Taoism: The Philosophy of Wu Wei and Weakness as Strength

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Sword and The Stream Parable

Along time ago, as legend has it, there was a King who had two twin sons. The king needed to choose an heir to his kingdom as he was getting quite old, however, both of his sons had a claim to the throne.

One day, he devised a test to decide. “My sons,” he said, “You have both proven yourselves honorable in battle as well as kind, good men at heart. Both of you would make good heirs to my thrown, but alas, only one can take my place. So, I give you each a sword, as sharp as a razor, and have one final task for you to show me which of you is the cleverest.”

The first son took the sword, smiling, for he knew that he was the better warrior and was certain he would best his brother in whatever test he was given.

The second son, taking his sword, expressionless, waited to hear his father’s challenge.

“My sons,” The King said. “There is a river that forks into two streams uphill a ways and both streams are particularly filled with brambles. I need you to use these swords, and only these swords, to remove all brambles from the water so our fishing boats can pass through. Whoever clears his stream first will be given my throne and crown and will become the heir to my kingdom.

Again, the first brother smiled to himself. He knew these streams well, for as a boy he had spent much time playing in these streams while his brother was off studying and knew that one particular stream was much shorter than the other. He knew his brother would have no idea of the difference and he could choose the shorter with relative ease.

So off the brothers went. The first son choosing the shortest stream without his brother knowing any the wiser.

The first son began work immediately. He began hacking the branches on either side of the stream, cutting loose brambles at a mighty pace, fueled by the knowledge that he was sure to become king.

Halfway through, he stopped for a moment and considered if he had betrayed his brother by choosing the shortest stream. He said to himself, “No, this is what a king does. He does whatever it takes, and I am all the smarter for deceiving my brother.”

Reassured, he continued to hack away at the brambles until his feet were soaked and his arms were scratched and finally returned home as the sun was setting with his entire stream cleared of brambles.

As he’d expected, his brother was nowhere to be seen. “He’ll surely be working to clear his stream for another day or two,” said the first son to himself. “I shall go to my father now, tell him of my victory, and claim the crown for my own.”

When he found his father, the King, he announced: “Father, I have cleared the stream as you wish and ask for the crown to the kingdom as promised.”

His father turned to him, smiled gently, and said, “But my son, your brother has already cleared his stream of brambles. He returned only an hour after you both set out this morning.”

Astonished and dismayed, the first brother cried out, “How is this possible? I purposely chose the shorter stream! There must be some mistake! I know these streams better than anyone, all my brother knows is books and the tao!”

“Ahh, your brother may not know the area,” replied the King, “But all of his studying has taught him something you forget: Wu Wei. Your brother simply laid his sword in the stream and let the water cut the brambles for him.”

Wu Wei and Taoism

This modified Taoist parable explains the concept of Wu Wei, which is translated loosely as non-doing or doing nothing. While the first brother relied on his ego and his trickery, the second brother simply found a way to work with nature and what he was given by using his intelligence.

In the same way, Wu Wei is about making one’s behavior as natural as possible. For instance, moving with nature rather than against it. Wu Wei is about responding to the true demands of a situation rather than following egoic distractions that often push us in unhelpful and ultimately more difficult directions.

“Be like water,” says the Lao Tzu in the Tao te Ching, “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”

In a similar way, we can use Wu Wei to view weakness as a strength. In the same way that a drunken man may look incapacitated and helpless, it is often the case that drunken people will survive car collisions when sober people will not. This is obviously not to say one should drive drunk, but there is something to be learned from the state of relaxation produced by alcohol that protects us from a certain kind of physical harm.

Weakness as Strength

Similarly, we can look at ourselves and identify aspects of our personalities that we may have formerly thought of as weaknesses. For they may actually be hidden strengths.
Do you have a problem with procrastination? Maybe you just aren’t working on things that really inspire you. Or maybe you are forcing yourself to work in ways that don’t correspond to your natural rhythms.

Perhaps you have trouble with money. Maybe this means you aren’t superficial and you have found a way to be content with what you have. There are plenty of wealthy people who can’t achieve this contentment, and while you may struggle because of it in some ways, perhaps you actually have something that the wealthy do not.

There are so many ways to reframe your life when you actually deeply consider this concept of Wu Wei. It can be life-changing if you allow yourself the intellectual freedom to really dig deep into your natural nature and understand why your perceived weaknesses are affecting you the way that they are.

Most of all, however, it is important to remember that this concept promotes non-forcing of anything. If you have to force it, you may see a perceived improvement in your situation immediately, but you may just be setting yourself up for failure later on.

Like the first brother in The Sword and Stream Parable, you may find that your strengths are actually weaknesses in the end.