Monday, September 22, 2008

Wu wei

Wu wei is an important tenet of Taoism that involves knowing when to act and when not to act. Another perspective to this is that "Wu Wei" means natural action - as planets revolve around the sun, they "do" this revolving, but without "doing" it; or as trees grow, they "do", but without "doing". Thus knowing when to act is not knowledge in the sense that one would think "''now''" is the right time to do "''this''", but rather just doing it, doing the natural thing.

''Wu'' may be translated as ''not have'' or ''without''; ''Wei'' may be translated as ''do, act, serve as, govern or effort''. The literal meaning of Wu Wei is "without action" and is often included in the paradox ''wei wu wei'': "action without action" or "effortless doing". The practice of ''wu wei'' and the efficacy of ''wei wu wei'' are fundamental tenets in and have been mostly emphasized by the . The aim of ''wu wei'' is to achieve a state of perfect equilibrium, or alignment with the Tao, and, as a result, obtain an irresistible form of "soft and invisible" power.

There is another less commonly referenced sense of ''wu wei''; "action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort". In this instance, Wu means "without" and Wei means "effort". The concept of "effortless action" is a part of Internal martial arts such as Tai chi, Baguazhang and Xing Yi.

In Zen Calligraphy, Wu Wei has been represented as a .


In the traditional Chinese understanding of governance, a prince has only to sit at the right place, facing south, with a prince's traditional attributes, and his country will be well governed. In Lun Yu II.1., Confucius compares a virtuous prince to the North Pole in which he finds himself: he does not move and everything turns around him. There are magical justifications behind this idea of a power obtained by "inaction." It is the Chinese "correspondence", or "synchronicity" theory, where the macrocosm is reflected, or even duplicated, in microcosms. According to the theory, ordering the Emperor's palace ''is'' governing the country well: the palace is a homothetic reproduction of the country. Chinese history is full of examples of natural disasters cured by means such as the opening of a new door in the walls of the .

Some philosophers, for example Wang Chong, have questioned this theory. A more pragmatic view may interpret this as a means to restrain the prince from abuse of power, enjoining him to 'do' as little as possible.

In the original Taoist texts, ''wu wei'' is often associated with water and its yielding nature. Although water is soft and weak, it has the capacity to erode even solid stone and move mountains . Water is without will , though it may be understood to be opposing wood, stone, or any solid aggregated material that can be broken into pieces. Due to its nature and propensity, water may potentially fill any container, assume any shape; given the Water Cycle water may potentially go "anywhere", even into the minutest holes, both metaphorical and actual. Droplets of water, when falling as rain, gather in watersheds, flowing into and forming rivers of water, enjoining the proverbial sea: this is the nature of water. Furthermore, whilst always yielding downwards, water finds its own level in the 'dark valley' — where biological life is regenerated — analogous to the fecund reproductive organs.


Several chapters of the most important Taoist scripture, the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Laozi, allude to "diminishing doing" or "diminishing will" as the key aspect of the sage's success. Taoist philosophy recognizes that the Universe already works harmoniously according to its own ways; as a person exerts their will against or upon the world they disrupt the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a person should not exert agency and will. Rather, it is ''how'' one acts in relation to the natural processes already extant. The ''how'', the Tao of intention and motivation, ''that'' is key.

Related translation from the ''Tao Te Ching'' by Priya Hemenway:

: 3
:''The Sage is occupied with the unspoken''
:''and acts without effort.''

:''Teaching without verbosity,''
:''producing without possessing,''
:''creating without regard to result,''
:''claiming nothing,''
:''the Sage has nothing to lose.''

Wu Wei has also been translated as "creative quietude," or the art of letting-be. This does not mean a dulling of the mind; rather, it is an activity undertaken to perceive the Tao within all things and to conform oneself to its "way."

One way of envisioning wu wei is through Laozi's writings on how a ruler should govern their kingdom. The advice that was given is that it is similar to frying a small fish . In other words, create general policies and direction, but do not micromanage. To do this well, you must understand the ways of your people and not go against the grain.

A sage is one who has complete understanding of nature of things thereby has no emotion.


As one diminishes doing — here 'doing' means those intentional actions taken to benefit us or actions taken to change the world from its natural state and evolution — one diminishes all those actions committed against the Tao, the already present natural harmony. As such one begins to cultivate Tao, becomes more in harmony with Tao, and, according to another great ancient Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, attains a state of ''Ming'', or 'clear seeing'. This is very similar to more contemporary ideas about "choiceless awareness" and the clarity it brings by the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. It is in the state of ''Ming'' that the Taoist is in full harmony with Tao, and 'having arrived at this pointless point of non-action, there is nothing that is left undone.' It is upon achievement of this Chinese equivalent to 'enlightenment' that a sage begins to perform ''wei wu wei'', or 'action without action.' Thus the sage will be able to work in harmony with Tao to accomplish what is needed, and, working in perfect harmony with the Tao, leave no trace of having done it.

An example of active non-action using wu wei, would be to teach in such a way that no course of action is dictated to a student , so they assume that they have been taught nothing, that is, until their learnings have been integrated in their lived experience. As is said in the comicbook summarization Zen Speaks, "A good teacher teaches the student that they already know the answer."

The ultimate goal: harmony with the Tao

The goal for wu wei is to get out of your own way, so to speak. This is like when you are playing an instrument and if you start thinking about playing the instrument, then you will get in your own way and interfere with your own playing. It is aimless action, because if there was a goal that you need to aim at and hit, then you will develop anxiety about this goal. Zhuangzi made a point of this, where he writes about an archer who at first didn't have anything to aim at. When there was nothing to aim at, the archer was happy and content with his being. He was practicing wu wei. But, then he set up a target and "got in his own way." He was going against the Tao and the natural course of things by having to hit that goal.

A dramatic description of wu wei is found in chapter 2 of Zhuang Zi:
''A fully achieved person is like a spirit! The great marshes could be set on fire, but she wouldn't feel hot. The rivers in China could all freeze over, but she wouldn't feel cold. Thunder could suddenly echo through the mountains, wind could cause a tsunami in the ocean, but she wouldn't be startled. A person like that could ride through the sky on the floating clouds, straddle the sun and moon, and travel beyond the four seas. Neither death nor life can cause changes within her, and there's little reason for her to even consider benefit or harm.''

This passage is metaphorical. To a Taoist, things arise dependently. The soul and body go together, because if there were no soul, there would be no body and if there were no body, there would be no soul. All these arise dependently like this . A person who follows the principle of wu wei thus realizes how ridiculous it is to cling to good and to obsessively stay away from evil. By realizing how things arise dependently, a Taoist is able to accept the bad and is then able to have no goal to aim at. When Zhuangzi is saying a fully achieved person is like a spirit, he is saying that a fully achieved person has accepted the bad things in life and does not strive to get away from them and instead accepts them.

In the West

Benjamin Hoff in The Tao of Pooh suggests that "Wei" means monkey/claw, and translates "Wu Wei" as "No Monkeying Around".

William S. Burroughs talks about similar concepts in .

Alan Watts also has written much about Taoism and Wu wei.

Educational Videos

has videos describing Wu Wei.


* Lasseiz-faire
* Simple living
* Taoism

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