The other day I quoted the Tao Te Ching: “By practicing doing nothing/Everything is in harmony.” This refers to the concept of wu-wei or non-action.

When we talk about non-action, it doesn’t mean inaction. Wu-wei means natural action.

Elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says “Nature uses few words.”

Of wu-wei, Wang Bi (226—249 CE), the famous interpreter of the classical Chinese texts, wrote,

The sage understands Nature perfectly. Therefore he goes along with [all things] but takes no unnatural action. He is in harmony with them but does not impose anything on them. He removes their delusions and eliminates their doubts. Hence, the people’s minds are not confused and things are contented with their own nature.

In Taoism, the sage is an ideal, representing the ultimate in human aspiration. The sage is like a buddha or bodhisattva, steeped in wisdom, guiding others. Because the sage is in harmony with the rhythm of life, the action he or she takes is not forced. In fact it seems effortless because less exertion is required. Tai Chi master Gary Khor calls wu-wei “relaxed action.”

Chinese characters for "Wu-wei"

Non-action is related to mindfulness. It is not as if we are suddenly “in harmony” with nature, as though someone had pulled a switch and voila! Wu-wei flows from mindfulness because it is actually a consciousness of harmony. Quieting the mind relaxes the body and spirit and we become more aware of life’s natural rhythms.

In terms of Buddhism, an attribute of awareness is understanding our part in the interdependency of all things. As all things are originally harmonious and natural owning to their ultimate oneness, practice of mindfulness and wu-wei teach us the way to take the right action at the right time.

The action of wu-wei is also the action of creative insight. The I Ching says “The creative is successful, advancing through correctness”.

More about the I Ching and creativity in an upcoming post.

The Dictator's mugshot

I met a dictator once. Manuel Noriega. The military dictator of Panama from 1983 to 1989. I thought he was a nice guy.

The year was 1985 and the occasion was a Soka Gakkai World Peace Culture Festival. 20,000 Buddhists, mainly from the US and Japan (all Soka Gakkai Buddhists) descended on Waikiki, Hawaii the week of July 4th. We had a parade down Kalakaua Avenue with 13,000 people carrying American flags and we presented a petition to the city of Honolulu with 250,000 signatures calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, both of which, if memory serves, ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records. And we had a musical extravaganza at the Waikiki Shell Amphitheater to boot.

The day after the festival my job was to drive a vanload of people out to the airport to give two attendees, the Mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, and the aforementioned dictator, Gen. Noriega, a grand send-off. I think there were about fifteen of us. I let everyone out and then it took me forever to find a parking place, so I missed saying goodbye to the Mayor, but I got there in time for Noriega. Now, the extent of this historic meeting was me standing in a line waiting for him to pass by to shake hands and then waving goodbye as he departed for the plane. Although this brief observation is not much to go on, especially in that setting, but to me he came off as a rather low-key person. And a friendly sort. Plus, he had no entourage, that I saw. I had the impression he was traveling by himself and I thought that told a story.

Anyway, I always felt he got a raw deal, especially since the US put him into power and probably got him started dealing in drugs in the first place. We have a bad habit of doing stuff like that. The invasion of Panama in 1989, when Noriega was captured and detained as a prisoner of war, had very little to do with him and everything to do with neutralizing the Panamanian Defense Forces so no one would get any cute ideas when Panama assumed command of the Canal.

So, speaking of dictators . . . Yesterday was a disappointing day for the people of Egypt, and for all those who support them with hearts and minds. Apparently, Mubarak is a proud and arrogant man, but not a very wise one. He has spoken several times of his 62 years of service, and yet, future generations will remember only these days when the Egyptian people asked him to leave and he refused, unable or unwilling to read the writing on the wall.

Expanding on a famous Chinese proverb, Winston Churchill once said, “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.” (The ancient proverb is about how it is hard to dismount when one is riding a tiger.)

Lao Tzu, the "Old Master"

Lao Tzu was a Chinese philosopher whose teachings have generated numerous proverbs, many of which have become part of our Western lexicon. Actually, no one is sure there was a Lao Tzu, but the book attributed to him, Tao Te Ching, is one of the oldest books still in existence.

Many today look to this book for guidance on life and how to be a leader. There are countless seminars and courses, as well as quite a few books devoted to distilling thoughts and lessons from the Tao Te Ching on the subject of leadership.  One of these books (“The Tao of Leadership”) proudly proclaims that many Fortune 500 corporations, including IBM, Mitsubishi, and Prudential, use it as a management/leadership training text.

Now, you don’t need me to tell you that Hosni Mubarak could use some good advice on leadership. In light of his appallingly bad example as a leader, I thought it would be interesting and timely to present the following:

Lao Tzu’s Principles for Leadership

The best leaders are those whose presence is barely known by others.

Leaders value their words highly and use them sparingly.

Because a leader has faith in others, then others have faith in his or her leadership.

When a leader’s work is done, others will say: we did it ourselves.

Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. Do not overdo it.

To lead people, walk beside them.

Love people and lead without cunning or manipulation.

The ancient leaders who followed the Tao did not give people elaborate strategies, but held to a simple practice. It is hard to lead while trying to be clever. Too much cleverness undermines the people’s harmony. Those who lead without such strategies bring benefit to all.

By being lower, rivers and seas are able to receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams, thus they rule over them all.  Therefore, it is a wise leader, wishing to be above the people, who by his words puts himself below them, and, wishing to be before them, follows them.

Leaders go first by putting themselves last. It is from their selflessness that they are able to fulfill themselves.

It is good to empower people, so that no one is wasted.

The best leaders are effective because they do not try to seize power. They are effective because they are not conceited, proud or arrogant.

The wise keep their word and do not pressure others.

A follow up of sorts to yesterdays post, a look at another side to the situation in Burma. From the Seattle Times: As Myanmar politics ease, tourism grows.

This was sent in by Carl, a recent interview with Dan Reed, who was a popular musician that got to spend 2 hours interviewing the Dalai Lama.

From This Week: Self-immolation: A brief history

On a completely different note, Ellen sent in this from (imitating Mad Magazine since 1958), “6 Cats More Badass Than You (And Most Superheroes)”

This article from the Hindustan Times is short and I love the title: Be a lotus in life.

Hard to believe, but Clint Eastwood is 80. Don’t know why it’s hard to believe but it is. Anyway, this piece is rather long, but in it, Clint remarks on Buddhism and meditation.

I watched the state of the Union speech last night on MSNBC. Now, I like and support Barack Obama, but I have to say, I don’t care who you are, if you are going to speak for over an hour on nation-wide (hey, world-wide) television, you need to schedule some commercial breaks so that people can go to the bathroom. It just makes sense. It’s the right thing to do.

And what is with John Boehner? He always looks like he’s in pain. I’m thinking maybe, hemorrhoids?

After the speech, I watched some of the commentary. Chris Matthews said, “The music was unity.” Lawrence O’Donnell, who I just started watching recently, and who impresses me as a very smart guy, said something about the speech being so transcendent that he couldn’t figure out what it was about. Then he added, “In the end, Republicans should be happy, it [the speech] says very little.”

Perhaps the country needed a pep talk and a message of unity, but I think we also deserved a speech that had some meat. Something missing was the problem of guns. In my opinion, this is one of the most pressing issues we need to deal with, and has been for decades now. I would think that in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, the present moment would be the perfect time to have a discussion. Especially since those who will be doing most of the talking, and the deciding, should be on their best behavior for a while.

Avoiding the gun issue is a mistake. The message that I got from the President’s speech was that to win the future we need to grapple with these enduring issues. So when are we going to do something about guns? Every day that goes by where we allow people, young people especially, have easy access to dangerous weapons, we, as a country, as a society, are committing a form of murder.

In the Tao Te Ching, it says,

As for weapons – they are instruments of ill omen.
And among things there are those that hate them.
Therefore, the one who has the Way, with them does not dwell.
When the gentleman is at home, he honors the left;
When at war, he honors the right.
Therefore, weapons are not the instrument of the gentleman –
Weapons are instruments of ill omen.
When you have no choice but to use them, it’s best to remain tranquil and calm.
You should never look upon them as things of beauty.
If you see them as beautiful things – this is to delight in the killing of men.
And when you delight in the killing of men, you’ll not realize your goal in the land.

Some believe that the right to bear arms is a fundamental right, but it’s also a fundamental problem. The United States accounted for 45% of the total gun-related deaths in the 36 countries studied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1998. Between 1980 and 2006, America has had on average more than 32,000 gun deaths per year. I can’t help but think of the line in Blowin’ in the Wind: “How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died.”

except from Chapter 31, Lao-Tsu Te-Tao Ching, translated by Robert G. Hendricks

Bruce Lee used to say, “Be like water. Water has form, and yet it has no form.”

He meant to be able to adapt like water, which will take the shape of anything in which it is placed.

In the Tao Te Ching it reads, “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water, yet nothing can better overcome the hard and strong,”

Flowing water goes over or around the stones in its path. Eventually, it can erode the stones.

In the early days of my Buddhist practice, I was often told to have faith like flowing water. Faith in Buddhism is testing, understanding, and then practicing the teachings.

Flowing water means movement. It transforms the hard. When you are like flowing water, you adjust to obstacles. You can go around or over them. With patience, you can erode them.

So, to have faith like flowing water is to always to keep going and move in a forward direction. People rarely stop practicing because it doesn’t work. They quit because they run into obstacles they can’t seem to get past. Then they chase after something else thinking it may hold the answer, or they end up doing nothing at all.

Life requires faith like this. To be like water. There are times when flowing water meets turbulence, but after the rapids, there is a return to a calmer flow.

Sill water represents a tranquil mind. Peacefulness. The abandonment of attachments and desires – the whitewater in our lives.

Whether still or flowing, water is always adaptable and able to conform to the shape of anything it meets.

Again, the Tao Te Ching says,

The best of man is like water,
Which benefits all things, and does not contend with them,
Which flows in places that others disdain,
Where it is in harmony with the Way.

So the sage:
Lives within nature,
Thinks within the deep,
Gives within impartiality,
Speaks within trust,
Governs within order,
Crafts within ability,
Acts within opportunity.

He does not contend, and none contend against him.

Be like Water.


Chinese character for Tao: The Way

Some years ago I decided to try and translate the Tao te Ching (Dao de Jing), known in English as “The Book of the Way and Virtue.” Not because I felt the world needed yet another of this classic work, one of the oldest books in the world. Rather, I wanted to learn about Chinese characters and gain a better understanding of the book.

It’s not that hard. You find the radical in the character and then look it up in a dictionary. Not that hard, but time consuming, especially if you’re a rank amateur like me. So, I didn’t get too far along.

Here are the first eight chapters. It’s nothing very different from the many other versions out there. However, in a couple of places I opted for a very literal translation to give the words a slightly new flavor.

One of these days I’m gonna finish it . . .


The way that can be a way is not the infinite way.
The name that can be named is not the infinite name.
The unnamable is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is mother to ten thousand things.
Without constant desire one sees into its subtlety.
With constant desire, one sees only its limit.
These two have the same origin
but are given different designations.
We call them both dark.
Darkness within darkness:
the mystic gate.


If everyone in the world knew the virtue of goodness
then evil would stop.
If everyone in the world knew the virtue of kindness
they would cease to be unkind.

Being and non-being dependently arise.
Difficult and easy are mutually accomplished.
Long and shot are jointly formed.
High and low equally bend.
Voice and sound find harmony.
Front and back follow each other.
It is consistently so.

Thus, in the management of affairs,
the sage practices doing nothing,
and when teaching, uses no words.
Myriad things are accomplished and yet
nothing is ever begun.
There is creation and yet nothing created is possessed.
There is being and yet no reliance on being.
There is achievement and yet no completion.
In this manner, all things endure.


Do not exalt the virtuous
and people will not compete with each other.
Do not cherish possessions
and people will not steal.
Do not see desirable things
and the heart will not be disturbed.

The sage leads by opening the mind of people,
And helps them to satisfy their needs
by weakening their attachments
and strengthening their spirit.
The sage helps all people to let go of their desires,
And then, confounds those who think
they possess superior knowledge.

By practicing doing nothing,
Everything is in harmony.


The Tao is like a cup that is filled but never full.
It is deep, seemingly the ancestor of all things.

Hone its keen edge and it will cut through all entanglements.
Its soft light is one with the dust.
It is profound and constant.
Its origin is not known,
but it has always existed.

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