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Seeking Wu Wei – Effortless Action

Shaolin Arts focuses on helping you live your best life through applying the principles and philosophy of kung fu to fitness, nutrition, and productivity. We teach and practice traditional five-animal Shaolin kung fu as a primary method for achieving kung fu in life.

What is Kung Fu?

Kung fu (kungfu, gung fu, or gongfu) in modern usage typically refers to Chinese martial arts. However, in its original meaning – the way we use it here – kung fu can refer to excellence in any discipline or skill achieved through hard work and practice, not just martial arts. For example, one can say that a person has good kung fu in cooking or calligraphy.

The ability gained through such hard work and practice can be described as performing work in an intuitive – effortless – way. Observers of such work see an almost magical naturalness of perfection. This can be seen in a musician that has spent many hours of study and practice before he could play fluently, naturally, and with ease.

The Chinese call this apparent effortlessness wu wei (literally “non-doing”). The concept is one of natural action or action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort. Wu wei is a state where our actions are effortlessly aligned with nature, characterized by ease and spontaneity. When you have wu wei, you have kung fu.

The Kung Fu of Cook Ding

A Chinese story in the book of Zhuangzi illustrates this concept.

Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee – zip! Zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!” Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years, I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now I go at it by spirit (shen) and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year – because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month – because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room – more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until – flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to care for life!” 1

The crucial point of this story is that Cook Ding, after much hard work, was able to go beyond the mastered skill and technique and wield his blade intuitively and effortlessly. This intuitive mastery or effortlessness, called shen in Chinese – meaning in its literal sense god-like, a skill so ably executed as to appear god-given – is the effortlessness in living well that we seek through the complimentary practices of Shaolin kung fu, fitness, nutrition, and productivity.

  1. Burton Watson (transl.), The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, New York: Columbia UP, 1968, p. 50-51.
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