Laura Broadbent: from In On The Great Joke


To whom it may concern, and it is my hope that no one is concerned,

The class I do not propose to not-teach is called “Wei Wu Wei,” Do Not Do, or alternately called “Nothing Much.” The nature of the course is for students to practice the skills of being “su” – simple, plain, like raw silk, and “p’u”- natural and honest, like uncut wood.

Your institution is well known to be a place of Higher Education, so naturally, in the course of the course, the students will seek to occupy the lowest place possible; if they are a place they are the lowest place, if they are a taste, they are a flat, insipid taste: Nothing Much.

In the spirit of Wei Wu Wei, I teach without teaching. For the first class, I am twenty miles away, gazing in the other direction.

It is not possible to explain what it is to teach without teaching, or what it is to teach without teaching the concept of do not do, because the meaning is elusive.

I can say this: Sometimes I will come to class with a clay pot; the lesson is called “Where the Pot is Not.” It is said you can double the size of the universe by understanding where the pot is not. Hollowed out clay is where the pot is not and where the pot is not is where it is most useful.

My syllabus says this and this only: “Need little, want less, forget the rules, be untroubled.”

Some students believe Wei Wu Wei is an easy credit. This is the belief of the ever-wanting soul who sees only what they want to see. They do not understand what self discipline is required to align oneself with the ease of the Way, rather than with their own nature. Wei Wu Wei is counter intuitive and counter institutional. It takes a great effort to achieve effortlessness and it often takes the entire semester alone for the students to merely comprehend they do not comprehend effortlessness. The way is paradoxical and paradoxes allow us to apprehend the mystery of which we are part.

It is not correct nor incorrect to say that Wei Wu Wei is a finishing school for death – how to die without resistance, how to enter the stream, to flow.

The end of the course is “understanding the corpse” – that is, to understand that the body comes to its ending, but there is nothing to fear, endings occur but something endures, and what endures is the Way. To be sure, be pliant and supple while alive, as stiff and strict are for the dead.

For the lesson “To bear and not to own,” I assign complicated, time-intensive papers. On the due date of the Great Papers, I ask the students to hand their papers to the right. The person to the right is to erase the name and replace it with their own, and it is for that paper they shall receive the grade. I tell them this will double the size of the universe.

Not praising the praiseworthy keeps people uncompetitive. This exercise is not to cherish altruism, which is merely the other side of egoism. Students learn, like nature, to be self-less, absent of positive ethical or political values. When the self is let go all that is left is what the soul needs.

The successful students, the unwanting souls who rid themselves of their grades, will see what is hidden, while the unsuccessful students, the ever-wanting souls who do not part with their grades, will see only what they want. To do good, work well, lie low.

The pedagogical non-approach of Wei Wu Wei angers university students who demand exact parameters, which is all university students. In accordance with their desires, I assign very complicated texts; the texts however, have nothing to do with the class. This is very good.

At the end of each week, I hand out marks which the students are free to trade with each other. If those with high marks are willing to trade with those with low marks, or if those with low marks are content with their low marks and content with others having high marks, or if those with the high marks do not relate to their high marks and regard those with low marks as high-markers, the class is well on The Way. This is the mysterious power.

Of student absences, excuses I accept are excuses such as “I took a very long walk” or “I was sweeping my floor” or “I was on my way then I went another way” or “I did not leave my room since it’s the inner eye that really sees the world, anyway.”

The end-of-term assessment is as follows: Is the student always alert like a cat’s ears? Is the student always polite and quiet like a butler? Is the student always elusive like mist? Is the student always blank like fresh snow? Is the student always empty like where the pot is not?


Lao Tzu

from In on the Great Joke (Coach House, 2016) used with permission from the author. Laura Broadbent is the author of Oh There You Are I can’t see You Is It Raining? (Invisible Books, 2012), Interviews (Metatron Press 2014), and In on the Great Joke (Coach House, 2016) and lots of angry emails. She currently lives somewhere between birth and death, hustling to remain there.