The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.
Teaching without words,
performing without actions;
that is the Master’s way.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 43, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter is about the fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism, the value of non-action. And because I am always getting new followers, it gives me the opportunity to explain what Lao Tzu means by non-action. Non-action is a translation of the Chinese, Wu Wei, which could be translated doing nothing. But doing nothing doesn’t really mean what our westernized minds think it means; so, we need to do better than that.
It is a concept that permeates through the Tao Te Ching. The Tao does nothing, yet through it all things are done. The Master does nothing, yet nothing is left undone. This is a great mystery. How is it that not doing can result in all things being done?
To explain this mystery, Lao Tzu points at the operation of nature as the obvious example of this principle at work. His favorite metaphor to explain Wu Wei is water. Water nourishes all things without trying. He could also be picturing water when he says, “The soft overcomes the hard” and “The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world.”
Water, I think, is an apt metaphor. But it isn’t the only way that Wu-Wei can be exemplified. He also says, “That which has no substance enters where there is no space.” That amplifies the mystery. But it also explains it. It shows the value of Wu-Wei.
Since there is value to it, I want to better understand it. Because doing nothing isn’t really doing nothing, now is it? Water still nourishes, though it doesn’t have to work at it. And the soft and gentle overcome the hardest things. Overcoming without having to try to overcome?
What is Lao Tzu getting at? I think he is defining a state of being in harmony with the Tao. That is, behaving in a completely natural, non-contrived way.
Not-doing, then, just means that it isn’t about what we do, it is about what we are. Let’s explain this further.
Lao Tzu is extolling the value of non-action. I said that word, non-action, is Wu-Wei, in the original Chinese. Wu could be translated “not have” or “without” and Wei could be translated “do”, “act”, “govern”, or “effort”. So we could translate Wu-Wei as “without doing”, “without acting”, “without governing” (my personal favorite), or “without effort”. In the past, I have tended to go with “without effort” as my default. And then to further explain it, I used the words “effortless action”.
I was looking at some less commonly referenced senses of “Wu-Wei”. For instance, “Action that doesn’t involve struggle or excessive effort.” to arrive at “effortless action”. But, given all the ways that Wei can be translated, and just because I like that it can mean “govern”, I, personally, like to think that translating it “without controlling” might be a better way to convey Lao Tzu’s meaning. Looking back over how many times Lao Tzu has told would-be leaders to give up their need to control, I think I am spot on.
But hold on there, there is more to this than that.
Sometimes, when Lao Tzu is speaking of Wu-Wei, he presents it as a paradox, Wei Wu Wei, which is often translated “doing not-doing”. The paradox explains the state of being that we need to be in. It is “harmony with the Tao”. Doing without doing, or governing without governing, is a state of being where all of our actions are without effort. We have given up our need to control, our will to power; we don’t “try” to do anything. We merely go with the flow. But how do we do this? How do we achieve this state of being? I think Lao Tzu would say it isn’t as difficult as we make it out to be. It is really the most natural way to be. Doing what comes naturally, sounds easy enough, yes. What is unnatural is trying to fit substance in where there is no space. That is the value of non-action. That which has no substance enters where there is no space.
But to help us further, Lao Tzu points to the Master. The Master teaches without words, and performs without actions. That is the Master’s way. And it should be ours. As long as we are trying to make things happen, we are exerting effort. That isn’t the Master’s way. It isn’t about what you do. So stop with the doing. Be an observer of nature. Nature isn’t in any hurry. But it does have its own rhythm. We need to pick up on that rhythm. Though it isn’t in any hurry, all things do get done. There is a flow to the rhythm. Everything acts according to its nature, even we, ourselves. Get attuned to that rhythm, that flow. Become one with it and go with it.