by Scott Bradley
by Scott Bradley
After 'Tao', wu-wei is probably the most misunderstood concept in Taoism. The reason for this is quite simple: To 'understand' it one must experience it. And that is no easy matter, for it is an expression of the liberated consciousness of the (theoretical) sage. Wu-wei is thus not a concept to understand, but a way of being.
Nevertheless, it is helpful, should one wish to realize something of that liberation, to cognitively reflect on what is meant by wu-wei.
Literally, it translates 'not-doing'. Yet it does not mean 'doing-nothing'. Doing is done, but it is done in an altogether different way than one normally does things.
Carl Jung, in his commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Taoist text on 'Inner Alchemy', describes wu-wei as "letting things happen". A certain passive disinterest and detachment is implied. As when one transcends gain and loss, the belief and thus fear that one can lose something, there is no referential link between events and the egoic self. The universe no longer revolves around 'me'; there is no one for things to happen to. This being the case, events, when they arrive, are accepted with equanimity.
Guo Xiang, in his commentary on the Zhuangzi, describes wu-wei as "doing what happens." Here we begin to see the active side of 'not-doing'. When the rain falls upon us, we do not sit there like an insentient rock, but respond as need requires. We find shelter under a tree, turn our faces up in pleasure, or run to shut the windows. Both Zen and Taoism are very explicit about this: The sage responds to every event just as is required and in perfect harmony. Zhuangzi often speaks of "going along with" events. Zen has that wonderful image of riding through life like a gourd bouncing down a stream.
I hesitate to mention alternative ways of responding to that rain, but I suppose I must. When will this ever stop! Why can't the weatherman ever get it right! Now I will get pneumonia for sure! Of course it's raining; I just washed the car! I needn't tell you how these responses come so readily to mind. Each one begins and ends with ‘me’.
The practitioner of wu-wei does everything that life requires, both pre-emptively and responsively, only she does them free of fear of loss or hope of gain. She does them because the life within her does them. She does them spontaneously, which is to say, naturally. And she does them thankfully and happily. For life is essentially a celebration.
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