were planned, yet the only planning is common sense. To the Taoist, that’s the ultimate in Wu-Wei.
This starts off with a simple Taoist Word: Ziran
From Wikipedia as a starting point
Ziran is a concept in Daoism that literally means “self so; so of its own; so of itself” and thus “naturally; natural; spontaneously; freely; in the course of events; of course; doubtlessly” (Slingerland 2003, p. 97; Lai, p. 96). This Chinese word is a two-character compound of zi (自) “nose; self; oneself; from; since” and ran (然) “right; correct; so; yes”, which is used as a -ran suffix marking adjectives or adverbs (roughly corresponding to English -ly). It is worth mentioning that in Chinese culture, the nose (or zi) is a common metaphor for a person’s point of view (Callahan, 1989).
The word ‘ziran’ first occurs in the Daodejing (17, 23, 25, 51) and refers to the structure of Dao, which cannot be referred back to anything else.
D. T. Suzuki, in a brief article penned in 1959, makes the suggestion of ziran as an aesthetic of action: “Living is an act of creativity demonstrating itself. Creativity is objectively seen as necessity, but from the inner point of view of Emptiness it is ‘just-so-ness,’ (ziran). It literally means ‘by itself-so-ness,’ implying more inner meaning than ‘spontaneity’ or ‘naturalness'”
If you look this up in a contemporary Chinese dictionary, you’ll find ziran as meaning something like “at ease, natural, free from affectation”. Also, a slightly different pronunciation, but same characters, ziran, you’ll get nature or natural, or naturally, in the ordinary course of events; or “of course”. It has in any case, a fundamentalness, which is what we are trying to achieve (through wu wei, which can be described as “non-assertion.”). Or perhaps ziran is a little like Kant’s “ding an sich” (thing in itself). You can’t know it, but you can be it. So this is in part getting beyond all the illusions and stresses we create for ourselves.
It is a cultural curiosity that when Chinese want to refer to themselves, they very often point to their nose (zi), not to the chest/heart area as westerners might.
In the Tao Te Ching in the last lines of verse 25 are about ziran.
ren fa di,
di fa tian,
tian fa dao,
dao fa zi ran.
Man follows the ways of earth
The earth follows the ways of heaven
Heaven follows the ways of Tao
Tao follows its own ways. (ziran). (John C.H.Wu)
In English rhetoric, we might say something is so ‘by definition’. The importance of Ziran is to acknowledge ourselves / or something for what it is in “essence” rather than trying to hang other definitions for”Self” or “Thing”. To use definitions will create images that confused and distract from an innate fundamental naturalness.
Ziran doesn’t have a direct English translation. So when people come across it in the Tao Te Ching, it gets translated into many different aspects. A common translation used would be “Core nature”.
So as those who work with me directly know, at some point I will teach each student how to connect to their “core essence”. What is that core essence? Well, it’s the point of you, that no longer needs words to describe. You can now almost say: It’s the point when you meld into Ziran.
It’s is closer to say Ziran is to the Tao as your Core Essence is to You.
Ziran and your Core essence reflect each other.
So if you embraced your core essence you can also accept what it is to say “Ziran” since it isn’t a concept of words, it is a concept of “core being.”
It’s always fun to show a person their core essence because it’s so simple. If you try to make it complicated: for instance, to try and match to your story or name you will miss your core essence entirely because your stories are complicated and entangled beasts of many aspects rolled together. This is why seekers often spend decades seeking their core essence and yet I can show a person their core essence in a single breath.
This is why in teaching the Tao I prefer to teach lessons in life over printed text. In words, you will dance around Ziran until you turn blue. But if I show you your core essence, you then can embrace Ziran within a single breath also.
There is no need to define Ziran at all with a complicated definition. It just is…! But at least we now have a word for it:
This is a transcription from Awakening Dragon community discussion, and several Dragon authors (Sandy, Brent, and Casey) are intermixed in this work :). Thanks to everyone!