An excellent example of this principle is the art of cooking. When one cooks, they may follow a recipe. However, if they find in the middle of the recipe that the dish is cooking too quickly, they may have to exercise flexibility and make adjustments to avoid ruining the dish. They cannot follow the recipe without thought, but must make adjustments as they go along. Flexibility must occur spontaneously and must be integrated into what the situation requires (Fox).
Practicing the Wuwei produces a seamless dance in which the elements are not noticed of their own accord (Fox). When the actions are appropriate to the situation and the proper amount of flexibility is applied, no one will notice the transitions that have taken place. If one turns down the flame on the stove, naturally, as if without effort, no one will notice. However, if one were to choose to follow the recipe and not turn down the stove at the proper moment, the result would be obvious to everyone around. It may result in chaos, with smoke filling the room and the smoke alarm blaring. In this case, applying the right amount of flexibility makes the act of cooking seem effortless.
Different Interpretations of the Wuwei
Now that we address the key concepts contained in the Wuwei and have demonstrated some examples of these principles, it is now necessary to address the topic of translation and the affect that is has on interpretation and application of the principles. Chinese and English are not easily interchangeable. The best way to demonstrate this principle is to examine its affect on meaning using two different translations of the original.
According to the Mitchell translation, Chapter 5 of the Tao Te Ching begins, "The Tao doesn't take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil. The Master doesn't take sides; she welcomes both saints and sinners," (Mitchell, Chapter 5). When one examines the translation of the same work by Lau, it reads, "Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs; the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs," (Lau, Chapter 5). As one can see, these two translations are quite different and speak to the seeker in quite different ways. The meaning of equality in the Dao is the same, but the tone of the translation is quite different.
Differences in choices of translation can have an impact on the interpretation and application of the principles. One word in Chinese can have several difference words of similar or equal meaning. The translator must make a choice regarding the word that is chosen. In this manner, the translator puts a bit of their own personality and worldview into the translation of the work. When we look at the next line of Chapter 5, both translations are similar. The Mitchell translation reads, "The Tao is like a bellows," (Mitchell, Chapter 5). The Lai translation reads, "Is not the space between heaven and earth like a bellows?" (Lau, Chapter 5). Here both translations have similar meaning.
Voice plays an important role in the translation as well. Mitchell chooses to use second person, "Empty your mind of all thoughts, " (Mitchell, Chapter 16). Lau chooses to use first person, speaking as if through their own personal example. Lau translates the same passage, "I do my utmost to attain emptiness, "(Lau, Chapter 16). In this case, Mitchell's translation gives the reader a bit more information about how to achieve a state of emptiness. These differences in translation may be minor, but they significantly impact the ability of the seeker to apply the knowledge in their own lives.
Wuwei and Western Culture
Understanding the principles of the Dao, particularly the principle of Wuwei may be difficult for westerners to grasp. Actionless action is not a principle that is held dear to the divide and conquer western spirit. The idea of choosing to take no action is not a concept that is held dear in a society where "movers and shakers" are revered. However, when one examines the Wuwei more closely, it becomes apparent that simply sitting around and doing nothing is not what the work teaches at all. Rather, the Dao teaches one to do what comes natural to them, to go with the flow. If this means being a mover and a shaker, then that is what it means for that person.
The Dao recognizes a sense of perfection in nature and holds to the principle that when man interferes, they can create chaos. The essence of the Wuwei is knowing when to act and when not to act. One key example of this is when two children are fighting. The action that is "taught" in western society is that the parent must quickly intervene to stop the fighting. However, when one examines this situation from a Daoist perspective, one will find that action is not always necessary. It is highly unlikely that the children will continue to fight forever, even if the parent does not intervene. They will eventually tire, get hungry, or get bored with this activity. Eventually, if the parent does not intervene, the conflict will stop on its own.
Sometimes when the parent intervenes, it creates more chaos and the children will quickly resume fighting. At times the parent may consciously choose action to prevent physical or emotional harm to one of the children. However, when a parent hears a fight, their automatic reaction is to intervene, even if it is a minor squabble. Often this form of intervention is in the form of absolute control such as threats or demands.
In the western mind, to simply sit back and let the argument run its course does not even enter one's mind. There is a feeling that one needs to "do something." This example illustrates the difference between Eastern and Western thought. The way of the Wuwei means to examine all of one's options, even the one of inaction and simply allowing the flow of the Dao to resolve the problem. Another choice is recognize the situation, not as a conflict, but as the flow of energy.
Applying the principles of Wuwei means making conscious decisions about the actions that one takes and the amount of flexibility that is needed in the action. Living in accordance with the Wuwei means living a life that flows easily from one event to another. The Wuwei teaches us that we do not have to be in control. In fact, it teaches us that we are not in control at all, but that we are riding the river of life and that it will take us on a journey if we only choose to travel the path of least resistance.
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