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Wu-wei and Unattached Action
By Ben Martin
December 12, 1997
Chuang Tzu is a rather broad text, but it features several main suggestions for a life following in the Tao. It contains suggestions on how to commune with Tao, how to properly resolve ones self to fate, how to use "clarity," and so on. One topic that it covers that I found particularly interesting was action. Chuang Tzu advocates an action that is separate from desire, and is consistent with the Tao. In fact, Chuang Tzus philosophy of action is very reminiscent of that of the Baghavad Gita. Both advocate not being motivated by results, and several other details I mention below. We must not be careful, however, to assume the two positions are too similar. One or both of them would suffer in interpretation as a result. I know that upon first reading Chuang Tzu I tried to draw too many similarities between it and other transcendental texts, especially the Baghavad Gita. We must be careful to distinguish between the similarities, and the subtle differences of the two texts. For, in reality, while the two are very similar, they also have considerable differences between them.
Chuang Tzu clearly values "inaction," as he indicates in Supreme Happiness: "I take inaction to be true happiness" (p. 112). This alone would be a significant endorsement, but Chuang Tzu continues on in the same passage to say that while the world cannot decide what is right and wrong, inaction can; furthermore, it can provide "the highest happiness, keeping alive." He continues even further to call the inaction of Heaven "its purity" and the inaction of earth "its peace."
"Inaction" (unattached action is probably better terminology), or wu-wei, also has practical benefits for more mundane tasks and objects. In the example of the archer in Mastering Life (p. 112), Chuang Tzu shows the advantage of wu-wei in a practical situation. He states that an archer shooting for mere tiles will shoot with skill, while one shooting for belt buckles is concerned with his aim, and one shooting for gold is "a nervous wreck," because "He who looks too hard at the outside gets clumsy on the inside." How can one practice ones skill effectively while concentrating on extraneous matters? A person who can treat all three prizes as one - or, probably even better, one who can ignore the prizes altogether - will have the best results.
This idea about skilled action is one of the main points of Chuang Tzus argument for we-wei, that action dependant on results is distracting; it interferes with the concentration necessary to successfully complete the action, as in his story of Woodworker Ching, who, in order to make a bellstand, set upon a plan of fasting for seven days. After three days, the woodworker no longer thought of "congratulations or rewards, of titles or stipends" (p. 127). After five days he no longer had "any thought of praise or blame, of skill or clumsiness," and after seven, he had completely forgotten his body. In such a state Ching found a tree in the forest of "superlative form" and carved it into a bellstand so magnificent that the Prince was compelled to ask what his secret was. The first things the woodworker emptied himself of were expectations, fears, and desired results.
This language is very similar to that of the Baghavad Gita, in which Krishna is constantly emphasizing the importance of unattached action and freedom from desire. "Dont be motivated by the fruits of action" (Baghavad Gita, 2.47), Krishna tells Arjuna at one point. Elsewhere, he says, "They are miserable who are motivated by results" (2.49). This is similar to some passages in Chuang Tzu.
Krishna also commands Arjuna to "yoke yourself in yoga / the yoga which is skillfulness in action" (2.50). Chuang Tzus characters also seem to have in mind furthering their skills. Another similar feature of the two inactions is the role of fulfilling ones nature (or dharma in the case of the Baghavad Gita). In one of the stories in Chuang Tzu, Confucius meets a swimmer of incredible skills, who, upon being asked by Confucius the secret of his abilities, responds that he has no special ability, but that he merely followed his nature which was to be comfortable in the water (p. 126). Following ones nature is a crucial detail of success to Chuang Tzu. Similarly, in the Baghavad Gita, this unattached action must be performed to preserve ones dharma. This is partially why Krishna encourages Arjuna to fight; it is part of his ksatriya nature. In it, though, following ones nature is a religious command, not just a good practical suggestion from a human philosopher. Also, The way both texts approach ones nature is different. In Chuang Tzu, one discovers ones own nature through normal life experience, whereas in the Baghavad Gita, one is born into a caste, and must remain there.
It is interesting to note that while both texts preach the same application, the theology and philosophy behind each separate opinion differ radically from one another. For example, in the Baghavad Gita, Krishna asserts that actions are performed by the gunas, not by human will (BG, 3.26). Such a concept is totally absent in Chuang Tzu. Here, actions are performed by humans according to their own will and to their own ends. Unattached action is inadvisable for purely secular reasons, but it is not in the least suggested here that spiritual forces are at work in relation to action. The Baghavad Gita says that unattached action helps one avoid karmic stain (4.21). All Chuang Tzu can offer is freedom from the destructive tendency of desire (something the Baghavad Gita similarly promises), and unity with the Tao. To the author of the Baghavad Gita, Krishna is the ultimate goal, and unattached action is a necessary step to attaining to Krishna. Chuang Tzus inaction , however, helps lead to the rather less Spiritual (but still spiritual) Tao.
Not all differences, however, are separate from the applications of these views. The Baghavad Gita states that when acting unattached, one should be as if he were not acting at all (5.8a). Chuang Tzu, of course, does not believe this at all. He appears to believe people should act, and act well, as long as they are acting according to their nature, and apart from possible results.
It is clear that there are some differences of considerable depth, as well as breadth, between the Baghavad Gitas view of unattached action, and Chuang Tzus. They both seem to teach similar philosophies at first, but they do have differences, which one must be careful to observe. Both offer us interesting views of action, and how it should be executed, and they both even offer us some practical suggestions. I believe that Chuang Tzus philosophy of action separate from desire for the purpose of furthering that action itself both fascinating and relevant. If we were to apply such a principle regularly in our daily lives, I think we would soon find our experiences in this world much more favorable. We would execute our tasks much more effectively and with much more skill.
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