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Wu Wei. An Approximation.

Besides that of Dao, the concept of Wu Wei is central to the Daodejing. But it is more than that. Wu Wei, non-action, is, for the Western trained mind, perhaps the most difficult and inaccessible paradox of Daoist teaching.

1 Preface

"And thus, an essential is already given there: We are doing everything
so that it is done and the next one can arrive. "(1)

Besides that of Dao, the concept of Wu Wei is central to the Daodejing, but it is more than that. Wu Wei, non-action(2), is, for the Western-trained mind, perhaps the most difficult and inaccessible paradox(3) of Daoist teaching.

In Western thinking, action takes a central position as an expression of free will. A person experiences himself(4) as an acting being, and the quality of his freely chosen actions makes him the highest he can aspire to: a person. It is precisely action that Wu Wei is questioning by making non-action the developmental objective of human perfection.

What exactly does this mean? Is it that here two world views – and thus two ideas of man – are opposing each other in unbridgeable contradiction? Or, if we leave the superficial exoticism of Daoist thinking behind: would it be possible to trace down concepts within the Wu Wei that are perhaps not at all unfamiliar to the Western world of experience?

In the following text, Wu Wei, non-action, the concept suggested by Laozi, will be examined in different correlations.

2 Text Genesis and Conceptual Clarifications

2.1 Laozi's Daodejing

When approaching the concept of Wu Wei, we should certainly take a closer look at the grounds in which it is embedded. These grounds are formed by Daoism, at the beginning of which a text – the Daodejing – and a central personality – Laozi – are standing.

Laozi, whose historical facticity is controversial, is considered the author of the Daodejing, a relatively short booklet with 81 gracefully poetic sayings(5). Most of the books available in the West are based on Wang Bi's annotated edition from the 3rd century AD.(6) Besides, there is another tradition, the one of Heshang Gong. Today, some Chinese scientists reject Heshang Gong's vehemently as forgery, especially because he puts the Daodejing in the context of Daoist meditation practices which traceably developed much later.(7)

However, even though today Wang Bi's version is considered to be the standard text, from a scientific perspective it continues to be problematic due to the discrepancies between commentary and annotated text.(8) Nevertheless, his tradition shows great textual stability, as witnessed by the archaeological finds from Mawangdui(9) and Guodian(10). In 1973, silk manuscripts were discovered in Mawangdui as grave goods, which included, among other things, the Daodejing. These manuscripts had been written down around 200 BC. In 1993, during archaeological excavations in Guodian, bamboo texts were found, which also contained fragments of the Daodejing and which were again about 100 years older. Wang Bi's writings were thus produced half a millennium after the texts of the archaeological finds.(11)

The aforementioned burial relicts also testify that the Daodejing is one of the oldest Daoist texts known. However, they also suggest that it is rather a collection of sayings, with its eldest layers up to 2500 years old, and less the work of a single author. Cultural and burial progress(12) has led to writing down traditional sayings which up to then used to be transmitted by word of mouth and which Wang Bi finally recorded and commented on in detail.(13)

"At the latest with Wang Bi, the Laozi has evolved from an actually narrated collection of sayings to a 'classic' writing, the present Daodejing. To use a Daoist image: over the centuries the quite 'unhewn wood' has evolved into a sophisticated carving. So it is not unlikely that there has never been a historical person named Laozi who has written down the text named after him."(14)

2.2 Historical Context and Addressees of the Daodejing

While – despite all efforts(15)– authorship of the Daodejing remains difficult to determine, its historical context and also the text's addressees are more clearly defined and may provide a solid access to its understanding.

Historically, the origin of the Daodejing's lies in China's period of classical antiquity, a period that extends from the 5th century B.C. to 23 A.D., and which is characterized by profound societal change: the old nobility loses importance, the ruler becomes the central yet intangible figure, a new elite of administrative officials arises. Meanwhile, the whole country prospers: Climatic changes promote agriculture, crafts and trade gain in importance, the population is growing rapidly. At the same time, political conflicts are sparked between a desire for centralisation and the aspirations of local rulers, often resulting in extremely bitter and bloody military clashes.(16)

It is the rulers of this time, the rulers of an empire almost being crushed between social upheavals and regional conflicts, which the Daodejingaddresses. Its political orientation does not always manifest as clearly as in chapter 60(17), because Laozi's language is often formulaic. However, if one penetrates deeper into the text, rather concrete strategic instructions can be identified.(18)

It is thus to be noted that the original orientation of the Daodejing was a political one. If at this point we recall the rejection of Heshang Gong's tradition as forgery, it becomes clear how much his textual interpretation of the Daodejingas a Daoist meditation practice(19) distorts this original orientation.

2.3 Central Terms: Dao, De, Wu Wei

Wu Wei, non-action, is closely linked to the concepts of Dao and De, which we will take a closer look at in the following section.

2.3.1 Dao

Daorefers to "the supreme reality and the power of the universe"(20), which Watts compares to the flow of a river as a symbol of the processuality of nature.(21) Regarding his own cultural tradition he critically observes:

"The game of Western philosophy and science is to capture the universe in a network of words and numbers, so that the temptation to confuse the rules or laws of grammar and mathematics with the actual processes of nature is constantly given."(22)

According to Daoist conception, the universe is thus a whole of structures that are harmoniously, perhaps even symbiotically, related to each other. However, if this wholeness is divided into individual parts, as it happens for example in Western sciences, only the conflicts become obvious and the biological world appears to be "a society whose members devour each other"(23).(24)

This image of a cannibalizing society describes the social and political situation at the Daodejing's time of origin surprisingly accurately. Is the cause of disintegration – the dispute between centre and periphery as the political core conflict of old China – to be found in the rulers' wrong perspective onto the whole? Or, in other terms: can the falling apart be cured by focussing wholeness?

The Daodejing's political orientation is a matrix which clearly focuses the meaning of its central terms. Dao is specified as "'path'"(25), as the "'Dao of governance'"(26), or more precisely, as the "ideal approach, as the most effective system of interdependency"(27).(28)

2.3.2 De

The ruler who follows the ideal line of the Dao develops De. Even if in specialist literature De is often translated as "virtue", it does not refer to a proper attitude in moral terms. Watts compares De rather with "the healing effect of a plant with the side meaning of power or even magic, when magic refers to wonderful and auspicious events that happen unexpectedly."(29) In monotheistic terms it refers to what is done by the grace of God – and not because of human endeavour:(30)

"One gets along best by allowing oneself to glide smoothly, and this is nothing else but the teaching of Christ: not to worry about the next day [. …] Who does not desire (who does not lack), will receive; Who has, will be given."(31)

2.3.3 Wu Wei

And here we have reached at the core of our research: Wu Wei.

The Chinese term Wei has many meanings that span from verbs such as doing and making to adjectives such as false, artificial, imitated. Wei thus refers to a non-natural, possibly human-intentional genesis of an act or a thing, a genesis, therefore, which does not follow the Dao through De, but that brushes De against the grain.(32) Together with the negation Wu, Wu Wei thus means "Going with the grain, rolling with the impact, swimming with the current, having the sails in the wind, using the tides with the flood"(33).

This is far more than mere non-action, which is often erroneously perceived as passivity. Following the principle of Wu Wei requires the non-acting agent rather to have a profound knowledge of pre-existing structures, tendencies and modes of action. Because it is through using these structures intelligently that he realizes his own intentions – so that he reaches his own goals with swollen sails just as comfortably as Heyerdahl reached Polynesia.(34)

However, at the same time Wu Wei is more than and goes far beyond just skillful manipulation of pre-existing conditions in the form of technical action. What made Heyerdahl's genius was not that he dominated the winds and currents that brought him to his destination, but the "confidence that his own organism and the ecosystem of the Pacific Ocean are based on one single system"(35).

2.4 Interim Conclusion

If we recall both historical circumstances in which the Daodejing was conceived and the problems the rulers of that time had to deal with, then eventually the following conclusion could be drawn: If you are in a situation that is difficult to control and whose characteristics are the drifting apart of positions, then it may be worthwhile to look at the big picture.

3 Volo, ergo sum: Free Will

In Western thinking, the autonomous, free will is the culmination point of human being. Ultimately, it is free will what transforms the zoon logon echon into man and gives him dignity.

3.1 Free Will: a Core Topic in the History of Western Philosophy

However, what motivates human will and whether and to what extent at all it is free, is the still open question of innumerable philosophical discourses. There have been such different positions as Scotus' "Voluntas vult"(36), or the assumption of a causal determinism that fully negates the freedom of human will.

The spectrum of research topics related to free will makes evident how broad this thematic complex actually is:

"What is often called 'the free will issue' or 'the problem of free will,' [sic!] when viewed in historical perspective, is related to a cluster of philosophical issues [… .] These include issues about (1) moral agency and responsibility, dignity, desert, accountability, and blameworthiness in ethics; (2) the nature and limits of human freedom, autonomy, coercion, and control in social an political theory; issues about (3) compulsion, addiction, self-control, self-deception, and weakness of will in philosophical psychology; (4) criminal liability, responsibility, and punishment in legal theory; (5) the relation of mind to body, consciousness, the nature of action, and personhood in the philosophy of mind and the cognitive and neurosciences; (6) the nature of rationality and rational choices in philosophy and social theory; (7) questions about divine foreknowledge, predestination, evil, and human freedom in theology and philosophy of religion; and (8) general metaphysical issues about necessity and possibility, determinism, time and chance, quantum reality, laws of nature, causation, and explanation in philosophy and the sciences."(37)

3.2 Free Will: Unsolvable Consequences?

However, the difficulties raised by the philosophical question of free will go far beyond the sheer volume of related topics. For example, there is no satisfying theory that clearly describes the transition from a subject's inner desire to the expression of this desire through a corresponding act in the outer world. For example, Descartes' position "Cogito, ergo sum"(38) bans human free will to the abstract world of thought and at the same time radically doubts the reality of physical existence. On the surface, this elegantly solves the problem of free will. However, it simultaneously creates a yawning gap between body and soul, which challenges philosophers to the present day.

Maine de Biran's "Volo, ergo sum"(39) at least establishes a connection between the inner and outer world. This is because, in contrast to pure, abstract thinking à la Cogito, ergo sum, desire always focusses on something external, something object-like, even if the objects of desire is its subject. Nevertheless, the issue remains difficult: it is still unclear how the transition from subjective desire to objective action takes place. O'Connor explains this complexity in the following thought experiment:

"For example, suppose David desires to kill Ser-Min by poisoning his tea. His desire to do so makes him very nervous so much so that it causes him to spill the poison into the tea. Here, David's desire causes an action of the intended sort, but he did not act intentionally, or with the purpose of poisoning the tea. Such examples show that the causal theorist must refine her account, specifying the way that motivating factors cause actions that are genuinely intentional."(40)

Here the limitations of many theories become visible, as they are, in the Western world, usually based on thinking in causal chains: David's factual action happens randomly, accidentally, and the question is now: Did it happen coincidentally or was it causally induced by his corresponding motivation? The answer to this question, for example, results in the moral attribution of David's action – and this is only one aspect among many others in the face of the above-mentioned breadth of research topics and related consequences. At the same time, however, the example also shows that a viewpoint that comprehends human action only as a result of a chain of motives is an inappropriate tool to understand free action. Because free action means more than having the freedom to choose between a range of motives that ultimately determine the options for action.(41)

3.3 Interim Conclusion

The West's analytical gaze with its separation between body and soul, between inner and outer dimension, has brought us a long way. At the same time it is the godfather of many – not only – philosophical problems that are and will remain unsolved. To examine the aspects will and result of an actionseparated from each other leads to indissoluble contradiction, as O'Connor has shown in the above example.

Western thinking has divided a whole into its individual parts – but how can they be put back together?

4 Two points of view: Duality and Nonduality

4.1 Duality and Nonduality in Western Philosophy

The metaphysical premise of our Western view of the world is the basic assumption of a duality between viewer and viewed. It was set in ancient Greece and came to its first fruition with Plato and Aristotle(42). At the same time, Western philosophy is completely familiar with the counter concept: nonduality. Philosophers and mystics(43) have repeatedly spoken very clearly of a unity between subject and object and have given clues to nondual experiences.(44)

Thus, the seed of nonduality has also been sown in the West. And although it bore far less fruit than in the East and in the Eastern traditions, it blossoms in secret, as an affinity, as a fascination:(45)

"In part certainly, because they [the Eastern traditions; KUS] seem so exotic compared to our own viewpoint, but probably also because they at least hold the promise of fruits, after which we have great desire."(46)

4.2 Duality and Nonduality in the Eastern Traditions

Alongside Buddhism and Vedanta, it is Daoism that pertains to the Eastern nondual systems which comprehend subject and object as a unit. These systems do not reject a dualistic view of the world, that is, the distinction between the viewer and observed. But they understand these two modes as complementary and, at the same time, hierarchical, by classifying unity experience as more basal.(47)

The principle of action that is derived from nonduality – the unity of agency and agent – is referred to as Wu Wei in the Daoist context. To forestall misunderstandings, it should be made clear once again that this is not a purely Daoist phenomenon. In fact, nondual agency also has its place, albeit, for example under a different name, in the other two major nondual traditions, Buddhism and Vedanta(48).(49)

4.3 Enlightenment Experience in Eastern and Western Traditions

One of the fundamental differences between these two modes of experience – dual or nondual – is the following: Dual experience, a view of the world that differs between the viewer and the observed, is relatively easy to access. The nondual experience of the world, on the other hand, requires a kind of enlightenment experience that is not equally accessible to every human being. The consequence for the nondual systems is the following:(50)

"Far-reaching epistemological and ontological assertions are made on the basis of experiences that are only accessible to a few (and even these few acquire such experiences only – if we want to believe in their representations – on a rigorous training course)."(51)

Loy takes this idea further:

"These experiences are therefore neither accessible nor fully communicable in a conceptual way: the subject-predicate structure of our language fails because it is dualistic in multiple ways: it not only splits subject and object, but also subject-object and predicate."(52)

The nondual view of the world, which requires an enlightenment experience, can therefore be seen as a quite elitist system. The dual view of the world, which takes its positions in language and defends them with linguistic arguments, is much more democratically structured, perhaps a reason why this view has always been preferred in the West, with all the disadvantages it may have.

Despite this significant difference – elitist vs. democratic – Loy develops the thesis of a common element which unifies these contrary world views:

"Is the subject and the basis of these different philosophies eventually the same nondual experience? During the experience itself there is no philosophizing; But if you 'step back' and try to describe the experience, different descriptions could be possible. Perhaps even contradictory ontologies could be built on the same phenomenological basis."(53)

4.4 Enlightenment Experience and Language

One thing is clear: nondual ity cannot be grasped linguistically. The reason is simple: nondual experiences do occur pre-conceptually, thus before the separation of subject and object which is mandatory for linguistic expression. This setting also explains why Eastern nondual systems place such a strong emphasis on meditative practice: not because they are religious systems, but because their cognitive mode requires non-verbal, intuitive experience.(54)

This approach is radically different from Western philosophy, which is strongly Aristotelian today. In his analogy of the divided line, Plato developed a conception in which non-sensual ideas can be discerned through reason, i.e. they can be experienced – a practice that resembles a meditative vision of a unity experience and does not require verbalization. However, Aristotle's determination of the human being as a zoon logon echon, which explicitly refers to language skills, makes the division between subject and object in the ti kata tinos the basic principle.(55) Today, the intuitive, non-verbal process of cognition – except perhaps in religious contexts – plays a decidedly subordinate role in the West.

4.5 Relation Between the Dual and Nondual Mode of Cognition

Regarding the relation between the two cognitive modes, the following circumstance is significant: from the standpoint of a nondual view of the world, generation and fallacies of a world view based on a dualistic perception, can be explained – but not the other way around. By their own premise that arguments need to be linguistically accessible and on the basis of objective criteria, the philosophy of the West, shaped by a dualistic view of the world, is immune against nondual experiences – as enriching as they may be. There is no objective criterion by which one could decide which of the two world views, dual or nondual, would best grasp reality, because the approach itself to decide such a question on the basis of an objective criterion sets a dualistic premise that is ineluctable.(56)

4.6 Interim Conclusion

Wu Wei is nondual agency. This requires that at the level of consciousness the distinction between agent and agency is abolished.(57) The Western-philosophically trained mind, whose premises are, among other things, language and objectivity, fails in its approach to Wu Wei at its own premises.

5 Wu Wei: Practical Experiences

As we have seen in section 2, studying Daoist ideas was open to a cultural and political elite only at the time of the Daodejing's emergence.(58) As we have seen in sections 3 and 4 these restrictions of access have fallen in the meantime. However, it is the premise of a Western, dualistic view of the world that presents the main obstacle to access nowadays.

Any agency in the sense of Wu Weirequires a nondual state of consciousness. Consequently, as long as anyone moves within the Western-dualistic paradigm, he will fail at his own premises. However, it is very well possible to access Wu Weiin other ways, namely in non-linguistic ones: through the practical experience of agency. In the West, manifold testimonies of practical experience exist which are very clearly based on the principle of Wu Wei.

5.1 Flow Experiences

These types of experience include, for example, so-called flow experiences, which have been described in many ways in the field of psychology:

"In the flow-state, action follows action, according to an inner logic that does not seem to require conscious intervention from the doer's side. He experiences the process as a uniform 'flow' from one moment to the next, being the master of his actions and hardly feeling a separation between himself and the environment, between stimulus and reaction, or between past, present and future. [...] We will see later that one of the most important traits of the flow-state is that it is usually more or less autotelic – that is, people give themselves to an experience for the experience itself, not because of any external rewards."(59)

Csikszentmihalyi mentions sporting activities, but also monotonous ones like assembly work or even unpleasant ones such as combat missions as opportunities for flow experiences. So what counts is not the kind of activity, but rather the nature and quality of the activity itself: The activity takes place in a nondual state of consciousness, in which agent and agency coincide.

If we want to summarize flow experiences as examples of Daoist (non-)agency in the sense of Wu Wei and do so in Daoist concepts, then we could say that they are activities in which the qualities of being and nothingness interlace in a special way: as abundance and emptiness, as present and non-present, as Yin and Yang.(60)

With a specific example, that of a runner's-high(61), Loy shows how a flow experience can be described in Daoist terminology:

"This is about what Daoists figure as a process structured by the Dao: while on the one hand the 'ego' of the runner disappears and becomes 'empty', the running becomes an effortless, sustained and optimal process. This is the interlacing of emptiness and abundance, of non-present and present, of non-presence and presence. As soon as the 'centre' of an operation – in the example the runner's 'ego' – is completely emptied, the process itself – in the example running – reaches highest perfection. As soon as the centre of the process no longer exists or is no longer present, the process itself becomes entirely present. Thus, emptiness and abundance, non-presence and presence are directly related to each other. The perfect emptiness or non-presence (of running) allows the perfect abundance or presence (of the run)." (62)

5.2 Artists' Success Strategies

Thus, while Wu Wei remains an intellectual paradox for the Western-trained mind, it is accessible to every human being as a practical experience – albeit under the precondition of serious effort. The following example shows that this effort does not necessarily have to be a physical one (as with the runner's high):

"It is on the fifth day when I finally realize that DM [Daido Moriyama, one of the most important Japanese photographers; KUS] is so good because he wants nothing – because he does what this city does all the time? Endure, bow, be carried away. Become a part of everything. Only now do I realize that nothing works out properly because I always plan and think, because ambition and will stand in my way."(63)

In this example, humility, the dissolution of ego-driven striving, the devotion to the very moment bring success. This time the result is not a painless, euphoric run, but a successful series of photographs. The coincidence of ego and activity – because the ego drops its selfish plan to shoot a great photo – clears the path and enables the truly artistic, magical shot.

And yet another example: Herb Alpert, the famous trumpeter, answers questions regarding the secret of his success:

"When children ask me what is the secret of my success, I answer as follows: 'If you do not make music with passion, then do not even try it. It must be clear, you will spend a lot, a lot of time with music. Competition out there is enormous. One has to be sure that the whole thing is made with the proper motivation. [...] It is quite problematic if you do not make music because you like it, but in order to make money. If you make good music and you like it, then the money will come with time. But if you make music to become famous, it's the wrong reason. You have to do it out of passion.'"(64)

For Herb Alpert passion and activity ideally fall into one. His secret of success – certainly besides his outstanding talent – is, in his opinion, that he does not allow to be pushed out of nondual agency by an external goal, such as the pursuit of monetary prosperity. This is the advice he gives to the listeners and all young musicians: agency and the agent with all his aspirations, must fall into one, so that the activity does not lose its power through an agent who is looking at the final result - just as Elsa Gindler critically observed in the remark quoted in the preface.

6 Conclusion

Wu Wei, non-action, is a genuinely Eastern concept that is native to the philosophical traditions of Daoism, Buddhism and Vedanta. Even if the premise of Western intellectual culture complicates access, it is a phenomenon that is open to every human being through practical experience which must not necessarily be of spiritual nature: in a practice that is intense, passionate and devotional. An action that strives at the best results possible, that strives for perfection – without directly aiming at it as a superficial end result.

Daoism and its teachings of Wu Wei does not focus on finding an abstract truth, as it tends to be the case in Western philosophy. "The Dao is to be understood less descriptively [...] and more prescriptively."(65) Daoism is pragmatic, it is practically orientated towards achieving goals. Wu Wei is a strategy that focuses on success: inner fulfilment, material prosperity, political victory. The author of the Daodejing had especially the latter in mind when he laid down the work for the rulers of ancient China.

But the strategy of Wu Wei also works today, even here in the West, as shown in the practical examples in section 5. because here as well, the Dao sometimes reveals itself. Namely, when a person is striving in a continuous effort – athletically, artistically, non-actively. Until being and acting fall into one, until what was disconnected is reconnected and things succeed effortlessly.

In the West it is only named differently: Grace.(66)

My language is vibrant color and line. by Karin Ulrike Soika
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