Action and Non-Action

by Wei Wu Wei

“Enlightenment is straightly attained by freedom from separate selfhood.” —The Buddha

“Is not the idea of liberation in the domain of maya? Does not the Vedanta teach that the Atman (the I-Reality) is always free? Why then should I struggle for my liberation?” —Vivekananda

Action and Non-Action
THE HALF-CENTURY DURING WHICH RAMANA MAHARSHI lived in a state of permanent Illumination (Liberation, Satori, identified with Reality) presents a remarkable picture of the dynamism of Non-Action.

Wu WeiFrom the records of his life (for instance Les Etudes sur Ramana Maharshi, by five or six eminent observers and Arthur Osborne’s admirable biography) one does not have the impression that he was ever known to “act” in the sense in which that word is normally applied to human endeavour, that is in the sense of “do” which implies initiative and reaction. He was the living example of the philosophy of Lao Tzu. Even when attacked by ragamuffins, crooks, burglars, and hornets, he did not react; he rarely seems to have given orders, correction, or to have made plans, yet far from living in chaos and disorder his life and his ashram seem to have been a model of harmony and precision.

Only in the interim between his illumination, at the age of sixteen, and the emergence in him of a working model of an ego for purposes of human contact did he find it necessary to act, and those few recorded actions are worthy of study. From his life it would appear that the I-Reality does not, perhaps cannot, act or re-act on the plane of seeming, and that the dissolved ego being no longer available to that end, the living being remains negative to the circumstances of life. The Maharshi had no wishes, fear or anger; he merely did what he had to do with the directness and simplicity of a young child, illuminated by an intelligence of rare lucidity.

 His real action—Adequate Action, as we may call it—which is Non-Action on the plane of Reality, was in the medium of what we know as Silence. But such Silence was not the negative state we associate with that word; on the contrary it was highly positive, potent, dynamic. Constantly his “radiation” was felt, very occasionally “seen,” and is even described as “terrific.” Indeed for a number of people it appears to have been too powerful—like a high-voltage current. And by means of it he administered, directly to individuals, and generally to all, present and absent, what is adequately described as his Grace—which was his guidance, more effective than his words, and which constituted his revelation.

His case, as far as one knows, is unique as a contemporary phenomenon experienced by innumerable people now living, many still young, but its importance may be regarded as a function of its uniqueness.

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 ”All The World’s A Stage, And All The Men And Women Merely Players.”

Is there a more apposite parable than that implied by the Maharshi comparing man and actor?

“All the actions that the body is to perform are already decided upon at the time it comes into existence: the only freedom you have is whether or not to identify yourself with the body.”

David Garrick plays Othello or Romeo, Falstaff or Bottom, and identifies himself with his part; he loves and hates, saves and slays, laughs and weeps, but his part was decreed by Shakespeare; he plays it again and again, a hundred, a thousand times, and can only vary his interpretation without departing from the text. But he is David Garrick all the time; David Garrick is his reality, Othello or Falstaff is his role. Perhaps waiting in the wings between acts he remembers that he is really David Garrick, then when his cue comes he identifies himself again with his personage.

Man’s role as an actor is cast when he comes on to the stage of manifestation and he has to play it out as it is written (by karma if you will) but he remains a man even while he is being an actor. His only freedom lies in whether he chooses to remember that he is also a man (Reality) in which case he is free and plays his part dispassionately by means of his acquired technique.

The analogy may apply even to the repetition of the part, for a hundred performances of a role by an actor may correspond to a hundred reincarnations of a man—“reincarnations” as popular religion would have it, “recurrences” as meta-psychologists may conceive it.

Does a man play his part in life better when he ceases to identify himself with his psycho-somatic apparatus and what that apparatus thinks, feels, and does—that is his role in life—and identifies himself instead with his I-Reality? We have been told that a man who has realised his state of satori is thereby a better coachman, chimney-sweep, lawyer, or ruler, and those who observed the Maharshi reported that everything he did was meticulously and accurately done, and that everything he said was simple, lucid, and impeccably expressed.

Does not an actor play his part better when he relies on his technique, retaining his self-identification and not identifying himself with his imaginary personage? Great actors are such, the others are what the French call cabotins [poser].

Realisation by Non-Action
The extreme simplicity of the doctrines of the Maharshi and that of Huang Po, compared with the complexities of the religions into which each was born, is surely significant. This appears to some as a fault, whereas it is the very seal of their truth.

The doctrine of the Maharshi never varied over fifty years, and it had no development, demonstrating thereby the absence of intellectuality and the presence of reality. A philosophy evolves, it is an intellectual structure; the teaching of the Maharshi was merely the consignment of spiritual knowledge. And the difference between it and the doctrine of Hsi Yun is merely a difference of terminology.

When the most brilliant of his disciples died the Maharshi was asked whether this man of immense intellectual stature could have attained realisation in this life, and he replied, “How could he? His sankalpas were too strong.” Sankalpas are desires and ambitions, i.e. affectivity and intellectuality under the sway of the ego.

If the great religions are highly complex in their developed forms—that is through intellectual elaboration and spiritual discipline—we observe little trace of either in the doctrines of their Founders. It may be difficult to sift the recorded words that may reasonably be attributed to them from those placed in their mouths several centuries later, but what appears authentic in the earliest recorded form of their doctrines has considerable simplicity, whether it be attributed to Shri Krishna, the Buddha, or Jesus.

Why, then, do men and women elaborate these doctrines to a point at which they become, in many respects, the opposite of that which the Founders themselves preached?

It may be that when these doctrines were understood, which may have happened rapidly, it was observed that such comprehension had little noticeable effect and did not immediately produce illumination. Since such rapid understanding, save in one case in ten thousand, is almost entirely intellectual and hardly at all intuitive, this is clearly inevitable. So the disappointed but hopeful disciples, who keenly perceived the reality (truth) of the doctrine, started elaborating techniques (philosophies and disciplines) in order to transmute their simple understanding into realisation.

But it is doubtful whether such methods can often succeed in transmuting intellectual understanding into spiritual experience, and the later teachers do not encourage us to believe that they do. Rather do they suggest that there is no method—other than intuitive comprehension itself, and the elimination of the artificial ego which stands in the way. As long as we identify ourselves with that, with our psycho-somatic apparatus, instead of with our I-Reality, we cannot possibly realise anything, for realisation is precisely experiencing that shift of identification.

But the artificial ego cannot be eliminated by an act of will, nor can discipline dispose of it, since all such attempts are within maya, i.e. on its own plane and via itself (a thief, posing as a policeman in order to catch himself, as the Maharshi put it).

The suppression of pride, desire, anger, what you will, cannot destroy their cause. A malady cannot be cured by suppressing its symptoms. That is putting the wagon before the oxen. When the artificial ego is transcended, all its manifestations will automatically disappear. For that reason discipline must be futile.

Therefore detachment is the only method, and that is attained by understanding the falsity and futility of all the things on which the ego depends for its sustenance.

Only when that state of mind is attained is the way clear for the intuitive comprehension of the I-Reality and the transference of identification which in a flash raises a man or a woman to consciousness on the plane of Reality.

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Terrance Gray (Wei Wu Wei)After an initial career in the British theatre, Terrance Gray’s thoughts turned towards philosophy and metaphysics, which led to a period of travel throughout Asia, including time spent at Sri Ramana Maharshi‘s ashram in Tiruvannamalai, India.

In 1958, at the age of 63, the first of the “Wei Wu Wei” titles was published, and during the next 16 years the appearance of seven subsequent books—including his final work under the further pseudonym “O.O.O.” in 1974—was published. He knew other metaphysical contemporaries of the day, including Lama Anagarika Govinda, Dr. Hubert Benoit, John Blofeld, Douglas Harding, Robert Linssen, Arthur Osborne, Robert Powell and Dr. D. T. Suzuki.

Wei Wu Wei died in 1986 at the age of 90. While his influence was never widespread, he had a profound influence upon those who knew him personally and many of those who read his works, including Ramesh Balsekar. His attitude toward writing is perhaps best represented by the following quote from an introductory note to his book Open Secret (Hong Kong University Press, 1965).

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 per cent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself—
And there isn’t one.

—Wei Wu Wei


From Fingers Pointing Towards the Moon, by Wei Wu Wei. Copyright 1958 © Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.