Wu Wei: nonaction, inaction or nondoing.
Sounds cryptic, doesn’t it? When I first heard the word Wu Wei being bandied about like some mystical magical concept that the average blonde mortal Babe could never possibly dream of comprehending or fitting into the vacuous spaces in between her ears, I thought it was some transcendental New Age state that had to be cultivated for years while sitting heavy-lidded and cross-legged, on top of a mountain, underneath a banyan tree.
As it turned out, the part about cultivation for years is quite accurate. The banyan tree on the mountain part… maybe not so accurate.
Non-action does not mean no action and nondoing does not mean being lazy and doing nothing. It means doing something so often that its movements are natural and no thought is needed to reproduce the action correctly, and in the right time and place. It is simply done effortlessly, cleanly and in harmony with everything around it.
This brought a slight sense of disappointment in my lazy bum Babe soul as my hopes of attaining such a cool and elevated state without having to do all the hard work to get there was pretty much dashed. I consoled myself with the thought that I at least had cultivated one or two Wu Wei-ish skills, such as being able to type as fast as I could think. Of course, this meant either I typed really really fast, or I thought really really slow–take your pick.
At any rate, for the modern-day Babe, Wu Wei is exemplified when you make a perfect score on your Wii bowling, while bowling with one hand, and holding a phone with the other, discussing esoteric knowledge to your girlfriend. And then when you hang up with her, you can’t make a single strike to save your life, because you are concentrating too hard on the bowling and not on your girlfriend.
I perceive Wu Wei as being the same as floating downriver during rapids. “Go with the flow.” It takes much less effort than trying to swim upstream, and one goes even faster.
And, if the idea of Wu Wei is coupled with a Yin nature, than maybe “laziness” isn’t all that bad? If lazy is how you are now than it is so.
Wu Wei is so wonderfully complex in its dazzling simplicity. Sometimes it is choosing that your action will be no action at all, sometimes it is anticipating the waves of Fate and leaping into the swell before it passes. Utlimately, Wu Wei is… Wu Wei. It cannot be reduced.
I think what you explained about Wu Wei is right to some extent but could be misleading since you described something (Bowling) that could be the result of very hard repetitive work which eventually becomes habitual and subconcious. From what I understand (from a Master), the key difference is – Wu Wei is the beginning of the journey not the end. Wu Wei is the start and once you know how to be Wu Wei – non-action state, emptiness minded, etc. and you will perceive the law and understand the nature. Eventually you will achieve Wu So Bu Wei – meaning ‘you can do anything at will and effortlessly’ according to the law.
According to Mantak Chia,
Wu Wei is a state of grace. I feel this grace in tai ji.
Vô Vi can be understood in many ways (like by other commentators here), and every way would be right for the mental predisposition of the one who happens to be thinking it.
But you probably want a meaning that’s “absolute and universal” (transpersonal) for Vô Vi.
In such context, Vô Vi’s primary concern will no longer be about individuals and individual actions – then, such a meaning has to be at least in the context of the noumenal realm.
For that, the Diamond Sutra is very helpful. Vô Vi simply means, literally, “there is nothing that’s going on” (i.e. the Diamond Sutra says that even the foundational noumenal realm is still all illusory).
But, like Lão Tử says, “Vô vi nhi vô bất vi” – there is nothing going on, therefore there is nothing that’s not going on …
and the Buddha says, there is nothing going on, therefore even the “nothing going on” is not going on …
Thanks for your thoughts on this subject. Thank you also for offering the literal Vietnamese translation. I actually prefer to use the words Vô Vi instead of Wu Wei because (obviously) Wu Wei does not sound like Vô Vi, which actually means something to me since it is written in a language I can understand.
My only question to you is…who actually said that quote, Lao Tzu or Budha, and if you say Budha, then pray tell, which one? 🙂
[Đạo Đức Kinh, chương 48]
Vi học nhật ích, vi Đạo nhật tổn.
Tổn chi hựu tổn dĩ chí ư vô vi.
Vô vi nhi vô bất vi.
[Trong kinh Kim Cang Phật Thích Ca dạy]
“Phàm sở hữu tướng giai thị hư vọng,
nhược kiến chư tướng phi tướng tức kiến Như Lai.”
Ah. Thank you for the elucidation. The real question now is, which quote came first. First one wins this round for originality. 🙂
‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ – John 1:30
Thanks for your response Ninh.
That quote is true, to a certain extent. But Gautama Siddhartha lived around the same time as both Lao Tzu and Confucius, and all three men were alive centuries before Jesus was even born. Assuming John was referring to Jesus in 1:30, then they definitely came before Jesus—by at least five-hundred years.
My thinking is that they all quoted from a singular source of knowledge which taught all three men (four if you count Jesus as amongst the prophets) the same information. Furthermore, this singular source existed far, far in the distant vastness of ancient times. I wrote about this in one of my earlier posts, I Ching Sphere. (https://taobabe.wordpress.com/i-suck-at-math/ ) It is something that has to be explained with mathematics because words cannot express fully the true meaning of Vô Vi (Wu Wei).
It means to go with the flow of nature.
Nature will always move with out us. We should not push at life rather we listen to it.
Imho, the fabricated concept of human time-keeping (calendar) can be detrimental if your purpose is to deal in that-which-is-beyond-the-human (a.k.a.’the divine’) – “history” is necessary as a temporary toe-hold to orient oneself within the scheme of the human construct of ‘existence’, but no more than that.
Imho, the only I-Ching as is known today (Chu Dịch) is a design for the human construct of consciousness, but Thái Cực Dịch Lý is infinitely more vast. Liên Sơn and Quy Tàng are not really lost, their spirit is very much alive in Hoa Nghiêm (~LS) and Kim Cang (~QT). A most basic question for a student of Thái Cực Dịch Lý is ‘where do I want to ground my self’, in the Coming (LS) and the Going (QT), or in the aristotelian/cartesian human construct (Chu Dịch).
Imho, the one and only thing worth learning, in every spiritual tradition, East and West, ever, is the ability to shoot down vô minh, like Trang Tử demonstrated to the “world supreme top-banana champion archer” in that old Đạo tale …
In the end, Coming is Going, and no different than choosing to dwell in the human realm, because “tam dã, bất khả trí cật, cố, hỗn vi NHẤT” (ĐĐK Chapter 14), which is why Trang Tử’s archery lesson is so great (imho).
(yup, the Yi Globe is very interesting and your exposé of it is brilliant. I am sure I can learn a lot from you, should my purpose to ever switch to Chu Dịch…)
Your very correct… The master archer becomes the shot. The great dancer becomes the dance. The master musicians seem to play their instruments without any effort. But all this took much practice and knowledge.
The Way has no why, and so there are all the ways. Perhaps that’s what wu wei is – there’s no why.
Why does water boil at 100 degrees celsius? There’s no why, only how. Boiling at 100 degrees celsius is part of the nature of water. There’s nothing deliberate about it; it just happens – wu wei. Like what you’ve said, it is not ‘no-action’ or ‘do-nothing’; it is simply happening, in accordance to nature.
Wu wei for humans is tricky because we are deluded and ignorant of our true nature. One day we think we are smart, another day we think we are stupid. So is our true nature smart or stupid or neither? What is our true nature? This is the trouble of humans – we think so much.
So unless we have realised our true nature, we probably can’t answer the question of “What the F**k is Wu Wei?”
But if we have realised our true nature, we probably won’t answer the question too – because it is beyond words! Either way, no answer, haha!
It is a basic tenet of Taoism that the Tao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Tao. But just because it is beyond words does not mean there is no answer. We just have to know where to look. We could start from within. Perhaps the answer is within us.
Peace and light to you.
Appreciated this article and your insights. I also appreciated the many comments and additional insights. Question: are you fairly confident in the characters you used to represent “Wu Wei”? it appears there are many versions (ancient Chinese, modern Chinese along with the Korean, Japanese and of course Vietnamese).