These two words, which taken literally mean “not doing,” form a distinctive term in Taoist philosophy. It should be stated, at once, that the literal meaning is not the true meaning. This is clearly stated in the 19th essay. The writer of that essay says, “Some maintain that the person who acts in the spirit of wu wei is one who spends his time in serenity and meditation, doing nothing: he will not come when called nor be driven by any force. I never heard such an explanation from any sage.” And he goes on to say that the men who act in the wu wei method are the most laborious men in the world. They are hard workers in every field.
I think it also means more than the mere influence of personality. The late Dr. Edkins once wrote, “The principle of wu wei, non-action, is also Confucian. Confucius says that Shun ruled the empire by non-action. By this he meant that people obeyed him, from admiration of his virtue.” This is quite true; but the influence of personality or a good life is not quite the same as wu wei. It is said that Lord Grey dominated the House of Commons. He had but to rise to his feet in order to command rapt attention. Yet he was not a great speaker and did not often speak. And Lord Northcliffe said of Charles Hind: “When he spoke, everybody listened; but to Charles nothing seemed to matter. He had an effortless superiority.” Professor Driesch calls attention to what M. Baudouin calls “the law of reversed effort.” I resolve to make a suggestion, and herein lies the volition. For the rest, the formula is now: “It will happen, and it does happen.” In effect, “I do nothing; but the thing is done. That is something like the activity of inaction.” (Times, Lit. Sup. Aug. 21. 30.). The language is similar to the Taoist; yet there is no resemblance in the doctrine. Taoism is not a mere matter of willing. It is a principle of life.
The difficulty is that wu is always looked upon as a negative and nothing else: Just only the opposite of yu, has or “is.” This narrow definition forgets the possibility of language: and wu, the negative, may become a term of positive quality. The vast empty spaces of the universe are looked upon as purely negative quality, but they may become to be looked on from another point of view, as the immense abode of ether or some other fluid, and, thus, have a positive significance. From being looked on as a vast invisible space, containing nothing, it may be looked on as the great expanse full of vital fluid. So the vast empty spaces that were looked upon as the abode of the non-existent may come to be looked on as the source of all existence. The existent is begotten of the non-existent. So we have the statement “what is” comes from that “which is not”; “form” comes from the “formless”: the “material” comes from the “immaterial”. It is something in this way that we can find the true meaning of wu wei. It is not negative, but something positive.
To go a step further, it is said, “Wu and tao are equally the mother of all things.” Thus wu and tao are the same. So it may be said that wu wei, no action is tao wei, action by the spirit. It is in this sense that the phrase, wu wei erh wu pu wei, “there is no doing, but there is nothing undone” is to be understood. Of course, wu wei must be rendered by “spirit action,” which makes the meaning full of force. Lao Tzû says: “Heaven and earth and all things were begotten of what is; and what is is begotten of wu, the non-existent, physically, i.e. tao, the spirit.
A further help to the understanding of this much-misunderstood term may be had from the frequent references made to the simplicity of a pristine people, a people of an earlier age, an age that was free from the entanglements of a later civilization which had been corrupted by desire. This people is given as an example of a mode of life that was governed by the spontaneity of an uncorrupted nature. This people had no recognition of things, so as to desire them. Did this mean that the sight of a pile of gold, for example, did not arouse the feelings of cupidity? or could it refer to a time of innocency,—a state of innocency before a fall? Sincerity was natural, without any affirmation in speech, a condition that Jesus tried to lay as a command on his followers. “Let your nay be nay,” etc. But there happened to come a gradual deterioration of nature. Somehow this pristine people passed into the region of carnality and desire. The rise of desire was the beginning of ruin. Lao Tan tried to get men restored to the state of pristine nature. And most of his sententious sayings convey this meaning. Was it possible to recognise the existence of things without creating desire? In this case wu refers to the non-recognition of things and, therefore, has the negative sense. Things were looked on as non-existent. But the difficulty involved is great. It meant a people without increase of knowledge through travel, and without increase of learning and work on the field of experiment. This difficulty was felt and is shown in the 19th essay, the 8th Dissertation. Here the writer pleads for education and the advancement of knowledge. Possibly the difficulty was solved by turning this negativity of the absence of desire into a positivity of great value. This positivity is seen in their two superior men, the chen jen, true man, and the chih jen, the perfect man. And how did they attain to these positions of unworldliness and perfection of character, with desire suppressed or eliminated? They rose to this by identity with the tao. The secret lay not in perpetual struggle with a corrupt heart, but in the realisation of an identity with the Cosmic Spirit. Here, then, the Taoist idea has much in common with the Christian ideal of the Saint. Both are under the command of the inward spirit.
It may now be possible to mention the last and final idea underlying the meaning of wu wei. Generally speaking it is that no dependence can be or should be placed in mere human strength. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.” The time-server and the person who seeks to get on by human skill: the opportunist who watches chances for gaining an advantage and pushing his way to the front: the clever demagogue who wins applause by insinuating speeches are all contemned and disesteemed by the Taoist. The intellect must be kept in abeyance and not allowed to get the mastery. It is to be supposed that the description given, often, of the Taoist sage comes from this conception. He is ashen grey in colour: he looks as though he were incompetent to deal with affairs: he appears as though not interested in any subject. We are to understand by these descriptions that the individual is not under the sway of the senses but is governed by the spirit.