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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. As the planets revolve around the sun, they "do" this revolving, but without "doing" it. As trees grow, they simply grow without trying to grow. Thus knowing how and when to act is not knowledge in the sense that one would think, "now I should do this," but rather just doing it, doing the natural thing. The goal of spiritual practice for the human being is, according to Laozi, the attainment of this natural way of behaving.
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. To apply wu wei to any situation is to take natural action.
Tao te Ching
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 solid stone and move mountains. Water is without will (that is, the will for a shape), 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, joining the proverbial sea: this is the nature of water.
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.
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 be the Tao within all things and to cultivate oneself to its "way."
The concept of wu wei is often described as performing acts bereft of self, but this merely exposes the background of the writer. Other religions have selfless acts and “doing good” as part of their belief systems. In Taoist teaching, however, “good” is unknowable. An act bereft of self can only be performed by someone in an egoless state. Every act performed by someone in the usual way of things has some kind of reward attached whether it is financial, power, love, status or just feeling good about oneself. All these things are ego re-inforcing. To perform an act bereft of self one must let go of one's ego and pass into an enlightened state of consciousness. This is called wu wei – the state of doing without doing. Here every act is without self for the ego has ceased to exist. There is no making decisions and the outcome is always perfect.
In neijia, one of the aims is to be able to fight in this state. There is no ego wishing to aggrandise itself by punishing the opponent and every move is performed effortlessly before one has time to think. One blocks every move by one's opponents yet for all parties involved you might be playing with clouds (it's painless and without harmful consequence).
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, one also becomes more in harmony with Tao; and, according to another great ancient Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, attains a state of Ming, or 'clear seeing'. 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 (they are just told raw facts for use, and left to their own creative devices), so they assume that they have been taught nothing, that is, until their learnings have been integrated in their lived experience.
- 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