Introduction: Dao, was created in order to explain how

The Rise of Daoism

During the Zhou dynasty,
in a period of unrest and transition known as zhunguo, or the Warring States (1122-221 BC), China was undergoing
tumultuous changes economically and politically. Though there was a central
king who was officially in charge of China as a country, many independent
states self-governed and organized their own armies. This brought about
constant conflict amongst these states, striving to overthrow each other and
gain more territory. Due to the state of the country at this time, many
philosophers were concerned with re-establishing the old, peaceful ways. Under
the Daoist philosophy, the concept of a path, the Dao, was created in order to
explain how to achieve this inherent harmony once again. Though there were many
different ideologies and schools of thought established during this time, the
most contradictory philosophical concept to the turmoil these philosophers
experienced laid in the concept of wu-wei,
or the Daoist idea of non-action, so that one can experience true peace. (1)

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The Daoist concept of wu-wei, or non-action, has various
historical and modern interpretations. Before exploring wu-wei, it is important to consider that similarly to the
underlining premise of the Dao, or the way, wu-wei
innately also loses its meaning when named and described because the sole
attempt of taking action to explain non-action defeats the purpose of
non-action. The opening line of The Laozi
addresses this paradox: “Any dao that
can dao guide is not a constant dao. Because any name that can name is
not a constant name.” (2)

Nevertheless, scholars
still worked on describing wu-wei conceptually.
Some modern scholars understand wu-wei
to represent action that is taken only when absolutely necessary, never
overdoing, while others interpret wu-wei
to mean taking actions with no conscious effort or set purpose (3; 4). Modern psychology
roughly categorizes the latter approach as a term called flow, or fully
immersing yourself in an activity. This full immersion allows you to lose your
sense of time and space during the activity, while requiring little conscious
effort; in other words, you become one with the activity. Recent Western
philosophers explain flow by making the distinction between “knowing how”, or wu-wei,­ between “knowing that”, such as facts or instructions on how to
act (5). However, though
modern interpretations are important to consider, wu-wei and its evolution of meaning should really be considered
from a historical context of the original Daoists: Laozi and Zhuangzi.

Wu-Wei as a Socio-Political Commentary with an External Focus

mainly uses wu-wei as a guide for a
sage-ruler to manage their country; of the 17 chapters Laozi uses to explain wu-wei, only one chapter addresses the
metaphysical aspect of non-action in relation to the Dao: “The Dao never acts,
but leaves nothing undone.” (2; 6) There are three
meanings of wu-wei according to Laozi
used to govern and support politics. The first focuses on self-sufficiency, in
terms of less involvement of government so that citizens can lead their lives
in a peaceful order created naturally by themselves. This idea respects the
Daoist idea that nature has an inherent and brilliant order and when left
alone, it will run its own course. In accordance of wu-wei, a sage respects nature’s order and allow things to take
care of themselves without taking direct action in attempt to control anything which
might be “out-of-order”. (4)

second aspect of wu-wei, according to
Laozi, emphasizes the value of nothingness. Unlike later Daoiost who believe
that there is great use of no-use, Laozi focuses on the importance of wu, or nothingness, in-of-itself,
without comparison to being or action. For example, one can experience the Dao
most when it is least present or lacking from our experience. Furthermore, a
house is only inhabitable, and a cup is only useful when inside, there is
nothing. Therefore, an empty vessel, such as created through wu-wei, is considered more useful than
one that has a predetermined role or action to fulfill and accomplish.

third characteristic of wu-wei is a
reoccurring theme in Laozi teachings; non-action involves acting without intent
of acknowledgement for one’s work. According to Laozi, the most effective rulers
are the ones who do not fully disclose their intentions nor riches to their
citizens while making sure that their people are simple-minded with no desire
to experience other cultures and ways of living. By limiting such exposure to
the ruler’s wealth and to other cultures, the ruler can ensure that their
society will lack competition and stay complacent; by submitting and serving
their people from below, the ruler rises above. (4) This concept
can further be elaborated and applied towards warfare as well, through the
concept of return: “The movement of Dao is to return.” (2)

idea of return really focuses on cycles; when a civilization is strong and at
its peak, it can only return and cycle within its original nature by once again
becoming weak. Therefore, to become stronger, you must first yield to others (wu-wei) and start by appearing weaker. Then
the ruler or country can non-competitively yield and rise above through a
surprise factor; in other words, before striking, a country should not boast
and show off their weapons, but rather yield and withhold that information so
that they can attack through surprise. Wu-wei
through this approach is a means towards the end; a means of ultimately getting
a greater return. One can consider this approach to wu-wei as a way for a ruler or country to ultimately manipulate and
control a situation in their favor by waiting to act with least resistance at
the right moment and/or choosing not to act and allowing situations to resolve
themselves according to natural law. (4; 5) However, even when
the ruler manipulates a situation in his favor, through practicing wu-wei through this approach, their
citizens can still be influenced without corrosive policies (5).

these approaches of wu-wei have an
external focus with an ultimate goal focusing on a specific return from one’s
passivity; being passive is done by withholding a specific calculating action.
With this in mind, it is no surprise that most of Daoist following Laozi
teachings were more likely to control their external surrounding by removing
themselves from civilization and immersing themselves in nature so that they
can establish a space for innate wu-wei;
non-action, in short, is an interaction, or lack thereof, with the world and
its current state to then have a more favorable and natural outcome, all while
overcoming specific desires of the outcomes.

Wu-Wei with an Internal Metaphysical Focus

the external approach of wu-wei,
using passivity as a mean to the end to gain an advantage in politics, Zhuangzi
instead focused on non-action simply as the end itself, without ulterior
motives. This passivity, especially within politics, is encouraged so that one
can remove themselves completely from the political affairs and government, and
instead focus on cultivating and nurturing an inner governance. According to
Zhuangzi, one cannot deal with externality without being aware of their
internal state MP1 first

to Laozi, Zhuangzi also believed in the idea of self-sufficiency when it comes
to wu-wei, however, he emphasized
that self-sufficiency is strongly dependent and individualized based on one’s
inherent nature. We could not have the same expectations of self-sufficiency
for difference creatures; just as we would expect birds to fly to avoid harm,
we would expect fish to swim. Similarly, we cannot judge snakes and millipedes by
how many legs they do or do not have, but rather whether they can escape danger (6). With this approach
to the self-sufficiency of wu-wei, it
becomes easy to accept the nature/Dao of everything as being different, and
therefore, equal, rather than right or wrong, as was commonly critiqued by
Confucianism (5).
Since everything has its own innate natural state of being when left
unattended, Zhuangzi argued that there is no need at all for governance,
completely rejecting politics. However, Zhuangzi emphasized the need to act in
accordance to the Dao or innate nature, without purpose, desire, or deliberate
action. By following nature only and letting go of societal and self-imposed expectations,
wu-wei becomes an authentic and
self-sufficient expression of the Dao. This perspective on wu-wei emphasizes a personal responsibility towards spiritual
advancement, guiding individuals to understand the innate harmony between
(wo)mankind and nature. This harmonious experience of the Dao is likened to the
modern psychology term of flow; as an example of being one with the Dao, Zhuangzi
shares the story of a butcher for Lord Wenhui, who carves an ox with his knife
effortlessly, skillfully, and with exact precision such that he no longer uses
his eyes nor “sensible knowledge”, but allows his spirit to guide him. In this
way, the experience of the Dao is a skillset that goes beyond knowledge and
technique (5; 6).

of an External to Internal Approach to Wu-wei

Through his teachings, Zhuangzi
still encourages a physical type of action, however, with a mindset that is not
formed and without ego. Wu-wei is no
longer a means but rather the goal as authentic expression of nature, or the
Dao; this is the main difference in wu-wei
between Laozi and Zhuangzi. Through Zhuangzi, wu-wei becomes the full embodiment of true freedom and limitless
possibility of ingenuity. The ideal individual embodying the Dao follows and
acts in the patterns of nature all while staying in the present moment; they
are not passive because not acting is resisting your innate nature of
experiencing, flowing, and being part of the world. So, while individuals who
follow Laozi’s teachings of wu-wei are
encouraged to remain passive and small to maintain what they have and/or gain
more, Zhuangzi’s followers are encouraged to experience true freedom of the Dao
by acting in accordance and on behalf of nature; to experience the Dao, according
to Zhuangzi, individuals should act and do everything that will allow them to
become part of nature itself. This means that wu-wei is not yielding to allow nature to run its course, but
rather through self-cultivation, allows individuals to understand how to soar
as high and swim as deep as possible while maintaining an unformed mind. This
unformed mind, when free of judgement, allows experiences, perception of
nature, and interactions and relationships with other individuals to transform
continuously and endlessly; “when the mind is empty, spontaneity flows” (4) and then one can
experience the true Dao. An example of a fixed mind is articulated through the
story of monkeys who found happiness in receiving four nuts in the morning
instead of the evening. When the monkey trainer maintained an unfixed mind,
realizing that the time of day did not matter whether the monkeys received
three or four nuts, he acted by spontaneously following the flow of nature, as
directed by the internal states of the monkeys, and was able to create harmony (5).

individuals act with spontaneity and follow their innate nature with a free
mind, while not allowing biases or judgements to taint their motives, they no
longer see things as being useful or not useful. An example of this concept can
be understood through the story of the crooked tree which no logger wanted to
chop for wood. Without preconceived notions of what use trees have for us, we
can learn to appreciate everything in its natural state however way it
interacts with us (4; 5; 6). There no longer
needs to be a concept of being useful or useless, such as was with Laozi and
the empty vessel which can later be filled, which therefore makes it useful.
Therefore, Zhuangzi encourages followers to practice wu-wei by letting go of purposeful and fixed thinking and
appreciating the individual beauty, or Dao, in everything as it is, not only in
terms of how useful it becomes to us.


The external focus of wu-wei through Laozi’s teachings leaves
a separation between (wo)mankind and nature; Laozi fails to address the concept
of a fixed and socially-constructed mind. Zhuangzi was able to bridge this
separation through his internal approach of wu-wei,
which focuses on cultivating a sense of freedom and oneness with the Dao and
nature through removing judgement, biases, and developing a unformed and
spontaneous mind. This approach permits all nature to act in accordance to
their inherent state through the understanding of individualized and inherent self-sufficiency,
which then facilitates equality, purposefulness, and harmony of all things in
relation to nature, including (wo)mankind.