In my translation of the Tao Te Ching, it says essentially (paraphrasing from audiobook Chapter 2):

If nothing is done, then all will be well.

There is this idea that you should not do at all, but somehow still work when required. How does this work? I can't wrap my head around it. I think that is translated here from "夫唯弗居,是以不去。" as "Does not focus on it, and thus it does not go." (which doesn't make any sense to me).

Another chapter touches on the topic, saying:

Understanding and being open to all things, are you able to do nothing?

Another one later on:

A truly good man is never doing, yet leaves nothing undone. A foolish man is always doing, yet much remains to be done.

I don't get it haha. I get "A foolish man is always doing, yet much remains to be done.", but not the rest.

Later on still:

Work without doing is understood by very few.

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    "The sage focuses on non-action in his works... Accomplishes work but does not focus on it". Does not focus on it and so does not get taken by it, keeps his mind apart "in the sages' peaceful and tranquil world". Something like the sage does not shortchange his mind on minutiae of chores, keeps his mind's eye focused on deeper unity and tranquility, while accomplishing what needs to be done.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 8:09
  • Excellent, starting to get a glimmer of it @Conifold. Thanks!
    – Lance
    Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 8:12
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    I think it may also have to do with spontaneity and acting without conscious plans, or at least without focusing too much on expectations or desires about the outcome. Taoists were big on treating the natural world as a kind of exemplar for human behavior, maybe an egoless natural process like the wind or the rain would be an example of "do without doing".
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 15:47
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    This thought runs through all Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist philosophy. In Chapter 3, ''The Way of Action', of the Bhagavad Gita, it is referred to in verse 18 as seeing 'inaction in action and action in action'. In the following verses it says that this means one's actions are free from desires and self-will, and giving up attachment to the fruit of action, and free from success or failure Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 2:41
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    Given enough time, the implacable Way of the Great Uncarved Block of Taoism, will have its way.
    – Gordon
    Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 9:53

2 Answers 2


The principle of action through inaction is known as "wu wei". It is also advocated in other walks of life, see for example its Wikipedia article.

As I understand it, the Daoist sage seeks to be "at one with the Dao" and therefore to be always at one with whatever is happening. Any necessary action will take place spontaneously as a part of that oneness. There is therefore no need for premeditated or deliberate interference. Worse, such an act of will means that you are no longer at one with the Dao.

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    Deliberation is an independent act of will. By definition, this means that you are no longer at one with the Dao. I have added a note accordingly Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 7:32
  • @JohnForkosh I would suggest that "unplanned rhythms" is a dubious Western translation of a more holistic Chinese concept. "Natural flow" is a more traditional translation, though again less than perfect. The Dao is both eternal and unchanging yet in ceaseless flow. Much subtlety of meaning cannot really be translated into our relatively dry and analytic language but must be experienced. The Dao does indeed encompass everything, it is the source from which all things flow. This is absolutely fundamental, any other view is a gross misunderstanding. Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 9:49
  • That is getting into deeper waters. I doubt that all Daoists would agree on the answer but, broadly, one can distinguish between being at one with the Dao, the Source, and being caught up in its flow, its consequences. One may row a boat with or against the current on a river; rowing against a strong current is not really acting at one with the river; it is certainly not wu wei! Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 10:42
  • @JohnForkosh Oh, I think you'll find that trying to play the smart-ass with Eastern philosophy is a recipe for remaining ignorant. As I said, much cannot be stated in Western languages, it has to be experienced. Go learn to experience it. Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 12:49
  • @JohnForkosh - You might find the Buddhist teachings on relative and absolute truth relevant to the question of how the Dao can encompass everything in a more absolute sense, yet in a more relative truth it is possibly to be relatively more or less spontaneous. BTW, I disagree with Guy Inchbald's suggestion that too much intellectual analysis is antithetical to understanding Eastern philosophies, though an experiential aspect is crucial as well (but the same is true of some Western philosophies)
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 22:30

From a different translation:

The ten thousand things arise, but he [the Sage] doesn’t begin them;

He acts on their behalf, but he doesn’t make them dependent;

He accomplishes his tasks, but he doesn’t dwell on them;

It is only because he doesn’t dwell on them that they therefore do not leave him.

See Daosim: dao is the "way", the "method", the "practice".

A way is the answer to a “how” or “what-to-do” question. We typically use talk of ways in advising someone. Ways are deeply practical (i.e., prescriptive or normative).

But there are more meanings...

The Daode Jing opens with:

Dao that can be dao-ed is not constant dao [the Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way]

that conveys a sort of skepticism: the correct dao can never be known, or maybe it cannot be put in words (i.e. teached).

It is a sort of paradoxical attitude [compare with Wittgenstein's Tractatus last sentence] that implies a "rule" like the following: “lack acting and yet lack ‘don’t-act’.”

In a nutshell, avoid desires that lead to competition and strife but, at the same time, avoid hermit-like escape from daily life.

  • But why use the word "work without doing". How can you do without doing? I am still left puzzled by the word "doing". Is it just a poetic play on words, and the meaning is just as you describe? Or is there more to it?
    – Lance
    Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 8:11
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    @LancePollard - if you do not like (or at least "tolerate") paradoxes, do not follow Daoism nor Chan Buddhism :-) Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 8:23
  • I love all the paradoxes, but this is the one that is most elusive.
    – Lance
    Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 8:25

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