The Wu-wei-kiau: A little known sect of Buddhism

Wu wei
Wu wei

A central concept of Taoism (Daoism) is wu-wei or non-deliberative action. Although it is often translated as “non-action” or “doing nothing”, the term does not actually mean the complete absence of activity, it refers instead to natural action, doing less, or  activity that does not involve struggle or excessive effort. Sort of “going with the flow.”

Early Chinese translators of Buddhist texts often used wu-wei to translate nirvana. Although the two terms bear some resemblance to each other in terms of an ideal or state of being, there is only a partial correspondence as wu-wei is essentially a theory as to how persons should conduct their activities and nirvana represents the realization of the goal of liberation.

Later, as Buddhism became more assimilated in China, Buddhists integrated many Taoist concepts into the dharma, in this case, applying wu-wei to metaphysics. In Chinese Buddha-dharma then, wu-wei refers to the asamskrta or the “unconditioned.” This is not to suggest that Chinese Buddhist rejected the notion of wu-wei in the sense of physical (non)action.

The Wu-wei-kiau or “Non-action School” was a small sect of Chinese Buddhism. There is little information about this school. James Bissett Pratt described Wu-wei-kiau as being “vegetarian, meditative and non-ritualistic.” J. J. de Groot noted that the sect was originally known as Sien-T’ien and that its teachings contained both Buddhist and Taoist philosophy. He wrote that at their meetings they “recite fragments of Buddhist sutras, formulas [mantras and dharanis] . . .are devoted to pious conversations . .  .”

Joseph Edkins, in Chinese Buddhism A Volume of Sketches, published in 1893, provides the only detailed description we have of the Wu-wei-kiau. I find their approach to Buddha-dharma  rather appealing.

What we see today in Buddhism around the world is not complete. Many links to the past have been broken, lost, obscured by the haze of time. Filling in the gaps and learning about little known sects such as the Wu-wei-kiau can be enormously instructive as we grapple with the challenge of adopting and adapting Buddhism here in the West. It appears that the sect was heavily persecuted and banned, further evidence to me that they must have been on to something.  

In reading these excerpts from Joseph Edkins, keep in mind that this was written over a hundred years ago and so the words used and in some cases the spelling are archaic:

Interspersed through the village population of the eastern provinces of China are to be found the adherents of a religion called the Wu-wei-kiau. They are little known, usually belong to the lower ranks of life, and have few books. Their principles, however, render them remarkable. They are a kind of reformed Buddhists. Their system is more like Buddhism than any other religion, but they are opposed to idolatry. They appear to be strongly and sincerely convinced of the goodness of their opinions, and they hold with tenacity the uselessness of image worship. This circumstance has often attracted the attention of missionaries at Shanghai and Ningpo, and I have thought that a notice of the sect would not be without interest.

This sect has existed in China for about two hundred and seventy years. Its originator was Lo Hwei-neng, a native of Shan-tung. In imitation of the Buddhist title tsu, he is called Lo-tsu, “the patriarch Lo.” His opinions have spread with considerable rapidity through the adjoin-provinces—Kiang-nan, Che-kiang, and An-hwei, and may advance farther.

The name of the sect is Wu-wei-kiau, which, translated literally, means the “Do-nothing sect.” The idea intended by it is, that religion consists, not in ceremonies and outward show, but in stillness, in a quiet, meditative life, and in an inward reverence for the all-pervading Buddha. Buddha is believed in, but he is not worshipped. There are temples, if they may be so called, but they are plain structures, destitute of images, and having in them only the common Chinese tablet to heaven, earth, king, parents, and teacher, as an object of reverence.

The phrase wu-wei, to “do nothing,” occurs in the writings of the early Tauists, long before Buddhism appeared in China. In the “Book of Reason and Virtue” (Tau-te-king), it is said by Lau-kiün: “The highest virtue is not (intentionally) virtuous, and on this account it is (deserving of the name) virtue. The lower sort of virtue is (anxious) not (to be) wanting in virtue, and therefore it is not (true) virtue. The highest virtue does nothing, and consequently does not trust to (or rest on) any action. Virtue of an inferior kind (anxiously) acts and trusts to action.”

This is the controversy that has been so often raised between the contemplative and the active man. In China Confucius and his school are the advocates of activity, and Lau-tsi and his followers of contemplation. These philosophers both discussed the art of government, the one with the aid of idealism, the other under the guidance of (something like) materialism. The phrase wu-wei is one of the watchwords of idealistic and mystical schools in China; while yeu-wei, “action,” a phrase of opposite signification, is the cry of systems which favour materialism.

I give another quotation. It is from the second of the great Tauist authors, Chwang-tsï. “The way of heaven,” he says, “is ‘not to act’ (wu-wei), and therein and thereby to be the most honoured of all things. The way of men is to act’ (yeu-wei), and to be involved in trouble.”

When Buddhism entered China, a system much more purely idealistic than Tauism, this phrase wu-wei was soon recognised as the equivalent to the phrase hü-wu-tsi-mie, “vacancy, stillness, and destruction” of that foreign religion. The resemblance in principle between Buddhism and Tauism was in this respect too evident not to be remarked. The similarity became still closer when the esoteric branch of Buddhism, established by Bodhidharma, and developed by the Chinese Buddhists who succeeded him, extended itself so much as quite to overshadow the older exoteric branch. External Buddhism seeks after the Nirvâna, encourages the worship of images, appoints prayers for the dead, and makes use of much outward show to win the multitude. This is yeu-wei, or “reliance on action.” The mystic Buddhists resist such a method of attaining the ends of religion. They recommend “inaction,” or wu-wei. It is from them that the Wu-wei sect has sprung. The name is a favourite Tauist expression, but the source of the religion is Buddhism.

Lo-tsu, the founder of this religion, was a native of Lai-cheu fu, in Shan-tung . . .

Two other persons—Ying-tsu and Yau-tsu—have, at different periods, taken the lead in this sect. Ying-tsu is said to have discoursed on fa (dharma) “the law,” as Lo-tsu did on king the “books.”

There is another personage beside Buddha spoken of by these religionists, the Kin-mu, “Golden mother.” She dwells in a heaven called Yau (to shake) chu (to dwell) kung (palace). My informant considered that she represents God, in the idea of this religion, more nearly than Buddha does, because she is an object of worship. On my inquiring why this divinity should be female, he said that Kin-mu was the mother of the soul, as the female parent was of the body. Yan chu kung may be Jasper pearl palace. She is said to protect from various calamities, and is prayed to for deliverance from sickness, and to save the deceased from miseries in the unseen world.

The origin of her name is found in the Chinese theory of the elements, among which kin, “gold,” “metal generally,” stands first in order. This and many other Tauist notions are blended with Buddhist principles in the system maintained by the followers of the Wu-wei-kiau.

They have in their chapels, tablets to the emperor and to the five names of honour—heaven, earth, prince, parents, and teacher. They are strict vegetarians, and argue tenaciously for the metempsychosis. They have no ascetic institute like the Buddhists, but allow the family institution to be undisturbed.

They were persecuted in the Ming dynasty. One of their leaders was crucified by nailing on the gate of a city in Shantung. On one occasion, some persons of this sect addressed me in a missionary chapel in Shanghai, with the remark that their religion resembled the Christian in this respect, that one of their leaders was crucified.

They have not since been subjected to persecution, but their religion is still prohibited, and its name is found among those charged with teaching depraved doctrines, in some editions of the “Sacred Edict.”

My informant told me, further, that the doctrine of the non-existence of matter is not held by this sect—though it might have been expected from their close adherence to Buddhism that they would have maintained it—but that they simply regard all material things as perishable . . .

They are very determined vegetarians. When they become Christians, they prefer to free themselves from the bondage of the prohibition by eating some small quantity of animal food, as a proof to others of their change of religion. This is entirely voluntary on their part.

In the vicinity of Shanghai, a few years since, this happened in the case of a florist and his wife. The wife was a woman of influence and decision. She signalised her change of religion by inviting friends to a feast and partaking in their presence of a certain portion of animal food.

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2 thoughts on “The Wu-wei-kiau: A little known sect of Buddhism

  1. Always interesting material to be found here, almost makes me wish I had regular access to the internet.

    How hard to know what the true dharma is. The Theravadins tell us they have the original teachings of the Buddha, although he certainly didn’t speak Pali. And those three (or was it four) councils after the paranirvana, well the participants were all arahants so…. If they were all saints why did it require more than one council to settle things?

    As far as the saga of Zen (Ch’an) goes one not need read much to see the contradictions between what the various teachers put forth. The latest is always the best of course, but I have no interest in koan study, which seems highly derivative. But then I am unenlightened no doubt.

    Unless one is starving on a desert isle eating flesh is not something worthy of a spiritual person and I care not what their sect or lineage may be. This now forgotten group of Buddhists had the right idea. Or as I told my last advisor, it says in the Lankavatara Sutra it is far worse to be attached to emptiness than samsara. Fred

    1. Hi Fred. I think you’ve left a comment or two before. Nice to hear from you again. I won’t ask why you don’t have regular access to the Internet, but I’m glad that when you do you’re able to find your way here.

      I have never been interested in koan study either. I have no particular beef about it, I guess I have just felt that trying to figure out the koan of daily life was hard enough, I didn’t need to add anything else to it.

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