Tao Te Ching is without doubt a classic in philosophy. The book illustrates the Chinese philosophy of living. Mitchell Stephen has done a great work of representing it in free translation that even has endnotes for some literal translations, relevant examples and commentaries.
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However, for one to understand Tao Te Ching, it is imperative for one to first understand Wei-wu-wei. Wei-wu-wei is important in understanding Tao Te Ching because it is often viewed as a paradox within Taoism of whose importance comes second only to Tao Te Ching itself (Loy 73).
wei-wu-wei is often looked at as the state of doing nothing or at least doing as little as possible. The philosophical weight it carries is that on the political front, it could be said that the citizens should be exposed to as little external pressure as possible in order to facilitate the individual’s satisfaction.
Leaving the people without any undue political interference is the key to solving the social problems for most of the problems are as a result of the political interference.
The political view might be much similar to the personal interpretation of the Tao Te Ching in relation to wei-wu-wei. The individual might look at it as the concept of doing nothing but in reality, the idea is to know when to stop acting.
The Tao Te Ching likens nature to a bow in chapter 77. “That which is at the top is pulled down/that which is at the bottom is brought up/ That which is overfull is reduced/ that which is deficient is supplemented.” One ought to know when to cease. The Tao Te Ching warns against extremes and stopping at the expedient time frees one from danger (Mitchell Chapter 44).
Another view of the wei-wu-wei is that action that does not impose itself but one that yields itself. While the former interpretation is doing nothing, this concept refers to passivity.
An example is given of an alcoholic who loses balance from a carriage and instead of resisting the fall, he yields to it and that saves his life (Loy 75). This argument is not actually pro-alcoholism-it only serves to explain the main concept of yielding and its advantage over resisting.
The corollary of this is found in chapter 63 which says that a lot can be achieved by doing very little. “Contemplating the difficult with the easy/working on the Great with the small” (Mitchell chapter 63). Ideally, one should embark on dealing with the small issues instead of allowing them to grow into bigger problems. It is easier to affect the saplings’ growth as opposed to that of a fully grown tree.
Arguably, the commonest interpretation of the wei-wu-wei is that which is natural. The importance of this concept in understanding the Tao Te Ching is because the master talks about life and how to approach it wisely and with grace. In other words, it is addressing the natural way of living.
The wei-wu-wei describes how a man should restrict his actions and movements to only that which is necessary, or more precisely, that which is natural. It refers to one pursuing his Te without any arbitrary effort whatsoever.
The Chinese philosophy recognizes the natural as that which has no strife although it could also be looked at as that which lacks willful effort (loy 76). Natural doesn’t include spontaneous actions. For instance, if a man steps on my toe and anger rises in me as a consequence, then it cannot be considered as a case of wei-wu-wei. Consciousness to the self is seen as the root cause to natural action. That means that the unnatural action would be as a result of lack of consciousness of self.
Wei-wu-wei is important in understanding Tao Te Ching. Wei-wu-wei is the concept of doing much by doing less or more simply put, it is the philosophy of natural living. This makes it of primary importance in understanding the Tao Te Ching since in it, the master explains the way of living life peacefully and with wisdom which should be the natural way of living.
Loy David. Wei-Wu-Wei: Nondual Action. Philosophy East and West. 35.1 (1995): 73-86
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Mitchell Steven. Tao Te Ching. New York: HarperCollins, 1991