Second Taoist Contemplation: Wu-Wei (No Action) Principle

Taoism teaches that not-meddling assists the nature of all things: by letting them run their course, we find the best results. This lets them be, helps them function as they should. This seems to suggest a case against some forms of transhumanism and attempts to become more than one is, as pointless, excessive, arrogant and counter-productive. It also makes the case for for sustainable development, and in fact Taoism (like Epicureanism) exhibits an eco-spiritual sensibility.

 We must not force Nature but persuade her. We shall persuade her if we satisfy the necessary desires and also those bodily desires that do not harm us while sternly rejecting those that are harmful.Vatican Saying 21

Lao-Tse joins Epicurus in saying that we should have a healthy relationship with nature, with the world, with reality, but he at one point takes it to an extreme by saying:

Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 29

This idea of abiding in the eye of the hurricane is seen in many other contemplative traditions, and it’s useful at times, but Epicurus would not have agreed with it. The world can be improved, and examples of this abound. Everyday, there are innovative inventions, machines that do the brutal labor that humans and animals used to have to carry out centuries ago, increasingly efficient gadgets that save us time, etc. We do have means of controlling and improving our experience, and by all means we should use them.

The key is knowing when to yield and when to assert: this is the art that the philosopher must master. Let’s not forget that there is both abiding and dynamic pleasures in nature. Both ways of being can be efficient and virtuous.

The Wisdom of Non-Action

Having said that, let’s begin to consider the virtues and the wisdom of yielding within various contexts.

Chapter 18 of the Tao Te Ching says that sometimes good things can come from bad ones, and bad things can come from good ones. In the scriptural example, after injustice there may be justice, with intelligence may come deception, with mistreatment by others there may come familial affection, and with societal chaos there may be an increase in loyalties.

It’s also been observed that after a hurricane or natural disaster, there is a huge outburst of compassion and aid. There is an ebb and flow in history and in nature where difficulties can bring about acts of redemption. The commentary on the DC Lau’s translation says that we should “avoid idealized notions about how to conduct life instead of taking life’s circumstances one step at a time”.

The practical teaching we find in these insights is that things that seem unpleasant at first, carry the seed of pleasant effects, and ergo the sage remains detached. Alan Watts once related the Taoist parable of the dignatary whose son hurt his legs in an accident, and the entire town expressed condolences, but then the following day there was a war in the kingdom and his son didn’t have to go to war because of his accident whereas the neighbors had to send their children to war. We find these kinds of parables, where things are not what they seem and reality is in constant flow, throughout the Taoist wisdom tradition.

There are many teachings that demonstrate how moderation is rooted in wisdom and insight. Chapter 9 warns against too much action and teaches that only a natural measure of action is needed to be effective, offering the example of over-filling a cup and over-sharpening a knife. Only so much action is required: when we go beyond that point, action becomes inefficient and useless.

Chapter 74 offers the examples of chopping wood on behalf of carpenter and killing on behalf of executioner. It appears that these examples are a warning against exacting vengence with our own hands, as for those who do these things, “it is rare they do not hurt their own hands”. Taking justice into our own hands instead of relying on the authorities can lead to anarchy, disorder, societal chaos, gang warfare. Taoism teaches that people should see the fruits of their own harm.

I am reminded of how sometimes in creative projects, too much effort tires the mind. When we study, we sometimes have to put our books aside and rest, sleep on the ideas, and then we’re refreshed and have clear, new creative ideas the next day or the next week. It’s frequently more efficient not to put in effort for a while.

Non-action can also be a sign of wisdom in the realm of speech. The fifth chapter of the TTC says that “too many words hasten failure”, and praises silence. It’s true that there are instances where not speaking is more efficient and wiser than speaking.

Those who know do not talk
Those who talk do not know

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 56

Many wisdom traditions teach this. There are parallel teachings in the Havamal and the oracle of Ifa, which both contain warnings against ignorant or young people speaking up excessively or inappropriately among the wise and the elderly, and demonstrating their lack of knowledge. In fact, one technique for getting intelligence and information from people, according to the Havamal, is by getting them drunk and allowing them to run their mouth. We are advised there that we should always remain sober in speech.

Grassroots Virtue

Thinking you are good can make you bad. Thinking about positive behavior can encourage negative behavior. – Lao-Tse

Ziran (naturalness) is a cardinal virtue in Taoism. Lao-Tse makes the case for naturalness as a virtue by saying that when we try to be good or virtuous, we become arrogant and inefficient. It’s best to be unassuming, sincere, and spontaneous, having no agenda.

Therefore the great person:
Abides in substance, and does not dwell on the thin shell
Abides in the real, and does not dwell on the flower

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 38

The respect for Tao, the value of virtue
Not due to command but to constant nature

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 51

The idea is to do random acts of kindness and joy without being ostentatious about our good qualities. Epicurus also has this notion: people are naturally good, in normal circumstances, and therefore there is no need for commanding good or for authority-based morality. Moral authority emerges naturally from our nature and finds expression in our mores, legal codes, etc. I call this grassroots virtue.

The Tao Te Ching invites people to become the measure of the world and to become like infants, presumably innocent, pure, following pleasure, shunning pain, acting simply and according to their nature. This natural state of humanity is frequently contrasted with cultural corruption in Epicurus. This is what Taoist references to plain wood mean. A block of uncut wood is natural, uncorrupt, it has natural shapes. This roughness is considered virtuous. We should be natural, be ourselves, with no pretensions, with all of our complexities and nothing more.

Return to the state of plain wood
Plain wood splits, then becomes tools
The sages utilize them
And then become leaders

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 28

Even our vulnerabilities or softness is a virtue, if it’s what nature endowed us with. To return to the example of the hurricane, if a branch or tree is flexible, it will bend under the winds and will not break. It can then survive the storm. On the other hand, a branch that does not bend, that is not flexible, will not adapt to the storm and will break. The same thing happens with people, and even with armies.

All living things, grass and trees,
While alive, are soft and supple
When dead, become dry and brittle
Thus that which is hard and stiff
is the follower of death
That which is soft and yielding
is the follower of life
Therefore, an inflexible army will not win
A strong tree will be cut down

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 76

We are therefore encouraged to fully embrace our state as natural beings with our natural limitations and idiosyncrasies and to find the virtue in things as they are. Naturalness is a virtue.

The ultimate act of yielding lies in surrendering to the experience of death. Revering and embracing reality in this sober manner is the ultimate redemption and it’s a katastematic pleasure, understood as a pleasure found in yielding. This may sound hard to understand, but let’s ponder it: acceptance of our death does away with the intense fear and apprehension we may experience concerning our future state of non-being. If we surrender to our own nature and accept our identity as mortals, and to the extent that we do, these perturbances leave us and we are alleviated, liberated, at ease. This ease is experienced as a pleasure.

Nature here doesn’t give us a choice with regards to dying, our only choice is whether we yield, whether we are flexible or inflexible. We have to die but we don’t have to be perturbed by death: it’s only if we try in vain to fight our mortality, that we suffer. This is the prime example of unwise action and of wise yielding. This is wisdom: to learn to die. To accept death.

This ultimate surrender to the nature of things is one of the arts that naturalist philosophy prepares us for.

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

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About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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8 Responses to Second Taoist Contemplation: Wu-Wei (No Action) Principle

  1. Think Always says:

    I love the Asian philosophies; mainly Buddhism since I am only really familiar with that. But it seems they all had a profound sense of realism and valued inner peace.

    Like

  2. erikleo says:

    Taoism influenced Zen I think in China? It certainly is a way of life which could be very relevant to the problems we face today; whether environmental or personal!

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Obi says:

    This is awesome. Love the reference to Ifa, also.

    Like

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