TAO TE CHING
The most important Taoist text is the “Tao te ching” (“Dao de jing”, “The Way and Its Power”), a 5000-character synopsis of Taoist beliefs reportedly written by Lao-tzu shortly before he died. This short book was divided into eighty-one chapters in the traditional edition ad was the inspiration for a primarily philosophical form of Taoism. It is very different from the Confucian Analects.
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: The “Tao te ching” “is a compilation reflecting a particular strain of thought from around 300 B.C. It is traditionally attributed to a mysterious character known as Laozi (“the old master”). There is no evidence that such a person existed at all. As best as we can tell, the text was written by several authors over a period of time roughly around the third century B.C. The Daodejing has been tremendously popular. It exists in several different versions and became one of the bases of both the philosophy of Daoism and the related but distinct Daoist religion. Like the Confucian Analects, the Mencius, the Han Feizi, and others, the Daodejing is the product of that period in Chinese history when the kings of the Zhou dynasty had lost all real authority and their kingdom had disintegrated into a coterie of feudal states that squabbled and fought with one another in evershifting arrangements of alliances and enmities.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: The “Tao te ching” “as we have it today appears to be a composite text which reached something like its final form during the third century B.C., but much of which existed perhaps a century earlier. Its author is said to have been a man named Laozi, or the “Old Master.” Despite the fact that we have a great deal of very specific biographical information about Laozi, including accounts of how Confucius studied with him, it is very unlikely that there ever was any one person known by such a name or title who authored the book we now possess. Instead, the power of the book itself has attracted a collection of legends which coalesced into the image of the Old Master, an elusive and transcendent sage of the greatest mystery. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]
“The text takes its name from two key concepts within it. In Confucianism, the “Tao” (or the “Way”) refers to the teachings and institutions of sages from the past. In the “Tao te ching” it refers to a cosmic force governing all Nature. The essence of this force cannot be captured in words; in fact, human language, with its narrow definitions, hides rather than reveals the Truth of the universe..therefore, Daoism tends to see speech as the enemy of knowledge. Because the wordtao also means “to speak,” Daoists sometimes refer to the Dao as a Word beyond the realm of human words.
The term “te” refers to a type of charismatic virtue or earned social leverage that individuals were thought sometimes to possess. An early use of the word denoted the prestige of a patrician whose wealth and accomplishments had created in others a sense of awe or genuine debt, such that they served him willingly. Confucians used the term to denote the sort of inner moral virtue that they believed spontaneously attracted people and led them towards ethical improvement. In certain religious contexts, de referred to mysterious powers that individuals might possess, and various types of self-cultivation schools referred to accomplishments engendered by their training regimens as te. /+/
“There are innumerable translations of the Tao de jing Among the most reliable is D.C. Lau’s (Penguin Books, 1963; rev. ed. Hong Kong: 1989). We now have recovered partial or nearly complete manuscript versions of the “Dao de jing” from the late fourth and mid-second centuries B.C., and scholars’ views of the text are continually evolving.” /+/
Good Websites and Sources on Taoism: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Religion Facts Religion Facts Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Education plato.stanford.edu ; Taoist Texts Chinese Text Project ; Taoism chebucto.ns.ca ; Chad Hansen’s Chinese Philisophy hku.hk/philodep
Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de
When the best student hears about the way
He practises it assiduously;
When the average student hears about the way
It seems to him there one moment and gone the next;
When the worst student hears about the way
He laughs out loud.
If he did not laugh
It would be unworthy of being the way. [Source: “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu, translated by D.C. Lau (1963) terebess.hu/english]
Hence the Chien yen has it:
The way that is bright seems dull;
The way that is forward seems to lead backward;
The way that is even seems rough.
The highest virtue is like the valley;
The sheerest whiteness seems sullied;
Ample virtue seems defective;
Vigorous virtue seems indolent;
Plain virtue seems soiled;
The great square has no corners.
The great vessel takes long to complete;
The great note is rarefied in sound;
The great image has no shape.
The way conceals itself in being nameless.
It is the way alone that excels in bestowing and in accomplishing.
The way begets one;
One begets two;
Two begets three;
Three begets the myriad creatures.
The myriad creatures carry on their backs the yin and embrace in their arms the yang and are the blending of the generative forces of the two.
There are no words which men detest more than 'solitary', 'desolate', and 'hapless', yet lords and princes use these to refer to themselves.
Thus a thing is sometimes added to by being diminished and diminished by being added to.
What others teach I also teach.
'The violent shall not come to a natural end.'
I shall take this as my precept.
Exterminate learning, and there will no longer be worries. [Source: “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu, translated by D.C. Lau (1963) terebess.hu/english]
The most submissive thing in the world can ride roughshod over the hardest in the world;
That which is without substance entering that which has no crevices.
That is why I know the benefit of resorting to no action.
The teaching that uses no words, the benefit of resorting to no action, these are beyond the understanding of all but a very few in the world.
Your name or your person,
Which is dearer?
Your person or your goods,
Which is worth more?
Gain or loss,
Which is a greater bane?
That is why excessive meanness
Is sure to lead to great expense;
Too much store
Is sure to end in immense loss.
And you will suffer no disgrace;
Know when to stop
And you will meet with no danger.
You can then endure.
Great perfection seems chipped,
Yet use will not wear it out;
Great fullness seems empty,
Yet use will not drain it;
Great straightness seems bent;
Great skill seems awkward;
Great eloquence seems tongue-tied.
Restlessness overcomes cold;
Stillness overcomes heat.
Limpid and still,
One can be a leader in the empire.
When the way prevails in the empire, fleet-footed horses are relegated to ploughing in the fields;
When the way does not prevail in the empire, war-horses breed on the border. [Source: “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu, translated by D.C. Lau (1963) terebess.hu/english]
There is no crime greater than having too many desires;
There is no disaster greater than not being content;
There is no misfortune greater than being covetous.
Hence in being content, one will always have enough.
Without stirring abroad
One can know the whole world;
Without looking out the window
One can see the way of heaven.
The further one goes
The less one knows.
Therefore the sage knows without having to stir,
Identifies without having to see,
Accomplishes without having to act.
In the pursuit of learning one knows more every day;
In the pursuit of the way one does less every day.
One does less and less until one does nothing at all, and when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone.
It is always through not meddling that the empire is won.
Should you meddle, then you are not equal to the task of winning the empire.
The sage has no mind of his own.
He takes as his own the mind of the people.
Those who are good I treat as good.
Those who are not good I also treat as good.
In so doing I gain in goodness.
Those who are of good faith I have faith in.
Those who are lacking in good faith I also have faith in.
In so doing I gain in good faith.
The sage in his attempt to distract the mind of the empire seeks urgently to muddle it.
The people all have something to occupy their eyes and ears, and the sage treats them all like children.
When going one way means life and going the other means death, three in ten will be comrades in life, three in ten will be comrades in death, and there are those who value life and as a result move into the realm of death, and these also number three in ten.
Why is this so? Because they set too much store by life.
I have heard it said that one who excels in safeguarding his own life does not meet with rhinoceros or tiger when travelling on land nor is he touched by weapons when charging into an army.
There is nowhere for the rhinoceros to pitch its horn;
There is nowhere for the tiger to place its claws;
There is nowhere for the weapon to lodge its blade.
Why is this so? Because for him there is no realm of death.
The way gives them life;
Virtue rears them;
Things give them shape;
Circumstances bring them to maturity.
Therefore the myriad creatures all revere the way and honor virtue.
Yet the way is revered and virtue honored not because this is decreed by any authority but because it is natural for them to be treated so.
Thus the way gives them life and rears them;
Brings them up and nurses them;
Brings them to fruition and maturity;
Feeds and shelters them.
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It is the steward yet exercises no authority.
Such is called the mysterious virtue.
The world had a beginning
And this beginning could be the mother of the world.
When you know the mother
Go on to know the child.
After you have known the child
Go back to holding fast to the mother,
And to the end of your days you will not meet with danger. [Source: “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu, translated by D.C. Lau (1963) terebess.hu/english]
Block the openings,
Shut the doors,
And all your life you will not run dry.
Unblock the openings,
Add to your troubles,
And to the end of your days you will be beyond salvation.
To see the small is called discernment;
To hold fast to the submissive is called strength.
Use the light
But give up the discernment.
Bring not misfortune upon yourself.
This is known as following the constant.
Were I possessed of the least knowledge, I would, when walking on the great way, fear only paths that lead astray.
The great way is easy, yet people prefer by-paths.
The court is corrupt,
The fields are overgrown with weeds,
The granaries are empty;
Yet there are those dressed in fineries,
With swords at their sides,
Filled with food and drink,
And possessed of too much wealth.
This is known as taking the lead in robbery.
Far indeed is this from the way.
What is firmly rooted cannot be pulled out;
What is tightly held in the arms will not slip loose;
Through this the offering of sacrifice by descendants will never come to an end.
Cultivate it in your person
And its virtue will be genuine;
Cultivate it in the family
And its virtue will be more than sufficient;
Cultivate it in the hamlet
And its virtue will endure;
Cultivate it in the state
And its virtue will abound;
Cultivate it in the empire
And its virtue will be pervasive.
Hence look at the person through the person;
Look at the family through the family;
Look at the hamlet through the hamlet;
Look at the state through the state;
Look at the empire through the empire.
How do I know that the empire is like that?
By means of this.
One who possesses virtue in abundance is comparable to a new born babe:
Poisonous insects will not sting it;
Ferocious animals will not pounce on it;
Predatory birds will not swoop down on it.
Its bones are weak and its sinews supple yet its hold is firm.
It does not know the union of male and female yet its male member will stir:
This is because its virility is at its height.
It howls all day yet does not become hoarse:
This is because its harmony is at its height.
To know harmony is called the constant;
To know the constant is called discernment.
To try to add to one's vitality is called ill-omened;
For the mind to egg on the breath is called violent.
A creature in its prime doing harm to the old
Is known as going against the way.
That which goes against the way will come to an early end.
One who knows does not speak;
One who speaks does not know.
Block the openings;
Shut the doors.
Blunt the sharpness;
Untangle the knots;
Soften the glare;
Let your wheels move only along old ruts.
This is known as mysterious sameness.
Hence you cannot get close to it, nor can you keep it at arm's length;
You cannot bestow benefit on it, nor can you do it harm;
You cannot ennoble it, nor can you debase it.
Therefore it is valued by the empire.
Govern the state by being straightforward;
Wage war by being crafty;
But win the empire by not being meddlesome.
How do I know that it is like that?
By means of this.
The more taboos there are in the empire
The poorer the people;
The more sharpened tools the people have
The more benighted the state;
The more skills the people have
The further novelties multiply;
The better known the laws and edicts
The more thieves and robbers there are.
Hence the sage says,
I take no action and the people are transformed of themselves;
I prefer stillness and the people are rectified of themselves;
I am not meddlesome and the people prosper of themselves;
I am free from desire and the people of themselves become simple like the uncarved block.
When the government is muddled
The people are simple;
When the government is alert
The people are cunning.
It is on disaster that good fortune perches;
It is beneath good fortune that disaster crouches.
Who knows the limit? Does not the straightforward exist?
The straighforward changes again into the crafty, and the good changes again into the monstrous.
Indeed, it is long since the people were perplexed.
Therefore the sage is square-edged but does not scrape,
Has corners but does not jab,
Extends himself but not at the expense of others,
Shines but does not dazzle.
In ruling the people and in serving heaven it is best for a ruler to be sparing.
It is because he is sparing
That he may be said to follow the way from the start;
Following the way from the start he may be said to accumulate an abundance of virtue;
Accumulating an abundance of virtue there is nothing he cannot overcome;
When there is nothing he cannot overcome, no one knows his limit;
When no one knows his limit
He can possess a state;
When he possesses the mother of a state
He can then endure.
This is called the way of deep roots and firm stems by which one lives to see many days. [Source: “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu, translated by D.C. Lau (1963) terebess.hu/english]
Governing a large state is like boiling a small fish.
When the empire is ruled in accordance with the way,
The spirits lose their potencies.
Or rather, it is not that they lose their potencies,
But that, though they have their potencies, they do not harm the people.
It is not only they who, having their potencies, do not harm the people,
The sage, also, does not harm the people.
As neither does any harm, each attributes the merit to the other.
A large state is the lower reaches of a river:
The place where all the streams of the world unite.
In the union of the world,
The female always gets the better of the male by stillness.
Being still, she takes the lower position.
Hence the large state, by taking the lower position, annexes the small state;
The small state, by taking the lower position, affiliates itself to the large state.
Thus the one, by taking the lower position, annexes;
The other, by taking the lower position, is annexed.
All that the large state wants is to take the other under its wing;
All that the small state wants is to have its services accepted by the other.
If each of the two wants to find its proper place,
It is meet that the large should take the lower position.
The way is the refuge for the myriad creatures.
It is that by which the good man protects,
And that by which the bad is protected.
Beautiful words when offered will win high rank in return;
Beautiful deeds can raise a man above others.
Even if a man is not good, why should he be abandoned?
Hence when the emperor is set up and the three ducal ministers are appointed, he who makes a present of the way without stirring from his seat is preferable to one who offers presents of jade disks followed by a team of four horses.
Why was this way valued of old?
Was it not said that by means of it one got what one wanted and escaped the consequences when one transgressed?
Therefore it is valued by the empire.
Do that which consists in taking no action;
Pursue that which is not meddlesome;
Savor that which has no flavor.
Make the small big and the few many;
Do good to him who has done you an injury.
Lay plans for the accomplishment of the difficult before it becomes difficult;
Make something big by starting with it when small.
Difficult things in the word must needs have their beginnings in the easy;
Big things must needs have their beginnings in the small.
Therefore it is because the sage never attempts to be great that he succeeds in becoming great.
One who makes promises rashly rarely keeps good faith;
One who is in the habit of considering things easy meets with frequent difficulties.
Therefore even the sage treats some things as difficult.
That is why in the end no difficulties can get the better of him.
It is easy to maintain a situation while it is still secure;
It is easy to deal with a situation before symptoms develop;
It is easy to break a thing when it is yet brittle;
It is easy to dissolve a thing when it is yet minute.
Deal with a thing while it is still nothing;
Keep a thing in order before disorder sets in.
A tree that can fill the span of a man's arms
Grows from a downy tip;
A terrace nine storeys high
Rises from hodfuls of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles
Starts from beneath one's feet.
Whoever does anything to it will ruin it;
Whoever lays hold of it will lose it.
Therefore the sage, because he does nothing, never ruins anything;
And, because he does not lay hold of anything, loses nothing.
In their enterprises the people
Always ruin them when on the verge of success.
Be as careful at the end as at the beginning
And there will be no ruined enterprises.
Therefore the sage desires not to desire
And does not value goods which are hard to come by;
Learns to be without learning
And makes good the mistakes of the multitude
In order to help the myriad creatures to be natural and to refrain from daring to act.
Of old those who excelled in the pursuit of the way did not use it to enlighten the people but to hoodwink them.
The reason why the people are difficult to govern is that they are too clever. [Source: “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu, translated by D.C. Lau (1963) terebess.hu/english]
Hence to rule a state by cleverness
Will be to the detriment of the state;
Not to rule a state by cleverness
Will be a boon to the state.
These two are models.
Always to know the models
Is known as mysterious virtue.
Mysterious virtue is profound and far-reaching,
But when things turn back it turns back with them.
Only then is complete conformity realized.
The reason why the River and the Sea are able to be king of the hundred valleys is that they excel in taking the lower position.
Hence they are able to be king of the hundred valleys.
Therefore, desiring to rule over the people,
One must in one's words humble oneself before them;
And, desiring to lead the people,
One must, in one's person, follow behind them.
Therefore the sage takes his place over the people yet is no burden;
takes his place ahead of the people yet causes no obstruction.
That is why the empire supports him joyfully and never tires of doing so.
It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position to contend with him.
The whole world says that my way is vast and resembles nothing.
It is because it is vast that it resembles nothing.
If it resembled anything, it would, long before now, have become small.
I have three treasures
Which I hold and cherish.
The first is known as compassion,
The second is known as frugality,
The third is known as not daring to take the lead in the empire;
Being compassionate one could afford to be courageous,
Being frugal one could afford to extend one's territory,
Not daring to take the lead in the empire one could afford to be lord over the vessels.
Now, to forsake compassion for courage, to forsake frugality for expansion, to forsake the rear for the lead, is sure to end in death.
Through compassion, one will triumph in attack and be impregnable in defence.
What heaven succours it protects with the gift of compassion.
One who excels as a warrior does not appear formidable;
One who excels in fighting is never roused in anger;
One who excels in defeating his enemy does not join issue;
One who excels in employing others humbles himself before them.
This is known as the virtue of non-contention;
This is known as making use of the efforts of others;
This is known as matching the sublimity of heaven.
The strategists have a saying,
I dare not play the host but play the guest,
I dare not advance an inch but retreat a foot instead.
This is known as marching forward when there is no road,
Rolling up one's sleeves when there is no arm,
Dragging one's adversary by force when there is no adversary,
And taking up arms when there are no arms.
There is no disaster greater than taking on an enemy too easily.
So doing nearly cost me my treasure.
Thus of two sides raising arms against each other,
It is the one that is sorrow-stricken that wins.
My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice,
Yet no one in the world can understand them or put them into practice. [Source: “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu, translated by D.C. Lau (1963) terebess.hu/english]
Words have an ancestor and affairs have a sovereign.
It is because people are ignorant that they fail to understand me.
Those who understand me are few;
Those who harm me are honoured.
Therefore the sage, while clad in homespun, conceals on his person a priceless piece of jade.
To know yet to think that one does not know is best;
Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty.
It is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it.
The sage meets with no difficulty.
It is because he is alive to it that he meets with no difficulty.
When the people lack a proper sense of awe, then some awful visitation will descend upon them.
Do not constrict their living space;
Do not press down on their means of livelihood.
It is because you do not press down on them that they will not weary of the burden.
Hence the sage knows himself but does not display himself,
Loves himself but does not exalt himself.
Therefore he discards the one and takes the other.
He who is fearless in being bold will meet with his death;
He who is fearless in being timid will stay alive.
Of the two, one leads to good, the other to harm.
Heaven hates what it hates,
Who knows the reason why?
Therefore even the sage treats some things as difficult.
The way of heaven
Excels in overcoming though it does not contend,
In responding though it does not speak,
In attracting though it does not summon,
In laying plans though it appears slack.
The net of heaven is cast wide.
Though the mesh is not fine, yet nothing ever slips through.
When the people are not afraid of death, wherefore frighten them with death?
Were the people always afraid of death, and were I able to arrest and put to death those who innovate, then who would dare?
There is a regular executioner whose charge it is to kill.
To kill on behalf of the executioner is what is described as chopping wood on behalf of the master carpenter.
In chopping wood on behalf of the master carpenter, there are few who escape hurting their own hands instead.
The people are hungry:
It is because those in authority eat up too much in taxes
That the people are hungry.
The people are difficult to govern.
It is because those in authority are too fond of action
That the people are difficult to govern.
The people treat death lightly:
It is because the people set too much store by life
That they treat death lightly.
It is just because one has no use for life that one is wiser than the man who values life.
A man is supple and weak when living, but hard and stiff when dead.
Grass and trees are pliant and fragile when living, but dried and shrivelled when dead.
Thus the hard and the strong are the comrades of death;
The supple and the weak are the comrades of life. [Source: “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu, translated by D.C. Lau (1963) terebess.hu/english]
Therefore a weapon that is strong will not vanquish;
A tree that is strong will suffer the axe.
The strong and big takes the lower position,
The supple and weak takes the higher position.
Is not the way of heaven like the stretching of a bow?
The high it presses down,
The low it lifts up;
The excessive it takes from,
The deficient it gives to.
It is the way of heaven to take from what has in excess in order to make good what is deficient.
The way of man is otherwise: it takes from those who are in want in order to offer this to those who already have more than enough.
Who is there that can take what he himself has in excess and offer this to the empire?
Only he who has the way.
Therefore the sage benefits them yet exacts no gratitude,
Accomplishes his task yet lays claim to no merit.
Is this not because he does not wish to be considered a better man than others?
In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water.
Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.
This is because there is nothing that can take its place.
That the weak overcomes the strong,
And the submissive overcomes the hard,
Everyone in the world knows yet no one can put this knowledge into practice.
Therefore the sage says,
One who takes on himself the humiliation of the state
Is called a ruler worthy of offering sacrifices to the gods of earth and millet.
One who takes on himself the calamity of the state
Is called a king worthy of dominion over the entire empire.
Straightforward words seem paradoxical.
When peace is made between great enemies,
Some enmity is bound to remain undispelled.
How can this be considered perfect?
Therefore the sage takes the left-hand tally, but exacts no payment from the people.
The man of virtue takes charge of the tally;
The man of no virtue takes charge of exaction.
It is the way of heaven to show no favoritism.
It is for ever on the side of the good man.
Reduce the size of the population and the state.
Ensure that even though the people have tools of war for a troop or a battalion they will not use them;
And also that they will be reluctant to move to distant places because they look on death as no light matter. [Source: “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu, translated by D.C. Lau (1963) terebess.hu/english]
Even when they have ships and carts, they will have no use for them;
And even when they have armor and weapons, they will have no occasion to make a show of them.
Bring it about that the people will return to the use of the knotted rope,
Will find relish in their food
And beauty in their clothes,
Will be content in their abode
And happy in the way they live.
Though adjoining states are within sight of one another,
And the sound of dogs barking and cocks crowing in one state can be heard in another,
yet the people of one state will grow old and die without having had any dealings with those of another.
Truthful words are not beautiful;
Beautiful words are not truthful.
Good words are not persuasive;
Persuasive words are not good.
He who knows has no wide learning;
He who has wide learning does not know.
The sage does not hoard.
Having bestowed all he has on others, he has yet more;
Having given all he has to others, he is richer still.
The way of heaven benefits and does not harm;
The way of the sage is bountiful and does not contend.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,
Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated September 2016