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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

who knows?

A Taoist parable

In a valley lived a farmer. He was not rich, but neither was he poor. He had food enough for his family. He had fields that yielded a good harvest year after year. And he had a very fine work horse.

One morning the farmer discovered that his horse had run away during the night. His sympathetic neighbors said, "What bad fortune!" But the farmer simply replied, "Good, bad, who knows how it will turn out in the end?"

Two days later, the horse returned, bringing three wild horses with it. The farmer's neighbors were happy for him. "What good fortune!" they said. But the farmer simply replied, "Good, bad, who knows how it will turn out in the end?"

A few days later, the farmer's son was trying to tame one of the wild horses when the horse threw him to the ground, breaking his arm. The neighbors said, "What bad fortune!" But the farmer simply replied, "Good, bad, who knows how it will turn out in the end?"

A week later, military officials arrived in the valley, looking for able-bodied young men to conscript into service. Because the farmer's son had a broken arm, they left him alone. "What good fortune!" said the neighbors. But the farmer simply replied, "Good, bad, who knows how it will turn out in the end?"

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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.

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