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Lao Tzu's Wu Wei ("Doing Nothing") and Teaching

Lao Tzu in his great Tao Te Ching further meditates on the virtues of letting things be by doing nothing. Wu wei figures to be central part of finding the Tao or the way; doing nothing for him enables us to mirror the nothingness which is the very essence of Tao. Now this nothingness can lead to a misunderstanding for some readers, giving the impression that the Tao is some metaphysical principle which sounds very nice but is separate from the soil of reality, having nothing to do with the daily life of work and activity. But Lao Tzu gives specific and concrete ways of attaining the way through the path of Wu wei, most of which have helped me change my approach to teaching and work in general.
Take for example an excerpt from chapter 10 of the Tao Te Ching where he speaks of Wu wei as a different view of acting in the world. Lao Tzu here tells us:
To produce things and to rear them,
To produce, but not to take possession of them,
To act, but not to rely on one’s own ability,
To lead them, but not to master them—
That is called the profound and secret virtue.

Considering how certain events in our lives are often unpredictable, such as failure, sickness, and calamity, we are often tempted to despair and self-pity. The resistance to what may oppress us, as I said before, can often lead to exhaustion, and in the worst of cases, depression and suicide. However understandable such emotions may overcome us, it is possible to accepts these events as they are and for what they are. It is to understand that things happen and arise, and the challenge is to learn how to accept what may befall upon us without our own doing. A man who loses his job for one reason or another may dwell too much on such a setback to a point where he, as they say, loses all his marbles, begins to be undermined, and never regain the confidence necessary to try again. This may be possible if he had invested so much of himself to the job he has now lost, if he equated his self-worth and reduced who he was to what he did and was able to accomplish. But we are so much greater than what we do and have.
The totality of a life, the mystery of the self, cannot be squared off or defined by one’s work and one’s accomplishments. And this is one of the points Lao Tzu raises above, to learn how to detach ourselves from our actions and responsibilities. Detachment here does not mean to be without cares, be irresponsible, and to stop doing anything; on the contrary, as the excerpt above indicates, we must continue to do what we have to, “to produce, and to rear [things],” keep to our obligations and perform the necessary little tasks of daily life. Wu wei is not asceticism or an escape from the world. The detachment in Wu wei here means that while we continue to do the necessary work we need to accomplish, we must however not act as if we are creators, much like how a craftsman leaves his mark on his product to signify him as its maker. Creators do create works they can call their own; but pronouncing your self Creator also sets you up for the inevitable event of your creation’s destruction: then a part of you also dies. To “do nothing,” or Wu wei, is in this sense to nevertheless separate our identity and happiness from the myriad little things we think makes up a life—finite little things, to be sure, that can be taken away from us or destroyed.
My initial struggles in teaching, in hindsight, were also due to the illusion I had that everything relied on myself. I placed too much importance on myself thinking that a successful lecture was all about the teacher’s abilities. Thus my happiness become dependent on whether I thought I taught well, and my sadness came from thinking I was not effective. I equated myself to something which was larger than me. Indeed a class of thirty to thirty-five different students, each one having a different point-of-view, inclinations, and concerns, was well beyond the control of any one teacher. You cannot force learning and understanding, I discovered. I was not totally responsible for everything; I was no director or puppeteer who had to orchestrate everything so as to control different minds. I was no master, but also still a student trying his best to learn with students together. “To act, but not to rely on one’s own ability,” here tells us to do our jobs without giving ourselves too much importance so as to cover over the value of actions themselves.
The best a teacher could do, I think, is to lay down the conditions of the possibility of students learning. Whether or not a student does learn can neither be the accomplishment or failure of the teacher completely. The call of the teacher is to set the stage for the possibility of learning. Much like what Socrates did in Athens at the beginning of Western philosophy, a teacher can do that by provoking a student to examine his own previously held opinions by way of active discussion and giving stimulating questions. In this way you draw the answers from students themselves. Or again as Lao Tzu says, “To lead them, but not to master them,” and this instruction evokes the originary meaning of education as educare, which means to lead someone, to bring him along, or to teach and point the way to a path that the student must take on his own.

For to understand, in the end, means to discover on your own what something means, and then to decide whether it is a justified true belief; and finally be able to support and be supported by it as a firm knowledge (episteme), already free from mere opinion (doxa). If by force a teacher requires a student to think in a certain way by just giving a dead definition or an abstract formula without letting the student grasp it on his own, a student may just take that opinion as true for no other reason than there are no other possible truths or points-of-view on the table. That way the veracity of that opinion shall rely on the teacher as his own accomplishment. But, for one, no genuine thinking on the part of the student happens that way because thinking is spontaneous, dialectical (Plato), and of more a free movement. More importantly, forced learning goes against the very essence of philosophy which calls us to self-examination (Socrates) and dares us to think on our own (Kant). To force learning to happen by persuading students to accept what the teacher says is to eliminate the very spontaneity which makes thinking exciting.

But after setting the stage and pointing to the way, a teacher can do nothing but to let the student think for himself, allowing him to reflect and understand on his own the material or the lesson. Much like a farmer who can only prepare the soil and plant the seeds, a teacher must next surrender to time and let it do its work. He reaches that point, after all the preparation, where he can do nothing. But it is that non-doing, that often painful period of waiting and helplessness, which allows the plant to grow on its own. Paradoxically, you have to do nothing in order for something to happen. This echoes a line from chapter 48 which is among those I have cherished to this day: “No action is undertaken, and yet nothing is left undone.”

Exerpts from a paper for Ancient Chinese Philosophy


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