The non-action of the wise man is not inaction.
It is not studied. It is not shaken by anything.
The sage is quiet because he is not moved,
Not because he wills to be quiet.
Still water is like glass.
You can look in it and see the bristles on your chin.
It is a perfect level;
A carpenter could use it.
If water is so clear, so level,
How much more the spirit of man?
The heart of the wise man is tranquil.
It is the mirror of heaven and earth
The glass of everything.
Emptiness, stillness, tranquillity, tastelessness,
Silence, non-action: this is the level of heaven and earth.
This is perfect Tao. Wise men find here
Their resting place.
Resting, they are empty.
From emptiness comes the unconditioned.
From this, the conditioned, the individual things.
So from the sage’s emptiness, stillness arises:
From stillness, action. From action, attainment.
From their stillness comes their non-action, which is also action
And is, therefore, their attainment.
For stillness is joy. Joy is free from care
Fruitful in long years.
Joy does all things without concern:
For emptiness, stillness, tranquillity, tastelessness,
Silence, and non-action
Are the root of all things.
Chuang Tzu, 300 BCE China
Thomas James Merton, trans.
A useful synopsis of the Taoist principle of wu-wei:
A key principle in realizing our oneness with the Tao is that of wu-wei, or “non-doing.” Wu-wei refers to behavior that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one’s environment. It is not motivated by a sense of separateness. It is action that is spontaneous and effortless. At the same time it is not to be considered inertia, laziness, or mere passivity. Rather, it is the experience of going with the grain or swimming with the current. Our contemporary expression, “going with the flow,” is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle, which in its most basic form refers to behavior occurring in response to the flow of the Tao. The principle of wu-wei contains certain implications. Foremost among these is the need to consciously experience ourselves as part of the unity of life that is the Tao. Lao Tzu writes that we must be quiet and watchful, learning to listen to both our own inner voices and to the voices of our environment in a non-interfering, receptive manner. In this way we also learn to rely on more than just our intellect and logical mind to gather and assess information. We develop and trust our intuition as our direct connection to the Tao. We heed the intelligence of our whole body, not only our brain. And we learn through our own experience. All of this allows us to respond readily to the needs of the environment, which of course includes ourselves. And just as the Tao functions in a manner to promote harmony and balance, our own actions, performed in the spirit of wu-wei, produce the same result. Wu-wei also implies action that is spontaneous, natural, and effortless. As with the Tao, this behavior simply flows through us because it is the right action, appropriate to its time and place, and serving the purpose of greater harmony and balance. Chuang Tzu refers to this type of being in the world as flowing, or more poetically (and provocatively), as “purposeless wandering!” How opposite this concept is to some of our most cherished cultural values. To have no purpose is unthinkable and even frightening, certainly anti-social and perhaps pathological in the context of modern day living. And yet it would be difficult to maintain that our current values have promoted harmony and balance, either environmentally or on an individual level. To allow oneself to “wander without purpose” can be frightening because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about life, about who we are as humans, and about our role in the world. From a Taoist point of view it is our cherished beliefs – that we exist as separate beings, that we can exercise willful control over all situations, and that our role is to conquer our environment – that lead to a state of disharmony and imbalance. Yet, “the Tao nourishes everything,” Lao Tzu writes. If we can learn to follow the Tao, practicing non-action,” then nothing remains undone. This means trusting our own bodies, our thoughts and emotions, and also believing that the environment will provide support and guidance. Thus the need to develop watchfulness and quietness of mind.
This method of observation is central to my existence, though it took a long time to accept in my daily practice. Everything we are taught seems to run counter to the principality of stillness. Our culture teaches us acquisition, but as Alan Wilson Watts suggested the transformation required by Taoism and Zen practice “is not an acquisitive process of learning more and more facts or greater and greater skills, but rather an unlearning of wrong habits and opinions.” Co-comprehending the complex of belief represented by the Four Noble Truths/Noble Eightfold Path and this principle of wu wei explained above I was directed out of a cloud of attachments, not into enlightenment so much as out of confusion. Blessed with a poet’s observational eye and denuded of delusions I sought, and ever-seek, only to exist in harmony with the moment, whatever that moment happens to be. That I came to equate the Noble Eightfold Path with the Taoist concept of ‘right action’ seemed characteristically burdensome except in its liberating effect. Absent desire, conceptions, preferences the acceptance of this key nugget of the Dharma was like putting on a cloak woven especially for me, only thousands of years ago in the shade of the Bodhi tree.
Consider as you may the idea of judicious non-action in your own life. From as simple an act of restraint as keeping your lip buttoned when the moment renders any comment counterproductive to forbearance from certain material pursuits and behaviors that violate your personal code of ethics, how have you benefitted from non-action in the past? How might you benefit from non-action in the future?
My first exposure to the Tao Te Ching was like emerging from a forest. My first twenty years spiritually were a lot of straight lines, all somehow standing at their own angle, none particularly true, always seemingly in the act of shifting. A lad with an eye open for sterling examples of humanity on which to model his own behavior saw the man who sings loudly in church but hits his kids; the kids who gleam like angels in public then slink away to wrap themselves tightly around burgeoning hatreds, addictions, or vanities; preachers not practicing. I was still able to agree in broad terms with the morals and principles they espoused in public and in church but unable to reconcile those morals and principles with their known private behaviors. I didn’t feel motivated to involve myself in blame of them, either Jesus Christ or these individuals, but I could not help connect how the same teachings from the same minister in the same church could yield such an inconstant, cognitively-dissonant result, or how other denominations in titular service of the same divinity seemed to fare no better. I was unaware at the time of Gandhi’s observation “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ,” but would have found the words reassuring, naked as they left me.
As a minor I wasn’t free to wander off and worship as I saw fit, so I went with my family where they went (as a lad will) and sometimes that was church. I was no longer expecting Jesus there. I had grown accustomed to not looking but was happy to still find him along the way in the form of moments of relevance and real-life value of his words and teachings (not an apparition or disembodied voice thankfully). When at 20 I was required to read the Tao Te Ching in an East Asian Philosophy class my Way appeared beneath my feet, a little track through the edge of the bamboo, winding away over the sunny plain. I still find Jesus out here, but also Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Confucius, and the numberless monks, poets, and sages, all singing.
Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind rest at peace.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.
The way of nature is unchanging.
Knowing constancy is insight.
Not knowing constancy leads to disaster.
Knowing constancy, the mind is open.
With an open mind, you will be openhearted.
Being openhearted, you will act royally.
Being royal, you will attain the divine.
Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao.
Being at one with the Tao is eternal.
And though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away.