Natural Concept: The Way of Wu-wei

The other day I quoted the Tao Te Ching: “By practicing doing nothing/Everything is in harmony.” This refers to the concept of wu-wei or non-action.

When we talk about non-action, it doesn’t mean inaction. Wu-wei means natural action.

Elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says “Nature uses few words.”

Of wu-wei, Wang Bi (226—249 CE), the famous interpreter of the classical Chinese texts, wrote,

The sage understands Nature perfectly. Therefore he goes along with [all things] but takes no unnatural action. He is in harmony with them but does not impose anything on them. He removes their delusions and eliminates their doubts. Hence, the people’s minds are not confused and things are contented with their own nature.

In Taoism, the sage is an ideal, representing the ultimate in human aspiration. The sage is like a buddha or bodhisattva, steeped in wisdom, guiding others. Because the sage is in harmony with the rhythm of life, the action he or she takes is not forced. In fact it seems effortless because less exertion is required. Tai Chi master Gary Khor calls wu-wei “relaxed action.”

Chinese characters for "Wu-wei"

Non-action is related to mindfulness. It is not as if we are suddenly “in harmony” with nature, as though someone had pulled a switch and voila! Wu-wei flows from mindfulness because it is actually a consciousness of harmony. Quieting the mind relaxes the body and spirit and we become more aware of life’s natural rhythms.

In terms of Buddhism, an attribute of awareness is understanding our part in the interdependency of all things. As all things are originally harmonious and natural owning to their ultimate oneness, practice of mindfulness and wu-wei teach us the way to take the right action at the right time.

The action of wu-wei is also the action of creative insight. The I Ching says “The creative is successful, advancing through correctness”.

More about the I Ching and creativity in an upcoming post.

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15 thoughts on “Natural Concept: The Way of Wu-wei

  1. Hi there,

    Nice blog!

    What exactly is the practice of mindfulness and wu-wei in the sense of ‘how we do’ our everyday lives?

    I don’t disagree with what you’ve said, and I think (in the correct practical context) the terms/concepts are useful, but the whole ‘mindfulness’ thing seems a bit fraught with some subtle, and some not-so-subtle, misunderstandings and assumptions IMO.

    Regards,

    Harry.

    1. Thanks, Harry. Glad you like the blog and that you submitted your comment.

      I’m not sure what you mean by mindfulness being fraught with misunderstandings and assumptions. You’ll have to be more specific for me to reply to that.

      However, as far as mindfulness and wu-wei in how we do our everyday lives is concerned, I think one misunderstanding that people get is that somehow this is magic or something. You meditate and all of the sudden, poof! You’re mindful or enlightened or whatever. As I wrote in the post, it’s about cultivating a consciousness of harmony, as well as other things. Mindfulness practice should alter our consciousness, not in a mind-blowing, psychedelic way, but in the sense of becoming more aware of the subtleties around us. And it takes effort. Work on our part.

      Terms and concepts like wu-wei or non-action are guides. They point to how we can implement mindfulness in daily life. Meditation helps to give the mind a rest. For a short period of time we are not so fixated on our ego and all those random thoughts. A calmer mind should lead to us to make wiser choices, opening up our minds, freeing us from judgmental thinking and so on. Because we think better, then we should act better, that is, take actions that are wiser and more thoughtful. Wu-wei shows us how we can take natural, harmonious action that is actually more effective than the more forceful, reactionary kind of actions we might normally take.

      Hope this at least begins to answer your question.

  2. Hi David,

    Well, if I can elaborate, I think even the term ‘mindfulness’ is misleading in pointing towards the sort of thing that you are indicating here. ‘Mindfulness’ to me suggests some sort of mental activity, concentration or whatever, as opposed say more full and inclusive activity involving, well, everything; not just that which is limited to ‘mind’.

    The Sanskrit and Pali words from which ‘mindfulness’ has been inferred (i.e. sm?ti and sati) suggest, rather, remembering. Remembering what? Remembering to think about what we are doing as some sort of remote observer, or remembering what we are actually doing, what we actually currently are, through actually doing it? There is a subtle but very important distinction to be made here.

    It may be that a forceful reactionary kind of action is very appropriate in some situations. I think the pivotal matter of conduct/ ‘mindfulness’ & wu-wei is not about picking and choosing mentally as to what is the correct way of doing, or our observing of our doing.

    Regards,

    Harry.

    1. Harry, remembering is just one of the definitions of mindfulness. There is also “to think on, reflect; repeat, intone; a thought; a moment.”

      One thing you have to keep in mind is that many of the terms we use in Buddhism have a number of different meanings and sometimes they become a kind of “shorthand” if you will. Mindfulness comes from “anapanasati” or “mindfulness/awareness of breathing.” We shorten it to mindfulness. Yes, it is the mental activity of concentration, but its real benefit lies in being able to use mindfulness in daily living. So it should lead to the fuller sort of activity involving everything that you speak of.

      Just as existence is a web of interdependent lives, so too is Buddhism a web of interdependent concepts. Mindfulness then works in tandem with other concepts like wu-wei.

      Remembering could be fitting in the more abstract sense of how Buddhist practice is said to be a process of remembering or rediscovering our original awakened nature, our Buddha nature.

      Wu-wei is precisely about mentally choosing correct ways of doing and observation. But not in a moralistic manner. It means using flexible insight, not inflexible intellect. It stems from awareness of how we think and behave. Since wu-wei also refers to spontaneous action, it’s often misunderstood to imply there is no premeditation involved. It’s a different kind of premeditation, a differing kind of thinking. The action of non-action is really just more thoughtful action, more mindful action, and in regards to reaction, it means reacting wisely.

  3. Hi David,

    It’s worth remembering too, I think, that ‘sati’ is a word in it’s own right, and that it is used in other contexts. For example the Buddha used the term ‘satipatthana’ denoting a more general practice.

    While we’re talking about words; ‘mindfulness’ as a translation of sati was first established in the West in the 19th century… and here’s another nugget from Wikipedia:

    “John D. Dunne, an associate professor at the University of Emory whose current research focuses especially on the concept of “mindfulness” in both theoretical and practical contexts, asserts that the translation of sati and sm?ti as mindfulness is confusing and that a number of Buddhist scholars are trying to establish “retention” as the preferred alternative.”

    I like ‘retention’ as it doesn’t suggest just ‘mind’ as ‘mindfulness’ does.

    Certainly there’s a lot going on with the term ‘mindfulness’ and, like any word, it has meaning or lacks meaning depending very much on the context and how it is understood in actual, direct practice.

    Regards,

    Harry.

    1. The words themselves are not as important as the concepts behind them. I think we all, myself included, spend far too much time discussing semantics, finding loopholes and trying to build a better mousetrap. The old mousetrap would work just fine if we could only open our minds and deflate our egos long enough to understand deeply how it works.

      There’s a certain amount of intuitiveness involved in all this, which defies our attempts to understand by intellect alone.

  4. Hi David,

    Well, yes indeed, that’s sort of the gist of my point, where aspects of Buddhism (‘mindfulness’ ect.) are employed as part of the inherently egoistic (if by that you mean a pronounced and unrealistic sense of ‘self’) ‘self improvement’ culture. Buddhism has practices and a philosophical basis to counter excess in this regard (anatman, shunyata etc), but Western culture generally doesn’t. Our culture accepts that the ego, for example, is a ‘thing’ as if it really exists, or as if it is an actual entity or reified, tangible organ of mind (which, of course, it is not).

    In saying that, I think the words are important and are the dharma itself. It’s no small matter that ‘dharma’ means at once the Law/Truth, real things AND the spoken/written teachings. It’s important to clarify them together for ourselves via our own effort IMO.

    Regards,

    Harry.

    1. Hi Harry,

      I get your point about the self improvement culture and I agree. However, ego and the fictional self are not exactly the same. Ego is very real and is based on the false sense of self. So I was referring to the way our ego, our prejudices, distinctions, discriminations etc. tend to get in the way of our understanding.

      I’m not sure I would say that words are dharma. But that is a rather involved discussion.

  5. Hi David,

    Traditionally speaking, in the broadest sense, there’s nothing manifest that isn’t a dharma, a real thing, by sheer dint of its existence (it means ‘a thing’, a phenomenon, mental physical or otherwise, as I’m sure you know). I’m interested to know why you wouldn’t consider words ‘dharmas’: are they not, like everything else existitng, already an expression of Dharma (universal Truth/Law) before we begin to talk about how we ascribe our own abstract meaning to them?

    Re ‘ego’… you may regret bringing that up as it’s something I’m quite interested in :-0… People generally use the term ‘ego’ without defining exactly what they mean, which is part of the problem of the ego myth I think: it’s generally a sort of hazy assumption. But actually the term means different things to different people ranging from the very hazy (as in general usage) to the pretty specific (as in psychology).

    Even Freud’s model of ‘ego’ saw it as a function of the mind, not a ‘thing’. So, if we stop the function we stop the ego. Interestingly, although ‘it’ gets a bad rap generally, Freud saw it as operating to a reality principle which mediates between our chaotic id drives and the unrealistic, guilt generating moral perfectionism of the super-ego.

    In the West, Mara is sometimes equated with the ego (as in the commonly held, guilt ridden, negative Western idea of the self, not the Freudian model of ego), and as an aspect of himself that the Buddha overcame. I’m not so sure of that really, maybe there’s merit in it, but it is a very post-psychology revision of the accounts. At any rate, according to the traditional accounts, the Buddha realised that Mara was all smoke and no fire as he became enlightened under the tree: Mara’s assaults were seen as completely illusory.

    As can be learned very directly in meditation, our thinking is only a problem when we make it one through our own willed actions (which are most often ingrained habits that we aren’t even aware that we are doing… which may give the impression of some latent self or personality?)

    Regards,

    Harry.

    1. Harry, I guess I misunderstood you. You said “words are the dharma itself” so I took that to mean the teachings and not “dharmas” or things.

      To see what I mean about words, you might want to check out this post from almost a year ago: http://theendlessfurther.com/?p=1165

      I’m not saying that ego is not a function of the mind, and here I am speaking in the sense of relative truth, where ego does exist as a sort of mental phenomena or condition. However, having an ego is not always a bad thing. If no one had egos, we’d have no actors or musicians and so on. Cutting our attachment to the false self is best way to keep one’s ego in check.

  6. Hi David,

    When we encounter them as such, like when we directly practice it, all words, and all dharmas, expound the Dharma or universal law, the truth of things existing as they do. This is the holistic practical point contained in the usage of ‘dharma’ to mean the law, real things, and the teaching. I think that was my point there.

    Of course, in terms of relative meaning and how people will likely understand them, not all words are dharma in the sense that they are expressions of Buddhist teaching.

    We’re not on the same page regarding ‘ego’ I think (which is fine), but I would suggest that highly trained actors, musicians, athletes and such performers might know as much, or more, about wu-wei and ‘egoless’ action than your average meditator. They are trained to just act and not engage inner mental dialogue. The thinking just gets in the way in the moment of acting; they need to trust in their learned skills, muscle memory, hand-eye coordination etc. Creativity is an inherent quality of humanity that need not be associated with negative interpretations of what constitutes ‘self’, ‘ego’ etc. A good example is the Japanese arts of calligraphy and haiku writing where the artist uses all his/her resources in a non-self referential way while not denying that there is a ‘self’ there to really do it.

    Such performers, through their heightened performance via serious training, often talk about being ‘in the zone’ where there are no hindrances, where they can just perform seamlessly, where it comes easily and naturally, ‘everything goes quiet and there’s just me and the ball’ etc etc…

    Regards,

    Harry.

  7. Hello David,
    Today in the U.S., and elsewhere, we see so many examples of the antithesis of wu wei. That is, we see so many cases of people interfering with the natural processes of life and death. In a manner of speaking, they try to make the mountain stream flow uphill, rather than leaving it alone (non action) to flow downhill, to the ocean as it should. But in the long term, nature has a way of reminding us that to do so is not only harmful to individuals, but also to the harmony of our society.

    The problem seems to be the force of social trends. They blind people from acting in harmony with nature. The question is, how shall we raise their consciousness?
    It would be great if those who have been brought up in the Daoist tradition would raise their voices about it.

    1. Thanks for leaving this comment, Lawrence. I could not agree more. The value of silence is important but it does not always mean holding one’s tongue.

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