Wu-wei, often translated as "non-doing" in the sense of action without volition, is a central concept and practice in both Taoism and Ch'an. I recently read a very interesting essay, "Wei-wu-wei: Nondual Action" by David Loy about the the subject, in which Loy explains that wu-wei is actually nondual action. While Loy does a thorough enough job proving his thesis, I still think that he misses the mark.
When someone has a screwdriver, the entire world looks like screws. Our vantage point--informed by culture, experience, language, and beliefs--inevitably influences what we see. So if home base is nonduality (the view that reality is not separate) then we will tend to interpret the world from that perspective.
But the world is not nondual any more than it is dualistic. It is not empty or horrible or perfect. It isn't Thusness or Suchness.Most of those words understand that they must self-destruct because they are tools and nothing more. But the problem arises when people claim that reality is _______ -- Awareness, Buddha, God, whatever. These are all labels and reality transcends lables, which means that any word we use to describe reality is as effective as trying to screw in a nail with a screwdriver.
Wu-wei, I feel, points to reality spontaneous expressing itself right now. It can be a thought, action, emotion, or word. When we look deep inside of ourselves for a source of our identity or being--a locatable origin of our decisions, intentions, or will--we cannot find it. All that we find is a gaping gulf of spaciousness from which these actions spontaneously arise.
Where do they come from? I have no idea. They just occur like quantum particles winking into existence. And no sooner do they arise than they disappear.
This, I feel, is what the Taoist wu-wei is pointing towards. There is spontaneous, inexplicable creativity everywhere--in the trees, the sky, in animals, and of course inside of us. From a Taoist perspective, we are that spontaneous expression of the Tao, the creative principle of the universe.
To give Loy his due, nonduality naturally arises because when we act without intention--which basically means unobstructively, allowing our free, spontaneous nature to manifest--separation becomes an afterthought in the same way as a nightmare does when we sit down to eat a delicious breakfast. Huh, what nightmare? Pass the eggs, please.
If we try to connect practices or teachings from different traditions, we have to take them on their own terms; we shouldn't simply assimilate them into our predetermined worldview. This was the mistake that Christian missionaries made when they first encountered Buddhism; they automatically began to interpret it in Christian terms, rather than try to understand Buddhism based upon its own cultural and historical context.
That's the danger of painting someone else's portrait with your brush. Wu-wei necessarily entails the Tao--the formless, creative principle guiding and underlying the universe. You cannot divorce wu-wei from the teaching of the Tao any more than you can zazen from the teaching of Buddha nature.
Where do these words come from? How do they appear in my mind? How am I typing these letters on my keyboard? I seriously have no idea. It's like my hair growing and my heart beating: they just...happen.
That is the miraculous teaching of wu-wei.