In his excellent Afterword to his translation of Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way, based on the Ma-Wang-Tui manuscripts, Professor Victor H. Mair discusses the concept of wu-wei. He writes:
If Tao and te are the most significant static or nounal concepts in the Tao Te Ching, wu-wei is certainly the most important dynamic or verbal notion set forth in the classic. Of all the Old Master's ideas, it is also the most difficult to grasp. Wu-wei does not imply absence of action. Rather, it indicates spontaneity and noninterference; that is, letting things follow their own natural course. For the ruler, this implies reliance on capable officials and the avoidance of an authoritarian posture. For the individual, it means accomplishing what is necessary without ulterior motive. Some commentators have explained wu-wei as connoting "non purposive" or "nonassertive" action. 138.
Later, in the same Afterword, Professor Mair links this concept of wu-wei to one of the central messages of the Bhagavad Gita, in which just prior to the Battle of Kurukshetra, Arjuna becomes filled with doubt regarding the proper course of action, and the Lord Krishna, who is acting as Arjuna's divine charioteer, gives counsel to the semi-divine hero. Professor Mair explains:
The chief lesson Krishna has to offer Arjuna is that altruistic or disinterested action (niskama karma) leads to realization of Brahma. That is to say, one should act without regard or desire for the fruits (phala) of one's action. This idea is repeated over and over again in countless different formulations. These passages are of great importance for understanding the enigmatic concept of "nonaction" that is so prominent in the Tao Te Ching. "The person of superior integrity takes no action," says the Old Master, "nor has he a purpose for acting." We are told straightaway to "act through nonaction" and that "through nonaction, no action is left undone." In spite of the fact that this idea appears a dozen times and is obviously central to the Old Master's teachings, we can only vaguely surmise from the Tao Te Ching the specific implications of wu-wei (nonaction).
However, when we read the Bhagavad Gita, we discover an exceedingly elaborate analysis of the nature and purpose of nonaction. The ideal of action without attachment is conveyed in many guises throughout the Bhagavad Gita, for example, akrta (nonaction), akarma (inaction), naiskarmya (freedom from action or actionlessness), karmanam anarambhan (noncommencement of action), and so forth. Krishna refers to himself as the "eternal nondoer" and states that the Yogin should think, "I do not do anything." He declares that he "sits indifferently unattached by these actions." Elsewhere he condemns sitting and remembering. All of this reminds us of the "sitting and forgetting" advocated by the Taoists that later developed into a type of meditative practice. 141 - 142.
This concept can be seen to have to do with overcoming the traps and stumbling-blocks created for us by the thoughts and desires of our "doubting mind," which Arjuna is exhibiting at the start of the Gita, and which come directly from Arjuna's simultaneous clinging to the past and his trepidation regarding the future. The advice of the Lord Krishna, embodied in the verses of the Bhagavad Gita, point Arjuna towards the concept of taking action as if not taking action, which entails remaining focused upon the present without attachment to the actions, to the past, or to the future.
Only by achieving this state of "I do not do anything" -- which Professor Mair insightfully perceives to be that same concept which the Tao Te Ching calls wu-wei -- can Arjuna escape the trap of his mind's entanglement with past and future (leading to his debilitating doubt, which prevents him from being able to function at all).
The parallels between the Bhagavad Gita of ancient India and the Tao Te Ching of ancient China are remarkable, and Professor Mair develops them still further in the Afterword and Appendix to his translation of the Ma-Wang-Tui texts, while noting that prevailing conventional historical frameworks claim "that China and India did not have any significant cultural intercourse until after the first century A.D." -- well after the existence of texts containing the Tao Te Ching and the Gita, both of which themselves are believed to have been transmitted in oral form for some centuries before being committed to writing (see page 147 for this quotation and discussion in the Afterword of Professor Mair).
He also notes the possibility that, given the likelihood that the Bhagavad Gita and other ancient scriptures of India seem to predate the Tao Te Ching, "if Indian Yoga did not exert a shaping force on Chinese Taoism, the only other logical explanation is that both were molded by a third source" (146). I actually believe that this explanation is likely the correct one, due to the fact that these ancient traditions (like virtually all the other ancient myths, scriptures and sacred stories from around the globe) appear to be using a common system of celestial metaphor to convey their profound teachings -- and this system appears to predate the earliest texts of ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia, and thus to be inherited from some far earlier culture, now unknown to our conventional paradigm of human history.
Given the obvious centrality of the concept of wu-wei identified by Professor Mair in the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita, we might suspect that we will find this concept being taught in some of the other ancient myths from other cultures which can also be shown to be using the same system of celestial metaphor. Or, put another way, having identified this teaching that attachment to thoughts about the past and the future clouds our ability to act effectively, and having perceived that both the Tao Te Ching and the Gita advise us to overcome these entanglements by learning to "act through nonaction," then we might examine other myths and scriptures to see if this same message might help us to interpret the events they describe.
And indeed that is exactly what we do find.
For example, in the story of "Doubting Thomas," we find a clear parallel to the story of "doubting Arjuna" in the Bhagavad Gita. Thomas is restored by Christ in much the same way that Arjuna is freed by Krishna, and I would argue that the truth being revealed is very much the same. There are several previous posts which discuss some of the celestial and esoteric aspects of the story of Doubting Thomas, such as this one, this one, and this one. The episode is also explored in depth in my 2016 book Star Myths of the Bible.
The pattern of a hero withdrawing before a critical battle in which he is needed before being in some way "restored" or "renewed" is also seen in the behavior of Achilles during the Trojan War as described in the Iliad. I discuss the celestial aspects of the story of Achilles, and some of the possible esoteric truths it conveys to us, in my book Star Myths of the World, Volume Two (Greek Mythology), also published in 2016.
We can see another example of this teaching, regarding the overcoming of entangling doubts and the knots into which our mind can tie us (to our great peril) in the episode in the Odyssey when the poem describes the hero Odysseus catching sight of an island after days in the open sea, during his escape from Ogygia (after Poseidon smashes his raft to smithereens). The poem tells us the jagged rocks make landing impossible, and Odysseus almost goes into a panic. The text describes his thoughts, running away with him into all kinds of bitter regrets about the past and fears about the future -- until the goddess Athena helps still his mind so he can focus his attention on the flow of the water around him, and perceive that there is a river not far away which creates a place where he can safely swim to shore.
The ways in which the Odyssey seem to teach this lesson (which has important parallels to the central message of wu-wei described above) has been discussed in previous posts such as this one and this one. There are also numerous other parallels between the Odyssey and the New Testament gospels (both of which, as can be shown with hundreds of examples, employ the ancient system of celestial metaphor to convey their profound truths to us), some of which are discussed here.
The debilitating entanglements of doubt and false assumptions (as opposed to the wu-wei detachment in which we can "act through nonaction") are also conveyed to our understanding through the brilliant and highly entertaining story of Thor's trip to the realm of Utgarda-Loki, one of my favorite Norse myths. The celestial aspects of this memorable episode, as well as some of its possible esoteric teachings, are discussed in my most-recent book, Star Myths of the World, Volume Four: Norse Mythology.
Once we understand the centrality of the concept of wu-wei in this ancient worldwide myth system, then we can see how that concept applies to the story of Thor's visit to Utgarda-Loki, which we might otherwise fail to perceive. In that story, Thor and his friends are defeated by their own mental preconceptions (which are fed to them by the cunning giant Utgarda-Loki, a master of deception and illusion). Recall Professor Mair's discussion above, regarding Lord Krishna's condemnation of "sitting and remembering" (the trap of the past, keeping us from giving full attention to the present).
This idea of "acting as though not-acting," and remaining "without attachment" to the expected results (good or bad) may seem at first like a vague and impractical concept, appropriate perhaps for the contemplative life of an ascetic or a monk, but not of much interest to those living in "the real world" -- but nothing could be further from the truth.
We can perhaps best grasp what is being taught by thinking about examples from sports or martial arts. Think about an athlete preparing to take a shot at the basket in the final seconds of a basketball game, in which the outcome hinges on whether that shot is a bucket or a miss.
Would it be advantageous for that athlete to have a mind filled with thoughts about what has happened during the previous quarters?
Would it be advantageous to be obsessed with thoughts about how making the shot could lead to victory and being seen as the hero of the game, or defeat and being seen as the scapegoat, and to be concentrating more on those possibilities than on the present moment?
Would it be advantageous to be guessing about the direction that the defender on the opposite team might take, and predicting in one's mind what that opponent's next move might be, rather than having an open and aware mind, uncluttered by preconceived ideas and remaining in the flow of the moment?
The answers should be obvious.
Or, consider a surfer preparing to take the drop onto a powerful ocean wave that has just started to catch the surfboard and pick it up: would it be advantageous for that surfer to become entangled with all the possible scenarios, good or bad, that might take place over the next few seconds, and to obsess over the possible outcome of a wipe-out, or would such thoughts tend to guarantee a negative outcome? Would it not be better to "act through nonaction," remaining detached and aware of the flow of the present -- just as the ancient myths, and the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita can be seen to be teaching.
The same "noninterference" and flow, obviously, can be carried into other areas of our lives -- and the centrality of this teaching of wu-wei to the message of profound ancient texts such as the Tao and the Gita implies that it has application in every moment of our lives, and not just when we are facing an opponent in sport or combat, or when we are skiing, surfing or skydiving.
The ancient myths are here to offer us freedom: freedom from the prison of the doubts and entanglements of the interfering mind, freedom to act through nonaction -- wu-wei.