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|Further thoughts on wu wei
Date: Mon, Sep 11 2000 6:26 pm
A posting made in 1995 a few years back when I was working in Hongkong at that time
about 5 years ago.
Kind of introduction myself and to the way I can ramble and babble on and on.
I have been away for a few days into Guangzhou, China in search of a certain
Taichi master. He was away too. That absence was good as that led me to
reflect further on what I have recently been reading in this list.
There have been many descriptions of 'wu-wei' (the non-action/action with
the Tao). Some have been highly technical. Some felt 'wu wei' to be
'avoidance of decisions'.
They came from people who must have read intensively into the TTC and other
I cannot say that they are wrong, those views are other facets and
viewpoints of other people and may have been very valid to them. I used to
have that opinion (that 'wu wei' is nonaction/avoidance ) in the past. I
have even use those terms recently but they are more in the context of a
direct translation rather than my impression of what 'wu wei' is.
Neither can I say definately that my present impression of 'wu wei' is the
correct view of either.
I will be using some of the experiences I had to try to illuminate 'wu wei'
from a different light. 'Wu wei' as a concept is difficult to gleam from
books alone, used as we are to relying on books and words as a direct source
I cannot give my defination or application of 'wu wei' on the whole as
within the human sphere of economic/social interations with others and
ourselves at this point.
Instead, I try to start from a smaller application and work up from there.
I ask your indulgence now as it is going to be a long rambling letter. Too
many events were inter-twined with each other with direct bearing(to me at
least) on my understanding of 'wu wei'. Flames are cheerfully solicited to
illuminate my own way in case I have misled myself.
For that, I need to go back to the beginning again and add further to that
thumbnail sketch of myself I have given of myself earlier.
I haven been interested in martial arts. I started out in Taekwando(Korean
Karate) when I was 17 years old(about 27 years ago) and when I was living in
Singapore. I went on to Goju-ryu karate and Shaolin kungfu. I found time
to do judo, boxing, weight lifting,swimming,rugby as well. It was a miracle
to my parents (and a bigger surprise to me) that the minutes of studies I
squeezed in between all those allowed me to pass my examinations.
The end result of that was a heavy-built 210 lb man quite capable and ready
to handle violent confrontations and not readily pushable by anyone.
That was what I thought.
In my early twenty, from my sporadic attempts to read TTC and other books on
Taoism, I came across that Taoist martial arts Taiji chuan. Taiji chuan was
as inexplicable to me as the TTC in that people who trained themselves in
moving very slowly can claimed themselves as martial artists and further
claim that theirs is the 'Ultimate fist'(literal translation of taiji chuan).
As there was this taji dojo near where I trained, I had to drop by to have a
look. I, being more aware of what I have learned rather than what I have
not learned, found it easy to make snide remarks at Taiji slow dance-like
My first surprise was that the senior Taiji instructor was so calm over my
rather rude remarks. He accepted but turned that challenge to a request
for Taiji practical demonstration. I returned later after his class was over.
The second surprise was the ease he had in stopping a head-on rush I made
and sending me back the same direction I came from without any effort. It
was not like judo where you step aside and 'assist' the momentum of the
other and 'using the strenght of the opponent against himself'.
Eventually, I went into Taiji chuan and into a world where 'the soft
overcomes the hard', 'the slow defeats the fast' and 'wu wei' determines the
response in an encounter. I 'unlearned' all the earlier karate knowledge,
and while unable to penetrate the deeper aspects of taiji, used our well
developed skills in rationalizing to 'comphrehend' taiji instead.
I was unable to discard the lifetime of scientific western perceptions and
engineering background I had. Taiji was then interpreted by me in such a
light, grouped and generalised until it became 'understandable'. Techniques
were classified into vectorial forces and certain groups for
effect/response. 'Energy' should no longer be the static stiffness of
muscles. The whip-like effects from the legs and abdomenal/hips rotations
were equated to the 'chi' talked about. As my 'tui shou'(pushing hands)
encounters with others normally do not have me losing, I thought I won and I
thought Taiji was within my grasp.
My constant reading of the books on Taiji chuan and the TTC had me
interpreting them with the perceptions of my experiences. Rationalizations
fitted those nuggets into compartments in my mind with me feeling
justifiably proud of my 'progress'.
In 1990, I found myself in Taipei working on their mass rapid transit
system. Early morning will have me in their parks doing my taiji excercises
and 'tui shou' with uneven results.
There are masters and Masters but I was yet unable to see or know the
differences until the day I met Masters.
There were two who cannot leave my mind now. One had to walk with a cane
and need to be assisted by us to go up the steps leading to the Sun yat sen
memorial hall. Another was a slim elderly man,so slim that a strong wind
may blow him done, in the Hsingkongyuan(new Taipei park) south of the
Taipei railway station. Their weight was about 80-90 lbs.
When I 'push' against him, it was like trying to 'push' a wraith of smoke.
When he 'pushed' on me, I *moved* back 10-15 feet with him still having a
shy smile on his face.
Seeing is not believing and even if you are *push*, you cannot believe it
Apparently my own 'softness' that I thought I trained was only the softness
I rationalised, I was using muscles but different sets of muscles. The
'chi' I had was self delusion, not to talk about the 'wu wei' that I thought
Their explanation to me was the root cause was that I lacked the faith and
all else stemmed from that. There were many other things I learned but not
directly related to this letter.
The 'softness' in one is not just the relaxation of the muscles, it is also
the relaxation in the mind and soul and the discarding of one's ingrained
perception one has to see/perceive of a viewpoint. We are so used to having
a structure in our mind to perceive things/events that we do not see the
same structure, so useful to our worldly perceptions that they blind us to
other possibilities. They can 'listen' to me and know what I want to do
even before I know it myself and nothing to do with their speed. They than
use 'wu wei' to summon and 'explode' their 'chi force' to repel me beyond
explanation in this letter, but only after they 'listened' and 'know' me.
I can only crawl back to the classics of taiji chuan (and the TTC) to
re-read that from a fresh perspective.
What sunk in was that 'wu wei' (action/nonaction within the Tao) is not the
means in itself. It is the end result and the process of 'knowing how to
continue' AFTER the knowing of each situation in its entirelty. The usage
of our normal perceptions, while useful in understanding a situation, MUST
be recognised as imprisoning us in a frame of thought precluding all other
After the immense possibilities unfold themselves with their incalculable
continuations, we will be paralysed as how to continue through 'our rational
and logical deductions'(which is only rational and logical when seen from
one viewpoint). Then and only then we trust in ourselves and let 'wu wei'
guide us in our actions.
This 'wu wei' is based on what we see is only a shadow of something more real.
This is not a 'property' of Taoism. This theme occur and re-occur through
many philosophies in both the East and West and in the New World.
Buddhism has its multi headed/multi eyed Buddhas as its representations of
'knowing' the multiple aspects of one thing. In the West, Plato expounded
that all natural phenomena are merely shadows of the eternal forms
unperceivable by us. He even have his 'Myth of the cave'.
What is really intriguing is the recent contacts made by Indians in the
Columbian mountains to us warning us of the ecological imbalance we 'younger
brothers' are creating. They revealed the training of their elders called
Mamas. The training consist of chosen ones being kept and fed in dark caves
for a period of 7-10 years after they are borned. The outside world were
then described to the trainees by other Mamas. After that long period, they
are then allowed to go out of the caves to see the 'reality' and to see that
'eternal forms', putting in practise the thoughts of Plato.
The ability of Nobel prize winners in arriving at their key concepts, is in
my mind, another demonstration of 'wu wei'. Their flash of insights whether
in dreams or in moments of reflections, normally breaking the norms of the
established thoughts, are their 'discarding of the existing structures' to
see the truth behind the shadows. After that, it is just mere technical
hard work to write and published their papers. But it was the 'wu wei' that
led them to it.
For me, I rather just try to drink when I am thirsty and eat when I am hungry.
The Idiotic Taoist
Chinese - jin jou yeo jiu
jin jou juoi
literal - now I have the wine
now I will be drunk
in my mind - At this and every instant of time,
live and savour all aspects of happiness and of being alive.