Dao de jing

The most important Taoist text is the“Dao de jing” (“Tao te ching”, “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 “Dao de jing” 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 “Dao de jing” “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, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“The text takes its name from two key concepts within it. In Confucianism, the “Dao” (or the “Way”) refers to the teachings and institutions of sages from the past. In the “Dao de jing” 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 word “ tao “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 Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Wikipedia article on Chinese Philosophy religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de lots of dead links, but maybe helpful

Contents of the Dao de jing

“The “Dao de jing” is unlike most other early texts. Its authorial voice is haunting, detached, impersonal. The rhetoric of the text resembles that of Biblical prophecy. It is grandiose and obscure. The tone of the text itself feels authoritative beyond any other Chinese text; perhaps that is why several new English translations are published – and sell out – each year or two. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The mystery that flows from the “Dao de jing”’s mix of poetry and prose probably arises from two sources. The more intellectually genuine of these is the sincere sense of awe that individuals who broke with their lives of social engagement discovered when they retreated to a world of forests and waterfalls, birds and stars. But also, once the marketability of eremitic sagehood had been established, it is likely that the oracular tone of the “Dao de jing” became the rhetorical stance of the Daoist persuader, the recluse who made celebrated and well rewarded appearances at court to share with rulers secrets learned in the cliffs and caves but applicable to the art of statecraft. These two voices correspond to two very different doctrinal directions that appear in the “Dao de jing”. As we read the text, we cannot help but be struck by the awe-inspiring isolation of the secluded hermit and the intimate and original vision of nature that he presents. /+/

“The “Dao,” which in these portions of the text seems to be something close to the inexplicable rhythms of the natural world perceived through wordless experience, is a compelling concept. It combines religious awe, philosophical sophistication, and a deep sense of aesthetic fulfillment. The text links this understanding of nature to an absolute valuation of selflessness and the renunciation of all goal.directed action. Man’s project becomes the emulation of nature’s spontaneous operation, a return to spontaneous action from instinct alone. This is referred to in the text by the term wuwei, which is often translated “non-action,” but really means non- striving: the absence of all motivation in one’s action, apart from the satisfaction of those needs which humans possess in their most basic, pre-verbal stages. /+/

“At the same time, it is disconcerting to find this call for non-striving and renunciation of the self linked to the crassest of political motives: the attainment of the highest political position – to rule the empire. The attraction of the selfless Way turns out to be its potential to satisfy a lust for power. While those devoted to the “Dao de jing” sometimes approach this from a salvationist angle – the desire to be king merely reflects the wish to release the world from the chains of false values – it is hard to escape the impression that the motives of the authors of the book were, perhaps, mixed.” /+/

Beginning of the Dao de jing

According to the Dao de jing: “A Dao that may be spoken is not the enduring Dao. A name that may be named is not an enduring name. No names – this is the beginning of Heaven and earth. Having names – this is the mother of the things of the world. Make freedom from desire your constant norm; thereby you will see what is subtle. Make having desires your constant norm; thereby you will see what is manifest. These two arise from the same source but have different names. Together they may be termed ‘the mysterious’. Mystery and more mystery: the gate of all that is subtle.” (ch. 1) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “The first sentence is the most famous pun in Chinese. The word dao possesses a variety of early meanings, and among them are the verb meaning “to speak,” and two nominal meanings: “a teaching,” and “the transcendent order of the universe.” The initial six characters of the “Dao de jing” include three daos (in Chinese it reads: “Dao ke dao fei chang dao”). They may be taken to mean, respectively, “teaching,” “to speak,” and “transcendent order.”“/+/

The Dao de jing continues: When everyone in the world knows beauty as beauty ugliness appears. When everyone knows good as good not-good arrives. Therefore being and non-being give birth to one another; Difficult and easy give completion to one another; Long and short form one another; High and low fill one another; Sound and voice harmonize with one another; Ahead and behind follow after one another. Therefore the sage accomplishes things by doing nothing (wuwei) Furthering a teaching that is without words. All things arise, and he does not leave them. He gives them life but without possessing them. He acts but without relying on his own ability. He succeeds but without dwelling on his success. And because he does not dwell on it, it does not leave him. [Ch. 2] [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 79-94; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]

“Do not exalt the worthy and the people will not compete. Do not value goods that are hard to come by and the people will not steal. Do not display objects of desire and the people’s minds will not be disturbed. Therefore the ordering of the sage empties their minds fills their bellies weakens their ambitions strengthens their bones. He always causes the people to be without knowledge without desire And causes the wise ones not to dare to act. He does nothing (wuwei), and there is nothing that is not brought to order. [Ch 3]

“The Way is empty. It may be used without ever being exhausted. Fathomless, it seems to be the ancestor of all things. Blunting the sharpness Untying the tangles Subduing the light. Merging with the dust. Profound, it appears to exist forever. Whose child it is I do not know. It seems to have existed before the Lord. The sage is not humane Regarding the people as straw dogs. Between Heaven and Earth.. how like a bellows! Vacuous but inexhaustible Moving and producing ever more. An excess of words ends in impoverishment. It is better to hold to the center. [Ch. 4]

Heaven and earth are not ren [virtuous] they treat the things of the world as straw dogs. The sage is not ren: he treats the people as straw dogs. All between heaven and earth is like a great bellows –, Empty, yet it does not collapse, Breathing out more with every move. Many words are much exhausted;, Better to cleave to the center. (ch. 5) [Dr. Eno notes: “Straw dog” refers to a ritual object which, prior to its use in sacrificial ceremony, was treated with reverence, and afterwards was ceremonially trampled.] /+/

Chapter 1

The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name. [Source: “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu, translated by D.C. Lau (1963) terebess.hu/english]

The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.

Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.

These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery -
The gateway of the manifold secrets.

Chapter 2


The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly;
the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.

Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;
The difficult and the easy complement each other;
The long and the short off-set each other;
The high and the low incline towards each other;
Note and sound harmonize with each other;
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practises the teaching that uses no words.

The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority;
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.

It is because it lays claim to no merit
That its merit never deserts it.

Chapter 3

Not to honor men of worth will keep the people from contention;
not to value goods which are hard to come by will keep them from theft;
not to display what is desirable will keep them from being unsettled of mind. [Source: “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu, translated by D.C. Lau (1963) terebess.hu/english]

Therefore in governing the people, the sage empties their minds but fills their bellies, weakens their wills but strengthens their bones.
He always keeps them innocent of knowledge and free from desire, and ensures that the clever never dare to act.

Do that which consists in taking no action, and order will prevail.

Chapter 4

The way is empty, yet use will not drain it.
Deep, it is like the ancestor of the myriad creatures.

Blunt the sharpness;
Untangle the knots;
Soften the glare;
Let your wheels move only along old ruts.

Darkly visible, it only seems as if it were there.
I know not whose son it is.
It images the forefather of God.

Chapter 5

Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs;
the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.

Is not the space between heaven and earth like a bellows?
It is empty without being exhausted:
The more it works the more comes out.

Much speech leads inevitably to silence.
Better to hold fast to the void.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Last updated September 2021

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