On Action vs. Non-action vs. Wei-wu-wei

This is Part II of my conversation with a friend about Taoism and Christ. He suggested that one has reached true emptiness when one gives oneself so fully to a greater cause that the self is forgotten.

You touched on a debate I’ve been having with myself for a long time about action and non-action in Taoism — fighting for a cause or doing nothing and letting nature (human or otherwise) take its course. There are so many different ways to act or not act for a cause that I think it really depends on the cause and the action. In the extreme of “acting for a cause greater than oneself” are suicide bombers and political extremists; I think we both agree that that’s not the way to act for a cause and that that kind of rash selflessness doesn’t enact positive change, if any real change occurs at all. People die and the living remain, or are perhaps further, polarized. Then again, the extreme of “not acting for any cause, regardless of the situation” can result in something like […] a totalitarian, suffocating society, where people don’t contend for so long that it becomes nearly impossible to do anything at all, even when life really sucks for everyone. It’s hard to say which extreme is better because both end badly. Filling oneself with a cause — to the point that one’s life, along with that of others’, becomes meaningless — isn’t necessarily a complete Good, but neither is emptying oneself of a sense of what’s best (and therefore the desire to act) to the point that one becomes a virtual or actual prisoner. I should mention that, because of Taoism’s moral ambiguity [or apathy], there’s not much that Taoists would find necessary to act for or against. Even so, when a Taoist sage (that is, an ideal Taoist) really feels that changes need to be made, s/he is pretty cautious about how s/he goes about making those changes. So much of Taoism is about “action through non-action” (wei-wu-wei), which is as much about efficiency as it is proceeding in such a way that as little damage is wreaked as possible, of which I think Christ is a great example. It seems to me that he was all about action through non-action: he was there to teach those who wanted to be taught, but didn’t force anything on anyone. He was a receiver [and giver], rather than an aggressor. Even when the priests came for him near the end of his life, he didn’t fight; instead, he healed the one whose ear was cut off. […]

Still, if one were to [sacrifice one’s life], one has to first ask the question: Is it better for me to sacrifice myself to make a statement, or would I better serve my cause by living? And, of course, you have to think long and hard about whether your cause is really the right one. For Christ, from the Christian perspective, that question is easy to answer — as the Son of God, yes, his cause was the Ultimate Good, and his human life was much less important than the salvation of humankind […] But for regular people, I think it’s good to entertain the idea that what one perceives as a Total Good usually contains some potential for Evil/Bad and that there is often some potential for Good in a Bad/Evil idea or situation (enter the Taijitu, or Yin/Yang symbol), and that it’s almost impossible for people to tell which is best because we’re so near-sighted — one can’t really see the ultimate end of any action. Which is why it’s best to wait and see, or to tread lightly in action. Or, to put it in a Christian perspective, it’s not possible for a regular person to completely understand or foresee God’s plan, so forcing an action in either direction could be a mistake because what a person sees as an Evil might be, from God’s perspective, an avenue to a true Good. So I think that getting rid of the ego is ideal, but I think that also involves getting rid of one’s presumptions about what’s right/useful and wrong/useless in a given situation. And that, depending on one’s perspective, can either make life really difficult (if one is always trying to sort out Good from Bad, considering all the infinite variables and roads) or really simple (if one decides to let go of trying to be overly moral [or valiant] and just live life, taking each moment as it comes). I tend to do the former, spending unnecessary amounts of time trying to figure out where I stand on complex issues, but I’m trying to teach myself to do the latter and am slowly coming along. I do think it’s easier and healthier to just let go, to a certain degree, to be more like a tree than a mule.

The ultimate goal of Taoism is to be natural — that is, not to get caught up in petty human struggle and instead just be compassionate and simple and humble (the three Taoist treasures, which can be found in the Tao Te Ching in Ch. 67). Again, I think Christ is a great example of a Taoist sage, especially when considering lines from Ch. 67: “From mercy comes courage; from economy comes generosity; / From humility comes leadership.” He seems (to me, at least) much less preoccupied with law and sin (though he was concerned with those things, of course) than teaching and exhibiting compassion, humility and simplicity.

I’m open to further discussion, so feel free to post comments below.

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  1. Good is…. And evil is…. and to the extend that they are, they are one and the same.

    Perhaps a better question would be … Why does evil exist?

    1. Right – they’re two sides of the same coin, as the old cliche goes. As for why evil exists, the Taoist response would be: “Because Good exists.” Or, more specifically, because our belief in Good exists.

      The Chuang Tzu says: “The understanding of the men of ancient times went a long way. How far did it go? To the point where some of them believed that things have never existed — so far, to the end, where nothing can be added. Those at the next stage thought that things exist but recognized no boundaries among them. Those at the next stage thought there were boundaries but recognized no right and wrong. Because right and wrong appeared, the Way was injured, and because the Way was injured, love became complete. But do such things as completion and injury really exist, or do they not?”

      Thanks for all of your comments, by the way! 🙂

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