Introduction:The Rise of DaoismDuring the Zhou dynasty,in a period of unrest and transition known as zhunguo, or the Warring States (1122-221 BC), China was undergoingtumultuous changes economically and politically.
Though there was a centralking who was officially in charge of China as a country, many independentstates self-governed and organized their own armies. This brought aboutconstant conflict amongst these states, striving to overthrow each other andgain more territory. Due to the state of the country at this time, manyphilosophers were concerned with re-establishing the old, peaceful ways. Underthe Daoist philosophy, the concept of a path, the Dao, was created in order toexplain how to achieve this inherent harmony once again. Though there were manydifferent ideologies and schools of thought established during this time, themost contradictory philosophical concept to the turmoil these philosophersexperienced laid in the concept of wu-wei,or the Daoist idea of non-action, so that one can experience true peace. (1)DefiningWu-WeiThe Daoist concept of wu-wei, or non-action, has varioushistorical and modern interpretations. Before exploring wu-wei, it is important to consider that similarly to theunderlining premise of the Dao, or the way, wu-weiinnately also loses its meaning when named and described because the soleattempt of taking action to explain non-action defeats the purpose ofnon-action.
The opening line of The Laoziaddresses this paradox: “Any dao thatcan dao guide is not a constant dao. Because any name that can name isnot a constant name.” (2)Nevertheless, scholarsstill worked on describing wu-wei conceptually.Some modern scholars understand wu-weito represent action that is taken only when absolutely necessary, neveroverdoing, while others interpret wu-weito mean taking actions with no conscious effort or set purpose (3; 4).
Modern psychologyroughly categorizes the latter approach as a term called flow, or fullyimmersing yourself in an activity. This full immersion allows you to lose yoursense of time and space during the activity, while requiring little consciouseffort; in other words, you become one with the activity. Recent Westernphilosophers explain flow by making the distinction between “knowing how”, or wu-wei, between “knowing that”, such as facts or instructions on how toact (5). However, thoughmodern interpretations are important to consider, wu-wei and its evolution of meaning should really be consideredfrom a historical context of the original Daoists: Laozi and Zhuangzi. Wu-Wei as a Socio-Political Commentary with an External Focus Laozimainly uses wu-wei as a guide for asage-ruler to manage their country; of the 17 chapters Laozi uses to explain wu-wei, only one chapter addresses themetaphysical aspect of non-action in relation to the Dao: “The Dao never acts,but leaves nothing undone.” (2; 6) There are threemeanings of wu-wei according to Laoziused to govern and support politics. The first focuses on self-sufficiency, interms of less involvement of government so that citizens can lead their livesin a peaceful order created naturally by themselves. This idea respects theDaoist idea that nature has an inherent and brilliant order and when leftalone, it will run its own course.
In accordance of wu-wei, a sage respects nature’s order and allow things to takecare of themselves without taking direct action in attempt to control anything whichmight be “out-of-order”. (4) Thesecond aspect of wu-wei, according toLaozi, emphasizes the value of nothingness. Unlike later Daoiost who believethat 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 Daomost when it is least present or lacking from our experience. Furthermore, ahouse is only inhabitable, and a cup is only useful when inside, there isnothing.
Therefore, an empty vessel, such as created through wu-wei, is considered more useful thanone that has a predetermined role or action to fulfill and accomplish. Thethird characteristic of wu-wei is areoccurring theme in Laozi teachings; non-action involves acting without intentof acknowledgement for one’s work. According to Laozi, the most effective rulersare the ones who do not fully disclose their intentions nor riches to theircitizens while making sure that their people are simple-minded with no desireto experience other cultures and ways of living.
By limiting such exposure tothe ruler’s wealth and to other cultures, the ruler can ensure that theirsociety will lack competition and stay complacent; by submitting and servingtheir people from below, the ruler rises above. (4) This conceptcan further be elaborated and applied towards warfare as well, through theconcept of return: “The movement of Dao is to return.” (2) Theidea of return really focuses on cycles; when a civilization is strong and atits peak, it can only return and cycle within its original nature by once againbecoming weak. Therefore, to become stronger, you must first yield to others (wu-wei) and start by appearing weaker. Thenthe ruler or country can non-competitively yield and rise above through asurprise factor; in other words, before striking, a country should not boastand show off their weapons, but rather yield and withhold that information sothat they can attack through surprise. Wu-weithrough this approach is a means towards the end; a means of ultimately gettinga greater return.
One can consider this approach to wu-wei as a way for a ruler or country to ultimately manipulate andcontrol a situation in their favor by waiting to act with least resistance atthe right moment and/or choosing not to act and allowing situations to resolvethemselves according to natural law. (4; 5) However, even whenthe ruler manipulates a situation in his favor, through practicing wu-wei through this approach, theircitizens can still be influenced without corrosive policies (5). Allthese approaches of wu-wei have anexternal focus with an ultimate goal focusing on a specific return from one’spassivity; being passive is done by withholding a specific calculating action.With this in mind, it is no surprise that most of Daoist following Laoziteachings were more likely to control their external surrounding by removingthemselves from civilization and immersing themselves in nature so that theycan establish a space for innate wu-wei;non-action, in short, is an interaction, or lack thereof, with the world andits current state to then have a more favorable and natural outcome, all whileovercoming specific desires of the outcomes.
Wu-Wei with an Internal Metaphysical Focus Beyondthe external approach of wu-wei,using passivity as a mean to the end to gain an advantage in politics, Zhuangziinstead focused on non-action simply as the end itself, without ulteriormotives. This passivity, especially within politics, is encouraged so that onecan remove themselves completely from the political affairs and government, andinstead focus on cultivating and nurturing an inner governance. According toZhuangzi, one cannot deal with externality without being aware of theirinternal state MP1 first(4).
Similarto Laozi, Zhuangzi also believed in the idea of self-sufficiency when it comesto wu-wei, however, he emphasizedthat self-sufficiency is strongly dependent and individualized based on one’sinherent nature. We could not have the same expectations of self-sufficiencyfor 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 byhow many legs they do or do not have, but rather whether they can escape danger (6). With this approachto the self-sufficiency of wu-wei, itbecomes easy to accept the nature/Dao of everything as being different, andtherefore, equal, rather than right or wrong, as was commonly critiqued byConfucianism (5).Since everything has its own innate natural state of being when leftunattended, Zhuangzi argued that there is no need at all for governance,completely rejecting politics. However, Zhuangzi emphasized the need to act inaccordance to the Dao or innate nature, without purpose, desire, or deliberateaction.
By following nature only and letting go of societal and self-imposed expectations,wu-wei becomes an authentic andself-sufficient expression of the Dao. This perspective on wu-wei emphasizes a personal responsibility towards spiritualadvancement, guiding individuals to understand the innate harmony between(wo)mankind and nature. This harmonious experience of the Dao is likened to themodern psychology term of flow; as an example of being one with the Dao, Zhuangzishares the story of a butcher for Lord Wenhui, who carves an ox with his knifeeffortlessly, skillfully, and with exact precision such that he no longer useshis eyes nor “sensible knowledge”, but allows his spirit to guide him. In thisway, the experience of the Dao is a skillset that goes beyond knowledge andtechnique (5; 6).Evolutionof an External to Internal Approach to Wu-weiThrough his teachings, Zhuangzistill encourages a physical type of action, however, with a mindset that is notformed and without ego.
Wu-wei is nolonger a means but rather the goal as authentic expression of nature, or theDao; this is the main difference in wu-weibetween Laozi and Zhuangzi. Through Zhuangzi, wu-wei becomes the full embodiment of true freedom and limitlesspossibility of ingenuity. The ideal individual embodying the Dao follows andacts in the patterns of nature all while staying in the present moment; theyare not passive because not acting is resisting your innate nature ofexperiencing, flowing, and being part of the world. So, while individuals whofollow Laozi’s teachings of wu-wei areencouraged to remain passive and small to maintain what they have and/or gainmore, Zhuangzi’s followers are encouraged to experience true freedom of the Daoby acting in accordance and on behalf of nature; to experience the Dao, accordingto Zhuangzi, individuals should act and do everything that will allow them tobecome part of nature itself. This means that wu-wei is not yielding to allow nature to run its course, butrather through self-cultivation, allows individuals to understand how to soaras high and swim as deep as possible while maintaining an unformed mind. Thisunformed mind, when free of judgement, allows experiences, perception ofnature, and interactions and relationships with other individuals to transformcontinuously and endlessly; “when the mind is empty, spontaneity flows” (4) and then one canexperience the true Dao.
An example of a fixed mind is articulated through thestory of monkeys who found happiness in receiving four nuts in the morninginstead of the evening. When the monkey trainer maintained an unfixed mind,realizing that the time of day did not matter whether the monkeys receivedthree or four nuts, he acted by spontaneously following the flow of nature, asdirected by the internal states of the monkeys, and was able to create harmony (5). Whenindividuals act with spontaneity and follow their innate nature with a freemind, while not allowing biases or judgements to taint their motives, they nolonger see things as being useful or not useful. An example of this concept canbe understood through the story of the crooked tree which no logger wanted tochop for wood. Without preconceived notions of what use trees have for us, wecan learn to appreciate everything in its natural state however way itinteracts with us (4; 5; 6).
There no longerneeds to be a concept of being useful or useless, such as was with Laozi andthe 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 andappreciating the individual beauty, or Dao, in everything as it is, not only interms of how useful it becomes to us. ConclusionThe external focus of wu-wei through Laozi’s teachings leavesa separation between (wo)mankind and nature; Laozi fails to address the conceptof a fixed and socially-constructed mind. Zhuangzi was able to bridge thisseparation through his internal approach of wu-wei,which focuses on cultivating a sense of freedom and oneness with the Dao andnature through removing judgement, biases, and developing a unformed andspontaneous mind. This approach permits all nature to act in accordance totheir inherent state through the understanding of individualized and inherent self-sufficiency,which then facilitates equality, purposefulness, and harmony of all things inrelation to nature, including (wo)mankind.