An aesthetic theory of the Tao

Taoism can show us a perspective that embraces the natural world and appreciates all the particulars within it. In the American Philosophical Quarterly (Vol.21, 1984: 291), J.Baird Callicott says that “the most important philosophical task for environmental ethics is the development of a non-anthropomorphic value theory.” The reality of Tao is found within the world, not beyond it. It is the wholeness of the world, and does not necessarily value the social over the natural. Within the tao all is seen as natural, and each thing reveals a particular virtue (te) of the tao.

The tao is described or alluded to in various ways by Lao Tzu. He uses many images from the natural world, and the tao can be thought of as describing the natural world or the natural law of things. We can understand the tao as the fundamental principle of harmony or the creative law of existence, and we can look to nature in order to understand what that is. We can also under- stand the tao as the whole or unity of existence, and we can respect the particulars of this wholeness as constituting the tao.

I will be presenting an aesthetic theory of the tao, which views the tao from the perspective of its te. In this aesthetic theory the tao is inseparable from the `te’ of its being, and the creativity of tao is built upon and transformed organically by te and its activity of wu-wei.

For Lao Tzu, “tao is the basic reality, the source and foundation of as well as the model for all other realities” (Wu 167). Lao Tzu not only attempts a description of the [indescrib able] tao, but he also reveals a prescription or way to follow the tao. This way is known as the way of the sage, but it is not beyond the abilities of any natural being. The “way” of the sage is actually identical or symmetrical to the “Way,” meaning the tao. The tao is the natural way of things, and it is the unity of these natural things.

Likewise, the sage, who has emptied himself so spontaneously reveals the naturalness of his being, is identical to the tao and embraces the tao into all actions. The tao and the sage are as one nature. The sage embraces and appreciates all things and does not contend with them for selfish reward. The sage is coopera- tive, but self-creative at the same time, because his being is fully in the tao, and his actions spontaneously integrate with the tao of others and of the natural environment. This way of the sage is best known as `wu-wei’, effortless action, and it is a way that all beings can practice, since it is actually the spontaneous activity of one’s natural virtue (te). The tao, the te, and wu-wei are inseparably related, which I will show throughout this essay.

Unity of the Tao

The tao effortlessly and without any ulterior motive provides what we need, but without imposing itself upon us. It sustains us all, but does not try to overpower us. As it says in the Tao Te Ching, “All things rely on it [tao] for life, and it does not refuse them. It achieves without possessing. It clothes and feeds all things, without being their master” (34). This is a good description of the natural world we live in. The earth sustains us, providing the resources for our survival and creative growth; yet, the earth does not dictate how we use its resources.

Of course, we are recently learning about the environmental parameters of a sustainable earth, that is how we must live in respect of the limits of our planet; but still, there is tremendous freedom in what we do and how we create within these limits.

The tao sustains our creative freedom. It nurtures us, without over-imposing restrictions or courses of action.

Tao is the way of nature. In effect, it is a word that implies a “way” that things are, and to follow the tao is to follow the natural “way of things.” Tao could be thought of as the naturalness of things, the natural inheritance or disposition behind all things and events. There is a recognition and acceptance here of the natural spontaneity of the world. The world is accepted for what it is, not because it is morally or spiritually right in contrast to what is not, but simply because it is what it is and could be nothing else. I think it is important to understand this Taoist way of perceiving the world, vs. our own western way.

There is no Prime Mover or transcendental power that creates life or alters the course of things. There is only natural law, and all things follow the course of their inherent nature. All things can only “obey” their internal nature. All things are in harmony, not because they try to live in harmony, but because they spontaneously act in harmony. Thus, the harmonious order of life is inherent in the nature of life itself, not an order imposed by some transcendental power.

There is no transcendental, moralistic perspective that judges the world. Likewise, the Taoist does not judge the world or place perceptions into dualistic categories of good and evil, right or wrong. Instead, the Taoist perceives the world without this dualistic filter. He sees all things within one unity, within one harmony, and he sees without prejudice, bias or moral judgment.

The Taoist accepts the world as it is, and things within the world as they are, because he does not believe it can be anything different than what it is. A tree cannot be anything other than a tree, and it is not going to change into another species. And since the world cannot be other than what it is, and “should” not be other than what it is, there is nothing to be done except to accept the world for what it is; and thus harmonize with it. One fully opens to the world as it is, accepting the given nature of things, and in this way the harmony of tao prevails.

Tao can be understood as the unity of existence, and “when this unity is comprehended there is nothing which is not apprehended. But through ignorance of this universal unity (the tao) it is not possible to know any one thing” (Morgan 62). So, through the comprehension of an environmental unity, one can begin to understand the particulars within that unity. The unity, in this sense, is constant because there is always a unity of tao, a unity of the environment; though the actual particulars which constitute the unity are always in flux. Without this realization of tao as unity, one’s actions will reflect the ignorance and illusion of the ego-self as separate from the unity, and one will ignorantly judge things according to one’s own (ego) preferences.

The tao is not waiting to come into being. The unity of the tao is existing here and now, and will always be. If we, as human beings, find ourselves out of order, then all we need to do is return to the tao. The tao always exists, but we lose sight of it and move against the course of its order. Returning to the tao is not a matter of trying to make oneself into something, or trying to force life into the tao. The return is not through this kind of objective effort. It is through a surrendering, a weakening, and an allowing of the tao to be as it is. One must let things be as they are within the tao and allow oneself to act naturally within it.

 The Tao of Yielding

Yi Wu says that weakness is one of the primary attributes of the tao, and thus of the sage who follows the tao. There are four interwoven strands in the concept of weakness, according to Wu (Yi Wu xxix). The first is knowing contentment, which would be an acceptance of the natural environment for what it is without needing to alter it for ideal or selfish purposes. Contentment dissolves ambition and greed, because one is satisfied by what naturally is. By being content with the natural world we would not only be accepting its existing wisdom and harmony, but we would also yield to and cooperate with it.

The second strand of weakness is not displaying one’s abilities. Again, this denotes a non-ambitious attitude, which does not attempt to achieve success for the inflation of the ego-pride. Human beings often seek to assert themselves in order to feel special or better than others, but if this ego-impulse is negated, then the environment will not have to be victim to human actions intending to promote the separate ego-self at the expense of the environment.

The third strand is acting through non-action. Non-action, according to Wu, “does not mean doing nothing. Non-action, on the surface, seems weak because it does not use force; actually, it solves problems effortlessly” (Yi Wu xxxi). This non-action (wu-wei) is really action without ulterior, self-motivated purpose. It is action without a self-motive or calculated goal in mind. The calculating mind makes every action into a good or bad means for achieving some planned end. But this non-action (wu-wei) does not calculate or judge or try to achieve something. It just acts out of a natural spontaneity in response to the environment of which one has fully embraced as oneself. It is effortless action, because it is completely in the flow of actions within the environment, so it does not contend with or interfere with the environment. Since there is no ego-self and no calculating ego-goal involved, one’s actions spontaneously and effortlessly harmonize with the flow of the environment.

The fourth strand is achieving through reversal. This means that weakness, as the reversal of strength, is actually a means to strength and achievement. The sage will achieve and be strong, but not from trying. The sage achieves through non-action, or effortless, “non-trying” action. The actual reversal is a reversal of attitude and concern. The sage reverses the usual concern for the ego-self, reverses the interior-directed self-concern, and shifts the concern to the exterior world of others. So, the direction of attention and motive is reversed from oneself to the environment. My will to achievement is reversed to the environment’s achievement, and my strength is reversed to strengthening the environment. This is a reversal within the usual self/others dichotomy, because the sage reverses his identity as self to others, and thus realizes himself to be the whole of others.

Weakness is not an end “but a method that leads to real strength” (Yi Wu xxix). It is common for Lao Tzu to show how a method or attitude leads to its opposite, and weakness is the prime example of this. For the sage-ruler and the military general he suggests a non-aggressive, non-contending approach that does not try to over-power, become strong, or achieve success. Of course, these suggestions are entirely opposite to the usual methods of governing and military tactic. But, as Lao Tzu says, “The soft and the weak win over the hard and the strong” (36), and “the sage, never doing anything for greatness, is able to achieve greatness” (63). Lao Tzu still implies an end which wins and is “able to achieve greatness,” so he actually lures the student with the goal of power and achievement, but because the method to this goal is its opposite the student is forced into a non-competitive, yielding action.

So, strength, success and greatness are finally achieved through the process of negating these ends for oneself. In terms of human interaction with the natural environment, these attitudes and methods diminish the assertive power of the ego-self or will.

The human being does not contend with or struggle against the environment, nor does he attempt to be stronger than the environment. Also, the human being does not contend with or exploit the environment, because he is empty of ego-self, he is without concept of self as divided off from the whole, so there is only the whole (tao) as the reality of being. The sage yields to and serves this whole-self reality, without any intentions to be stronger over others or achieve something for the ego-self (since it doesn’t exist). The whole (environment) is primary in value, so one spontaneously yields to and nurtures the well-being of the whole. One cooperatively responds to the needs of the whole, as if this were oneself -- which it is.

One of Lao Tzu’s favorite images of the tao taken from nature is water. Water is an excellent example of weakness and strength, because “Nothing in the world is softer or weaker than water, but those who attack the hard and strong cannot conquer it, because nothing can change it. The weak wins over the strong, the soft wins over the tough” (78). The property of water is weakness, in that it is always receptive, yielding and adapting. Yet, it also has an inherent strength, in that it tenaciously flows toward the least resistant and it persistently breaks down the barriers to its course. Water is an example for the sage, because “The supreme good [man] is like water. Water is good at benefiting all things but does not compete with them” (8).

The tao is always reversing opposites. This is because the tao includes all opposites within it. The opposite exists within its opposite, so all action is constantly reversing. The tao could be seen as an equilibrium of opposites, or that which embraces all opposites. If something goes to an extreme, it soon finds itself at the opposite end of its intention. This is part of the all-embracing principle of the tao, that nothing can venture far away from its opposite. By the nature of things all actions eventually find their opposite within them, because the tao, as the whole of being, is within all things. So, as one goes to an extreme, moving away from the opposite of that intention, one soon finds that opposite within the action. In fact, the opposites or extremes are merely the complimentary poles to each other, and they both exist within the tao. Thus, the tao cannot be ultimately avoided. In whatever direction one goes, there will be the tao, the wholeness of being incorporating all apparent opposites.

In recognition of this principle, the sage will embrace the opposites by incorporating the opposite into whatever he does. In other words, the sage moves toward the opposite, since this is where he will end up anyways, so he is always returning to the Way, which is an embracing of the opposites. “The sage embraces oneness to become the pattern for the world” (22). He harmonizes with what is ultimately his destiny. We all experience the opposites of self and other, but in the tao this division is only apparent, because the self and other are fundamentally interrelated and ontologically necessary to each other. The sage will attend to the opposite, which is the environment, because this is the return to the wholeness of the tao. It is the embracing of the opposite.

Lao Tzu offers certain images for becoming like the tao. The tao is like a valley, so the sage is like a valley in relationship to his environment. He is primarily receptive and open to what comes down. He embraces all the elements of life and is nurturing to those around him. He is fertile ground for the growth of others. This is the selfless nature of the tao and the sage. He does not stand out like a mountain and proclaim his pride and abilities. He does not try to control others for his own ends, but selflessly gives to the environment around him. His assertiveness is in retreat, and his striving is in the service of others. Like a valley, he is settled in the lowest position, and therefore cannot be knocked down. One is content and settles for what is given, while indiscriminately nurturing life, and “Being the valley of the world, one’s constant virtue (te) is complete; one returns to simplicity” (28).

This return to simplicity is a return to the “uncarved block” in Lao Tzu’s imagery. The uncarved block is the natural state of being before any cultural or conditioned identity, before any habits of social behavior or propriety. It is the return to the innocent natural state, where one’s true nature (te) can spontaneously act in harmony with the tao. It is a return to a natural, spontaneous harmony with all things, because as one abandons the conditioned identities and behaviors, only one’s te and the tao will remain, which are naturally harmonious. Lao Tzu says to “practice emptiness to its ultimate” (16) in order to realize one’s original nature, “and when this occurs one infuses with the ten thousand things and becomes one with them. This interfusion of oneself and the ten thousand things is all-pervading and all-embracing. In this state one is selfless... [and] in the realm of non-being” (Chung-yuan 127).

The return to the uncarved block is like a return to natural infancy. Such a person “has no conscious preferences, no desire to master, no interest in being anything other than what he is for the moment. Like an infant, who functions through its symbiotic relationship with its mother, he takes for granted that his environment is essential to himself and has no `I’, or ego, or personality separating himself from the things around him” (Wu 172).

It says in Lao Tzu that “one who has an abundance of virtue (te) is like a newborn baby” (55). This relates `te’ to an emptiness of mind or no-knowledge. The fullest cultivation of te comes with the emptying of the conditioned mind and thus the emergence of the “uncarved block” or the original nature. The infant has yet to distinguish itself from the environment, so there is no feeling of separation from the tao. In this state, the te spontaneously emerges from non-being to being. The unity of existence and the interrelationship of nature shines through the infant mind which is unclouded by cultural judgments and a separatist identity.

The Aesthetic Order

According to Roger Ames, most commentators on Taoism have invoked a logical conception of order, rather than an aesthetic order. The tao is compared to the absolute laws of nature that transcend the actual entities and events of the world. Tao is sometimes compared to the Lord of all things, or to Plato’s Ideal Good to which we ought aspire. It is seen as the unconditioned absolute reality transcending the world of particulars. Needham interprets the tao as the order of nature, “which brought all things into existence and governs their action,” but he also points out that Chinese minds “were extremely loath to separate the One from the Many or the spiritual from the material. Organic naturalism was their philosophia perennis” (Needham 37).

In antithesis to a logical order of tao or nature, Ames proposes an aesthetic order -- the difference consisting of “the primacy of the abstract [unity] in the logical construction as opposed to the primacy of the concrete particular in the aesthetic composition” (Ames 116). The notion of a “logical construction” has certain features that oppose an “aesthetic composition.” The logical begins with a preassigned pattern of relatedness, a blueprint wherein unity is prior to plurality; while the aesthetic begins with the uniqueness of each particular which collaborates with other particulars into an emergent complex pattern of relatedness. The logical recognizes particulars only to the extent that they are needed in the preassigned pattern; while the aesthetic recognizes the inherent value of each particular from the unique perspective of that particular, as each particular contributes to the making of the overall pattern. The logical limits the value of creativity to conformity, and “rightness” in this context refers to the degree of conformity to the preassigned pattern; while the aesthetic creativity is fundamentally anarchic and free within its related contingencies, and “rightness” in this context refers to the degree to which the particular fully discloses itself.

Thus, in contrast to the logical, the aesthetic finds its unity in the unique order of the particulars, and the unity is not a pre-existing pattern that particulars must conform to. Ames says, “the organization and order of existence emerges out of the spontaneous arrangement of the participants” (Ames 117). As in any art piece, the order is found in the unique organization of the various elements, and each element is necessary to the whole pattern or order. The order is inductively found, not deductively assigned. This reversal of the western ontological hierarchy sees the unity as organically derived rather than deterministically imposed. It matches well with the concept of the tao as not imposing itself and being empty of determinacy. The tao of relatedness is not a preassigned pattern that we must conform to, but it is the harmonious composition of the natural spontaneity of things. Harmony is thus inherent in the interrelatedness of all natural things, instead of a pattern imposed upon things, and the world is defined according to the particulars, not according to an abstract unity.

In the classical dualism of Greek and Christian thought the creative source does not require reference to the creation for explanation, because this source is seen as radically independent of and determining of the creation. In this classical paradigm the tendency is to divide the divine from the natural, the cause from the effect, and the abstract from the concrete. But in Taoistic thinking, “each particular is a consequence of every other, such that there is no contradiction in saying that each particular is both self-determinate and determined by every other particular” (Ames 120). Each `foci’ is self-evidencing (tzu-jan), as well as being intrinsically related to each other. The ontological dualism breaks apart, because the tao, as ultimate non-being/being, is fully immanent and at-work in the world of particulars, and it reveals itself not by abstraction but through each particular virtue (te).

Ames’ alternative understanding of the tao as the aesthetic order of nature, the self-evidencing or self-disclosure of harmony achieved by particulars, provides us not so much with an ethic as with an ethos. This ethos is “the expression of the character or disposition of an integrated natural environment that conduces most fully to the expression of the integrity of its constituent particulars” (Ames 135). The integrated natural environment is caused by the self-disclosure of the particulars, and not by a transcending power or pre-existing pattern of harmony.

Thus, each particular must be respected as partly causing the integrity and beauty of the whole and of those particulars within it. The things, forms and events of the world are valued for themselves, not just in terms of the function they play in a greater purpose or logical order. In this aesthetic order, all life must be valued for its interrelationship with all else. In a logical order any particular can be replaced with something of a similar function, because each is only valued in terms of the abstract purpose or role that it plays in that purpose. A transcending power or logical order can always re-create what is destroyed because it is the creator of things, and it does not necessarily need certain particulars because its unity is already pre-existing. But in the aesthetic order nothing can really be replaced or re-created, because each is fundamentally unique and has come into being due to the complex, interrelated elements of its environment. Here, the unity does not exist independently of the particulars.

Creation does not come forth from nothing, nor does order. Each particular within the whole of creation has come into being through an integrated process of self-disclosure within unique contingencies of the environment. This process and this becoming can never be duplicated or replaced by anything. And the order of the world is not some fixed pattern, but is ever-changing and transforming according to the collaboration of the intrinsically related particulars. The tao can then be understood as the emerging pattern of relatedness (vs. a pre-fixed pattern) perceived from the perspectives of the participants (vs. from one almighty, absolute perspective).

According to Chang Chung-yuan, the tao is fundamentally creative, since the tao brings forth all things. This is not a static creativity. It is not a creativity that occurred only “in the beginning,” or is to be in some “future golden age,” but instead it is on-going and forever fertile. The tao is creatively dynamic and self-evidencing newness at every moment. We can see the natural environment, and the social environment as well, as evidencing this creative dynamism and on-going change. The sage must, therefore, continually respond to an ever-changing, new environment, so specific rules of action become obstacles to this needed response of the moment. The essential principle of creativity or tao remains constant to what it is, and unity in itself as abstraction) is eternally constant, for there can never be a moment without a unity of the tao; yet, the actual form, pattern and content of this unity is directly dependent upon its particulars, and it is always transforming. As as Chuang Tzu says (Ch. 17), “The existence of things is like a galloping horse. With every motion it changes. Every second it is transformed.”

The Virtues Of `Te’

The te is the unique virtue or power imparted from the tao and inherent in each particular thing or creature. It might be thought of as the unique divine quality or soul of any particular -- how the tao manifests in each thing. The “tao gives each thing its te.

`Te’ may be translated as virtue, capacity, faculty, or true nature. The te of each being is what makes it distinctly what it is and yet different from all others” (Wu 167). The Te of one being may be different than another, just as the true nature of a fish is to swim, while the true nature of a bird is to fly. Each particular in nature has its own particular te, which is what makes the world of nature diverse. Lao Tzu’s sage is “without a purpose in the sense that he has no self-conscious goal; his behavior and mission in life are determined by his te, which is not his own creation but given to him by tao” (Wu 172).

Te is the power of the tao emerging through each entity in a unique way, which is the unique virtue or quality of that particular aspect of the whole. The tao and the te should not be thought of as two fundamentally distinct things or concepts. The te spontaneously emerges from the tao, and the tao continuously remains within the te. The te is the description of the indescribable tao, and the manifestation of the empty (non-being) tao. The te is the extension of tao, and the tao can only be found in the te. According to David Hall, “the concepts of tao and te form a single notion, tao-te, which is best understood in terms of the relationship of field (tao) and focus (te) ...In a holographic display, each element contains the whole in an adumbrated form; so each thing in accordance with its te contains the totality” (Hall 108). “In the process of creativity each particular retains the potentialities of the unity” (Chung-yuan 71), which means that each particular has within it the tao.

The te is the immanent appearance of the tao, the presencing of the tao in a particular way. The manifestation of this te has its source in the inherent disposition of a particular, and yet its spontaneity is also contingent upon the [environmental] context of that expression. In a sense, the te is the unique, virtuous and harmonious response of the particular to its environment. It is that inherent nature of a creature to spontaneously express the tao. Roger Ames describes the te as a polarity of individuation and integration. He writes, “te, when seen as a particular focus or event in the tao, is a principle of individuation; when seen as a holograph of this underlying harmony, diffusing in all directions in coloration of the whole, it is a principle of integration” (Ames 129). Thus, the te is characterized by the integrity of self-expression and the principle of integration. The self-expression naturally integrates with the environment, since the source of `self’ is interrelated, not separate.

David Hall says that if there were a Taoist ethic “it would likely be something like, `Act in accordance with your te’” (Hall 109). This assumes that the te is harmonious with the te of others, which by previous definition it is, since one’s te “as the particular focus of the totality, always contain within it adumbrations of the alternative [the other’s] te as well. Thus, an implication of the Taoist imperative `Act always in accordance with your te’ is that one would always in some way take into account the te of those one encounters. Another formulation of the imperative, therefore, might be, `Act always in appreciation of the te you encounter’” (Hall 110).

The te of a person is not necessarily separate from the te of another, though it is uniquely manifested in each particularity.

One can extend one’s te to embrace the te of another, and “the person of pervasive te is called chen jen” (Ames 131). The chen jen has diffused the ego-self and embraced the te of the environment. By embracing the te of another, that person can harmonize with the other. The absence of the ego-self opens the sage, the chen jen, to the environment, so that the environment contributes to his being, making him more virtuous and harmonious, and thus he helps transform the environment with that greater virtue.

The chen jen participates in the “transformation of things” (Chuang Tzu) by diffusing and extending himself “to become coextensive with the natural direction of his context. Viewed from the perspective of discriminated particularity, he is transforming something other than himself; from the perspective of his diffusion within his context, he has become a larger focus of what it is that is self-transforming ... To the extent that he embraces the te of the whole within his particularity, he is integrated and efficacious” (Ames 131).

The Tao Te Ching says, “Only the man who values himself for the sake of the world is worthy of being entrusted with the world”(13). This is the man who values his being, not in isolation from the world or for himself alone, but within the context of the world and within the needs of the world. The sage lives and serves life for the sake of the world, not for himself. His identity exists within the context of the world, not in isolation nor separation from it. Thus, he values service, not selfish desire or manipulation, and so he is “worthy of being entrusted with the world” and “relied on by the world.”

We must cultivate the environment not as an “other” or as a means to our ends, but as the integrated context of our being. This cultivation is both a personal responsibility and a necessary contingent to our own well-being and creativity. The human being can only be defined properly as “person-in-environment” (Ames 142). The subject must include the context, just as te cannot be defined without tao. And we cannot merely perceive the environment as a resource for exploitation or a means to our ends, because each particular of the environment contributes to the creative conditions of our own self-actualization. All of nature enriches our experience and creative choices, so we must recognize the intrinsic value and integrity of each particular as contributing to the whole of possible experience. And each particular is also an end in itself, since it is a unique self-disclosure (te) of the tao.


Roger Ames explains, “In the Taoist tradition, which challenged the anthropomorphism of classical Confucian philosophy by going beyond the human world to extend its sphere of concern to all of existence, the activity which integrates the particular te with the tao is described as wu-wei, conventionally rendered `nonaction,’ or tzu-jan, `spontaneity’” (Ames 129). Wu-wei must come from the roots of one’s nature. It is spontaneous. Holmes Welch understands wu-wei to mean non-interference, non-contention, and above all, non-aggressiveness. Wu-wei does not “avoid all action, but rather all hostile, aggressive action (Holmes 33).

It also does not interfere with the needs of others and does not contend with others. To interfere is to interfere with the harmony of the tao, and to contend is to promote contention toward oneself. These attitudes reflect an integrative and cooperative approach to the environment. By being non-interfering, non- contending, and non-aggressive, one respects the environment for what it is. One responds to the environment in a cooperative way.

The assertive ego-self is dissolved, or yields to the needs of the environment. Instead of a power-struggle with the environment, one seeks to nurture and flow with it.

Wu-wei is an emptiness of self, which is the meaning of “non-action.” It is not action from a subject to an object, nor an action with a purposeful intention separate from the environment, so it collapses the usual presumption of a separate ego struggling with an outside environment. Here, the environment is an extension of oneself, not a separate existent. In fact, the environment is the greater whole of oneself so must be valued more than the limited notion of oneself. Thus, the sage manifesting wu-wei yields to the environment, instead of asserting himself against it. He does not interfere or contend with what is in the tao (the whole). He does not aggressively assert himself or produce disharmony in the environment. He does not compete out of greed or ambition for profit. He embraces the whole as himself, so seeks to promote the harmony and well-being of the whole. Thus, the sage is receptive to the environment and responds to it with complete reverence and cooperation.

The integrative aspect of wu-wei is usually overstated and emphasized over the self-disclosing aspect, as in “flowing with the tao” or passively following the dictates of the environment. Yet, wu-wei equally refers to an integrity of action, the disclosure of one’s te, and the particular authoring itself. Thus, wu-wei is evidenced by both its integrity of action and its integration with the environment, and this inseparability of integrity [of te] and integration [with tao] collapses the means/ends distinction, rendering every action as both means and ends. In this way, “personal cultivation [of te] and cultivation of one’s environment [tao] are coextensive” (Ames 142).

Wu-wei is both the integrity of the particular’s self- evidencing and its integration in context. The self-disclosure can only be within the context of its environment, because of its intrinsic relatedness to the environment. The integrity of the self-disclosure promotes the creative transformation of the environment, and the integration provides the extended context for self-creativity. The particular participates in the creativity or ordering of the environment, and the environment helps characterize the particular creativity. Instead of defining a creativity in terms of power-over or manipulation-of, this aesthetic defines creativity in terms of the unique relatedness of particulars with their environment. And wu-wei activity promotes this aesthetic, creative relatedness.

Sung-peng Hsu sees the “assertive will” as the cause of all evil and discordant suffering. The assertive will interferes with the tao. It acts in opposition to the environment and does not take into respect the needs of others. Thus, the non-assertive will is seen to be the essence of wu-wei. Yet, this description does not recognize the unique creativity of wu-wei, or the integrity of self-spontaneity. All beings assert themselves to some degree, and if they do not they are passively determined by the environment of others asserting themselves. I think it is more appropriate to say that a non-cooperative will promotes suffering. A cooperative will can be assertive, but its assertiveness is not merely self-centered. It takes into account the needs of the whole and nurtures the whole in a responsive way.

So, why does man, who is also of the tao, often self-disclose behavior that is uncooperative and inappropriate for the environment? This question can only be answered from a relativistic perspective. Some actions may be less integrative than other alternatives, but this does not mean that there is a complete absence of wu-wei, anymore than there could be a complete absence of te. Some amount of wu-wei must be occurring, because no being could fully avoid the natural integrity (te) of itself nor the realities of its environment (tao).

So, wu-wei activity is a matter of degree, and there could be no absolute perspective of the perfection of one activity over another. Wu-wei can only be known subjectively by the subject and “objectively” by the particulars effected by the action. Wu-wei is not so characterized by “what,” as it is by “how.” It cannot be judged by what it does, though this certainly is a practical and ethical measurement, but ultimately must be known by how it works. It does not have an ideal content, but instead is a way of being and acting in the world, which is best characterized by a spontaneous responsiveness to what is so. Wu-wei is thus an art, a creative responding to the given.

By reversing selfishness and self-interest toward the good of the whole, we return to the tao and live in harmony with it. And by reversing or emptying the conditioned mind, we return to our original natural state from which spontaneous harmony and virtue emerges. The attitude needed for wu-wei is humility and emptiness. One is humble in the face of what is greater than oneself, and empty of a self as separate from the greater environment or tao. In one’s emptiness one can spontaneously act in accordance with the tao, because the true nature of one’s being reflects the tao. As each particular being spontaneously acts according to its internal nature, its actions will consequentially harmonize with the whole of tao or the whole of the environment.  Ethical action is harmonious action within the context of one’s environment. It is accepting the natural ways of the environment and living in accordance with those inherent virtues.

Yet, this ethical action is not so much an intentional morality, or an artificial sacrifice of oneself for the whole, but it is a natural and spontaneous response when one is purely oneself, when one acts from the innocence of one’s true nature (te). Wu-wei is actually the spontaneous activity of te, when the mind is empty of other conditionings and calculating intentions. Wu-wei is spontaneous, which means it is “not mediated by rules or principles” (Hall 109). It does not appeal to any fixed standard or ideal, because the appropriateness of its action is dependent upon the self-evidencing character of the particular and the unique context of its situation.

There is no “perfect” wu-wei action to be followed, because the free self-expression itself is ultimately valued and the contextual world-at-hand is ever-changing. In order to return to the innocence of natural being, one has to abandon propriety, set-rules of conduct and institutionalized morality. One has to abandon all intentional piety and righteousness, leaving all social-form behind. One has to transcend the sense of being a sage, the false sense of humanity, and the craftiness of the calculating mind; instead, the sage embraces simplicity (Ch.19).

What has gotten us in trouble is our limiting self-interest being out of context with the whole. We look after our self- interest, or our cultural interest, but fail to see that this attitude separates us from the rest of the environment and separates us from knowing the [whole] tao. Lao Tzu criticizes the selfish mind and the conditioned mind. The selfish mind does take into consideration the interdependence of all things and the need to nurture the environment as well as ourselves. The conditioned mind perceives the world through a cultural filter which categorizes things into moral opposites. The conditioned mind judges things and circumstances according to a fixed cultural ethic of right and wrong, and thus it imposes limiting concepts upon the all-embracing tao and further separates us from our true, natural spontaneity.

The human being often creates disharmony in the environment due to his assertion of the ego-self without respect of the whole, but this is due to the lack of an all-embracing awareness and knowledge. The mind, because it is limited in its embracing awareness, does not recognize all of the whole as the necessary context of its existence, so it judges and categorizes the various parts of the whole in terms of its own desired order and personal intentions. But if the mind were to fully embrace the whole, which could be seen as its ultimate evolution, then it would recognize the inherent value of the environment and cooperate towards its fulfillment.

So, an awakened mind, or responsive mind, is one which embraces the whole and acts according to the natural spontaneity of being. This spontaneity of action from one’s deepest, natural integrity, along with an embracing of the whole to the greatest extent possible, are the polar foundations of wu-wei -- integrity and integration. To act with wu-wei or not to act with wu-wei is not a distinctly black or white question. The distinction between what is wu-wei and what is not cannot be strictly delineated, because it is a quality of action having relative degrees of deep integrity and full embracing. It is both dependent upon one’s degree of emptiness to allow for spontaneity, and one’s degree of embracing the environment to allow for knowledge of the other.

In conclusion, we are asked in Taoism to return to our original nature, which is the virtue of our te and the reflection of tao. In this emptiness (non-being), the tao (or the te of the tao) comes into being. Integrative creativity emerges from the non-being of self, so the self reflects the Tao’s ontological [spontaneous] emergence from non-being to being. The aesthetic order of tao emerges from the creativity or self-evidencing of particular te. And the true nature of te is both self-evidencing and integrating. This is its activity known as wu-wei. Wu-wei is both spontaneous (effortless) from the te, and it is embracing (weak or yielding to) the te of its environment. In this way, wu-wei becomes the ethos for a harmonious relationship with the environment, a relationship that is both self-disclosing and respectful of the other. The whole of the environment is respected, not just abstractly but in terms of the particulars constituting the whole or unity of tao. Thus, the harmony and creativity of the environment (tao) is appreciated and participated in harmoniously.


Ames, Roger T. “Putting The Te Back Into Taoism.” Nature In Asian Traditions Of Thought. Callicott, J. Baird, ed. Albany: State U.
New York, 1989.

Chung-yuan, Chang. Creativity And Taoism. New York: Harper Row, 1970.

Hall, David L. “On Seeking A Change Of Environment” Nature In Asian Traditions Of Thought. Callicott, J. Baird, ed. Albany: State U.
New York, 1989.

Hsu, Sung-peng. “Lao Tzu’s Conception Of Evil” Philosophy East And West. Vol.26, No.3 (July 1976).

Morgan, Evan. “Introduction” Tao: The Great Luminant - Essays From Huai Nan Tzu. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Needham, Joseph. Science And Civilisation In China, Vol.2.

Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1954.

Wu, Kathleen Johnson. “On Lao Tzu’s Idea Of Self.”  Zygon Vol.16, No.2 (June 1981).

Wu, Yi. The Book Of Lao Tzu (The Tao Te Ching). San Francisco: Great Learning Publishing Co., 1989.
* All quotes from Lao Tzu or the Tao Te Ching come from the above translation and are denoted by chapter in parenthesis.