The Meaning of Wuji (Wu Chi), the Un-manifest Aspect of the Tao

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The Meaning of Wuji (Wu Chi), the Un-manifest Aspect of the TaoThe Chinese word Wuji (pinyin) or Wu Chi (Wade-Giles) refers to the unmanifest aspect of Tao: Tao-in-stillness, in other words. Wuji is the undifferentiated timelessness which, in the Taijitu Shuo (a traditional Taoist diagram) is represented by an empty circle. In Taoist cosmology, Wuji refers to a state of non-distinction prior to the differentiation into the Yin and Yang that give birth to the ten-thousand-things-- all the phenomena of the manifest world, with their various qualities and behaviors.

The Chinese character for Wuji (Wu Chi) is composed of two radicals: Wu and Ji (Chi). “Wu” includes the meanings: without/ no/ none/ non- / [where there are] no. “Ji (Chi)” includes the meanings: limits/ extreme/ end/ ultimate/ extreme boundary. Wuji (Wu Chi) can, then, be translated as infinite, unlimited, boundless or limitless.

Wuji and Taiji: What's The Difference?

Wuji can be contrasted with and is often confused with Taiji. While Wuji points to Tao-in-stillness (which is essentially nondual), Taiji refers to Tao-in-motion. Taiji represents the spark of movement--the emergence, oscillation or vibratory modulation which allows the defined “something” of manifestation to be born of the infinite “no-thing” of Wuji.

Wuji exists prior to all sets of opposites (in other words, before all yin-yang polarizations), including the opposition between movement an quiescence. As Isabelle Robinet points out in the following passage from The Encyclopedia Of Taoism:

“The taiji is the One that contains Yin and Yang, or the Three ... This Three is, in Taoist terms, the One (Yang) plus the Two (Yin), or the Three that gives life to all beings (Daode jing 42), the One that virtually contains the multiplicity. Thus, the wuji is a limitless void, whereas the taiji is a limit in the sense that it is the beginning and the end of the world, a turning point. The wuji is the mechanism of both movement and quiescence; it is situated before the differentiation between movement and quiescence, metaphorically located in the space-time between the kun 坤, or pure Yin, and fu 復, the return of the Yang. In other terms, while the Taoists state that taiji is metaphysically preceded by wuji, which is the Dao, the Neo-Confucians says that the taiji is the Dao.”

The Heart Of Taoist Cosmology

The heart of Taoist cosmology, then, is the cycling between Tao-in-stillness and Tao-in-movement: between the unmanifest Wuji and the manifest Taiji, with its dance of yin and yang. Polarized phenomena unfold from Wuji and then return to it, via the mechanism of Taiji.

An important thing to keep in mind is that the manifest and unmanifest aspects of Tao are valued equally -- neither is accorded privileged status. The return of phenomena to Wuji, to the unmanifest, can be understood as being something akin to getting a good night’s sleep. It’s wonderful and nourishing, but to say that sleep is the "ultimate goal" or "final destination" of your waking-life would not be quite right.

For a Taoist practitioner, the point is not to reject the phenomena of the world, but rather to understand them deeply, see them clearly, and embrace them with utmost intimacy. The benefit of Taoist practice is that it facilitates a more-or-less continuous communion with the inherent power of Wuji, throughout all phases of the cycle, in the presence as well as the absence of phenomena.

Wuji, No Limits, and The Uncarved Block

In verse 28 of the Daodejing, Laozi references Wuji, which here is translated (by Jonathan Star) as “No Limits.”

Hold your male side with your female side
Hold your bright side with your dull side
Hold your high side with your low side
Then you will be able to hold the whole world

When the opposing forces unite within
there comes a power abundant in its giving
and unerring in its effect

Flowing through everything
It returns one to the First Breath

Guiding everything
It returns one to No Limits

Embracing everything
It returns one to the Uncarved Block

When the block is divided
it becomes something useful
and leaders can rule with just a few pieces

But the Sage holds the Block complete
Holding all things within himself
he preserves the Great Unity
which cannot be ruled or divided.

By Elizabeth Reninger