The Action of Inaction
By Ye Cha & Jiahui
In the classic Chinese text and fundament of Taoism the Tao Te Ching, sixth-century-BC sage Lao-tzu wrote: “The Tao in its regular course does nothing (for the sake of doing it), and so there is nothing which it does not do,” and “He who devotes himself to learning (seeks) from day to day to increase (his knowledge); he who devotes himself to the Tao (seeks) from day to day to diminish (his doing). He diminishes it and again diminishes it, till he arrives at doing nothing (on purpose). Having arrived at this point of non-action, there is nothing which he does not do.”
Wise and Profound, Three Precious Rules
“To do” and “not to do” seem simple enough concepts to understand on their own, but when combined, they become a source of endless confusion. Lao-tzu’s wisdom was deep and profound; unless one has a telepathic connection with the man himself, who can say what he really meant? Some may find deep meaning in his words, others may barely see past the surface. It is a challenge to determine the intended depth of his teachings, but by using a short story, let us look at this philosophy on a basic level.
The Rule of Wen and Jing from 180BC to 141BC was based very much on Lao-tzu’s advice to “lead by inaction,” or in other words, not to interfere too much, allowing the citizens to flourish. Emperor Wen of Han led China into this golden age. He was heavily influenced by Lao-tzu’s philosophy, and adopted the practice of peaceful inaction into government policy.
In the 23 years of his governance, he followed Lao-tzu’s three precious rules of “compassion,” “simplicity,” and “refusing to take precedence over others.” He also abolished the harmful practices of collective punishment, corporal punishment, and oral defamation punishment. Every month, he would gift wine and rice to the elderly. He even did away with the field rent. When he faced repeated attacks from the Xiongnu, an ancient nomadic people, he did not call upon his troops to attack them but instead ordered the border defense to be strengthened. This way, he avoided the loss of fortune and lives that would have resulted from war.
Simple Life, Harmonious Society
Emperor Wen led by example; he was hardworking and lived a simple and frugal life. He often wore clothes made of inferior-quality silk, and he prohibited the counties and his subjects from making tributes to him. He even stipulated that his mausoleum should be built of clay. Precious gold, silver, copper, and other metals were not to be used in its decoration. Before his death, he issued an edict stating that no carriage or weapon displays were to be held during his funeral. Further, his citizens were not to be encouraged to participate in formal wailing at his palace.
Civil and military officials under his influence also refrained from extravagance. The crown prince, Jing, as well as the empress’s family were required to read Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching. The upshot of this emphasis on Taoist thought was a stable political climate, which led to a harmonious society. The people enjoyed prosperous and peaceful lives.
Because Nothing Is Done,Everything Is Done
Some think that “inaction” and “refusing to take precedence over others” — that is, to stay humble and modest and avoid fighting to stay ahead of others — encourage passivity, negativity, and the inhibition of progress. Yet Emperor Wen led his nation into a golden age of prosperity by following these teachings. As a leader who did not actively fight to expand his territories, can he be said to have committed “action” or “inaction”?
Lao-tzu wrote: “I will do nothing (of purpose), and the people will be transformed of themselves; I will be fond of keeping still, and the people will of themselves become correct. I will take no trouble about it, and the people will of themselves become rich; I will manifest no ambition, and the people will of themselves attain primitive simplicity.”
In other words, when a ruler does not act rashly and aggressively, all things will move smoothly according to their nature, and society will become civilized. When a ruler is at peace, the society they govern will naturally become proper and upright. If a ruler refrains from forced taxation and civil conflict, the people will begin to live fulfilling and prosperous lives. When a ruler does not indulge in ruthless personal ambitions, the people will naturally become stable, down-to-earth and genuine.
When we examine how the governance of Wen and his son Jing was influenced by Lao-tzu’s teachings, it is logical to deduce that the peace and prosperity enjoyed during that period was not due to chance, but to the integrity of its rulers. In the eyes of the wildly ambitious, Lao-tzu’s philosophy and the leadership of Emperors Wen and Jing may seem weak, passive and overly conservative. However, from the perspective of the citizens, the harmonious society and good fortune of that golden age was an achievement brought about by active choice.
Peace, joy and abundance do in fact fulfil humanity’s most basic needs; they are aligned with the natural order. On the other hand, seeking to conquer through an endless cycle of violence and aggression gives the impression of productivity to the few who stand to benefit. In reality, it goes against Nature; it is based on taking things by force, and it places huge pressure on people and resources. Hence, “inaction” does not mean being passive and stagnant. One’s attitude may be “inactive” — unselfish — while one’s actions are working effectively to follow the natural order. This could achieve so much more than an “active” strategy — therein lies the meaning behind “doing nothing, and therefore doing everything.”
International Influence, Renowned Followers
According to Michael LaFargue of the University of Massachusetts Boston, Lao-tzu’s philosophy is by no means old-fashioned or irrelevant. In the book Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching, which he coedited with Livia Kohn, it was noted that as of 1998 the Tao Te Ching had been translated in the West more than 250 times. Today, 20 years later, some report that there are now over 500 different translations, and innumerable copies distributed. In fact, Westerners have been committed fans of Lao-tzu since the 16th century, and have continued to be for centuries afterward.
Lao-tzu’s philosophy has influenced countless people all over the world. Here we introduce some of the internationally renowned people who have been followers of his teachings:
• In 1968, the Beatles adapted the 47th chapter of the Tao Te Ching into lyrics for their song “The Inner Light.” The lyrics are as follows: “Without going out of my door / I can know all things of Earth / Without looking out of my window / I could know the ways of Heaven / The farther one travels / The less one knows… Arrive without traveling / See all without looking / Do all without doing”
• Professor James Heskett of Harvard Business School wrote about the concept of “servant leadership” in an article published on the HBS Working Knowledge website. He quoted Lao-tzu’s thoughts on servant leadership: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware…. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’”
• Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic and known by the Japanese as “the god of management,” was a strong advocate for Lao-tzu’s management philosophy.As a result, Panasonic is guided by a compassionate Basic Management Objective, as follows: “Recognizing our responsibilities as industrialists, we will devote ourselves to the progress and development of society and the wellbeing of people through our business activities, thereby enhancing the quality of life throughout the world.”
Prevail Over Nature, Conquered by Nature
Since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, humanity has increasingly replaced traditional manual and animal labor with mechanical labor. Now, the science and technology of the 21st century are giving rise to a huge variety of modern weapons, AI technology, and robots that are more sophisticated than ever. Even space tourism is slowly becoming a reality. These developments all seem to be the results of “noble” ambitions, but are such achievements truly a blessing, or are they a curse? Will the rapid and dramatic developments in science really bring humankind to a better way of life?
Thanks to advanced technology, humans are now enjoying unprecedented levels of comfort, but we have also caused previously unimaginable levels of damage to the natural environment. On the surface, our various gadgets and inventions give the impression that we have conquered Nature, but at what cost? Pollution, mass extinctions, climate change, global warming, glacial melting, and rising sea levels are the current reality. Humans are rapidly losing sources of clean water and air, and the planet itself is changing drastically. We are going against the natural order and forcing unsustainable levels of exploitation — this is the result of our “active” and “productive” strategies.
Enduring Philosophies, Timeless Call
The Tao Te Ching is a mere 5,000 words long, yet it carries a profound wisdom on how to live in accordance with Nature. This ancient teaching from 2,600 years ago is still relevant to modern society; it tells us to let go of the ruthless pursuit of fame and fortune, to stop conflicting with Mother Nature, and to at all times steer well clear of excessive self-indulgence.
To change our present for the better, we must heed Lao-tzu’s call from the past: that Heaven, Earth and humankind be as one, that people act with integrity and behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way. Let us answer his wise call by following Mother Nature’s wisdom and compassion, and returning to the natural order.