Wu wei – the Art of doing Nothing    


What does transcendence mean? How do we become our ultimate selves and reach some sense of higher consciousness – and does it matter? How do we relate to the sun, moon, stars… the universe and the natural order of things? Are we here only to find comfort in living each day, or do we have some responsibility to define our role – and what should that be? How do we live once we have a sense of what this might be – the Chinese referred to this as living in wu wei.

For Chuang Tzu living in 300 BC, it was defining the role of someone he referred to as the “Perfected Man”. It was Wang Pi’s commentary during the Han dynasty (200AD) that served as the guiding influence as to what would define the true essence of the meaning of wu wei. His commentaries on both the I Ching and Tao Te Ching would become standard reading for those that followed him.  However, there are various interpretations of wu wei. Generally speaking, wu wei means to be without purpose and to act spontaneously as a way of becoming one with the universe.  That the universe, or Tao, moves effortlessly following the natural flow of things without purpose or goal. To be in the natural flow of your eternal essence is living in wu wei. This generally translates into the “art of doing nothing”, i.e., that you achieve things by seemingly doing nothing.

In my own observation of China today, especially in the small city of Qufu, where traditional norms are readily apparent, living is quite easy because you have more than enough means to live a simple carefree life. This along with Confucian and Taoist ideas of becoming as one with the world around you, you just settle in, find your natural gait, or niche and just enjoy life. As if you become who you really are. I sensed this also in Chengdu, a city of over twelve million people in southwest China where the texture was a mesh of comfort with Buddhist and Taoist histories. The art of doing nothing comes quite easy once you have found your true place and sense on consciousness that matches your surroundings. When whatever you do simply becomes an extension of your innermost self… so that it seems as nothing. This is what led to feng shui and creating and finding the balance between your internal essence and your environment.  This can occur elsewhere as well. In Italy, there is something similar called la dolce vita, or living the sweet life; the good life perceived as one of physical pleasure and self-indulgence. Not quite the same as in China…

Wang Pi took it a step further saying that wu wei is to be considered as a “mode or way of being”. That non-action is neither total inaction nor any type of action. Instead it is an expression signifying the Taoist way of life. This way of life, or the Tao, describes the manner in which it manifests in nature through and as you. Wu wei can be expressed both positively and negatively. Again, thinking of opposites, it can both be characterized by the sage having no thought of self and having no desires, conversely, it can be equated with emptiness and tranquility one discovers in following your true nature… by following the Tao.

Wang Pi’s most important works are two commentaries: one on the Tao Te Ching and the other on the I Ching. On both these works he has left his indelible mark, but his work on the I Ching completely reorganized the book and made it much as it is today; of the extremely numerous early commentaries, moreover, his is the only one to survive in its entirety. It is, of course, very difficult to study a man’s philosophy solely by studying his commentaries on other works, but that is what we have to do in Wang Pi’s case; for aside from these commentaries, all that remains of his work are fragments of a commentary on the Analects of Confucius, a fragmentary short work on the Tao Te Ching, the Lao Tzu, and the slightly longer, complete I Ching.

Putting it succinctly but without too much distortion, Wang Pi’s philosophy is a combination of Confucian ethics and Taoist metaphysics. He suggests that the Taoist absolute, or ontological substratum of the universe (the Tao), is indeed the metaphysical basis of the Confucian social organization, with a single ruler and a hierarchical society harmoniously cooperating according to ritual and the traditional Confucian virtues. The disappearance of the great Han state thus created an intellectual vacuum that thinkers hastened to fill; it also left a period of comparative liberty, very rare in China, that was to allow them to present new and bold formulations.

If Wang Pi accomplished so much in so short a space of time, it was perhaps in part due to the fact that he was born into a family active in the most progressive philosophical circles at the end of the Han period and had at his disposition close to 1,000 chapters (chüan) of books, the important library of Ts’ai Yung, given to his father by the first emperor of the Wei dynasty.

Wang Pi’s biography tells us that, when he was being interviewed for an important post by the regent Ts’ao Shuang, Wang Pi spoke with the busy head of state on nothing but metaphysics. He did not get the job and caused Ts’ao Shuang to “snicker at him,” but the incident is revealing: Wang Pi’s metaphysics, which at first seems gratuitous and disembodied, was for its author a vital, “committed” philosophy, something essential for the good administration of the empire. He truly intended to replace the worn-out philosophies of the Han with something new and all-encompassing with his works and philosophy. Wang Pi (226-249) was one of the most brilliant Chinese philosophers. He reinterpreted the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching and laid the basis for an entirely new metaphysics that inspired Chinese philosophers for centuries to come. Unfortunately, he died a mysterious death at the young age of 24.

DCD   3/30/2017