Acting with Inaction: The Sage as Water

How does a sage navigate through society without losing the Tao?
How does a sage navigate through society without losing the Tao?

Acting with Inaction can be a difficult concept to grasp if taken literally. That’s why the context in which it is meant is very important; for understanding Acting with Inaction, the context is as important as the concept itself.

“In the World of Men”

That context has a whole chapter dedicated to it in the Zhuangzi, that is, the fourth chapter In the World of Men. There are other interpretations of this concept, and it is widely referred to as “wu wei” rather than “acting with inaction,” but the interpretation that we’ll presume will be that Zhuangzi’s action with inaction is “acting with an empty spirit.” I think it’s admissible to regard Acting with Inaction simply as what is done when you’ve achieved nondistinction, but this simplicity leaves much out, serving more as a memory tool than as a tenet, so I’ll solely consider Acting with Inaction for this post.


The Sage as a “Body of Water”

"Among level things..."
“Among level things…”

My early understanding was that the concept can be illustrated by driving to school without being so actively conscious about it, but this isn’t apt. Instead, the concept can be thought of as reacting not on one’s own accord; this way, a sage can be in the world of men. When I say reacting not on one’s own accord, I do not mean that the sage’s actions are solely determined by men. It is rather that the sage mirrors, accepts, and moves when pushed such that his following of the Tao can remain, even when he is in the world of men. Emptiness of spirit is what it essentially boils down to; think of this as a body of water, that is, the surface is the reaction (with elements of “free and easy wandering”), and the rest of the water that’s below the surface is where the Tao dwells. But the line between the active yang and passive yin, that is the sage’s outer “mirroring” of men and his emptiness in following the Tao, cannot be distinguished so easily. In introspection, what may seem like yin may be yang at work or vice versa, or what may seem to concern Taoism might just be some ordinary action.


Thoughts? Suggestions or feedback? Leave a comment if you’ve thought of “wu wei” differently, and consider mirroring other sages who are following our blog.

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Loc Ho

I attend the University of California, Berkeley, Law School. Before that, I attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and majored in philosophy. I can be considered taoist, and I've been boxing since middle school. I contribute to and

8 thoughts on “Acting with Inaction: The Sage as Water”

  1. I recognize the Taoist idea of ‘doing while not doing’. Reading this article, I’m reminded of how unexpected opportunities can take place in our lives.


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