Chapter 2 – The Wu-Wei Way

When the people of the world know beauty as beauty,
There arises the recognition of ugliness. 

When they all know good as good,
There arises the recognition of evil. 

Being and non-being produce each other;
Difficult and easy complete each other;
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low distinguish each other;
Sound and voice harmonize with each other;
Front and back follow each other. 

Therefore the sage manages affairs without action (wu-wei)
And spreads doctrines without words. 

All things arise and he does not turn away from them.
He produces them but does not take possession of them.
He acts but does not rely on his own ability.
He accomplishes his task but does not claim credit for it.
It is precisely because he does not claim credit
That his accomplishment remains with him.

This chapter again reminds us that our mind exists to make distinctions.  However, those distinctions are not as real as it would have us believe.  Rather than being opposites, high and low, short and long, front and back are really complements.

Tai Chi SymbolOne classic example to illustrate the concept is that of a magnet.  If you begin with a bar magnet, it has two poles, one of which is clearly positive and the other clearly negative.  If you cut that bar in half, two magnets will be produced, each with a positive and negative pole.  Cut each of those and there are four magnets with positive and negative poles.  No matter how small the magnet becomes, it will always have two poles.  And that’s just the way it is.

Perhaps that is what wu-wei is, also – just the way it is. 

Wu-wei is an essential element of Taoist thought, but is very difficult to explain.  Wu means no, so that part is easy.  The harder part is no what?

Wei has multiple meanings including “action,” “governing,” “control” and “effort.”  So, is the sage to manage affairs without acting at all, or without effort, or without governing or controlling them?  I think all of the above is the correct answer.  The next lines from the chapter give some guidance.  They tell us to accept whatever happens, let things flow naturally, do what is necessary and then move on without attachment to the result.

Someone recently told me that his young nephew had taken one of those tests where the child is asked to complete well-known (to adults) proverbs.  One of them was “You can lead a horse to water, but ______________.”  This particular child wrote “you don’t have to because he will go when he is thirsty.”

His response clearly recognizes non-action.  Nature takes its course so what is necessary is completed.

Lao Tzu would probably also approve the traditional answer, which is “you can’t make him drink.”  While leading the horse is a form of action, the acceptance of the fact that the horse may not wish to drink is non-controlling.

We adopted our dog Darcy from a puppy rescue organization.  She was 12 weeks old and weighed 9 pounds, and the rescue people thought she was a kelpie mix.  Kelpies are Australian herding dogs that weigh around 35-40 pounds as adults.  We gave her food and water, took her for walks, made sure she had her exams at the vet.  She grewDarcy puppy, but not as much as we had expected – finally weighing in at 24 ½ pounds.  Were we upset that she is smaller than anticipated after the actions we took?  Not at all.  She ended up being the perfect size for a Darcy Dog.  Forty pounds may have been perfect for another dog, but not this one.  We did what was necessary for her to grow and mature, knowing we could not control the final outcome.

Turning now from acts of nature, suppose you discovered a hole in your roof.  If your wu-wei way would be to take no action, rain water would follow its natural course through the hole until one day the wet ceiling collapsed in your bedroom.  You would more wisely follow the way of acting without effort by repairing the hole and avoiding the need to replace major structural and electrical components of the house.

Or, perhaps the way of least effort is to pick up the telephone and call someone who is skilled in making repairs.

It seems that sometimes almost any course you might wish to follow is in fact the proper way of wu-wei.  It matters not so much what you do or not do as how it is done.  The sage is supposed to accept the situation as it is presented, act in a manner that will accomplish whatever needs to be done and continue life without emotional attachment to the results.

A gentleman named Serge King has written several books on the Hawaiian Huna philosophy, which he says is based on seven basic principles.  The final principle is “effectiveness is the measure of truth.”  If it works, it is Huna.

If the mind is properly at peace, it is wu-wei.



6 thoughts on “CHAPTER 2 – THE WU-WEI WAY

  1. I loved this, Louis. The magnet example is a good one. It makes me think of the beginning of the movie Contact, where they zoomed in on an eye and went from the inside of an eye all the way to the Universe. We contain the Universe within us.

    Your story of the boy and the horse is priceless as well. If we could all remember that in our interactions with people on a daily basis, how much different would our world be? I will try and do my part. Thanks for participating!

  2. You’re a good teacher, Louis. Your orderly thoughtfulness is a real benefit to others. Chapter 38 is another place where yin/yang polarity is covered, too.

    Thought I’d share this song with you because the music communicates what you have so eloquently shared about acceptance: Ride the River by JJ Cale and Eric Clapton at

    Going with the flow. Fluid movement. Letting go and letting God. Going where God would have us be. As you say, it’s about action and acceptance and where the two meet.

    Wu – “no.” Wei – “doing, or action.” Yes, the key is there. In the Tao everything moves, has a place, time, season. Thoughts and feelings, for example, can be allowed to come and go if we have the grace to get ourselves out of the way, one way or another. An enlightened person would exist in a perfect state of grace, allowing all thoughts and feelings to come and go like rocks in the river, and flow around them. For the rest of us walking the Tao, where our dualistic consciousness is in play, the thoughts and feelings appear, and we meet them with our own process.

    The horse has been led to water. He’s not drinking. Facts which are. Then the conscious process starts. How do I feel about this? What should I do about this?

    One way could involve only what we want, what we think, what we feel, what we have learned, what we think we know. The horse is not drinking. I don’t like this. I think the horse should drink. I feel upset because the horse is not drinking. Stupid horse. The horse is not doing what I want. I will make the horse drink. How can I do this? I will grab him by the neck, hold his head underwater, and kick him in the belly until he gets some water in him. That will solve the problem.

    On the path we learn alternatives to this sort of selfishness. Or remember them, or divine them from the presence within, without and throughout all things which by definition is in us. The child who accepts the situation is in flow with the situation. He’s willing to let it be what it is and see what happens next. When an obvious action becomes clear he will most likely flow into that. The horse may not be able to bend its neck. The boy will scoop up a handful and offer it. And so on.

    Like the song says, we’re Riding the River in this boat… In this boat, this body, this vehicle, this perceptive mechanism. It glides with the current, hits rocks, spins into backwaters and lees, gets beached, becalmed, capsized and righted, runs on the point of the wind. The boat has desire, selfishness, judgment, choice. Words and names, points of the compass, landmarks.

    When you’re sailing close to the wind in a small boat and a gust hits you, all you have to do to keep from getting knocked down is to let go of the jib sheet, which allows the mainsail to go free in the wind. Just let go. If you don’t, you get knocked down. Bellowing and bailing follow. And blame, of course, for the idiot who opened his eyes and mouth but not his hand as she started over.

    Bellowing and bailing and blame in the boat on the river? An idiot who forgot to let go? Can such things be? I have been and I suspect I will be that idiot from time to time, because, as you observe, that’s just the way it is on the river, in the boat. It’s always a lovely thing when, at times, we are in the river and the boat has disappeared and we are in the flow. Yet typically we will quite quickly find ourselves back in the boat, navigating again.

    Our grandchildren are coming for a visit. There will bellowing and blaming and forgetting to let go. What they will do while I am doing that I cannot say, it’s always different. But here’s something that could happen.

    “Grandpa, whatcha doin’?”
    “I’m on the computer.”
    “Could you download dinosaur pictures to color?”
    “Could you do it now?”
    “Will you do it now?”
    “Yeah. Wait a minute.”
    “Is a minute now?”
    “Yeah. No. Maybe. Just wait a minute.”
    “Wait a minute. I’m busy. Look, I got a whole thing I’m doing here. You know who God is? Yeah? Well, God told me to be here, doing this. I’m busy with words and names, I got a whole thing going on here, I know a lot of stuff, I’ve figured out a lot of stuff, I got the words, I got the names, I can point my finger in the right direction, you know, stuff like that. I’m busy. So give me a minute, will ya?”
    “What do you know?”
    And then it hits me, and I am back where God would have me be.
    “You know, that’s a good question. And the only thing I know for certain is that I don’t know. Let’s go find some dinosaur pictures and color them, what do you say? And you want to listen to some music? I’ve got just the song for us…”

    A purpose, a path, someone to share it with. On the river, in this boat. I’m good with that.



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