Study Guide

Tao Te Ching Philosophical Viewpoints: Wu Wei

By Lao Tzu

Philosophical Viewpoints: Wu Wei

Manage the work of detached actions (2.10)

A lot of times people mistake Taoists for these totally passive people who think it's a bad idea to do much of anything. That's not how true Taoists roll, though. In this quote, we see that they are into action, a.k.a. doin' stuff. But a true sage is unattached to his or her actions and practices wu wei. They don't rip their hair out over outcomes and instead try to act spontaneously with the flow of the Tao.

I alone am quiet and uninvolved
Like an infant not yet smiling (20.11-12)

This isn't the only place in the TTC where it says that being like a baby is a good thing. Chances are this isn't recommending that we poop on ourselves, drool, and only eat mushy stuff. Instead, it's more about approaching everything we do with simplicity and a kind of innocent openness to what may happen.

Because they do not contend, the world cannot contend with them (22.12)

This is the kind of line that makes people think that Taoists are passive to the max. But just because the sages don't go around fighting with everybody they meet doesn't mean that they don't make things happen. Instead of forcing things to happen, they approach things gently and meet a lot less resistance as a result. They kick it wu wei style.

The Tao is constant in non-action
Yet there is nothing it does not do (37.1-2)

Don't gloss over this head-scratcher. It's kinda like one of the most fundamental ideas of Taoism. The Tao is the great flow of everything, right? So everything that happens is caused by it. However, according to Taoists, the Tao is the absolute embodiment of unattached action. So even though it's about as proactive as something can be, it acts gently and without judgment or expectation.

The weak is the utilization of the Tao (40.2)

We usually think of being weak as a bad thing, but the TTC thinks it's awesome. Think on that for a hot sec. How could allowing yourself to be weak get you closer to the Tao? And how could that idea be attached to the idea of the wu wei, or unattached action?

The softest things of the world
Override the hardest things of the world (43.1-2)

Don't think this true? Then how about the way water wears down mountains? Or the way a gas leak can creep through city streets? Or squishy little viruses and bacteria can take out whole populations? Yup, it's pretty hard to deny that things that seem soft and weak can have their own kind of power.

Holding on to the soft is called strength (52.8)

In a world where everybody expects us to be strong, it can be pretty hard try to always live with this idea of unattached action. Can you think of scenarios that would really put the philosophy of wu wei to the test?

Take the world with non-interference (57.3)

A lot of people would say that the resistance movements of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. put this idea into action by leading nonviolent revolutions to achieve social change. What's your take on it? Can passive resistance really be called non-interference? Or is it still interfering, but just in a passive way? Or is passively interfering exactly the sort of thing the TTC is recommending?

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 (76.3-9)

When things are alive, they're soft. When they're dead, they dry up and harden (uh, gross). If you flow through life with unattached action, then you're jibing with the living Tao, but if you're totally inflexible, you're holding the bony hands of Death.

The bold in daring will be killed
The bold in not daring will survive (73.1-2)

What does it mean to be brave? Our movie theaters are crammed with superheroes doing all kinds of dangerous stuff to save the world, but do these heroes meet the bravery standards of the TTC? Can you think of a situation in which it takes more courage to not do something than to do it?

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