Wu Wei

Wu Wei (non-action) as defined by Chuang Tzu (compiled by Thomas Merton): Wu Wei is not intent upon results and is not concerned with consciously laid plans or deliberately organised endeavours: “My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness … Perfect joy is to be without joy … if you ask ‘what ought to be done’ and ‘what ought not to be done’ on earth to produce happiness, I answer that these questions do not have [a fixed and predetermined] answer” to suit every case.

I’ve found the concept of wu wei to be one of the most potentially confusing in all of Taoism, an already esoteric and mystic life philosophy. It wasn’t until I read “The Way of Chuang Tzu” translated and introduced by Thomas Merton that I began to grasp an understanding. There are no doubt others that have a far more advanced understanding of the concept than me, but I thought I’d share mine with you for those who have not previously come across it or have but didn’t get the chance to read into it.

I prefer using ‘wu wei’ to the english translation ‘non-action’ for a number of reasons, but the most practical is the misconceptions non-action can incur. Non-action, on face value, sounds like a lack of action, to do nothing. This could not be further from the truth. “The non-action of the wise man is not inaction.” Instead of a lack of action, wu wei is the elimination of superfluous action. A staple of the Taoist diet is to rid oneself of waste, in movement, speech, thought etc. It’s a simplification of life, an embrace of an internal minimalist way of living.

Deng Ming-Dao wrote a wonderful wu wei allegory (which I’m sadly unable to find) about a tiger lying at the mouth of it’s cave. It watches it’s prey wander past, but it is not hungry, so it does nothing. This is not inaction but non-action, for the tiger has no reason to move. Now if he was hungry, he would pounce on his prey without hesitation, indecision and with the least amount of effort required for the kill. Likewise when we are faced with situations in life, we can either choose to go with a state of action or non-action, that does not mean we are falling into the state of inaction. We should assess the situation, like the tiger, and decide whether we are hungry or not.

“If one is in harmony with Tao -the cosmic Tao, “Great Tao” -the answer will make itself clear when the time comes to act, for then one will act not according to the human and self-conscious mode of deliberation, but according to the divine and spontaneous mode of wu wei, which is the mode of action of Tao itself, and is therefore the source of all good.”

When the crane is fishing, it will stand in the water for hours on end, without moving a muscle. Only when it spots the perfect opportunity will it strike with confidence and unparalleled precision. We would do well to follow the crane’s example.