W u - w e i

The Nondoing Concept

Maybe the nondoing concept ( wu-wei) is the most important. More important than Tao, which could be intuited, than Yin and Yang, which express abstract relations. Its importance results from the fact that it's directly connected to an essential idea of the philosophical Taoism: the adaptation to time exigencies, to changing! The whole metaphysics of the ancient Taoism is focused on this point, which, let's make a clear breast, doesn't include anything metaphysical!
From this follows the pragmatism of the Chinese philosophy, which represents the object of our study from this site. (Chinese people also had the knowledge of speculation, mystic, magic - the way they are nowadays in vogue in the modern world -, but we are not interested here by these aspects, because they are not grounded on a viable basis).

The best explanation for the Sinologists' world (specialists who study Chinese culture) of the term Nondoing we find again at Alan Watts. We quote from this prolific author:

"…The Nondoing principle (wu-wei) shouldn't be interpreted as inertness, idleness, laissez-faire or mere passivity…"

"So, wu-wei, meaning not to force (things) means not acting against nature, to move the same direction with the blow, to swim to the watercourse, to trim your sails to the wind, to follow the waves' somersault or to bend, to incline in order to be successful".

"This way, wu-wei is the lifestyle of that person who follows Tao and should be understood first of all as a form of intelligence - that of being aware of the principles, structures and tendencies of the human activity and of the natural phenomena so well that you could use a minimum amount of energy when you have to deal with them". (Alan Watts, "Dao - the Watercourse-Way").

  • Doing-Nondoing,
    A Binomial Ignored by the Specialists

Unfortunately, despite the incontestable seduction of these explanations, they are still incomplete. Because Nondoing is not a life technique applicable to any circumstance, as it seems to result from what Alan Watts wrote. Nondoing has to be connected to Doing, if we wish to be consistent to the Taoist logic. Adaptation to reality, as we have already mentioned, has as an exigency a sort of flexibility of our behavior, which doesn't remain stiff, but emulates the requirements of the moment.
There are many examples to this point in the ancient Taoist literature. For example, we read in Hexagram (25) "The Innocence, the Unexpected", the second trait: "Every work has to be performed on time, as time and place require it, without considering its result. That's when you succeed and everything you undertake succeeds."
And the general comment upon the Hexagram strives to explain that the instinctive spontaneous attitude of the individual is not enough. He needs reason and especially the mandate of Heaven (the conformity to the ephemeral tendencies that alternate the Yin and Yang moments).
In many stories attributed to Lieh-tzu we find out that we need flair in everyday life if we don't want to strike against the inconsistencies of the destiny, sometimes dramatically…

But even Lao-tzu is not an unconditional partisan of Nondoing, if we take into account the fact that he spent part of his life at the Court of Chou sovereign, as an archivist. Then he left this position, but not because he wanted to go into exile, but because life at Court was corrupted, in a time when political and social hypocrisy reached its maximum in ancient China. Lao Tzu's gesture is otherwise eloquent: when the time is right, it is proper to serve the sovereign, when not - back out!

So, Nondoing should be regarded as a complement of Doing and not as a virtue or as an absolute model of life! This aspect is totally ignored by Alan Watts and not only by him. Max Kaltenmark, one of the most well known Sinologists, is also far from this obvious thing. Not to mention Sima Qian himself, the historian of the Chinese classicism, who also limits Taoism (Lao Tzu's philosophy) to the ideas of seclusion from public life, of monastic life etc.

Paper by Jean Chiriac
Translated by Ochea Corina

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