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Wu wei (traditional Chinese: 無爲; simplified Chinese: 无为; pinyin: wú wèi; a variant and derivatives: Japanese: 無為; Korean: 無爲(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, Lao Tzu 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 Lao Tzu, 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.
In the original Taoist texts, wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. In illustration, it can assume any form or shape it inhabits.
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 manifests as a result of cultivation. The Tao is a guide.
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 Taoist Internal martial arts such as T'ai chi ch'uan, Baguazhang and Xing Yi. It follows that wu wei complies with the distinguishing feature of Taoism, that of being natural.
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.
Han Fei's "The Tao of the Sovereign" reads: "The ruler must not reveal his wants. For, if he reveals his wants, the ministers will polish their manners accordingly. The ruler must not reveal his views. For, if he reveals his views, the ministers will display their hues differently." Hence another saying: "If the like and hate of the ruler be concealed, the true hearts of the ministers will be revealed. If the experience and wisdom of the ruler be discarded, the ministers will take precautions." Accordingly, the ruler, wise as he is, should not bother but let everything find its proper place; worthy as he is, should not be self-assumed but observe closely the ministers' motivating factors of conduct; and, courageous as he is, should not be enraged but let every minister display his prowess. So, leave the ruler's wisdom, then you will find the ministers' intelligence; leave the ruler's worthiness, then you will find the ministers' merits; and leave the ruler's courage, then you will find the ministers' strength. In such cases, ministers will attend to their duties, magistrates will have definite work routine, and everybody will be employed according to his special ability. Such a course of government is called "constant and immutable".
- 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