Wuwei 無為 and Ziran 自然: Today’s Musing

I’m currently working a new blog-essay on the similarities and differences between the Laozi and Zhuangzi, continuing my exploration of something called “Classical Daoism.” But today I just got on a stream-of-consciousness kind of role on Wuwei and Ziran and decided to post it. It is not my final word on the subject.

Wuwei 無為 is a very thick concept, with Wei 為 being a significantly polysemic character. With Wei as “to do” or “to act,” the Laozi provides instruction on a way of doing or acting, one that appears to not be doing or acting at all. Credit was given to Heaven and Earth (or the Dao) for both the conditions and energy for life on Earth. But, as anyone can see, they are not doing or acting in the normal sense of that word. We should not picture an entity “Heaven” personally infusing life somehow into each and every living thing, even though a heavy use of metaphors for this are used (e.g., the “Maker of Things” in the Zhuangzi); and we should not imagine the physical Earth personally fashioning tools, homes, food, etc. for us. We know that somehow, something from above causes growth in plants and something, somehow, from below, both supports everything and nourishes the plants, (with water also being very important). This “doing” or “action” is mysterious; unseen and unheard. It is thus “spiritual,” deriving from the fact that early humans could not help but feel that all actions or developments are caused or performed by someone, by some agent or entity. If we cannot detect them, they are spirits (Shen 神). The Chinese (among others) conceived of two related types of spirits: human ancestors and deities of the natural world (in particular, notable features of the natural world, such as impressive mountains, rivers and the soil). Sacrifices and honour were given to these spirits, with genuine gratitude for what is given and a hope for appeasement (lest they punish the people, for some reason, in some way).

The Laozi appears to be the earliest writing that contains the word Ziran 自然, “so of itself,” meaning, that something happens or develops naturally and spontaneously: it has no apparent cause. Although the text contains passages that accept the existence of ancestral and nature spirits, they are not given credit for much of significance. The spirits of nature are just one more animate part of the world that share the powers and constraints of Nature; Heaven and Earth, the Dao. So, while being perhaps more powerful than human beings, they must “obey the same laws” of the universe that humans do. Ziran, and Wuwei, were thus concepts that replaced the reference to spirits as the way certain things happen or are caused, especially when things go well. If a ruler of a country could attain Wuwei or Ziran, his people would operate in a self-sufficient and effective way, finding all of their needs met but completely unaware of any influence from the ruler above. This was how the ruler effected changes in his realm: they occur of themselves (Ziran), or Zihua 自化, “self-transformation.” In the Huainanzi, the same notion is described as Shenhua 神化, “spirit transformation,” or rather, transformations that are caused by unseen and mysterious forces.

Wang Chong 王充 was greatly impressed with the Laozi’s “cosmological” explanation, and adopted the two terms Wuwei and Ziran from that text. (He wrote a number of very clarifying expositions in the Lunheng 論衡 in the later Han Dynasty.) See here: Lunheng by Forke

For humans to attempt to imitate the Dao, to conform to the Way of Heaven and Earth, their “doings” and ‘actions” should resemble the way that Nature does them: naturally, without preconceived purposes, without apparent effort (especially mental effort). Why humans might want to model themselves on (the ways of) the Earth, the (ways of the) Heavens: the Way (Dao), is because of our desire to be efficacious, as I prefer to put it. We want to be successful in whatever we do, whether that is planting and harvesting crops, building a shelter, or maintaining our health (maintaining our mental health seems to me to have been the primary goal of what we consider Daoism, with physical health second, and societal or community health third). The Great Yu was credited for successfully controlling a massive flood in antiquity, and it was said he achieved it by adapting himself to the “way of water.” Modeling Nature was an “effective” or “good” (Shan 善) way to live and do things.

How do we imitate the Dao and “Wuwei?” Is not purposely trying to be Wuwei, the polar opposite to Wuwei? Is this not simply Wei? Indeed it is, but, just like we can purposely learn to walk, talk, ride a horse or even calm ourselves down, (at least sometimes), it can be done. The way it is done is both similar to and different from the way to do some other things. The Laozi suggests that we can Wuwei by reducing both the number of things we’re doing and the thoughts and desires to do them. There is some initial concentration; but, what needs to be done, what action needs to be taken, what words (if any) need to be said and what developments need to occur simply happen naturally, of themselves (Ziran). For example, as toddlers we purposely and with great effort try to keep our balance and learn to walk: this is Wei activity. But over time, with practice, it becomes so easy and feels so natural that we could literally do it in our sleep. Maintaining our balance and walking occur spontaneously (Ziran): that would be Wuwei activity.

The early “Daoists” noticed that a relatively calm mind was essential to efficacy and Wuwei activity: it was difficult to do if one’s mind was agitated; perhaps filled with emotions, desires, thoughts, plans; by being too self-conscious or obsessed with a self-serving agenda. As a result, they wrote often about the benefits of reducing our self-consciousness, or becoming “selfless,” and maintaining an “inner peace.” Although very “New Agey” sounding, this captures the meaning adequately. Anything that could point to this was utilized by the many contributors to the “Daoist” texts. Thus, they discussed the equanimity of water, the (stereotyped) humble, gentle, passive and quiet woman in society, (or infant), and perhaps the vast expanse of the heavens, with unlimited “breathing room,” so to speak, with utmost freedom and with nothing needing to be done.

A few passages in the Zhuangzi illustrate that while one may not be able to control the transformations (or malformations) of one’s physical body, one does have the ability to control how one deals with them, and this, we can presume, is what really “matters.” We can still enjoy life despite mental or physical pain. Of course, this psychological well-being will be more difficult and/or short-lived if we are careless with our body and we suffer illness and die. Thus, we are well-advised to try to maintain its health (and there are many practices to do this, both simple and complex) and not to put ourselves in positions where our lives are in jeopardy, if we can help it. (This seems to be an idea that Yang Zhu 楊朱 voiced publically in the Warring States period, and which contributors to the Laozi and Zhuangzi adopted).

The end, for now.

Comments, questions welcome.
Thanks for reading