What is Wu-Wei (無為)?

無-oraclebone 為-bigseal

Wuwei is probably the most inspired concept in all of human history.  Laozi coined this term in the Dao De Jing, and it is indeed the central theme of the text.  Laozi did not develop the basic cosmogony of Daoism – the waxing & waning of yin & yang was already well understood long before, and numerous other Daoist theories & practices are not necessarily inspired by Laozi.  What Laozi presented was wuwei – how the Dao functions in the world and how the sage conducts himself.  Although this term is important in all Daoist traditions, different traditions have different interpretations of what it means.  Let’s look at the old characters* from the perspective of our tradition.

The old character for wu (無) shows a person (人) holding wood (木) in either hand.  Perhaps because of the homophones for shaman (巫) and dancer (舞), it is often understood as a dancing shaman holding ritual sticks.  I also see a person in the forest – a homeless hermit with nothing to his/her name, or a person holding “the uncarved block” – grasping unmanifest simplicity.  I also notice the entire character conveys the image of fire (火), and the modern traditional character places the radical for fire (灬) at the bottom, so the image of burning wood (i.e. transformation) may be important to understanding the meaning of wu.  Finally, some observers note the modern character looks like bundled crops with seeds in the ground, suggesting an empty field after harvest, full of potential.  Taking the gestalt of these images, I see a shaman-sage conducting a ritual dance on the edge of existence & nothingness – transforming something from one state to another.  This ritual represents what Hindus call the dance of Shiva.  What Brahma creates, Shiva destroys.  Shiva is not a devil; Shiva is that aspect of Dao that moves things along – transformation through destruction.  So wu means emptying things out, purging and moving them along, sending spirit up and leaving only ashes below.  It can also mean having nothing – no home or belongings, no agendas or delusions.  Wu is commonly used to denote nothingness or the lack of something.

The old character for wei (為) shows a claw above an elephant.  I’m not sure about this, but whereas hand (手) represents skillful activity, claw (爪) seems to imply exertion of force.  I believe elephant (象) symbolizes strength and intelligence.  This makes sense, as wei means cleverly wielding strength – deliberate, intentional activity undertaken in order to achieve some result.  Leading the elephant where you want it to go.  The character for elephant also means form or appearance, so another meaning could be to claw at appearances, which also implies exerting force to get something.  Most of Daoism throughout history has indeed consisted of undertaking intentional methods in order to achieve specific results.  Interestingly, when the character for person is added to the left, it generates another character wei (偽) that means false pretense, artificial, or contrived.  I think wei also suggests the magical “getting what you want” practices that exist within Daoism.

What does it mean when we put these two words together?  The Dao De Jing has no punctuation marks and the language is very terse, so terms like wuwei can be read separately as wu & wei or together as a single concept.  Some schools interpret wuwei as using emptiness (wu) in order to achieve certain results (wei); others interpret it as using intention (wei) in order to push things along to another state (wu).  In our tradition, we view wuwei as a single concept that describes the way nature functions.

Wu is our state before birth.  Before our mother & father were born, what were we?  Long after our children pass away, what are we?  In our practice, we become intimate with the nothingness that precedes, underlies, and outlasts our lives.  Our tradition notes that no matter how much effort (wei) we apply in shaping the world to meet our desires, wu always comes along and transforms our creations back into nothingness.  Even if we make some huge mark on the world, eventually that mark passes away.  Wuwei invites us to try something different.  What would it be like to apply wu to our wei?  Extinguish all effort.  Abandon strength and cleverness.  This shift opens up the possibility of relating to the world (and to our practice of meditation & qi-cultivation) in a different way.  Relating without struggle & strain.

Wei is based on wanting things to be other than they are.  Wuwei is accepting things as they are, and adjusting to the continuous transformations of nature.  Laozi’s practice is not about getting what we want but relaxing into the way things are.

Wuwei is how we come into the world and how we grow and change and return.  Wuwei is how water flows downstream, how clouds form and break apart, how trees grow and blow in the wind.  Nature functions through wuwei – the birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death of myriad worlds & creatures is not driven by intention and effort.  It just happens.  Like good art.  The ritual image of wu suggests personal engagement in this natural process.

Laozi said: “wuwei but not buwei” – wuwei is not “doing nothing” as a direct translation might suggest.  Daoism includes various active practices of hygiene, meditation, & ritual.  But Laozi’s tradition does not focus on practicing particular methods so much as on how we practice whatever we are practicing.  Wuwei invokes a qualitative shift away from struggle & strain, finding natural ease in our conduct moment-to-moment.  Retract the claws and dance with Shiva.

*image source: Richard Sears – thank you!

Stable Gaze: A Look at “Ding-Guan” (定觀)

Now let’s look at the term “ding-guan”.  This is an interesting term that is quite similar to “qing-jing” (see Clear & Calm post).  In fact, it’s just a different way of describing the same energetic experience, although I think it provides additional perspective.

Laozi did not use this term, but he did use each character individually.  Chapter 37: “Without desire, there is calm, and all under Heaven will settle (ding) of itself.”  Chapter 16: “Remaining utterly calm, the myriad things merge together; I thereby observe (guan) returning.”  The Tang-Dynasty Ding-Guan scripture describes a gradual method of settling into calm observance.

The character for ding (定) shows correct-alignment under a roof.  It means to put something in its place, to confine or fixate.  Ding is sometimes used to translate the Buddhist word Samadhi – one-pointed concentration.  So it also means to concentrate, to focus, or to reach a state of non-arising pure awareness.  I can’t think of a single word to perfectly translate ding, but how about “stability”.

The character for guan (觀) shows a heron watching something.  Perhaps a fish, perhaps open space.  Like its sharp bill, its awareness is penetrating.  So guan means to adeptly observe or notice phenomena.  Guan is also the term for Daoist temple – a platform for observing reality.  Let’s translate it as “gaze”.

Ding & guan individually describe opposing poles of awareness – we can subdue the fire or we can direct it outward; together they describe a state of stable, uncontrived awareness.  Neither held down nor projected outward but nevertheless stable & open.  Calm & clear.

While it is possible to treat ding as a goal, in Laozi’s wuweidao we see it as something that just happens of itself when we calm down.  We don’t want to approach ding with effort.  When it arises of its own, it’s an easy, reliable base, providing root-power to our practice.  My Zen teacher (Zen Master Seung Sahn) always said pursuing one-pointed concentration is a mistake.  Too much focus obstructs our view.  When we calm down and relax into our base, qi effortlessly stabilizes and gathers into a nice ground for sitting.

It’s also possible to over-emphasize observing as a method – like pro-active “mindfulness”.  From the perspective of Laozi’s tradition, observing is not something we have to “do” – if we remain calm and present, we cannot help but notice the myriad activity in our senses, emotions, and mind.  Things come & go of themselves; we don’t have to actively watch them come & go.

While it’s helpful to look at ding & guan separately, in reality they are different ways of describing a singular experience.  If this sounds like a precarious balancing act, then I have not described it well.  From the perspective of our tradition, ding-guan is not something we achieve by effort.  Actually effort obstructs our experience of ding-guan.  Laozi’s method requires neither intense concentration nor compulsive mindfulness.  We settle into our posture, breathe naturally, and maintain an open gaze.  This is our formal method of sitting meditation.  Practicing regularly over a period of time, this method reveals the inherent presence of ding-guan.  We don’t have to reach to get there – just stay where we actually are.

“Missing You” – The Nine Xiang-Er Mandates of Zhang Dao Ling

Xiang-Er_WMCDid you know that the first “religious” Daoist community came up with a list of nine principles that summarize the entire Dao De Jing?

In the year 142 C.E., a certain Zhang Dao Ling had a vision of Laozi and subsequently established the Tianshi Daoist tradition – the Way of Celestial Mastery.  Attributed to him is a text called the Xiang-Er (想爾), which I like to translate as “missing you”.  In addition to a commentary on DDJ chapters 3-37, as well as numerous rules for Tianshi adepts, the text includes 9 mandates that distill Laozi’s key teaching points to guide adepts into Laozi’s fruition.  As such, they contain essential guidance for how to comport ourselves in formal meditation & qi-cultivation, as well as in informal conduct (daily life).

According to orthodox Daoism, the mandates are guidelines for how we conduct ourselves when we are fully in touch with our nature.  They are, importantly, not a list of moral rules or commandments that we impose upon ourselves – they are simply the way we actually are.  If we find ourselves out of touch with our nature (“missing you”), these mandates help to bring us back.

My teacher said “if this was all you had, it would be enough.”  In our school, we use these mandates as precepts and recite them in our daily ritual practice.  We also have unpublished commentaries about what each of these mandates mean with regard to meditation & qi-cultivation.  But it’s not really enough just to read the mandates or a commentary – they are intended to trigger an exchange between teacher & disciple that in turn triggers a process within.

I’m a little hesitant to post them without a personal discussion – these translations are provisional and need to be unpacked in the context of formal practice, but they are published in different translations anyway so here they are:


Extinguish effort (wúwéi, 無為)

Remain soft & weak (róuruò, 柔弱)

Preserve the feminine, do not initiate activity (shǒucí wùxiāndòng, 守雌勿先动)

Remain nameless (wúmíng, 無名)

Remain clear & calm (qīngjìng, 清静)

Function with competence & benevolence (zhūshàn, 诸善)

Relinquish desire (wúyù, 無欲)

Cease with sufficiency (zhīzhǐ shīrènwéi, 知止师认为)

Relax aggression (tuīràng, 推让)


With gratitude to Zhang Dao Ling.  Let’s keep his teaching alive.

Clear & Calm: A Look at “Qing-Jing” (清靜)

Today I want to discuss one of the most common and important terms in all of Daoism: “qing-jing”.

Laozi first used this term in Dao De Jing chapter 45: “Qing-jing rectifies all under Heaven”.  Zhang Dao-Ling included it as is one of the nine “mandates” of the Tian-Shi Daoist tradition (2nd-century CE), and the Qing-Jing scripture, written during the Tang Dynasty, is recited by Quan-Zhen Daoists today.

To understand the phrase let’s look at each character individually first, and then look at them together in the context of meditation & qi-cultivation.

The character for qing (清) includes the radical for water and the character for natural bluish-green color, so we can translate it as something like “clear blue water”.  It’s the opposite of muddy water.  So it is often translated as clear or pure.  But the character is not only a noun, it can also be a verb or adjective, so we can also say it is to clear something out or to have a clear view.

The character for jing (靜) includes the same character for clear blue water and also the character for contention.  The meaning is to calm down contention – the image is like turbulent rapids coming to rest in a pool.  So it is often translated as stillness or tranquility.  It essentially means to be calm or to calm down, to settle, or to maintain a calm demeanor.

Together we can consider qing-jing to mean to clear out murkiness and calm down agitation.  Clarity relates to shen (spirit), while calm relates to qi (energy).  We want the processes of clearing shen and calming qi to happen together, like mud settling down and leaving the water clear.  Of course we all know that to let mud settle we have to leave it alone, not hasten to push it down.  That’s wuwei.

So the initial method in Laozi’s Daoism is called jing-zuo – “calm-sitting”.  It involves important points of posture, letting the breath be natural, and resting in open awareness.  This method allows mud to settle.  As our qi calms down and our spirit clears up, we invite the great qing-jing to come visit.  As it turns out, our context is already clear & calm – great clarity, da-qing (大清), is wide-open space; great calm, da-jing (大靜), is the ever-present stillness underlying all movement.  These are also called Heaven & Earth.

Clarity is opening the upper dantian.  Calm is settling into the lower dantian.  Calm relates to heat, clarity to light.  When the upper dantian opens, the clear water lets in sunlight.  As the 4th-century BCE Neiye says, “great clarity perceives great luminosity”.  Some Daoist schools discourage open meditation because it may leave us vulnerable to possession.  I think they are correct if we have not established stability in the lower dantian.  The Neiye also says, “if you can calm the heart-mind, you will naturally establish stability”.  Calm provides a stable base that grounds out incoming energies – this allows us to enjoy open luminosity while protecting us from possession.  Grounded stability is really important for this practice.  Love the mud.

The reason calm-sitting is considered initial is not the method so much as the view.  We generally need to calm down in order to enter into Laozi’s practice.  But really qing-jing is not a goal – it’s an aspect of our nature.  So Laozi’s sitting is not really a method to clear the shen and calm the qi – it’s a platform for appreciating Heaven & Earth.  In our sitting, if our method is correct, we will come to notice a feeling of stability below and openness above – like dropping the anchor and opening the sunroof – this is qing-jing.  It’s not a concept, it’s an energetic experience.  I hope you experience this great open stillness.  Laozi’s adepts enter effortlessly, relying on da-qing & da-jing.

Indeed Heaven & Earth continue to generate murkiness & agitation.  Like a stream going from pool to riffle, pool to riffle.  Of course this is not a problem, it’s just how things are.  So the next step in Laozi’s practice is to abandon the quest for clarity & calm – just rely on Heaven & Earth and let things come and go naturally.  That’s non-dual wuweidao.

What are we to do?  Let’s abandon rumination and just sit calmly for a while every day.