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Wu wei (Chinese: 無爲; a variant and derivatives: traditional Chinese: 無為; simplified Chinese: 无为; pinyin: wú wéi; Japanese: 無為; Korean: 무위; Vietnamese: Vô vi; English, lit. non-doing) is an important concept in Taoism that literally means non-action or non-doing. In the Tao te Ching, Laozi explains that beings (or phenomena) that are wholly in harmony with the Tao behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way. The goal of spiritual practice for the human being is, according to Laozi, the attainment of this purely natural way of behaving, as when the planets revolve around the sun. The planets effortlessly do this revolving without any sort of control, force, or attempt to revolve themselves, instead engaging in effortless and spontaneous movement.
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", "without effort", or "without control", 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 Chinese thought and have been mostly emphasized by the Taoist school. One cannot actively pursue wu wei. It is more a mere observation of one's behavior after they have accepted themselves for who they are and release conscious control over their lives to the infinite Tao.
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" (instinct?). The concept of "effortless action" is a part of Taoist Internal martial arts such as T'ai chi ch'uan, Baguazhang and Xing Yi. It follows that wu wei complies with the main feature and distinguishing characteristic of Taoism, that of being natural.
Tao te Ching
In the original Taoist texts, wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. Since it is an element that adapts itself to reality, instead of an attempt to fight, argue, oppose, or change reality. In illustration, its nature itself is assuming any form or shape it inhabits through any container it is being filled. Droplets of water, when falling as rain, gather in watersheds, flowing into and forming as a collective group, joining the proverbial sea. In a sense that while it at times diverge itself from its source, it also goes back again to where it came from. Showing its cyclical nature.
Several chapters of the most important Taoist text, 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 Tê Ching by Priya Hemenway, Chapter II:
- 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.
One way to approach this concept is by eliminating unnecessary action, and doing what merely needs to be done. With practice, the goal is for this process is to become effortless and natural.
Best described as letting go of thoughts/actions that may hinder or block the spontaneous flow of events that take place naturally.
i.e.: Water may be directed and controlled by man-made dams, but it will always flow to its destination naturally.
- Taoism – The Wu-Wei Principle by Ted Kardash. Jade Dragon Online, June 1998.
- Wei-wu-wei: Nondual action by David Loy. Philosophy East and West, Vol. 35, No. 1 (January 1985) pp. 73–87.
- Wu-Wei in Europe. A Study of Eurasian Economic Thought by Christian Gerlach. London School of Economics 2005.
- Wú wéi translations and usages in Buddhism. Digital Dictionary of Buddhism
- Wu Wei (WuWei) Calligraphy Scrolls from the Dao de Jing