Wei Wu Wei

Wei Wu Wei: Open Secret

Discovering Wei Wu Wei
in the Cornell Library (1968) &
at Stanford Library Stacks (2008)

By Peter Y. Chou

Open Secret (1965)
Hong Kong University Press

Preface: When working on my doctorate thesis in physical chemistry of macromolecules at Cornell University, I read much about creativity to do better scientific research. I also began studying Buddhism and meditation to be enlightened. A student told me to visit the American Brahman Bookstore in downtown Ithaca on 118 West State Street to learn more on these subjects. It was April 5, 1968 when I met Anthony Damiani, the proprietor of the bookshop. He was so much in love with philosophy and the perennial wisdom traditions that he offered free Wednesday seminars on the subject at his bookshop. Along with a dozen students and two Cornell math professors, we participated in these discourses on wisdom of enlightenment. I had read Richard Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness (1901) and hoped to experience this heightened state of awareness by following Buddha's Eightfold Path. Anthony recommended the books of Paul Brunton and Ramana Maharshi, two sages who had experienced cosmic consciousness. However, I was only interested in learning from the original source— words from Buddha himself. One day while browsing through the Cornell Library stacks, I came across a book titled Open Secret by Wei Wu Wei. Below is an account of that adventure.
(Click on images for enlarged picture)

First Encounter with Wei Wu Wei at Cornell Library (1968):
After Anthony's Wednesday classes in his bookshop, I'd visit the Cornell Olin Library stacks and track down all the books he cited in Plato, Plotinus, and sages from Taoism, Confucianism, Sufism, Advaita Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism, and Zen. Sometime in late 1968 while browsing in the Cornell Library stacks, I came upon a slim volume of Wei Wu Wei's Open Secret (1965). The moment I touched this book, a tingling sensation ran through me as though I'd stumbled upon a treasure chest of buried gold. What is the open secret? Who is this author Wei Wu Wei whose name in Chinese means "Action/Non-Action"? When I opened the book to the copyright page, facing it was this Inscription:

“A single word is sufficient to reveal the truth" — Shên Hui
In case such a word be lurking somewhere herein...

Title Page of Wei Wu Wei's Open Secret

Copyright & Inscription Page of Open Secret

Pages 94-95 of Open Secret

Words that shocked me beyond belief:
When I read that a single word can reveal the truth and that it may be in the book I'm holding, my mind took a leap— feeling that enlightenment may be close at hand. Closing my eyes I opened the book at random, and found these words staring at me:

There is neither creation nor destruction,
Neither destiny nor free will,
Neither path nor achievement;
This is the final truth.

                Sri Ramana Maharshi

Following Ramana's quote was the commentary: "It was true before he said it, it is true at this moment, and it will be true forever, for there is no time." Ramana's declaration "This is the final truth" had such a ring of authencity to it that my mind was all topsy-turvy. I had studied the writings of sages with great passion and practiced Buddha's Eightfold Path with dedication. Now Ramana is saying that "there is no path nor enlightenment". As a beginner on the spiritual path, I felt the rug being pulled under me. Other concepts such as creation, destruction, destiny, free will, and time are also non-existent. I wasn't prepared for this sudden shock to my belief system. (See commentary on Ramana/Shankara Quote)

Anthony Damiani

Consultation with Anthony Damiani (late 1968)
I checked out Wei Wu Wei's Open Secret from Cornell Library and rushed down to Anthony's American Brahman Bookshop in downtown Ithaca. For several months, Anthony has been recommending me to read books on Ramana Maharshi and by Paul Brunton, and I had ignored them both. Now I wanted to learn everything about Ramana and bought Arthur Osborne's book on Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge as well as Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi (1968). When Anthony asked me why my sudden change of mind, I showed him Wei Wu Wei's Open Secret with Ramana's quote. Anthony was pleased that I was finally interested in Ramana, but didn't care for Wei Wu Wei. He told me “Wei Wu Wei is not Chinese. That's his pen name. He's an American and his real name is Terence Gray. He must have a real big ego to take Lao Tzu's "Wu Wei" (Non-action) as his name. Better to stay away from him.”

Front Jacket Flap

Talks with Ramana (1968)

Back Flap

Talks with Ramana
I followed Anthony's advice mainly because at that time I found Wei Wu Wei's language of "noumenal" and "phenomenal" much too abstract for me. Also Ramana's answers to many of the inquiries were more illuminating for my taste. Soon Talks with Ramana became my favorite book. I took on Ramana Maharshi as my spiritual mentor, a sure guide in navigating myself to Self-Realization.

Paul Brunton
Paul Brunton tells me about Wei Wu Wei (1978)
I spent a week (October 23-29, 1978) with Paul Brunton (PB) in his home in Corseux sur Vevey, Switzerland while he was working with the Swedish translator and publisher of his books. On Sunday, October 29, 1978, PB told me that Wei Wu Wei would be visiting him from Monaco the following day and asked me to help him clean his apartment. I told PB that Wei Wu Wei's book Open Secret got me interested in Ramana Maharshi. When I told PB that Anthony said Wei Wu Wei is an American, and his real name is Terence Gray, PB said: “No, Wei Wu Wei [1895-1986] is Irish, and he's three years older than I am. He was instantly enlightened without a guru like Ramana.” Unfortunately, I couldn't stay an extra day, since I had teaching responsibilities at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a flight back to Boston from Geneva. I often wondered how those conversations between PB and Wei Wu Wei went— two enlightened sages with mirror minds reflecting infinite lights.

Wei Wu Wei's
Ask the Awakened
Little, Brown & Co.,
Boston (1973)
First American Edition

Wei Wu Wei's Ask the Awakened: The Negative Way (1973)
While browsing at the Harvard Coop Bookstore bargain table (circa 1976), I bought my first Wei Wu Wei book Ask the Awakened: The Negative Way for $1.23 (35% of the cover price of $3.45). With more meditation experience, I was able to relate more to Wei Wu Wei's insightful words. I was convinced that he is an enlightened sage like Ramana Maharshi and the Zen Patriarchs he often cites. Since I learned from Paul Brunton that Wei Wu Wei is Irish, I told my best friend Patrick Brennan who's Irish about him. We went to Little, Brown & Company in Boston to get Wei Wu Wei's address. The publishers would not divulge it to us, but requested us to write a letter which they would forward to Wei Wu Wei. PB told me that Wei Wu Wei lives in Monaco but also has a winery in Dijon, France. Patrick received a letter from Wei Wu Wei welcoming him to visit in Monte Carlo. I didn't receive a reply before leaving Boston to Paris for my 6-week "Protein Folding Workshop" at the University of Paris in Orsay. Natalia Gray (Mrs. Wei Wu Wei) phoned from Monte Carlo to the Hotel Sorbonne where I was staying (July-August 1979). She told me that Wei Wu Wei's letter to me (August 7, 1979) was sent after I'd left Boston. They welcomed me to visit them at their home at 1 Palais de la Mer, Monte Carlo, Monaco, saying that my friend Patrick had visited them.
After my protein research at the University of Paris, I went to see PB in Corseaux for three days. PB got his train schedules and told me that I could make it to Monte Carlo and see Wei Wu Wei. But I decided it was more important to spend some quality time with PB than travelling on the train to see Wei Wu Wei. So I never got to see this enlightened Irish sage. However I treasure the three letters I received from him (1-6-1980 Letter) and his wife Natalia as well as his book Open Secret which he sent me as gift. His cryptic koan reflected the many passages in his books that may jog the reader's mind to be awakened: “To whom could I be present? From whom could I be absent?”

Wei Wu Wei's gift
and koan to me
in his Open Secret

Cover Flaps
of Wei Wu Wei's
Open Secret (1970)

Terence J.S. Gray's letter (postmark 9-18-1979)
“Our spiritual sadhana is largely in making wine
and we hope that one day you will participate in
our grape-harvest and taste some of our wines
while reciting to us your poems.” (Letter)

The Ten Commandments
Watching this 1956 film stirred
my interest in Ramses the Great

Rediscovering Terence Gray and Wei Wu Wei in 2008
On September 2, 2008, I saw Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto. The contrasting characters of Moses (Charlton Heston) and Pharoah Ramses II (Yul Brynner) were fascinating to ponder. Is it really true that the Hebrew God overpowered the Egyptian gods because Moses was more humble than Ramses the Great? Cecil B. DeMille cited Josepheus and Philo among his sources in this film. These historians of the 1st century had documents that are long lost which were used in addition to the Bible. I looked up Ramses the Great in Wikipedia and learned that he lived to 90 years of age (1303 B.C.-1213 B.C.) and was Pharoah for 66 years (1279 B.C.-1213 B.C.) with many cities, temples, and monuments built during his reign. He also had eight wives, the most famous being Nefertari. Then I came upon this sentence: “The writer Terence Gray stated in 1923 that Ramses II had as many as 20 sons and 20 daughters but scholars today believe his offspring numbered over 100.” What shocked me was not the number of Ramses II's offsprings but the writer Terence Gray! When I clicked on the link, it went to the web page on Wei Wu Wei who was an Egyptologist in the 1920s and a theatrical producer in the 1930s. I only knew Wei Wu Wei as an enlightened Irish sage who wrote books in the vein of Taoist and Zen masters. Now I discover suddenly another side of this mysterious man.

Only by Failure: The Many Faces of the Impossible Life of Terence Gray
On September 6, 2008 at Stanford Green Library, I came upon the web page of Paul Cornwell's 2004 book which traces the life of Terence Gray, a man who always wanted to hide behind masks and pseudonyms, whose death, in 1987 at the age of 92, was not noted despite a life of great variety and achievement. He is only known today by brief references in theatre books and under his pseudonym of Wei Wu Wei. The son of Irish aristocrats, Gray was born in Suffolk, studied at Eton and Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was a Red Cross ambulance-driver in France and Italy and an air-mechanic for the Royal Flying Corps during the World War I. He became an Egyptologist, historian and author of plays during the Twenties before opening the Festival Theatre in Cambridge in 1926 with a sensational production of the Oresteia in Egyptian-style on a redesigned open stage. Gray achieved an international reputation (1926-1933), but at 38, his little empire crumbled, humiliated by a satirical revue put on by the Cambridge Footlights. Gray departed for the South of France to run the family vineyard and the racehorses which were kept in England and Ireland. In 1955, Gray translated Hubert Benoit's La Doctrine Supreme, a classic in Zen literature. Fortune turned his way when Gray's horse Zarathrustra won the Ascot Gold Cup in 1957. In the same year, at age 62, Gray married a 27-year old Russian princess H.S.H. Natalie Imeritinsky from Georgia. His new life really began in 1958 when he became a mystic. Under the name of Wei Wu Wei, Gray published the first of eight books in his own personal style of Zen Buddhism.

Paul Cornwell's 2004 book
Only by Failure:
The Many Faces of
the Impossible Life
of Terence Gray

Phoebe Gray
The Golden Lamp
Jarrolds Ltd., London (1917)

Finding Only by Failure: Life of Terence Gray in the Stanford Stacks
After reading the web page on Paul Cornwell's book on Terence Gray, I checked Amazon.com to see if they had a copy of this book. Amazon.com priced it at $27.95 without any discount. The 19 copies from used book dealers were priced from $30.54 to $500.00! Before Wei Wu Wei's books were republished, his works were collector items on the Internet. Luckily, Stanford Library had a copy of Cornwell's Only by Failure. I rushed to the stacks to call number PR6013.R37.Z64.2004 and found it (never checked out) next to Phoebe Gray's The Golden Lamp (PR6013.R37.G65.1917). I brought both books back to my computer desk in the Classics Reading Room. It felt like discovering gold and illumination at the same time. When I counted the number of steps from these two books to my desk it was 55— number of the Platonic Lambda— Soul of the Universe! For the next two hours, I read Chapter Nine: The Married Mystic: Gray Transforms Himself into Wei Wu Wei (pages 320-350), relishing on all the new information on this Irish sage. When I went ballroom dancing that night, one of the women said "You have so much energy!" I just smiled, knowing it was the spirit of Wei Wu Wei that inspired me once again.

Paul Brunton, A Search
in Secret Egypt
Samuel Weiser, NY (1970)
NY Times Book Review

Terence Gray
& W. M. Brunton
And in the Tomb
Were Found Or Plays
and Portraits of
Old Egypt

Paul Brunton & Wei Wu Wei: Egyptology & Enlightenment
When PB told me of Wei Wu Wei's impending visit to his home in Corseaux (10-29-1978), I couldn't imagine what two enlightened sages would speak to each other. Now I know they had a great deal more in common. Terence Gray was an Egyptologist in the 1920s and wrote several books on the subject. One was titled And in the Tomb Were Found Or Plays and Portraits of Old Egypt (1923) by Terence Gray and W. M. Brunton! He also produced plays (1926-1933) based on his Egyptology studies. Paul Brunton wrote A Search in Secret Egypt (1935), describing his meetings with fakirs and adepts who initiated him into the ancient mysteries. PB also slept overnight inside the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid and had an out of the body experience (OBE): “Yes; I had risen into space, disentangled my soul from its mortal skein, separated myself into two parts, left the world which I had known so long. I experienced a sense of being etherealized, of intense lightness, in this duplicate body which I now inhabited. As I gazed down at the cold stone block upon which my body lay, a single realization overwhelmed me. It expressed itself to me in a few brief, silent words: 'This is the state of death. Now I know that I am a soul, that I can exist apart from the body. I shall always believe that, for I have proved it.' ” (p. 74). PB was enlightened by Ramana Maharshi, whom he introduced to the West in his A Search in Secret India (1934). He wrote the introductory letter for Somerset Maugham to visit Ramana (see Ramana's 1938 Meeting with Maugham). Afterwards Maugham wrote The Razor's Edge (1944). Wei Wu Wei also visited Ramana in India and cites him often in his books. PB mentioned to me that Wei Wu Wei's instant enlightenment without a guru as similar to Ramana Maharshi's. During one of his walks with me in Montreux, PB mentioned that he knew only one person who had experienced timelessness. I wondered if he was thinking of Wei Wu Wei. In her letter of September 27, 1978, Natalia Gray tells me that she and Wei Wu Wei visited D.T. Suzuki in Japan in 1964 ("We left Ryutakuji in order to visit Prof. Suzuki; I remember nothing of our talk but I think his heart was in the peonies in bloom beside his Entrance-gate.") An earlier 1958 photo of their meeting is in the Wei Wu Wei Archives. PB did meditation with D.T. Suzuki at Columbia University after one of Suzuki's lectures there (Notebooks: Vol. 10, Ch. 3 #173). PB had lunch dates with the Irish poet A.E. (George Russell) (Notebooks: Vol. 14, Ch. 2, #120) who was a mentor to William Butler Yeats and James Joyce. I don't know whether Terence Gray as an aspiring playwright met with these Irish literary giants from his homeland. There are so many parallels in the lives of Paul Brunton and Wei Wu Wei, these two humble sages whose books continue to guide and illuminate students to Self-Realization and spiritual enlightenment. Lucky am I to have known them.

  — Peter Y. Chou
      Stanford University, 9-11-2008

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