The idea of non-action that we have been looking at in my last posts is a central doctrine of Taoist philosophy and has a particular name: Wu Wei. You can read an excellent overview at Wikipedia here.
"Wu Wei" means natural action - as planets revolve around the sun, they "do" this revolving, but without "doing" it; or as trees grow, they "do", but without "doing"…
Wu may be translated as not have or without; Wei may be translated as do, act, serve as, govern or effort. The literal meaning of Wu Wei is "without action" and is often included in the paradox wei wu wei: "action without action" or "effortless doing".
In Non-action and the Great Harmony we saw how the more an action is selfish and self-seeking the less power it has and that an action that is spontaneous, unselfish and is done for its own sake without anticipating an interested result, such an action is more in accord with the Tao, the Universe, God and cooperates directly in the Great Harmony. In the Wikipedia overview this idea is expressed in this way:
Taoist philosophy recognizes that the Universe already works harmoniously according to its own ways; as a person exerts their will against or upon the world they disrupt the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a person should not exert agency and will. Rather, it is how one acts in relation to the natural processes already extant. The how, the Tao of intention and motivation, that is key.
That is key indeed. It is easier said than done. But we can only try. Just trying is a big step in the right direction. And the very fact that you and I have now read about Wu Wei and are now consciously aware of it has set in motion forces that we do not understand and which will have ‘distant consequences’.
As I was scratching my head for an anecdote or story to illustrate the power of Wu Wei, I think I hit on a perfect one (spontaneously, you might say). It comes from ‘The Overlook Martial Arts Reader – Classic writings on philosophy and technique’ edited by Randy F. Nelson. The particular story is called … well I will tell you after, not to spoil the punch.
The author of the story, Terry Dobson, was on a train rattling through the suburbs of Tokyo. In the car were a few houswives with children, old folks going shopping. Suddenly the quiet was shattered by a big, drunken, dirty laborer getting on the train. The man was angry and violent and swung at a woman and her child who scrambled for safety. Dobson was young, fit and highly trained in Aikido. He relates how his teacher, Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido had told him many times: “Aikido is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection to the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated.” Dobson tried hard to follow the precepts. But here was a golden, legitimate opportunity to save the innocent by destroying the guilty. He stood up.
Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognized a chance to focus his rage. “Aha!” he roared. “A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!”
I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to make the first move. I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lips and blew him an insolent kiss.
“All right!” he hollered. “You’re gonna get a lesson.” He gathered himself for a rush at me.
A split second before he could move, sombody shouted “Hey!” It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it – as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something and he had suddenly stumbled upon it. “Hey!”
I wheeled to my left; the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little Japanese. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.
“C’mere,” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. “C’mere and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly.
The big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and roared above the clacking wheels. “Why the hell should I talk to you?” The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.
The old man continued to beam at the laborer. “Wat’cha been drinkin’?” he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest. “I’ve been drinking sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your business!” Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said, “absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake too. Every night me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree has done better than I expected, though, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It is gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening – even when it rains!” He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling.
As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah,” he said. “I love persimmons too….” His voice trailed off.
“Yes, “ said the old man, smiling, “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.”
“No,” replied the laborer. “My wife died.” Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. “I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, I don’t got no job. I’m so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippled through his body.
Now it was my turn. Standing there in my well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.
Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. “My, my,” he said, “that is a difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”
I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair.
As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words. I had just seen aikido tried in combat and the essence of it was love. I would have to practice the art with an entirely different spirit. It would be a long time before I could speak about the resolution of conflict.
Now, isn’t that quite a story? What makes it particularly appropriate, is that we see the motivation of the protagonists. The young man, Dobson, is acting with an interested motive in mind (the legitimate use of his aikido skill) even though he invokes the safety of the other passengers. The old man is not: he may have the goal of defusing the situation in mind, but his action is a spontaneous one, coming directly from the heart, without guile, generous and in perfect accord with the Great Harmony. And as such it succeeds to perfection. Effortlessly. This is Wu Wei.
What I also like about this story is that the old man’s action succeeds to perfection not only with the drunk. It transforms the young man also, and will have far-reaching good effects through him and his teaching. So far-reaching, it is even reaching to me and you at this moment, decades later. Such is the power of Wu Wei.
(The story is called The Soft Answer)