Chinese Poetry, Chinese Texts, The Masters

Chuang Tzu’s Action and Non-Action

The true stillness that is at the root of human wisdom and the Taoist endeavor is a positive state, in as much as it is not the absence of anything nor a resistance to anything. Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu, author of foundational Taoist texts, writes in this poem: “The sage is quiet because he is not moved / Not because he wills to be quiet.” Inaction, he argues, is a type of action; an appropriate response that arises from the tranquility of the clear, level spirit of man, and such a state is the resting place of the wise. 


The non-action of the wise man is not inaction.
It is not studied. It is not shaken by anything.
The sage is quiet because he is not moved,
Not because he wills to be quiet.
Still water is like glass.
You can look in it and see the bristles on your chin.
It is a perfect level;
A carpenter could use it.
If water is so clear, so level,
How much more the spirit of man?
The heart of the wise man is tranquil.
It is the mirror of heaven and earth
The glass of everything.
Emptiness, stillness, tranquillity, tastelessness,
Silence, non-action: this is the level of heaven and earth.
This is perfect Tao. Wise men find here
Their resting place.
Resting, they are empty.

From emptiness comes the unconditioned.
From this, the conditioned, the individual things.
So from the sage’s emptiness, stillness arises:
From stillness, action. From action, attainment.
From their stillness comes their non-action, which is also action
And is, therefore, their attainment.
For stillness is joy. Joy is free from care
Fruitful in long years.
Joy does all things without concern:
For emptiness, stillness, tranquillity, tastelessness,
Silence, and non-action
Are the root of all things.


Chuang Tzu (369-286BC)
Translated by Thomas Merton (1915-1968)
From: The Way of Chuang Tzu

Leave a Reply