Doing nothing

Wei wu wei

It’s a taoist concept, translated as the action of nonaction. Lao Tzu describes it:

“Thus, the wise man deals with things through wu-wei and teaches through no-words.

The ten thousand things flourish without interruption. They grow by themselves, and no one possesses them.”

David Loy has written an interesting article about it in Philosophy East and West.

By Stephen Slade Tien (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (]

By Stephen Slade Tien (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

He describes three possible interpretations of wei wu wei:

1. Doing nothing or as little as possible

2. Action that is natural

3. Nondual action; action where there’s no difference between agent and action. Action with no intention, no cause.

From his article it’s clear that he favours the third interpretation. The same goes for the author of the book I’m currently reading: “All else is bondage – Non-volitional living”.

Wei Wu Wei the author

Wei Wu Wei has written this book. Well, he would say he hasn’t because he doesn’t believe in I, nor in free will. Wei Wu Wei is the chosen name of a buddhist/taoist philosopher. There are eight books and on a website dedicated to his work, you may read the following warning:

“It is doubtful whether this site would be of use or interest to those seeking introductory material on Buddhism or Taoism.”

That sounds like a paradox. I have read a lot of introductions to buddhism and taoism. Quite often I think the important stuff is left out, namely, the reason to study some ancient wisdom from the East in 2013. It’s almost a taboo; Brad Warren called it the e-word. Wei Wu Wei describes it thus:

“In the East, liberation was elaborated into a fine art, but it may be doubted whether more people made their escape from solitary confinement outside the organised religions than by means of them.”

Solitary confinement. Living a reasonably healthy life in a rich country with access to the whole wide world by means of an I-Pad is the same as being in prison. If you have ever felt that way, you might want to read Wei Wu Wei.

In his book Fingers pointing at the moon, his answer to the question “What is Zen?” is clear and useful: Satori or nothing.

By 松岡明芳 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

By 松岡明芳 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

To quote Wei Wu Wei:

“Zen represents the most direct method and the only one that rejects all dogma, all ritual, all devotion and all belief.”

Not everyone who practices zen might recognise this from personal experience, I certainly don’t. But I have a feeling that this is what zen should be.

Wei Wu Wei says oriental literature has sometimes been translated by ‘scholars whose knowledge of the language was greater than their understanding of the subject.’ Therefore, it might be useful to read someone who is familiar with western philosophy as well. These books were published between 1958 and 1974 and I recognise the language of that period. On the other hand, this adds some quirkiness to a sometimes difficult text. It’s a bit like hearing Alan Watts talk.

Still, I have no doubt that Wei Wu Wei knows what he’s talking about. He says:

“Detachment is a state, it is not a totalisation of achieved indifferences.”

Quite an important point to make.

From his perspective: “There seem to be two kinds of searchers: those who seek to make their ego something other than it is, i.e. holy, happy, unselfish…and those who understand that all those attempts are just gesticulation and play-acting, that there is only one thing that can be done, which is to disidentify themselves with the ego, by realising its unreality, and by becoming aware of their eternal identity with pure Being.”

By Serge Melki from Indianapolis, USA (First Time Bubble  Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (]

By Serge Melki from Indianapolis, USA (First Time Bubble Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (

To do this, you have to understand what is really going on. First on an intellectual level, and then intuitively. My zen master would say bothering with the intellectual is a waste of time, but I like to read books and I have not yet given up on this kind of understanding. Wei Wu Wei attributes the mystery to obnubilation; an inability to perceive the obvious owing to a conditioned reflex which causes us persistently to look in the wrong direction.

So, if the answer cannot be reached by means of conceptual knowledge, might meditation be the answer? Maybe not:

The practice of meditation is represented by the three monkeys,

who cover their eyes, ears and mouth so as to avoid the phenomenal world.

The practice of non-meditation is to be the see-er, hearer or speaker,

while eyes, ears and mouth are fulfilling their function in daily life.

Two years ago I met a very kind man from Florida. He gave me his card, it read: “Rising Moon meditation. It’s not what you think.” He’s probably right.

With thanks to thelastteahouse for posting a short talk by Alan Watts. This helped me to find some interesting lectures by him on Youtube.

Comments are very welcome!


About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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28 Responses to Doing nothing

  1. Lin says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily call the intellectual aspect of life ”a waste of time”, but rather one aspect of many. All aspects simply are. What we do with them is another matter. Just like there are many kinds of books out there. Not good. Not bad. They exist until they are no more. Which is also ok.

    • I think you’re right. But maybe I represented my zen master wrongly. As a zen master, she is opposed to trying to understand things by intellectual means. I think many zen practitioners see meditation as the only route to enlightenment (whatever that is). Personally, I think living your daily life with awareness might be another way. And reading an occasional book might not hurt. The problem seems to lie with getting attached to it.

  2. seanossu says:

    Its funny how so many academic books are written on Eastern Philosophy, when the the main sects require the practitioner to shut their mind off and open their heart (although they are seen as one)

    Committing ideas to paper is essential, but ironic at the same time.

    • Hi Seanossu. Thank’s for commenting. For some reason, my reply got lost. I only noticed it just now. Please excuse me! I’ll just repeat what I thought I’d said yesterday:

      I also find that ironic. And I really like the use of the word ‘hsin’ for both mind and heart!

  3. Looks like you just added to my reading list 🙂

  4. I think meditation (and practices like it) give us the insights, but knowledge helps us articulate them.

    I don’t think a person can function IN MODERN SOCIETY without the knowledge factor. If we decide with a high degree of certainty that it’s lights out after death, refuse to accept the way things are and yet decline suicide — then this makes sense.

    • Without trying to sound overly dramatic, that is exactly how I feel. That’s why I really need my sense of humour. 😉

      I agree with you about the knowledge. Maybe the question is how little we need to get by in modern society. For example, I trained as a nurse. You need to have some knowledge about psychology, diseases, hygiene and things like that. However, nowadays, they have designed protocols for everything. I think protocol often stands between me and the patient, or stands between me and seeing what’s going on. So knowledge without awareness is not always a good thing.

      • It always comes back to balance, doesn’t it? We need both. But, a balancing act is stressful!!! When you’re not literally dealing with one tightrope and two feet.

        I think you hit in your first paragraph. Humor. We need humor in this world, and we need a lot of it.

  5. miltownkid says:

    I still like reading too. 🙂 What’s funny to me to is Adam clearly stated that meditation is NOT the key either, but it should be done religiously. From what I’ve put together from science, experience and knowledge gained through books and asking questions, “enlightenment” seems to be permanently breaking the barrier between I and everything else. Breaking it in a way that doesn’t cause one to flip out or experience anything particularly special.

    Science could do a lot more to enhance the understanding of enlightenment, but it has offered some insight. Something I recently drew from the book “The Happiness Hypothesis” is that the scientists have measured brains of people experiencing that “oneness” feeling. I can’t remember the exact science of it, but it had something to do with areas of the brain in charge of actively monitoring the difference between what is “you” and what is “everything else” kind of dancing together.

    The sitting and walking meditations from Theravada Buddhism seem to exercise that experience first with learning to control the mind. Then exercising the focus and finally taking that exercised focused awareness with you everywhere you go.

    It seems to me like many people get attached to the idea of “thinking won’t get you there” in order to enjoying “living in the present moment” like it is an actual exercise. What really sold me on Buddhism (and believe this ideas persists in all forms of it) is looking at the mind like another sense. A sense that not only receives input from all the other senses, but from itself as well. Trying to sit and “no do” is extremely difficult! The mind always has something for “you” to do, even sitting and not doing will be doing for a long time before one is actually able to not do not doing. This quote summed things up nicely:

    “Detachment is a state, it is not a totalisation of achieved indifferences.”

    Being “detached” is a concept Adam spoke of regularly. While Daoism has been good training for “going with the flow” it has been rather lacking in the field of detachment. I think once my meditative practices get to the point where I can take them with me in daily living, the Daoist “go with the flow” skill I’ve cultivated will be useful.

    Sorry about writing a blog post as a comment! lol

    • On the contrary! Thanks for taking the time to write a post 🙂 It’s very interesting. I think it’s very relevant and clear.

      I see what you mean about the mind being like any other sense. I really like that idea, too. Before, I used to find my thoughts a lot more important. Now, I often see them just as input, like the input from eyes, ears and nose.

      What you describe about getting attached to living in the present moment is also very interesting. I have met a lot of people who practice mindfulness. For them, breaking down the barrier doesn’t seem to be an object. In zen, people will tell you not to get attached to enlightenment, but that is probably because that’s what we’re all looking for. 😉

      I think Wei Wu Wei might be different in his approach because he says it’s about both. To go with the flow of everyday life in a skilful way and to have broken the barrier. Permanently, as you describe it. I’ll follow your blog with interest to see what happens next.

  6. john zande says:

    What does that mean, “opposed to trying to understand things by intellectual means.” I like the sentiment, but I’m a little confused as to how deep the idea runs.

    • I think the philosophy makes a difference between a dualist world (I and other, a thing existing separately from other thing etc.) and something that’s called pure Mind. The first one is our relative, everyday world. The second one is a means to see what’s going on underneath that everyday world. According to writers like Wei Wu Wei, this absolute is there all the time, however, we are predisposed to look the other way.
      Because it cannot be described by conceptual thinking, it seems almost impossible to know this absolute by intellectual means. And as soon as we try to describe it, we subtract from it. For instance, saying it is light would mean it’s not dark. When in reality pure Mind has no attributes at all. In fact, even our everyday world is an integral part of it. We just cannot see that.

      The thing about the intellectual, I think, is that we think there is something there. People always say you should be meditating without working towards a goal. I agree with that, but to find the time to do it one needs to believe in something. I am looking into all this because I want to know if the theory is correct. I want to know if there is an absolute to be perceived. But I cannot take someone’s word for it. I will only feel I know something when I’ve seen it.

      • David Yerle says:

        Another question that bugs me is how much of what you perceive is actually suggestion. When I started doing meditation I would sometimes feel as if I was one with everything, as if there really was no separation between me and the world. But I am really not sure if what I felt corresponded to a real experience or something that I made myself feel because I knew that’s what I was supposed to feel. Or maybe I did feel it, but it was just a mental state, a mental trick, nothing transcendent: just the pinnacle of mind control. I guess bloggingisaresponsibility will say it doesn’t matter but, unfortunately for me, I still care about truth more than about happiness. And I want to know: am I seeing reality? Or am I just deluding myself?
        What I mean is, taking your last sentence: “I will only feel I know something when I’ve seen it.” Even if you’ve seen it, have your really seen it? How can we be sure?
        This worries me quite a bit.

        • I think you make an important point. Even from a psychological viewpoint, if we imagine something the brain seems to react in exactly the same way as if we perceive it. (If the MRI is to believed).
          With meditation and reality, it’s even more complex. When I wrote that line, I had the same thoughts as you…I might not feel certain, even when I see it.

          One thing I do know is that you can have the feeling of no-separation in meditation. People who practice zen sometimes make a difference between kensho and satori. The buddha would have experienced satori. He could see the absolute all the time. (I feel clumsy using these words). Kensho is often experienced by meditators and is described as a flash of lightning, a sudden insight, that can linger but does go away again. Sometimes you might feel something while meditating and as soon as you think: “This is it!” or “Is that it?” it goes away again.

          I think some mystics from other traditions are looking for this one-ness as the ultimate goal.

          In your case, if I might speculate, I think you have a lot of brain power and a knack for mind control. (This is actually very rare). I would not at all be surprised for you to have the experiences you describe, the no-separation and the emptiness you described earlier, relatively soon.

          Bloggingisaresponsibility would be right in saying it doesn’t matter. 🙂 And any teacher would tell you not to get attached to these experiences, not to look at them as anything mystical happening and not to try and reproduce them. Just go on with the meditation.

          As Huang Po described it, first a tree is just a tree, than a tree becomes empty, then a tree becomes just a tree again. What we’re looking for is the third option, ultimately. Sorry for sounding so oblique. But it’s about this state when the tree is a tree again, but with an earth shattering difference! (That still feels pretty normal.) 😉

          I really hope you find a teacher once you get to Europe, btw. Be sure to find a good one, though!

          • David Yerle says:

            I guess I’m just frustrated by something I cannot readily understand in an intellectual way, which I can do with a lot of other stuff. It just sucks that there seems to be no short-cut and it also bothers me: what if I dedicate one hour everyday to this and it doesn’t work? What a waste! So I’m really curious and at the same time reluctant.
            I guess I do need a good teacher. Where do I find one and how I know they’re a good teacher, that’s another question…

            • If there was an intellectual way to ‘get there’ or a certain way to get results after xx hours of practice, I would pursue that. Still, there’s a lot to be gained from meditation in a practical way. And since you’re looking for answers, you will continue anyway. 😉

      • john zande says:

        Seen it AND felt it.

        Years ago i dived into the eastern mystics and the greatest problem i found was the intangibility of the teachings/objectives. It’s a wonderful concept, harmony is such a beautiful word, but the practicalities eluded me. Are you fairing any better?

        • No, I don’t think I’m faring any better. It doesn’t make any difference if you read a hundred books about it or heard it yesterday, I think. Though I must admit I also find it funny. Sometimes I think it’s just my brain enjoying a puzzle about something really important like Reality with a capital R. Maybe there’s nothing there to be perceived. But because I’ve always wanted to find the ultimate answer, I have to go on. And it’s not as if there’s anything better to do, is there? 😉

          • john zande says:

            More power to you. I’m hoping one day we can learn that atoms are capable of storing minute beads of information as to what they have been, albeit briefly. Something tangible like that would alleviate a lot of human angst. It’s not reincarnation or even the persistence of the consciousness after death, but it would mean something of us lives on.

            • I’m sure there’s still a lot to be explored in that direction. When I read David Yerle’s more scientific posts, I really wish I could grasp those ideas firsthand by following the maths. We live in interesting times, whichever way you look at it.

  7. A world press photo winner was once asked what shutter speed he had used for the winning photo. He answered: 1/60 of a second plus 30 years experience. When zen masters tell us about doing nothing, there is somewhere the snag that you can’t appreciate doing nothing unless you have done it all. The 1/60th second satori of non-doing needs 30 years of doing as a background. So, like you and other respondents, I continue to investigate with the intellect with the hope that one day I can bathe in non-thinking, even for a split second 🙂

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