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.

Emptiness and Mystery

In an email conversation with a Christian friend of mine, we discussed some basic Taoist concepts and explored the relationship between Taoism and Christianity. I think some good things were said, so I’ve decided to post portions of my half (or 3/4, since I tend to get carried away) of the conversation here. The below isn’t all, but is enough for the moment; I’ll post the rest later on.

On Emptiness:
I agree that empty things are useful because they can be filled — emptiness is their substance (rather than being filled with their own solid substance), which makes them more useful than things that can’t be filled. A [good] image to explain this is a wooden bowl — it’s useful because of the lack of wood in the center that allows people to put soup or rice or whatever into it. If it were full of wood, rather than empty, it would just be a solid wooden mound with no purpose. So, in terms of people, being empty means letting go of your own desires and selfishness and ambition […] so you can harmonize with the rest of the world; you can be “filled” by other people and learn to make your way in the world without creating conflict, instead of struggling against the grain to have your own way. There’s a strong survival component in Taoism because of the era in which it originated — the Warring States Period in China, where everyone was fighting with everyone else, change was rampant, and you never really knew who was the friend or foe of your people. So, from that perspective, there’s a practical side to being malleable or “empty.” As I’ve come to understand it, Lao Tzu advocates staying empty in order to be filled ceaselessly, being open to taking on new ideas and ways of life without holding onto them. So, like the bowl, the Taoist sage allows him- or herself to be filled, but also allows him- or herself to be emptied again. It allows for a free flow of ideas without attaching one’s ego to them. It’s a way to have peace in any situation and is also a practical survival mechanism, should that be necessary. Does that make sense?

I think [Taoists] do prefer emptiness over fullness, but only if [they’re] forced to choose between one or the other. Taoism seeks balance, above all, so it’s not considered ideal (or even practical) to be completely empty or completely full. Just like it’s not good either to starve or to eat so much that you feel nauseous — it’s better to eat just enough that you’re comfortable. The rationale for choosing emptiness over fullness is that (here comes yet another metaphor) being at the bottom of a mountain is safer than being at the very top. Once one reaches the top-most point of something — success, celebrity, love, depression, literal height — there’s only one direction left to travel: down. But if you’re at the bottom, there’s always room to travel up and, if you fall, it hurts less. Emptiness is good for the mind, especially in meditation, because it’s a state of purity in which one can just experience life, without all the hang-ups of being human — struggle, worry, painful love, consuming desire, sadness, etc. But even complete emptiness can’t be maintained all the time, so a state of balance — wavering between more-full and more-empty — is best.

On Thinking About the Tao and Other Big Questions:
You’ve made a good point. I don’t think that one shouldn’t think about the Tao, either, and I don’t think that Lao Tzu would have considered not thinking about the Tao a “rule” of Taoism. I think it’s a lot like thinking about God and why certain things happen — it’s a mystery; no one can possibly comprehend God or God’s plan. So while it might be soothing (or just fun) to try to rationalize certain things, and while it might be useful to seek out knowledge where it can be found, one has to keep in mind that there will always be mysteries. And it’s good, I think, to respect mystery, even to love it. It’s good to acknowledge that blank spot in human wisdom that can’t possibly be filled. It’s humbling. Still, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask questions, to wonder and search, even if it leads us nowhere but staring mystery in the face.