The Paradox of Wu Wei: how do you try not to try?
Contributed by Jen on Monday April 30, 2007 01:51PM
from the Power-Of-Intentions-Holistic-Health dept.
Submission by Jennifer Lundin Ritchie

Wu wei is a state of graceful skill, something akin to ‘being in the zone’. People who can achieve it seem to be able to move with amazing skill; they make it look easy, like they are not even trying. This is how wu wei has come to be known as ‘effortless action’ and ‘non-doing’. Anyone who has tried to be ‘in the zone’ is familiar with the paradox of wu wei: you cannot ‘try’ to get in the zone. The more you try, the worse you get! So the paradox of wu wei is: how do you try not to try? In this article, explore the intricacies of wu wei, read how ancient Chinese and Indian philosophers also struggled with this paradox, and how they proposed to resolve the issue.

The paradox of wu wei has stymied intellectuals and spiritual practitioners for thousands of years. Confucians and Taoists in Warring States China struggled with it. Indian Buddhism had its own paradoxes of non-being and desire even before the birth of Zen. The various philosophical schools all had suggestions on how to resolve this tension. In this article, I will explore the paradox of wu wei, show how it manifests in the Inner and Outer Chapters of the Chuang-tzu*, and then see how it compares and contrasts with the Soto and Rinzai Schools of Zen.

What is wu wei?

Wu wei has been translated by many modern lay readers as ‘no action’ or ‘do not act’, and has therefore been often misunderstood as advocating a lifestyle of doing nothing at all. There are certainly many reasons why this misinterpretation could have arisen. For instance, it could have been due to the large Confucian influence on Chinese society: according to the Analects**, a true king needs only to sit and face south, and his country will run well[1]. It is understandable that people could also erroneously assume the early Taoists who spoke about wu wei in the Tao Te Ching*** believed in simply doing nothing, since they were indeed reclusive primitivists who eschewed societal rules and duties. However, a more sophisticated reader will realize that wu wei translates in both texts as ‘non-action’, which represents something very different than simply doing nothing. Wu wei is a state of being and a way of interacting with the world. A person successful in achieving wu wei is considered to be at one with the Tao, and therefore a perfect enlightened person. Chuang-tzu continued in the tradition of the early Taoists and Confucius by using wu wei as representing a way of acting without conscious personal intention[2]. However, if one considers the concept, one quickly realizes the paradox of it – how exactly does one act without conscious intention?

The paradox of wu wei

Before seeing how the paradox of wu wei manifests in the Chuang-tzu, it is important to elucidate the paradox itself. The early Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, urges followers to “act without acting”[3]. The Tao Te Ching offers a few suggestions on how to do that. The first seems to be a matter of timing: “Act on it before it comes into being; Order it before it turns to chaos.”[4] Second, the Tao Te Ching describes a way of looking at the world without making distinctions: “Serve without concern for affairs. Find flavor in what has no flavor. Regard the small as large, and the few as many, and repay resentment with kindness. Plan for the difficult while it is easy; Act on the large when it is minute… [Do] not strive to do the great”[5]. When a person sees all things as if they were the same in value, he is able to live from a different perspective. Chuang-tzu called this distinction-free perspective ‘Heaven’s viewpoint’. A person who can achieve this viewpoint can move beyond ordinary human reasoning and decision-making, and act without intention or desires - just like the Tao does. The Tao Te Ching also pinpoints desires as something to be eliminated in those in the pursuit of wu wei: “Of sins - none is greater than having things that one desires; […] Of defects - none brings greater sorrow than desire to attain”[6]. It concludes “Therefore the words of the Sage say: I do nothing, and the people of themselves are transformed. I love tranquility, and people of themselves are upright. I am unconcerned with affairs, and the people of themselves become rich. I desire not to desire, and the people of themselves are genuine and simple, like uncarved wood”[7]. Having desires, is, in effect, undesirable. In trying to find a solution to the paradox of how to act without acting, we run into a deeper paradox of wu wei: how does one not desire to desire to act without acting? Again, the Tao Te Ching offers a suggestion: “Those who have heard the Tao decrease day after day. They decrease and decrease, till they get to the point where they do nothing. They do nothing and yet there is nothing left undone”[8]. However, this does not really resolve the problem. As soon as one tries to eliminate one’s desire, one is desiring (to eliminate one’s desire)! In fact, every time a person tries to change anything about themselves, they are first desiring (to change something), then they are using conscious intention (to achieve that change). If the method to achieving wu wei is to eliminate desire and conscious intention, but desiring anything is undesirable, the whole exercise seems impossible. Therefore, at the very heart of the paradox of wu wei is the paradox of ‘trying not to try’. Before trying to solve the issue of ‘trying not to try’, let’s take a look at how the paradox of wu wei manifests in the Chuang-tzu specifically.

Chuang-tzu and wu wei in the Inner Chapters

The term wu wei is not used explicitly very many times in the Inner Chapters. Even when it is, it is not often used to mean ‘non-action’[9]. The chapter where we find the most mention of wu wei as non-action is Chapter 6, “The Great and Venerable Teacher”. However, these seem to be almost in passing, and do not tell us much about what Chuang-tzu’s recommendations are for achieving the state. For example, he gives a description of the Way that has wu wei as one of the its characteristics.

The Way has its reality and its signs but is without action or form. You can hand it down but you cannot receive it; you can get it but you cannot see it. It is its own source, its own root. Before Heaven and earth existed it was there, firm from ancient times. It gave spirituality to the sprits and to God; it gave birth to the Heaven and to earth.[10]

This quotation claims that the Way cannot be learned or ‘obtained’ per se, since it is already at the root of being. Since being one with the Way means having wu wei, this quotation hints that wu wei is also at the root of being, and so wu wei can also not be learned or ‘obtained’ because all things already have it. In the same chapter, Master Ssu, Master Yu, Master Li, and Master Lai have also recognized that wu wei is the root, and yet at the same time, inseparable from the whole[11]. It cannot be gained in birth, obtained in life, or lost in death. This would also imply that wu wei cannot be learned, and therefore is not a ‘goal’ one should try to reach for. Further into the chapter, Tzu-kung went to visit the three sages Master Sang-hu, Meng-tzu Fan, and Master Ch'in-chang, who are ‘one with the Way’ – living wu wei. Here, we get a little more description of what that type of life might be according to Chuang-tzu.

Tzu-kung returned and reported to Confucius what had happened. […] "They pay no attention to proper behavior, disregard their personal appearance and, without so much as changing the expression on their faces, sing in the very presence of the corpse! I can think of no name for them! What sort of men are they?" "Such men as they," said Confucius, "wander beyond the realm; […] Even now they have joined with the Creator as men wander in the single breath of heaven and earth. [… They are] unaware of where they start or finish. Idly they roam beyond the dust or dirt; they wander free and easy in the service of inaction."

The three men are said to have “joined with the Creator” (彼方且與造物者為人 )[13]. While Watson translates 造物者 as “Creator”, it is important to note that 造物 literally means ‘the divine force that created the universe’ and therefore refers to the Dao or the Way. Thus, the three men have “joined with (whatever/whoever is) the divine force that created the universe”. They have embodied the Way. They also “wander free and easy in the service of inaction” (逍遙乎無為之業). The Tao and wu wei seem to be used interchangeably. Another example using the same format is found in Chapter One “Free and Easy Wandering”. Chuang Tzu advises Hui Tzu to act like a sage, and to 彷徨乎無為其側[14]. Chuang-tzu’s most famous example of someone living wu wei is Cook Ding in Chapter Three “The Secret of Caring for Life”. While carving the sacrificial ox, Cook Ding is compared to a dancer and praised for his extraordinary skill. Cook Ding proceeds to tell the king how his perception has grown to the point where he can act in wu wei. He tells the king that the Way “goes beyond skill”[16] by explaining “When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now- now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.” He obviously learned at some point how the ox parts fit together to make the whole ox and the skill of separating them accordingly (as indeed any butcher would), however at some point he found a way beyond skill – a ‘knack’ for butchering the ox that goes beyond knowledge or even conscious intention.

Chuang-tzu and wu wei in the Outer Chapters

Unlike the Inner Chapters, the School of Chuang-tzu Chapters have an abundance of commentary about wu wei, and are filled with examples of how one goes about achieving it. As we might expect from our exposure to wu wei in the Tao Te Ching, the concept of wu wei in the Chuang-tzu is also filled with paradoxes. In Chapter Eighteen, “Perfect Happiness”, the reader is told “I take inaction to be true happiness, but ordinary people think it is a bitter thing. I say: perfect happiness knows no happiness, perfect praise knows no praise. The world can’t decide what is right and what is wrong. And yet inaction can decide this. Perfect happiness, keeping alive – only inaction gets you close to this.”[17] This sounds a lot like the paradoxical comments about virtue, humanity, righteousness, and propriety made by the authors of the Tao Te Ching[18] . In Chapter Nineteen of the Chuang-tzu, “Mastering Life”, we find the secret to non-action is that it is action that is unavoidable:

It may not be worth doing, and yet it cannot be left undone – this is unavoidable. He who wants to avoid doing anything for his body had best abandon the world. By abandoning the world, he can be without entanglements. Being without entanglements, he can be upright and calm. Being upright and calm, he can be born again with others. Being born again, he can come close [to the Way].[19]

The School of Chuang-tzu Chapters also gives us numerous ‘skill stories’ which, like the story of Cook Ding, have men of extraordinary skill explaining how they achieved such heights. What these men have in common is their wu wei manner of accomplishing feats that appear exceedingly difficult if not impossible. They make the ostensibly unattainable seem effortlessly easy, graceful, and naturally beautiful. They are often described as being ‘at one with’ their activity, of having no distinction between self and world or between being and activity. Some claim to have a ‘way’ – a method by which one can attain the same state as they - and others do not. Some go as far to say they have no idea how or why they do what they do.

Of those who claim to have a ‘way’, we find the cicada catcher of Chapter Nineteen and the buckle maker of Chapter Twenty Two. These two stories would seem to suggest that wu wei can be achieved by following their methods, and therefore can be learned and taught:

[1] “I have a way,” said the hunchback. “For the first five or six months I practice balancing two balls on top of each other on the end of the pole, and if they don’t fall off, I know I will lose very few cicadas. Then I balance three balls and, if they don’t fall off, I know I’ll lose only one cicada in ten. Then I balance five balls and, if they don’t fall off, I know it will be as easy as grabbing them with my hand. I hold my body like a stiff tree trunk and use my arm like an old dry limb. […] I’m aware of nothing but cicada wings. Not wavering, not tipping, not letting any of the other ten thousand things take the place of those cicada wings – how can I help but succeed?” Confucius turned to his disciples and said, “He keeps his will undivided and concentrates his spirit – that would serve to describe our hunchback gentleman here, would it not?” [20]

[2] “I have a way. From the time I was twenty I have loved to forge buckles. I never look at other things – if it’s not a buckle, I don’t bother to examine it.” Using this method of deliberately not using other things, he was able over the years to get some use out of it. [21]

Although we are not privy to the exact methods that were used in the training, the cocks in the next tale have been taught how to perfect their virtue. The cocks represent the capabilities of a man as he transforms, step by step, from ordinary living to being one with the Way:

Chi Hsing-tzu was training gamecocks for the king. After ten days the king asked if they were ready. “Not yet. They’re too haughty and rely on their nerve.” Another ten days and the king asked again. “Not yet. They still look around fiercely and are full of spirit.” Another ten days and the king asked again. “They’re close enough. Another cock can crow and they show no sign of change. Look at them from a distance and you’d think they were made of wood. Their virtue is complete. Other cocks won’t dare face them, but will turn and run.” [22]

The stories of those who do not have a way to achieve wu wei are significantly more numerous. These men all seem to just have some kind of ‘knack’, one that cannot be put into words or transmitted adequately to others. The following examples are all from Chapter Nineteen, “Mastering Life”. The talented ferryman tells Yan Yuan that “a person can learn how to handle a boat” [23] , however, he cannot describe how a person would do so. His answers revolved around which type of person will be able to “get the knack of it”, and when pressed for elaboration had nothing to offer. The graceful swimmer in the waterfall is the quintessential example of a mindless, wordless, and unteachable wu wei[24] . The swimmer has no conscious intention or desire; he has no idea why he does what he does. He chalks it all up to fate, since he simply grew naturally and spontaneously from what he was familiar with. Artisan Ch’ui’s story in this chapter echoes this element of the swimmer’s story.

Artisan Ch’ui could draw as true as a compass or a T square because his fingers changed along with things and he didn’t let his mind get in the way. Therefore his Spirit Tower remained unified and unobstructed. […] There is no change in what is inside, no following what is outside, when the adjustment to events is comfortable. You begin with what is comfortable and never experience what is uncomfortable when you know the comfort of forgetting what is comfortable.” [25]

In addition, he goes beyond mere skill because he doesn’t follow “what is outside”, meaning external teachings or methods. In telling us “there was no change in what is inside”, we also know he also does not attempt to achieve or ‘obtain’ any goal state. He is merely expressing what was already there at the root of his being – wu wei. The story of the archer reflects upon this inside/outside distinction as well.

“When you’re betting for tiles in an archery contest, you shoot with skill. When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim. And when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck. Your skill is the same in all three cases – but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind. He who looks too hard at the outside gets clumsy on the inside.” [26]

The archer will be able to optimize his skill by forgetting about externals and simply let his natural skill emerge naturally. This internal source is, of course, wu wei. Woodworker Ch’ing also attributes his ability to carve so well to being one with the Way. He goes as far as to claim he has no personal talent.

Woodworker Ch’ing carved a piece of wood and made a bell stand, and when it was finished everyone who saw it marveled, for it seemed to be the work of gods or spirits. When the marquis of Lu saw it, he asked, “What art is it you have?” Ch’ing replied, “I am only a craftsman – how would I have any art? There is one thing, however. When I am going to make a bell stand, I never let it wear out my energy. I always fast in order to still my mind. When I have fasted for three days, I no longer have any thought of congratulations or rewards, of titles or stipends. When I have fasted for five days, I no longer have any thought of praise or blame, of skill or clumsiness. And when I have fasted for seven days, I am so still that I forget I have four limbs and a form ad body. By that time, the ruler and his court no longer exist for me. My skill is concentrated and all outside distractions fade away. After that, I go into the mountain forest and examine the Heavenly nature of the trees. If I find one of superlative form, and I can see a bell stand there, I put my hand to the job of carving; if not, I let it go. This way I am simply matching up ‘Heaven’ with ‘Heaven’. That’s probably the reason that people wonder if the results were not made by spirits.”[27]

The paradox of wu wei rears its head in this story, as we try to determine if the carver is actually working with a method or not. On the surface, it appears like he has a method, because he says he fasts in preparation. However, it is not clear that he does this as a way of carving better. Instead, it seems this practice makes him forget about carving, and only then does he acieve wu wei After all, Chuang-tzu does advocate that “being still, you will be enlightened; being enlightened, you will be empty; and being empty, you will do nothing, and yet there will be nothing that is not done.” [28]

Solving the paradox of wu wei: What does Chuang-tzu advise?

Now that we see how wu wei manifests in the Chuang-tzu, we can look at how Chuang-tzu suggests we solve the dilemma of inaction – the paradox of ‘trying not to try’. Already we have seen hints of his solutions in the skill stories above, and we will explore those more in-depth in the following sections. Before we do that, we will take a look at some explicit instructions the Chuang-tzu offers on the subject of getting to wu wei.

Earlier, Chuang-tzu advised to “abandon the affairs of the world” [29] . He explained, “By abandoning the world, he can be without entanglements. Being without entanglements, he can be upright and calm. Being upright and calm, he can be born again with others. Being born again, he can come close [to the Way].” He goes on to elaborate: “If you abandon the affairs of the world, your body will be without toil. If you forget life, your vitality will be unimpaired. With your body complete and your vitality made whole again, you may become one with Heaven.” As we have discovered, becoming one with Heaven means you are living in wu wei. He tells the reader to

Wipe out…the six delusions of the will…the six snares of the heart…the six entanglements of virtue…the six roadblocks of the way. When these four sixes no longer seethe within the breast, then you will achieve uprightness; being upright, you will be still; being still, you will be enlightened; being enlightened, you will be empty; and being empty, you will do nothing, and yet there will be nothing that is not done. [30]

He goes on to elaborate specifically about wu wei’s role in action. First he explains action inspired by wu wei: “The inborn nature is the substance of life. The inborn nature in motion is called action… Action which is done because one cannot do otherwise is called virtue. Action in which there is nothing other than self is called good order.”[31] Chuang-tzu makes a point that a person who has wu wei is at one with the Way, and since “[The Way] makes them full and empty without itself filling or emptying; it makes them wither and decay without itself withering or decaying. It establishes root and branch but knows no root and branch itself; it determines when to store up or scatter but knows no storing or scattering itself”[32] , this is also how a wu wei person should act: seeing the difference between acting from the source in a wu wei fashion and acting out of external motivations, but at the same time seeing beyond that duality. He tells us we “must not expect to find the Way in any particular place”[33] . In fact, he tells us that in order to achieve wu wei, we must let go of distinctions entirely: “The ten thousand things differ in principle, but the Way shows no partiality among them, and therefore they may achieve namelessness [i.e. can become one with the nameless Way]. Being nameless, they are without action; without action, yet there is nothing they do not do.” [34]

He entreats us not to strive to learn or to find teachers who can teach us their way, as “knowledge has its limitations…wisdom can be outwitted…Discard little wisdom and great wisdom will become clear. Discard little goodness and goodness will come of itself. The little child leans to speak, though it has no learned teachers – because it lives with those who know how to speak.”[35] This is referring to a wordless teaching, something one gains by spontaneously getting the knack of it, is reminiscent of the sentiments of the swimmer in the waterfall and Artisan Ch’ui. Instead of learning ways and trying to implement them, Chuang-tzu entreats the reader

Why don’t you try wandering with me to the Palace of Not-Even-Anything – identity and concord will be the basis of our discussions and they will never come to an end, never reach exhaustion. Why not join me in inaction, in tranquil quietude, in hushed purity, in harmony and leisure? Already my will is vacant and blank. I go nowhere and don’t know how far I’ve gotten. I go and come back, and I don’t know when the journey is done. I ramble and relax in unbordered vastness; Great Knowledge enters in, and I don’t know where it will end.[36]

Master Pi’en agreed that the previous description suits a person who is one with the Way[37]. He goes on to give an example of what not to do if one wants to be one with the Way: “Now you show off your wisdom in order to astound the ignorant, work at your good conduct in order to distinguish yourself from the disreputable, going around bright and shining as though you were carrying the sun and moon in your hand!” The person in the following quote is far from achieving a state of wu wei. Again, the first fault is acting through externals, for example, using external learning to gain external rewards like fame. Second, the person also makes distinctions: he thinks he is different than others. Finally, he is deluged with desires and conscious intentions to realize these desires. Chuang-tzu rails against using external methods in the following quote: “Those who set about mending the inborn nature through vulgar learning, hoping thereby to return once more to the Beginning; those who set about muddling their desires through vulgar ways of thought, hoping thereby to attain clarity - they may be called blind and benighted people.”[38] Here it seems clear that no amount of learning or practice could lead to achieving wu wei. Lao Tan sums up the position well when Confucius assumes Lao Tan (and all other gentlemen) must have “employ[ed] these perfect teachings in order to cultivate your mind”[39]. Lao Tan is offended, and retorts “Not so!” Lao Tan says, “The murmuring of the water is its natural talent, not something that it does deliberately. The Perfect Man stands in the same relationship in virtue. Without cultivating it, he possesses it to such an extent that things cannot draw away from him. It is as natural as the height of heaven, the depth of the earth, the brightness of the sun and moon. What is there to be cultivated?”[40]

From the previous few quotations, it seems quite clear that Chuang-tzu advocates a certain passive approach to gaining wu wei. However, this is not consistent with the skill stories where the adepts had methods and claimed that attention and practice could result in anyone achieving the same astounding level of skill. The Chuang-tzu’s advice seems to be full of contradiction. In some of the Chuang-tzu’s skill stories there is a ‘way’ that can be taught, and in other stories, there seems to be no ‘way’ and no way to teach it. This leads to two distinct methods offered: in one case, to learn how to do it and then focus on it very intensely until you get it, and in the other case, to disregard it as a legitimate goal worth trying for. In the second case, one achieves it via the ‘back door’, that is, as a by-product of forgetting about it as a goal and just living life well. These methods actually accord with the two schools of Zen we studied, the Rinzai and the Soto.

How does Chuang-tzu’s method compare to Soto and Zen methods?

It is not clear that Zen practitioners had the same concept or definition of wu wei as Chuang-tzu. However, for our purposes we will assume they are close enough to be compared. According to Chad Hanson, Buddhism already held a paradox of non-being long before it encountered the Chuang-tzu. Specifically, “If Nirvana was the opposite of Samsara (the eternal cycle of rebirth or reincarnation) then was it a state of being or of non-being?”[41] It also had its own paradox of desire: “Rebirth was caused by desire and Nirvana could be achieved only by the cessation of desire. That meant that in order to achieve Nirvana, one had to cease to want to achieve it.” The former suits the Taoists’ (and specifically Chuang-tzu’s) paradoxical conception of the Tao, and the latter matches very well with the paradox of wu wei as we have discussed it.

The various Buddhist schools had their own answers to these paradoxes. The ‘sudden enlightenment’ schools decided that enlightenment (or a state of wu wei) could only occur all at once, as an all-or-nothing event, not in incremental steps as the ‘gradual enlightenment’ schools believed. In our course we only studied the Rinzai and Soto sects, so I will limit my discussions to the theories and practices of these two schools. While Soto and Rinzai are both considered to be ‘sudden enlightenment’ schools[42], Rinzai is significantly more sudden than Soto. As such, they differ significantly in their focus and their views on how to reach enlightenment.

The Soto method

The Soto method is represented in the teachings of Dogen and Shunryu Suzuki[43]. The focus is on living an ordinary life. They value stillness, equanimity, and serenity. Extreme emotional highs and lows are considered traps. They do not seek dramatic experiences or awakenings, but rather to fully experience ordinary life as it is. For the Soto sect, enlightenment is not a goal to strive after, because it is considered to exist already at the core of one’s being. They don’t consider enlightenment a matter of getting somewhere or becoming something; one is meant to draw upon the resources of one’s ever-present Buddha nature which is already enlightened, already free and at peace. They consider meditation as a time to appreciate and enjoy one’s already-present Buddha nature. Shunryu Suzuki claimed “We practice zazen to express our true nature, not to attain enlightenment. Bodhidharma’s Buddhism is to be practice, to be enlightenment.” Thus Soto meditation (zazen) practice is certainly not meant to be used as a tool or a means to an end. It is considered an end unto itself, a ‘still point’ in one’s ordinary life. It is just an opportunity to ‘be here now’. One does not concentrate on anything. Shunryu Suzuki advises “Just practice zazen in a certain posture. Do not think about anything. Just remain on your cushion without expecting anything. Then eventually you will resume your own true nature. That is to say, your own true nature resumes itself.”[45]

Clearly, Soto Zen addresses the paradox of wu wei by literally ‘not trying’. They manage to shortcut the problem of ‘trying not to try’ by refusing to admit that enlightenment (wu wei) is a viable goal. Their attitude is that enlightenment cannot be a goal to reach for, since everyone already has it. Since they do not strive to achieve enlightenment, it naturally follows that there is no need to use methods or Way/ways (i.e. to ‘try’) to attain this non-goal: Soto meditation is not a tool, but rather an activity to enjoy for its own sake. One ‘becomes’ meditation, just as one becomes one with all activity. This is remarkably similar to several of Chuang-tzu’s skill stories. The afore-mentioned ferryman and the swimmer in the waterfall had no method to their proficiency in the water[46]. They merely had a ‘knack’- one that they didn’t even know how they got! The swimmer’s comment: “I began with what I was used to, grew up with my nature, and let things come to completion with fate.” also sounds like “you begin with what is comfortable” in the passage about Artisan Ch’ui on page 206. Like the wu wei of Chuang-tzu’s skill stories, the Soto’s state of enlightenment cannot be taught, cannot be transmitted. It can only be lived spontaneously and naturally. It is a result of drawing from one’s inner true nature, which is already enlightened or in a state of wu wei. The Artisan Ch’ui story notes that “there is no change in what is inside, no following what is outside.” The archer story on page also shows Chuang-tzu’s attitude towards methods that use external goals and rewards. It notes how external methods and rewards cause one’s skill to decrease, not increase. Furthermore, the larger and more valuable the external reward, the worse one’s skill becomes. In a Zen context, the “real gold” the archer is shooting for could be seen as ‘enlightenment’, which would make the archer story a nice parallel to Soto criticism of Rinzai methods. The Soto sect would say the archer would be better off if he forgot the external goals/rewards and simply shot for the sake of shooting. He would naturally perform better (and likely get the reward anyway, as a by-product of his superior shooting). Chuang-tzu would agree.

It may appear at this point that Chuang-tzu approaches wu wei exactly as a Soto Zen practitioner would approach enlightenment. Their beliefs about the internal and external, about becoming one with activity, about the impossibility of method transmission, and the futility of ‘trying’ to achieve a state of enlightenment/wu wei are all highlighted here. However, there are still examples of people following very different methods in the Chuang-tzu. Methods that look quite like Rinzai Zen – a Zen quite radically different in focus and methodology than Soto.

The Rinzai method

The Rinzai method is represented by the teachings of Hakuin and D.T. Suzuki[47] . The focus is on overcoming existential angst, personal anguish, trauma, doubt, despair by breaking down the intellect, the ego, personal identity, illusory thinking, desire and attachment. Rinzai followers see enlightenment as an overwhelming, ecstatic state of liberation from the so-called ‘spiritual illnesses’ of ordinary consciousness. Their practice is dramatic, conflict-oriented and crisis-oriented. They believe they can gain enlightenment through a sudden dramatic revolution in consciousness. Heinrich Dumoulin captured the Rinzai philosophy well when he said “Man must undergo a conversion, breakthrough or awakening, in order to become his true self and gain access to what is authentically real.”[48] They use meditation and koans as joint tools or means to gaining enlightenment. They use koans to try to break themselves out of ordinary thinking and treat the solving of a koan as a matter of life-and-death. In their meditation, they practice profound questioning and intensely focused concentration, and cultivate their uncertainty and disquietude to a crisis-point where break-through can occur. They discuss their progressive insights with a master who guides them and gives them new koans to ponder, but often the teacher’s answers also include non-verbal teachings like shouting, kicking, jumping, slapping, which are again geared to shock the student out of their ordinary way of life and into enlightenment.

Rinzai practice is therefore very active, especially compared to the more passive methods of the Soto. In the context of the paradox of wu wei, Rinzai followers ‘try’, and try hard. Enlightenment (wu wei) is seen as goal, something to achieve, and they prescribe very particular methods (ways) of achieving that goal. One must use these methods and try hard to overcome one’s natural way of doing things – that is, transcend ordinary consciousness – in order to gain an enlightened point of view (a state of wu wei). This is quite similar to certain skill stories found in the Chuang-tzu. The previously mentioned cicada catcher is a perfect example of a Rinzai method. He clearly states “I have a way”. He has a definite, teachable method to catching cicadas: anyone who can keep their mind focused on the goal, balance two, three, then five balls on the stick, and hold their body in a certain manner can achieve it. He focuses on cicadas to the exclusion of all else, just like a Rinzai student would focus on a koan. “He keeps his will undivided and concentrates his spirit”. The buckle-maker has a similar method. He also claims “I have a way. [...] I never look at other things – if it’s not a buckle, I don’t bother to examine it.” This intense focus and concentration is a hallmark of Rinzai meditation practice.


The tension between those who believe that a person can train to get wu wei and those who believe it is impossible arises again and again in the Chuang-tzu and is clear in the debates between Rinzai and Soto methods to enlightenment. The Rinzai School claims the only way to get to enlightenment or wu wei is to train hard – to ‘try’ with all one’s focus and effort. The Soto School escapes the quandary by answering it is best to ‘not try’ – to simply reject enlightenment (wu wei) as a viable goal. However, one may be able to get it spontaneously as a by-product of living well, which they define as simply living one’s ordinary life in the present moment with attention to what needs to be done. The Chuang-tzu agrees that it is impossible to teach or study wu wei, and that focusing on other endeavors may result in being able to spontaneously experience wu wei[49]. While the Chuang-tzu contains a couple of elements in the School of Chuang-tzu Chapters that resemble the Rinzai school, there is a larger collection of evidence that Chuang-tzu’s ‘method’ (if I can call it that) to achieve wu wei is much closer to the Soto tradition. Ultimately, the apparent tension between the two approaches to wu wei would probably not trouble Chuang-tzu, since he entreats the reader to look beyond such seemingly binary options, and to simply use whichever method was most suitable for the individual occasion.

End Notes
* The Chuang-tzu is a book by a classical Chinese philosopher of the same name. He lived in the Warring States Era (ca. 479 BCE - 221 BCE). The Inner Chapters (Chapters 1-7) are said to be written by Chuang-tzu himself. The Outer Chapters are written by several groups of people over time. The School of Chuang-tzu were Chuang-tzu's direct disciples and followers. They wrote Chapters 16-27. The copy I used for quotations in this article is a translation by Burton Watson. You can see Watson's translation online at
** The Analects is a book written by Confucius approximately 500BCE. It was considered a classic and studied for thousands of years by all Chinese wishing to be considered educated. The copy I used for quotations in this article was translated by Edward Slingerland. I could not find a copy of Slingerland's translation online, but you can read a translation of the Analects online at
*** The Tao Te Ching is a very poetic volume attributed to the sage Lao-tzu. However, modern scholarship now believes Lao-tzu was a lengendary figure, and the Tao Te Ching was actually written by a number of early Taoists in the Warring States Era (ca. 479 BCE - 221 BCE). The copy I used for quotations in this article was translated by Robert G. Henricks. You can read Henrick's translation online at
1 “The Master said, ‘Is Shun not an example of someone who ruled by means of wu-wei? What did he do? He made himself reverent and took his proper [ritual] position facing South, that is all.’” This has been interpreted by many to mean the king needs to do nothing at all.
Edward Slingerland, trans. 2003. Confucius Analects. IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 175 (Verse 15.5).
2 “The Perfect Man has no self.” Watson. Chuang Tzu, 32.
3 Robert G. Henricks, trans. 1989. Lao-tzu: Tao Te Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wag-tui Texts. NY: Ballantine Books, 32 (Verse 63).
4 Henricks, 33 (Verse 64).
5 Ibid, 32 (Verse 63).
6 Ibid, 15 (Verse 46).
7 Ibid, 26 (Verse 57).
8 Ibid, 17 (Verse 48).
9 An example of how wu wei is otherwise used is: “Do not be an embodier of fame, do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be an undertaker of projects; do not be a proprietor of wisdom.” Watson, 97. 無為名尸,無為謀府;無為事任,無為知主。(.莊子 應帝王  p-0306 )
10 Watson, 81. 夫道,有情有信,無為無形;可傳而不可受,可得而不可見。自本自根,未有天地,自古以固存;神鬼神帝,生天生地;(莊子 大宗師  p-0244)
11 “Master Ssu, Master Yu, Master Li, and Master Lai were all four talking together. ‘Who can look upon nonbeing as his head, on life as his back, and on death as his rump?’ they said. ‘Who knows that life and death, existence and annihilation, are all a single body? I will be his friend!’” Watson, 83-84. 子祀、子輿、子犁、子來四人相與語曰:「孰能以無為首,以生為脊,以死為尻,孰知死生存亡之一體者,吾與之友矣。」(莊子 大宗師  p-0256)
12 Watson, 86.
13 子貢反,以告孔子,曰:「…修行無有,而外其形骸,臨尸而歌,顏色不變,無以命之。彼何人者邪﹖」孔子曰:「彼,遊方之外者也;而丘,遊方之內者也。外內不相及,而丘使女往弔之,丘則陋矣。彼方且與造物者為人,而遊乎天地之一氣。彼以生為附贅縣疣,以死為決_潰癰,夫若然者,又惡知死生先後之所在!假於異物,託於同體;忘其肝膽,遺其耳目;反覆終始,不知端倪;芒然彷徨乎塵垢之外,逍遙乎無為之業。…」(莊子 1大宗師  p-0262)
14 Watson translates this as “relax and do nothing by its side”, however the Chinese wording reveals it could just as easily be translated as ‘walking back and forth not knowing which way to go in a wu wei fashion beside it’. Watson, 35. The context is: “Now you have this big tree and you're distressed because it's useless. Why don't you plant it in Nothing-Even-Anything village, or in the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it?” The Chinese text is: 今子有大樹,患其無用,何不樹之於無何有之鄉,廣莫之野,彷徨乎無為其側,逍遙乎寢臥其下。不夭斤斧,物無害者,無所可用,安所困苦哉!(莊子 逍遙遊  p-0037)
15 “He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music. ‘Ah, this is marvelous!’ said Lord Wen-hui. ‘Imagine skill reaching such heights!’” Watson, 50.
16 This and the next quote are from Watson, 50-51.
17 Ibid, 191.
18 “The highest virtue is not virtuous; therefore it truly has virtue.
The lowest virtue never loses sight of its virtue; therefore it has no true virtue.
The highest virtue takes no action, yet it has no reasons for acting this way;
The highest humanity takes action, yet it has no reasons for acting this way;
The highest righteousness takes action, and it has its reasons for acting this way;
The highest propriety takes action, and when no one responds to it, then it angrily rolls up its sleeves and forces people to comply.” Henricks, 7 (Verse 38).
19 Watson, 197.
20 Ibid, 199-200.
21 Ibid, 244-245.
22 Ibid, 204.
23 Ibid, 200: Yan Yuan said to Confucius, “I once crossed the gulf at Goblet Deeps and the ferryman handled the boat with supernatural skill. I asked him, ‘Can a person learn how to handle a boat?’ and he replied, ‘Certainly. A good swimmer will in no time get the knack of it. And, if a man can swim under water, he may have never have seen a boat before and still he’ll know how to handle it!’ I asked him what he meant by that, but he wouldn’t tell me. May I venture to ask you what it means?” Confucius said, “A good swimmer will in no time get the knack of it – that means he’s forgotten the water. If a man can swim under water, he may never have seen a boat before and still he’ll know how to handle it – that’s because he sees the water as so much dry land, and regards the capsizing of a boat as he would the overturning of a cart…”
24 Ibid, 204-5: “I have no way. I began with what I was used to, grew up with my nature, and let things come to completion with fate. I go under with the swirls and come out with the eddies, following along the way the water goes and never thinking about myself. That is how I can stay afloat. […] I was born on the dry land and felt safe on the dry land – that is what I was used to. I grew up with the water and felt safe in the water – that was my nature. I don’t know why I do what I do – that’s fate.”
25 Ibid, 206.
26 Ibid, 201.
27 Ibid, 205.
28 This and the next two quotes are from Watson, 259.
29 This and the following two quotes are from Watson, 197-8.
30 Ibid, 259.
31 This and the next quote are from Watson, 259.
32 Ibid, 242.
33 Ibid, 241.
34 Ibid, 290.
35 Ibid, 299.
36 Ibid, 241.
37 Master Pien said, “Have you ever heard how the Perfect Man conducts himself? He forgets his liver and gall and thinks no more about his eyes and ears. Vague and aimless, he wanders beyond the dirt and dust; free and easy, tending to nothing is his job. This is what is called ‘doing but not looking for anything, bringing up but not bossing.’ This and the next quote are from Watson, 207.
38 Ibid, 171.
39 Ibid, 226.
40 Ibid, 226.
41 This and the next quote are from Chad Hansen. 2003. “Taoism” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Online at
42 Conrad Hyers. “Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen”, 8.
43 The following summary was drawn from Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” (Ordinary life and emotional drama, 57-58. Enlightenment as true inner nature, 47, 59-61, 114.) as well as Conrad Hyers’ essay “Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen”(Ordinary life & Enlightenment as true inner nature, 10. Emotional drama, 11. Purpose of zazen, 13.)
44 Conrad Hyers. “Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen”, 11.
45 Conrad Hyers. “Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen”, 14, and Shunryu Suzuki, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, 49.
46 Watson. Chuang-tzu, 200 and 205, respectively.
47 The following summary is derived from Conrad Hyers. “Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen”, 9-10, 12-15.
48 Ibid, 10.
49 The endeavors suggested are: learning to look beyond distinctions, ensuring that certain things (like qing, qi, and shen) are on the inside while relegating other things (like desire, knowledge, and attachment to material goods) to the outside, and taking care of what needs to be done in the present moment.

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