The True Meaning Of Wu Wei & The 3 Treasures Of The Tao


Some assume that the Tao Te Ching recognizes no value in offensive maneuvers, that it’s all about passivity and bending around the offensive moves of others.  Actually, the Tao Te Ching offers plenty of advice for the actively engaged…

To be successful, the Tao Te Ching stresses that one must maintain awareness and concentration. One should NOT focus on failure; that would lead to more failure, for “those who follow loss are with loss.” One must not grow complacent in the task or grow cocky and underestimate its difficulty, even if it begins to feel routine. “One who sees many easy tasks must encounter much difficulty.” Whereas “sages regard things as difficult, so they never encounter difficulties all through life.

One must not lose concentration even as the work wears on, for people “often come close to completion and fail. If they were as careful in the end as the beginning, then they would have no failure.” […] “There is no greater disaster than to underestimate the enemy.”

While striving toward our goals, we should always endeavor to enjoy the process and not let ourselves be attached to outcomes. This is known as “wu wei“– one of the more famous concepts contained within the Tao Te Ching. In a stunning revelation, translator Derek Lin asserts that previous translators of the Tao Te Ching got it wrong and that “wu wei” does NOT mean, as it has long been translated, “non-action,” but instead means “detached action.

This… changes… everything.

When the central counsel of the Tao Te Ching is changed from “non-action” to “detached action,” its whole philosophy turns on its head. I can get behind “detached action.” I always rejected “non-action,” so it kept me at arms’ length from the Tao. And to think– this was due to a mistranslation!

“The benefits of actions without attachment are rarely matched in the world,” writes Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching. “With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do.”

We must not lunge and struggle after things in this life for “the one who grasps will lose.” Instead, we should calmly, and step-by-step, glide toward our purpose.

To be an active agent in the world does not mean one has to be aggressive. “Such methods tend to be returned,” says the Tao Te Ching, for “after settling a great dispute, there must be remaining resentments.”

On the defensive side of the things, one of the Tao Te Ching’s main pieces of advice is that we should never give Evil a handle. For those well-practiced in the Tao, “tigers have no-where to clasp their claws”– Because Taoists “do not contend, the world cannot contend with them.”

But perhaps the advice given most repeatedly in the Tao Te Ching is that, even as we attempt to achieve our aspirations, we must remain in a state of fluid receptivity.

“A strong tree will be cut down” […] But we can “yield and remain whole.” This is where Lao Tzu is coming from when instructs, “bend and remain straight.” He also counsels us to be “the watercourse of the world” for “water greatly benefits myriad things without contention.” In this way, one can “take the world by constantly applying non-interference.”

Says the Tao Te Ching… “All living things, grass and trees, while alive, are soft and supple, when dead, become dry and brittle. Thus that which is hard and stiff is the follower of death, that which is soft and yielding is the follower of life.”

Returning to the tree metaphor, when one considers how the trunk is shaped and how the branches are arranged, we can see that, “the big and forceful occupy a lowly position while the soft and pliant occupy a higher place.”

Lao Tzu lists The Three Treasures Of The Tao as: 1) Compassion, 2) Non-Wastefulness, and 3) Humility. Of these, the last one can sometimes be the most difficult, since the ego is so difficult to tame. This is why The Tao Te Ching declares that “the greatest misfortune is the Self.”

Lao Tzu sums-up the right-lived life in this way… “Dwelling at the right place, heart with great depth, giving with great kindness, words with great integrity, governing with great administration, handling with great capability, moving with great timing.”


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