Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Thursday, October 13, 2005

wei wu wei

Tao abides in non-action, yet nothing is left undone.

In a previous post, I mentioned the influence of Taoism in my life. One of the things that draws me to Taoism is its embrace of paradox. For example, one of the central ideas of Taoism is the concept of wu wei, literally translated non-action. What does this mean?

It doesn't mean to be passive, and it manifestly does not mean to be detached from one's surroundings. Quite the opposite. It means to be so in touch with our environment and with the people in our lives that our actions flow naturally from the situation.

This notion is often extended to wei wu wei, action through non action.

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.

Perhaps the best way to explain wei wu wei is to give an example. Every river flows to the ocean. An individual drop of water does not need to carve its own path; it merely needs to follow the course that has already been laid out. The drops of water are not acting on their own; they are doing what the situation calls for.

When rain falls on grass or fields, it soaks into the ground and feeds the plants. It doesn't seek the nearest river, it does what the situation calls for.

That's wei wu wei.

A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.

Putting wei wu wei into practice means knowing what our situation calls for, and knowing it intuitively so that our actions flow naturally, without conscious effort.

My father has the ability to talk to a stranger and almost instantly find some sort of common ground. My wife has the ability to know exactly what to say to cheer up a friend. Neither my dad nor my wife think there is anything unsual about what they do. They just do it. That's wei wu wei: spontaneous and natural action producing harmony.

On a larger scale, wei wu wei means helping to bring about peace and harmony with society and nature. It means being in tune with the Tao.

The closest Christian analogy, I think, would be seeking the kingdom of God. Jesus taught:

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? ... Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” ... But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

That's wei wu wei.

Labels: ,


At 10/16/2005 11:41 AM, Anonymous eddieF said...

Hey Bruce

I like the idea, and it makes sense on so many levels. But I guess this leaves an "idea" of fatalism, which I know is not what you are explaining. I just think religious people think that to be the case instead of experiencing the reality of this.

At 10/18/2005 9:11 PM, Anonymous Holly said...

bruce -
great writing here. thanks for the beautiful examples of wei wu wei. i really love how you use stories to explain it - similar to jesus' use of parables. too often, our rational minds are caught up in straight forward answers to concepts that cannot be explained in such a manner. i really enjoy myths, because they convey a deeper truth about our lives/souls. in thinking about the idea of wei wu wei, it raises a few concerns for me when thinking about injustice. Too often, it is easy for us to "go with the flow" and never critically reflect on the ultimate direction or flow of the river. I'm trying to use your story, but perhaps it helps to be more direct. Say we build our lives on a system that is fundamentally unjust i.e. I benefit from someone else's oppression. When do we turn against the tide and start to question the whole thing?

At 10/19/2005 8:49 PM, Blogger BruceA said...

I'm going to try to reply to both comments at once.

The water analogy leaves a lot unstated. Wei wu wei is not simply "going with the flow"; it's also important to know where we're being led. If we are not properly grounded (mixing metaphors here) we do run the risk of being swept along without really knowing what we are doing.

We are not like water in that we do make our own choices, some of which have consequences. Furthermore, though all rivers lead to the same place, all our choices do not.

The river analogy applies only after we've made our choice or taken our stand.

Here's my take on wei wu wei filtered through Christianity: The river represents God. Once we push our canoes into the water, God will pull us along. We might go through some whitewater rapids, but we'll get to where we need to go. We could carry the canoe all day on the bank, but it would take more effort and we'd cover a shorter distance. It's actually easier to achieve justice if we don't rely solely on our own efforts.

Many people don't need eastern philosophy to tell them this; it's just a different way of saying similar things.

At 12/14/2007 7:01 PM, Blogger D Pickard said...

Very nicely said!

At 1/15/2008 11:58 PM, Anonymous Threat Level: Midnight said...


thank you so much for this post.
i'm currently working on a religions essay (Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.) I've been trying to figure out this whole esoteric concept of wu wei for the past 3 hours and have gotten absolutely nowhere, but your post just saved my life.

Thanks again!


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home