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Thursday, October 25, 2007

An Easy Way to Understand Wu Wei

Question: Derek, I am having trouble with the concept of wu wei. My friend says it means doing nothing and going with the flow. But my question is, what if the flow won't take me where I want to go? What if my life is headed for disaster? Should I do nothing and let myself move toward destruction? That makes no sense at all!

Answer: Wu wei is often misinterpreted. The easiest way to understand it is to think of surfing. You'll see that wu wei makes a lot of sense - even if you don't know how to surf!

Imagine what you would do if you were surfing. You wouldn't want to fight the wave - that would be foolish and futile. This may be the part where people get the idea that wu wei means going with the flow. They may not understand the other equally important part, that you also wouldn't want to stand motionless and let the wave wipe you out. That wouldn't be smart either.

What you really want to do is ride the wave. Move with it, not against it. Make use of its tremendous power. Exercise skillful control of your body and the surfboard. Remain responsive to surrounding conditions. Anticipate and take advantage of changes. It takes practice, but eventually you get good at it. To the crowd at the beach, your movements seem natural, graceful, and almost effortless.

It is the same with life. You don't want to waste your energy in a useless struggle against the way things already are. At the same time, you also don't want to be a couch potato. People who are apathetic and indifferent won't stay on the surfboard for long.

Ride the wave of life. Move with it, not against it. Make use of its tremendous power. Exercise skillful control of yourself. Remain responsive to surrounding conditions. Anticipate and take advantage of changes. It takes practice, but eventually you get good at it. To other people, your actions and progress in life seem natural, graceful, and almost effortless.

The art of surfing is no different from the Tao of living. This is the true meaning of wu wei.

Note: Ancient Chinese sages did not know anything about surfing, but they understood wu wei perfectly, as Chuang Tzu demonstrated in his story, The Waterfall.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of The Tao of Daily Life

The first in-depth review of The Tao of Daily Life is now online. You can find it at the following location:

Many thanks to Michelle for this great review!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Tao and God 2

Question: Derek, I find your previous blog entry on chapter 4 interesting. When you say the Tao comes before God, and that this idea applies to any concept of God, I get the impression that the Tao is the creator of God, just as God is the creator of the universe. Is this what you mean?

Answer: Not exactly. Oftentimes people think of the Tao as a deity, but that's like assigning "God status" to electricity, gravity, or the Theory of Relativity. The Tao cannot be rigidly defined in that manner. It may be more useful, in the context of this discussion, to think of the Tao as "the way things are." Imagine the following conversation where a young child poses questions to his father, who is religious:

Boy: "Dad, where does that car come from?"

Father: "It comes from the car factory."

Boy: "Where does the factory come from?"

Father: "People built the factory years ago."

Boy: "Where do people come from?"

Father: "Well, God made us in His image."

Boy: "Where does God come from?"

Father: "God has no beginning."

Boy: "Why not?"

Father: "That's just the way God is, son."

The usage of "way" above maps perfectly to Lao Tzu's usage of "Tao" in the last line of chapter 4. Once we understand this, we'll be able to see that ultimately, it is not God at the very beginning of everything. Rather, it is the Tao of God.

This understanding can also take us another step further and enable us to see that Lao Tzu's principle applies just as easily if the father were an atheist. If his explanation involves the Big Bang cosmological model instead of God, we would still ultimately end up with the Tao.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Tao and God

Question: Derek, a while back there was an online discussion about your treatment of chapter 4. Someone asked about your use of "God" in your translation, because the concept of God seemed a bit odd in the context of the Tao. I thought this was a valid question, but the people offering answers could only guess at the reason for your usage. Can you give us your perspective on this issue?

Answer: There may be some confusion because we tend to use the word "God" in a Judeo-Christian sense, but this is not the only possible meaning of the word. Throughout history, the concept of a supreme deity appeared independently all over the world, so let us not be hasty in our assumptions.

In chapter 4, the original term was di, as in tian di, the Heavenly Emperor. The concept of this deity in Chinese culture predates Lao Tzu by thousands of years. The idea was that just as the earthly Emperor ruled the mortal realm, the Heavenly Emperor ruled the cosmos. Of all the gods from Chinese folklore and mythology, the Heavenly Emperor occupied the foremost position.

With this understanding, we can see the meaning of chapter 4 much more clearly. When Lao Tzu says the image of the Tao must precede God, he is making the point that even the foremost deity of the cosmos must follow certain principles. Creation and evolution make sense. They exhibit an underlying order we can observe. They are comprehensible, at least to some extent, to the human intellect. The fact that this comprehension is possible at all means the Tao must be present. Therefore, Lao Tzu is pointing out the inescapable truth is that the image of the Tao (whatever principles underlie the working of the divine) must already be in place in order to allow for the presence of God.

An interesting aside is that although Lao Tzu was referring to the Heavenly Emperor, his point is equally applicable to any concept of the supreme deity from any culture.