Wu Wei: Letting Good Things Happen


The emperor of China during the Yuan dynasty wanted to have his picture painted. “I’m not satisfied with my portraits done thus far,” he said to a large gathering of artists. “Paint me a picture with the minutest detail, my spitting image.”

The king sat down every day for two hours while the finest painters observed and painted him from different angles. Devotedly and carefully they moved their pencils and brushes on their canvases. Vying for the reward, all would wrangle to have the front row so they could examine him thoroughly and capture the tiniest detail. All but a Taoist monk-painter.

He requested the king that he be given a separate room where he could construct his most accurate image from his memory.

“Kill me if I fail to portray every detail,” he declared. “But, no one will see my painting till I finish. This is my only condition.”

His request was granted and three of his disciples joined in to help him. The four of them would enter the room, stay there for the entire day and come out only in the evening. At times sounds of scraping etc. could be heard. Unlike other painters’ hands’, theirs were never smeared in color. Dusty at times, but never smudged. No one knew how exactly they were painting.

At the end of one month when the emperor was still not happy with any of the portraits by other artists, the Taoist master announced that his painting was complete. It was done on a wall, he added.

Eager and intrigued, the king entered the room brimming with silence. The wall was covered with drapes of silk. Some candles were placed as if strategically. The master was gently smiling. The monarch pulled the curtain and a glossy wall emerged.

On a super smooth surface, which had been once a coarse wall, the reflection of the emperor shone gloriously. A smile broke out on the king’s face, the image smiled as well. The king turned to the left, so did the image. It was a moving portrait, a live painting that captured every detail.

“This is Wu Wei, Your Holy Highness,” the master said, “the way of Tao. The action of non-action.”

“I must admit,” the emperor chuckled, “this is very clever. It’s the most accurate image anyone could have created.”

“With due respect, O Lord of Ten Thousand Years, I never created this image. I merely created the conditions and the portrait made itself.”

“Not sure if I should reward you for your painting or your wisdom.”

“The conditions have been created for both,” the master humored and bowed.

The emperor honored him with a lavish compensation.


So, it is with life. Whatever we want, we have to create the conditions for it. In our obsessions to realize our dreams, often we end up so focused, even self-centered, that we forget that until we create the right environment around us, we can’t truly attain our goals. In our reckless pursuit, our conditions and circumstances become our greatest impediments on the path.

If we want harmony in our lives, we need to create a setting that fosters it. If we want love, then we need to work on the attitude that evokes it. If we want success, we need to manifest the conditions that support it. Results are not created, they come by themselves. We merely create are the conditions conducive to what we hope to attain.


“If you’re proactive, you don’t have to wait for circumstances or other people to create perspective expanding experiences. You can consciously create your own.” Stephen R. Covey


Wu-Wei implies that there’s an inherent flow, a certain natural order to everything. We just have to let it course through. Recklessly struggling towards a goal is not always the best way to attain it. Sometimes, we have to let it be, give it time.

When we sow a seed, we diligently work in creating the right conditions. Leave the ground soft, moist, fertilized and the seed will germinate. It’ll turn into a sapling then a plant and a tree. The seed in itself requires little care, it’s the environment that needs our attention. Similarly, the goodness in our life, peace in our heart, a smile on our face comes naturally when we create the right conditions. And this is Tao in a nutshell as well — let natural things happen naturally. 

With life too, we should expend our energy in creating right conditions, wisdom and insight will come to us like a beautiful dream. The Tao says that most goals are not gained by struggle but patience. 

As Lao Tzu said in Tao Te Ching, “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”


Be patient, be simple and let life flow. This will give us the wisdom to know when to swim versus when to float. We will know when not acting on something is the greatest action – the Wu-Wei. 


This is the secret of a good life — knowing why, when, where and how to act versus not to act. This is the entire philosophy of Bhagavad Gita, the essence of karmayoga in one simple sentence.

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1 Comment

  1. Chintu

    An enlightening message that we shall strive for creating the right conditions to achieve something rather than directly and impatiently look for the fruit of the action is very effectively conveyed through a story.

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