This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.
Last updated Wednesday, December 17, 2014 at 14:18.
To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
This edition/rendition of the Tao te Ching represents my own interpretation of this classic of Chinese Taoist philosophy. The text is based on the James Legge translation. This was chosen for two reasons: first, the undisputed scholarship of Legge, second because his translation is in the public domain. However, many passages are substantially different, being my own interpretation of what I feel was intended. In some cases I have merely updated the language to suit modern taste (especially those which Legge attempted to put into verse, which many times produced execrable results). In other cases, I have reworked a passage to better accord with what I believe to be the essence of the Tao — not that I claim to be any kind of expert: I just personally feel happier with my rendering.
In reinterpreting parts, I have consulted a number of other editions to arrive at, I hope, a meaningful synthesis. See the bibliography at the end of this document.
It is my belief that the traditional structure of the work, namely the split into 81 chapters, is an artefact of later editions, and has no intrinsic value for the meaning. If one reads the work while ignoring chapter breaks, it seems evident that the work is really a compilation of short aphorisms, loosely arranged by some editor into some kind of order. Certainly the chapters do not logically flow from one to the next, and in many cases, the separate "verses" within a chapter bear no relation to one another. (For example, see Chapter XXXIX, where several verses mention "carriages", but the last is clearly on a different track altogether.)
Furthermore, there seem to be obvious stylistic differences between paragraphs. Some have a dream-like quality, others are practical advice, others still seem more like later commentary. These latter I have rendered in italics. In particular, those passages which are intent on naming things (this is called . . . ) seem to me to be outside the spirit intended by "Lao tzu"!
Steve Thomas, 1998
The way that can be described is not the unchanging Way.
The name that can be named is not the unchanging Name.
Nameless, it is the origin of Heaven and Earth.
When Named, it gives birth to all things.
Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but in applying names we differentiate its manifestations. Of all mysteries, this is the most profound; it is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.
You must rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
if you have desires, you will only see its manifestations.
In recognising beauty, we have the idea of ugliness;
in knowing something as good, we consider other things as not good.
So it is that:
existence and non existence give birth to one another;
difficulty and ease complement one another;
length and shortness fashion each other;
height and lowness contrast with one another;
before and behind follow each other.
The Sage manages affairs without action, and instructs without words.
All things spring up, yet it declines to show itself;
they grow, yet it makes no claim for their ownership;
they go through their processes, yet it claims no reward;
the work is accomplished, yet it claims no merit.
Making no claims, its power is never diminished.
Not to honour men of superior ability will keep the people from contention;
Not to prize articles which are hard to come by will keep them from theft;
Not to display what is desirable will keep their minds from disorder.
In governing the people, the Sage empties their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens their bones. He keeps them innocent of knowledge and without desire, and where they have knowledge, he keeps them from acting on it.
Where there is absence of action, there will be good order.
The Way is like the emptiness of a vessel, yet use will never exhaust it.
How deep and unfathomable it is, like the ancestor of all things!
How pure and still the Tao is, as if it would always continue!
I do not know whose son it is. It might have existed before God.*
Blunt the sharp points;
unravel the knots;
soften the brightness;
bring yourself into obscurity.
"Heaven and earth do not act from benevolence; they deal with all things as straw dogs;
The Sage does not act from benevolence, but treats the people as straw dogs."*
The space between Heaven and Earth is like a bellows. It is emptied without being exhausted; the more it works, the more air comes out.
Much speech leads to exhaustion;
guard your inner being, and keep it free.
The spirit of the valley never dies; this is called the mysterious female.
The gateway of the mysterious female is called the root of Heaven and Earth.
Pure and still, use will never exhaust it.
Heaven and Earth are long-enduring. The reason why they are enduring is that they do not live for themselves.
The Sage puts himself last, and yet prospers;
he treats his person as foreign to him, and yet it is preserved.
It is because he has no thought for himself that he is able to accomplish his private ends.
The highest good is like water.
The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things, and in occupying, without striving, the low place which men dislike. Hence its way is near to the Tao. And not contending about its low place, it is never at fault.
The excellence of a residence is in the site;
The excellence of the mind is in depth;
The excellence of associates is in virtue;
The excellence of speech is in honesty;
The excellence of government is in maintaining order;
The excellence of the conduct of affairs is in ability;
The excellence of action is in timeliness.
It is better to leave a vessel unfilled, than to have it overturn when full.
If you keep feeling a point that has been sharpened, it will soon be blunt.
When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe.
When wealth and honours lead to arrogance, this brings evil on itself.
When the work is done, and one's name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.
While nourishing your bodily soul, can you embrace the One?
In concentrating your breath, can you make it as soft as a baby's?
Can you polish your mysterious mirror, and leave no mark?
In loving the people and governing the state, can you proceed without action?
When the Gates of Heaven open and shut, can you keep to the role of the female?
With your intelligence reaching the four corners of the world, can you appear to be without knowledge?
The Tao produces all things and nourishes them.
It produces all, yet makes no claim;
it does all, yet does not boast;
it presides over all, yet does not control.
This is called the Mysterious Quality.
Thirty spokes make a wheel; but it is on the empty hub that the use of the wheel depends.
Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it on their hollowness that their use depends.
Doors and windows are cut from walls to make a room; but it is on the space inside that its use depends.
Thus what has existence serves for profitable adaptation, and what has no existence for actual usefulness.
The five colours make the eyes blind;
The five notes make the ears deaf;
The five flavours deprive the mouth of taste.
Riding and hunting make the mind wild;
Rare objects make the conduct evil.*
The wise man seeks to satisfy the belly, and not the insatiable longing of the senses.
He puts from him the outer, and seeks the inner.
Favour and disgrace are equally to be feared;
life and death are conditions of the same kind.
What is meant by speaking thus of favour and disgrace? Disgrace is being in a low position after the enjoyment of favour. The getting of favour leads to the fear of its loss. Therefore favour and disgrace are equally to be feared.
And what is meant by saying that life and death are conditions of the same kind? Having my body makes me liable to die; if I had not this body, what calamity could befall me?
He who would administer the kingdom, honouring it as he honours his own person, and who would love it with the same love he has for his own person, he may be entrusted with the empire.
We look at it, and do not see it, and so name it the Equable.
We listen to it, and do not hear it, and so name it the Inaudible.
We try to grasp it, and cannot get hold of it, and so name it the Subtle.
With these qualities, it cannot be described, and so we call it the One.
Its upper part is not bright, its lower part is not obscure. Ceaseless in its action, it yet cannot be named, and then it again returns to nothingness.
This is called the Form of the Formless, and the Semblance of the Invisible; this is called the Fleeting and
We meet it and do not see its front; we follow it and do not see its back.
When we can lay hold of the Tao of old to direct the things of the present, and are able to know it as it was in
the beginning, this is called unwinding the thread of Tao.
The skilful masters in old times, with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep so as to elude men's knowledge.
As they were thus beyond men's knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they appeared to be:
cautious, as if wading through a stream in winter;
irresolute, as if afraid of all around them;
grave, like a guest;
evanescent, like melting ice;
unpretentious, like a piece of uncarved wood;
vacant like a valley;
dull like muddy water.
Who can make the muddy water clear? Let it be still, and it gradually becomes clear.
Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.
They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full of themselves. It is through not being full of themselves that they can afford to seem worn and not appear new and complete.
Bring vacancy to the utmost degree;
guard stillness with unwearying vigour.
All things alike go through their processes of activity, and then return to their original state. When plants have displayed their luxuriant growth, we see each of them return to its root. This returning to the root is what we call the state of stillness; and that stillness indicates that they have fulfilled their purpose.
Process and fulfilment is the regular, unchanging rule. To know that unchanging rule is to be intelligent; not to know it leads to wild movements and evil issues.
The knowledge of the unchanging rule produces forbearance;
Forbearance leads to a community of feeling with all things;
Community of feeling leads to* the Tao.
Possessed of the Tao, he endures long, and to the end of his bodily life is exempt from all danger of decay.
The best leaders go unnoticed by the people.
The next best are loved and praised by the people.
Then there are those who are feared by the people.
Lastly there are those who are despised.
When the leaders lack faith, then the people lack faith in them.
The best leaders make their words valuable and precious. Their work is done, and their undertakings successful, while the people say, "We are as we are, of ourselves!"
Where the Great Tao has ceased to be observed, benevolence and righteousness come into vogue.
When wisdom and shrewdness appear, there will be great hypocrisy.
When family harmony no longer prevails, then filial piety is advocated.
When the state falls into disorder, then loyal ministers are praised.
Renounce learning, and the people will have no troubles.
Renounce sageness and discard wisdom, and the people will benefit a hundredfold.
Renounce benevolence and discard morality, and the people will become filial and kind.
Renounce cleverness and discard profit, and there will be no thieves and robbers.
These old methods being difficult, therefore let people hold on to these:
have few desires.
What is the difference between yes and no?
What is the difference between good and bad?
Who is feared must fear others.
The multitude look satisfied and pleased, as if enjoying a banquet or going on an outing in Spring. I alone seem listless and still, without purpose, confused by questions without end. I am like an infant which has not yet smiled. I look dejected and forlorn, as if I had no home.
The multitude all have more than enough. I alone seem to have lost everything. My mind is that of a stupid man; I am in a state of chaos.
Ordinary people look bright and intelligent, while I alone seem benighted. They look full of discrimination, while I am dull and confused. I seem to be carried about as on the sea, drifting as if I had nowhere to rest. Ordinary people have their purpose, while I alone seem foolish and uncouth.
I am different from other men, but I am fed by the Tao.*
In his every movement a man of great virtue follows the Way and the way only.
What is the nature of the Tao?
It eludes our sight and touch.
Eluding touch, eluding sight, within it is the image of things.
Eluding sight, eluding touch, within it is the form of things.
Profound, dark, obscure, within it is the essence of things.
The essence of things holds the truth, which when seen can be revealed.
Now as of old, its power has not deserted it. So the multitude of things form and do not decay.
How do I know that it is so with all existing things? By this nature of the Tao.
The partial becomes complete;
the crooked becomes straight;
the empty becomes full;
the worn becomes new.
The saying of the ancients, that "the partial becomes complete" is indeed true; all real completion is comprehended by it.
He whose desires are few will achieve them;
he whose desires are many will find disappointment.
The Sage embraces humility, and manifests it to the world.
He is free from self-display, and therefore he shines;
from self-assertion, and therefore he is distinguished;
from boasting, and therefore he has merit;
from complacency, and therefore he has superiority.
It is because he is thus free from striving than no-one is able to strive with him.
Abstaining from speech marks him who is obeying the spontaneity of his nature.
A violent wind does not last for a whole morning;
a sudden rain does not last the whole day.
To whom is it that these things are owing? To Heaven and Earth. If Heaven and Earth cannot make such things last long, how much less can man.
When one is making the Way his business, those who are also following it recognise him in it; to those who are pursuing Virtue he seems virtuous; to those who are failing in both those things he seems a failure.
Hence those seeking the Tao have the happiness of attaining to the Tao; those seeking Virtue have the happiness of attaining to virtue; those seeking failure have the happiness of attaining to failure.
When there is not sufficient faith on his part, others will lack faith in him.
He who stands on tiptoes does not stand firm;
he who takes long strides does not walk easily.
He who displays himself does not shine;
he who asserts his own views is not distinguished;
he who brags does not find his merit acknowledged;
he who is self-conceited has no superiority allowed to him.
Such conditions, viewed from the standpoint of the Way, are like remnants of food, or a tumour on the body, which all dislike. Those who follow the Way do not adopt and allow them.
There was something undefined and complete, existing before Heaven and Earth.
How still it was, and formless, standing alone, and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere without exhaustion.
It may be regarded as the Source of all things.
I do not know its name, so I give it the designation of the Tao. Forced to give it a name, I would call it The Great.
Great, it passes on in constant flow.
Passing on, it becomes remote.
Having become remote, it returns.
Therefore the Tao is great; Heaven is great; Earth is great; and the Sage is also great. In the Universe there are four things that are great, and the Sage is one of them.
Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Tao. The law of the Tao is its being what it is.
Gravity is the root of lightness;
stillness is the ruler of movement.
A wise man, making a long journey, does not go far from his baggage. Although he may have brilliant prospects to look at, he quietly remains in his proper place, indifferent to them.
How can the lord of a thousand chariots carry himself lightly before the kingdom? If he acts lightly, he has lost his root of gravity; if he proceeds to active movement, he will lose his throne.
The skilful traveller leaves no traces of his wheels or footsteps;
the skilful speaker says nothing that can be found fault with or blamed;
the skilful reckoner uses no tallies;
the skilful closer needs no bolts or bars, while to open what he has shut will be impossible;
the skilful binder uses no strings or knots, while to unloose what he has bound will be impossible.
In the same way, the Sage cares for all people, and so he does not reject any one; he is cares for all things, and so he does not reject anything.
This is called "Hiding the light of his procedure".
The man of skill is a master to be looked up to by him who has not the skill; and he who has not the skill is the helper of the reputation of him who has the skill. If the one did not honour his master, and the other did not rejoice in his helper, even an intelligent observer might easily confuse the two.
This is the secret of perfection.
If you can know the male, yet hold onto the female,
You'll be the ravine of the country.
Being the ravine on the country,
Your constant virtue will not leave,
And you'll return to the state of the infant.
When you know the pure*, yet hold onto the soiled,
You'll be the valley to the country.
Being the valley to the country,
Your constant virtue is complete,
And you'll return to the state of the uncarved block.
Raw material, when worked, may be turned into vessels.*
The Sage, when employed, becomes the Head of all the Officers;
and in his greatest regulations he employs no violent measures.
If one should wish to get the Kingdom for himself, and to effect this by what he does, I see that he will not succeed. The Kingdom is a spirit-like thing, and cannot be got by active doing.
He who would so win it destroys it;
he who would hold it in his grasp loses it.
What was in front is now behind.
What was hot is now cold.
What was strong is now weak.
The Sage puts away excessive effort, extravagance and easy indulgence.
He who would assist a lord of men in harmony with the Way will not assert his mastery in the kingdom by force of arms. Such a course is sure to meet with its proper return.
Wherever an army is stationed, briars and thorns spring up.
Following great battles there are sure to be bad years.
A skilful commander strikes a decisive blow, and stops. He does not dare by continuing his operations to assert and complete his mastery.
He will strike the blow, but will be on his guard against being vain or boastful or arrogant in consequence of it. He strikes it as a matter of necessity; he strikes it, but not from a wish for mastery.
When things in their prime do harm to the old, this may be said to be not in accordance with the Way; and what is not in accordance with it soon comes to an end.
Now weapons, however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen, hateful to all creatures. Therefore those who have the Tao do not like to employ them.
The superior man ordinarily considers the left hand the most honourable place, but in time of war the right hand. Those sharp weapons are instruments of evil omen, and not the instruments of the superior man; he uses them only on the compulsion of necessity. Calm and repose are what he prizes; victory by force of arms is to him undesirable. To consider this desirable would be to delight in the slaughter of men; he who delights in the slaughter of men cannot get his will in the Kingdom.
On occasions of festivity to be on the left hand is the prized position; on occasions of mourning, the right hand. The second-in-command has his place on the left; the commander-in-chief on the right; his place, that is, is assigned to him as in the rites of mourning. He who has killed multitudes of men should weep for them with the bitterest grief; and the victor in battle has his place according to those rites.
The Tao, considered as unchanging, has no name.
Though in its primordial simplicity it may be small, the whole world dares not deal with one embodying it as a minister. If a prince could guard and hold it, all would spontaneously submit themselves to him.
Heaven and Earth under its guidance unite together and send down the sweet dew, which without the directions of men, reaches equally everywhere as of its own accord.
As soon as it proceeds to action, it has a name.
When it once has that name, men can know to rest in it. When they know to rest in it, they can be free from all risk of failure and error.
The relation of the Tao to all the world is like that of the great rivers and seas to the streams from the valleys.
He who knows other men is discerning;
he who knows himself is intelligent.
He who overcomes others is strong;
he who overcomes himself is mighty.
He who works hard gets wealth;
he who knows when he has enough is truly rich.*
He who does not fail in the requirements of his position continues long;
he who dies yet is not forgotten has longevity.
All-pervading is the Great Tao! It may be found on the left and the right.
All things depend on it for their production, which it gives to them, not one refusing obedience.
When its work is accomplished, it does not claim the name of having done it.
It clothes all things as with a garment, and makes no assumption of being their lord; it may be named in the smallest things.
All things return to their root and disappear, and do not know that it is it which presides over their doing so; it may be named in the greatest things.
Hence the Sage is able in the same way to accomplish his great achievements. It is through his not making himself great that he can accomplish them.
To him who holds in his hands the Great Image of the invisible Tao, the whole world repairs. Men resort to him, and receive no hurt, but find rest, peace and the feeling of ease.
Music and dainties will make the passing guest stop for a time. But though the Tao, as it comes from the mouth, seems insipid and has no flavour, though it seems not worth being looked at or listened to, the use of it is inexhaustible.
In order to breathe in, one must first breathe out;
To weaken something, it must first be strong;
to overthrow something, it must first be raised up;
to take away, one must first give.
This is called "Hiding the Light of procedure".
The soft overcomes the hard;
The weak overcomes the strong.
Fishes should not be taken from the deep; the instruments of a state should not be shown to the people.
The Tao in its regular course does nothing for the sake of doing it, and so there is nothing which it does not do.
If princes and kings were able to maintain it, all things would of themselves be transformed by them.
If this transformation became an object of desire, I would express this desire by the nameless simplicity.
Nameless simplicity is free from all desires.
With no desire, at rest and still, all things go right as of themselves.
The man of superior virtue is not mindful of it, and therefore possesses it in fullest measure.
The man of inferior virtue is mindful of his virtue, and therefore does not possess it in fullest measure.
The man of superior virtue does nothing, and thus there is no need to do anything.
The man of inferior virtue acts, and thus there is the need for virtue.
The man of benevolence acts, and thus there is the need for benevolence.
The man of morality acts, and thus there is the need for morality.
The man of law acts, and when people do not respond, he forces them.
Thus it is that when the Tao is lost, Virtue arises;
when Virtue is lost, Benevolence arises;
when Benevolence is lost, Morality arises;
and when Morality is lost, the Law arises.
Now propriety is the superficial form of loyalty and good faith, and the beginning of disorder;
swift apprehension is only a flower of the Tao, and is the beginning of stupidity.
The Great man abides by what is solid, and eschews what is flimsy;
he dwells with the fruit and not the with the flower.
Therefore he puts away the external and makes choice of the inner.
These things derive from the One:
Heaven is pure;
Earth is firm;
the Spirits have their powers;
the Valley is filled;
all creatures have their life;
rulers have their authority.
Without the One, Heaven would soon tear apart; the Earth would shake; the Spirits would fail; the Valley would be exhausted; all creatures would die; Rulers would fall.
What men dislike is to be orphans, to have little virtue, to be as carriages without wheels; and yet these are designations which Kings and princes use for themselves.
Dignity has its root in humility;
what is high has its foundation in what is low.
It is for this reason that Kings call themselves "Orphans", "Men of small virtue" and "Carriages without a
wheel". Is this not an acknowledgment that in considering themselves so humbly they see the foundation of their
They do not wish to show themselves elegant-looking as jade, but prefer to be coarse-looking as an ordinary stone.
In listing the different parts of a carriage, you still have no carriage.
When Scholars of the highest ability hear about the Tao, they earnestly carry it into practice.
When Scholars of average ability hear about the Tao, they seem now to keep it and now to lose it.
When Scholars of the lowest ability hear about the Tao, they laugh greatly at it. If they did not laugh at it, it would not be the Tao.
The sentence-makers have expressed it thus:
The brightest Tao seems dark;
Who makes progress in it seems to retreat;
The even Way seems rough;
The highest virtue is like a valley;
The greatest beauty seems ugly;
He has most whose lot supplies the least;
The firmest virtue seems poor and low;
The solid truth seems to change.
The Great Square has no corners;
The Great Vessel is the slowest to make;
The Great Sound is silent;
The Great Image has no shape.
The Tao is hidden, and has no name;
But it is the Tao that is skilful in imparting to all things what they need and making them complete.
The movement of the Tao proceeds by opposites.
The action of the Tao is marked by weakness.
All things sprang from It as existing and named;
That existence sprang from It as non-existent and unnamed.
The Tao produced One;
One produced Two;
Two produced Three;
Three produced all things.
All things leave behind them the Obscurity from which they have come, and go forward to embrace the Brightness into which they have emerged, while they are harmonised by the Breath of Vacancy.
So it is that some things are increased by being diminished, and others are diminished by being increased.
What other men teach, I also teach. The violent and strong do not die a natural death. I will make this the basis of my teaching.
The softest thing in the world overcomes the hardest; that which has no existence may enter where there is no crevice.
I know hereby the advantage of doing nothing.
There are few in the world who can attain to the teaching without words, and the advantage arising from non-action.
Fame or life: which do you hold more dear?
Life or wealth: to which would you hold?
Keep life and lose those other things;
Keep them and lose your life:
Which brings greater sorrow?
Thus we may see:
who clings to fame rejects what is more great;
who loves wealth gives up what has greater value.
Who is content needs fear no shame.
Who knows when to stop incurs no blame.
Free from danger, he will live long.
Who thinks his great achievements poor shall have long life.
Great fullness seems empty, yet it is never exhausted.
Great straightness seems crooked;
Great skill seems clumsy;
Great eloquence seems stammering.
Constant action overcomes cold;
being still overcomes heat.
Purity and stillness give the correct law to all under heaven.
When the Tao prevails in the world, swift horses work in the fields.
When the Tao is disregarded, war horses breed on the borders.
There is no guilt greater than to sanction ambition;
no calamity greater than to be discontented with one's lot;
no fault greater than the wish to be getting.
The sufficiency of contentment is an enduring and unchanging sufficiency.
Without going outside his door, one understands all that takes place under the sky;
without looking out from his window, one sees the Tao of Heaven.
The farther that one goes out from himself, the less he knows.
The Sages got their knowledge without travelling;
gave the right names to things without seeing them;
accomplished their ends without any purpose of doing so.
He who devotes himself to learning seeks from day to day to increase his knowledge.
He who devotes himself to the Way seeks from day to day to decrease his doing.
He does less and less, until he arrives at doing nothing on purpose. Having arrived at this point of non-action, there is nothing that he does not do.
He who gets as his own everything under heaven does so by giving himself no trouble with that end. If one takes trouble over it, then he is not equal to getting as his own all under heaven.
The Sage has no invariable mind of his own;
he makes the mind of the people his mind.
To those who are good to me, I am good;
to those who are not good to me, I am also good;
and thus I am good to all.
To those who are sincere with me, I am sincere;
to those who are not sincere with me, I am also sincere;
and thus all are treated sincerely.
The Sage has in the world an appearance of indecision, and keeps his mind in a state of indifference to all.
The people all keep their eyes and ears directed to him, and he deals with them all as his children.
We come forth into life; we return to death.
Some embrace life, some embrace death, and there are those who cling to life and yet meet death.
And for what reason? Because they place too much importance on preserving their life.
I have heard of one who is skilful in managing the life entrusted to him for a time.
He travels without fear of wild animals.
He enters a battle without fear of weapons.
The wild beast finds no place for horn or claw.
The weapon finds no place for its point.
And for what reason? Because there is in him no place of death.
All things are produced by the Tao, and nourished by its outflowing operation. They receive their forms according to the nature of each, and are completed according to the circumstances of their condition.
Therefore all things without exception honour the Tao and exalt its outflowing operation.
This honouring of the Tao and exalting of its operation is not the result of any ordination, but always a spontaneous tribute.
Thus it is that:
the Tao produces all things, nourishes them, brings them to their full growth, nurses them, completes them, matures them, maintains them and overspreads them.
It produces them and does not claim them;
it carries them through their processes and does not boast;
it brings them to maturity and exercises no control over them.
This is called its mysterious operation.
The Tao which originated all under the sky is to be considered as the Mother of them all.
When the mother is found, we know what her children should be. When one knows that he is his mother's child, and proceeds to guard the qualities of the mother that belong to him, to the end of his life he will be free from peril.
Let him keep his mouth closed, and shut up his nostrils, and all his life he will be exempt from laborious exertion.
Keeping his mouth open and spending his breath in the promotion of his affairs, all his life there will be no safety for him.
The perception of what is small is the secret of clear-sightedness;
the guarding of what is soft and tender is the secret of strength.
Who uses well his light, reverting to its bright source, will ward off all danger, and hide the unchanging from men's sight.
If I were suddenly to become known, and put into a position to govern according to the Great Tao, what I should most fear would be a boastful display.
The Great Way is level and straight, but people love the by-ways.
Their court is fine, but the fields are ill-cultivated and the granaries are empty. They wear elegant clothes and fine ornaments, pamper themselves in eating and drinking, and have a abundance of property and wealth. Such leaders are robbers and boasters.
This is contrary to the Way.
What is planted skilfully can never be uprooted.
What is skilfully held cannot be taken away.
Generations of sons will bring sacrifices to the father's shrine.
When the individual follows the Way he has true vigour.
The family ruled by the Way accrues riches.
The neighbourhood where it prevails will thrive.
If it were seen throughout the state there would be great fortune.
If it were employed throughout the world then all would thrive.
In this way the effect will be seen in the person, by the observation of different cases; in the family; in the neighbourhood, in the state; and in the whole world.
How do I know that this effect is sure to hold thus all under the sky? By this method of observation.
He who has in himself abundantly the attributes of the Way is like an infant. Poisonous insects will not sting him; fierce beasts will not seize him; birds of prey will not strike him.
The infant's bones are weak and its sinews soft, yet its grasp is firm.
It does not yet know of the union of male and female, yet its penis may be excited, showing the perfection of its physical essence.
It may cry all day without becoming hoarse, showing the harmony in its constitution.
Manifesting this harmony, one learns of the Way, and thus finds wisdom.
All life-increasing arts turn to evil;
where the mind makes the vital breath to burn, the strength is false.
When things that are strong attack those that are old, this is contrary to the Way, and will not last long.
One who knows does not speak;
one who speaks does not know.
Shut the door,
close the gates*,
blunt the sharp points,
unravel the knots;
dim the brightness,
bring yourself into obscurity.
This is called "the Mysterious Agreement".
Such a one cannot be treated familiarly or distantly; he is beyond all consideration of profit or injury; of nobility or meanness. He is the noblest man in the world.
A state may be ruled by punishments;
weapons of war may be used with skill;
but the whole world may be gained by freedom from action and purpose.
How do I know that this is so? By these facts:
The multiplication of prohibitions increases the poverty of the people.
The more implements to add to their profit that the people have, the greater disorder there is in the state.
The more skills that men possess, the more strange contrivances appear.
The more legislation there is, the more thieves and robbers there are.
Therefore a Sage has said:
"I will do nothing on purpose, and the people will be transformed of themselves;
I will keep still, and the people will of themselves become correct;
I will take no trouble, and the people will of themselves become rich;
I will show no ambition, and the people will of themselves attain to the primitive simplicity."
The government that seems the most unwise is often the most good to its people;
that which meddles in everything will only bring disappointment.*
Misery and happiness can be found side by side!
Misery lurks beneath happiness!
Who knows what either will come to in the end?
Shall we then dispense with correction? Correction eventually will become distortion, and the good in it will become evil. The delusion of people on this point has subsisted for a long time.
The Sage is like a square with no corners;
like a point which injures no one with its sharpness.
He is straightforward, but allows himself no license;
he is bright, but does not dazzle.
For regulating the human in our constitution and rendering the proper service to the heavenly, there is nothing like moderation.
It is only by this moderation that there is effected an early return to man's normal state. That early return is what I call the repeated accumulation of the attributes of the Way. With that repeated accumulation comes the subjugation of every obstacle to such return. Of this subjugation, we know not what shall be the limit; and when one is without limits, he may be the ruler of a state.
He who possesses the mother of the state may continue long. His case is like that of the plant, of which we say, its roots are deep and its flower stalks firm. In this way it will continue long.
Govern a great state as you would cook a small fish.
Let the world be governed according to the Way, and the ancestral spirits will not manifest their spiritual energy. It is not that those spirits do not have that energy, but it will not be directed against men. And neither does the Sage use his powers to hurt men.
When these two do not injuriously affect each other, their good influences converge in the virtue of the Way.
A great state is like an estuary; it becomes the centre to which tend all the small states under heaven.
To illustrate from the case of all females: the female overcomes the male by her stillness. Stillness may be considered a form of abasement.
Thus it is that a great state, by condescending to smaller states, gains them for itself; and that small states, by abasing themselves to a great state, win it over to them. In the one case, the abasement leads to gaining adherents, in the other case to procuring favour.
The great state only wishes to unite and nourish; the small state only wishes to serve. Each gets what it desires, but the great state must learn to abase itself.
All things give to the Way the most honoured place.
It enriches the good man beyond any treasure.
It protects the bad and reforms them.
Admirable words can purchase honour;
Admirable deeds can raise their performer above others.
Even those who are not good are not abandoned.
When the Son of Heaven is enthroned, and his ministers appointed, though a prince were to send gifts of jade and horses, such gifts would not be equal to a lesson of the Way, given without stirring.
Why was it that the ancients prized the Way so much? Was it not because it could be obtained by seeking for it, and the guilty could escape by it? This is the reason why all under heaven consider it the most valuable thing.
Act without acting;
conduct affairs without trouble of them;
taste what has no flavour;
consider the small as great and the few as many;
repay injury with kindness.
Anticipate difficulties while things are still easy;
achieve great things with small beginnings.
All difficult things arise from something easy;
All great things begin with something small.
The Sage, without great effort, is able to accomplish the greatest things.
He who lightly promises will keep little faith.
He who thinks things easy will find them difficult.
The Sage takes care even in what seems easy, and so never has any difficulties.
That which is at rest is easy to keep hold of;
What has not yet occurred is more easily prevented;
That which is brittle is easily broken;
That which is very small is easily dispersed.
Action should be taken before a thing has appeared;
Order should be secured before disorder begins.
A tree that fills the arms grows from a tiny shoot;
A tower of nine stories begins from a small heap of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
He who acts does harm;
He who takes hold of a thing will lose it.
The Sage does not act, and therefore does no harm;
he does not lay hold, and therefore does not lose.
In their conduct of affairs, people always ruin them on the eve of success. If they were as careful at the end as at the beginning, then they would avoid this.
The Sage desires what others do not, and does not prize things difficult to get;
he learns what other do not, and turns back to what the multitude have passed by.
He helps the natural development of all things, and does not act for himself.
The ancients who showed their skill in the Way did so, not to enlighten others, but to keep them simple and ignorant. Governing the people is difficult when they have too much knowledge.
He who tries to govern a state by cunning is a scourge to it, while he who does not is a blessing.
He who knows these two things finds in them a model. Knowing this model is called "the Mysterious Excellence". Deep and far reaching is such mysterious excellence, showing indeed its possessor as opposite to others, but leading them to conformity with him.
Rivers and seas receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams. This is because they adopt the lower position. So it is that the Sage, in order to rule others, puts himself by his words below them, and in order to lead them, places himself behind them.
In this way though he has his place above them, they do not feel burdened, nor though he has his place before them do they feel insulted.
Therefore everyone likes and praises him, and do not tire of him. Because he does not strive, no one strives against him.
All the world says that my Way is great, yet seems unlike any other teaching. Now, it is because it is great that it seems unlike anything else. If it seemed like other systems, it would not be great.
I have three precious things which I prize and hold fast: the first is gentleness; the second is economy; and the third is humility.
With gentleness I may be bold; with economy I can be liberal; with humility I can lead others.
Now-a-days they give up gentleness for boldness; economy for liberality; humility for status. This is sure to end in disaster.
Gentleness is sure to win in battle, and to stand firm in defence. Heaven will save its possessor, by his very gentleness protecting him.
One skilled in war makes no show;
One skilled in battle avoids anger;
One skilled in defeating enemies avoids them.
One skilled in leading others shows humility.
Not contending results in the correct treatment of others; this is in accord with the Way.
A master of the art of war has said:
"I do not dare to be the host; I prefer to be the the guest.
I dare not advance an inch; I prefer to retire a foot."
This is called:
marshalling the ranks when there are no ranks;
rolling up the sleeves when there are no arms;
grasping the weapon when there is no weapon;
advancing against the enemy when there is no enemy.
There is no greater calamity than to lightly engage in war. To do so is to lose that precious gentleness.
Thus it is that when swords are crossed, he who deplores the situation will win.
My words are easy to understand, and very easy to practise;
yet there is no one in the world who can understand them and practise them.
There is an originating principle for my words, and an authority for my actions. It is because they do not know these that men do not understand.
Those who understand me are few; those who harm* me are honoured.
Thus the Sage wears poor clothes, and hides his knowledge.
To know, and yet think we do not know is best;
not to know, yet think we do know, is an error.
By recognising this error, we are preserved from it.
The Sage does not have this error. He knows the pain that it causes, and therefore avoids it.
When the people have no fear of what they should fear, then the worst will befall them.
When the people thoughtlessly indulge themselves, they become weary of life.
It is by avoiding such indulgence that such weariness does not arise.
the Sage knows himself, but does not parade his knowledge;
loves himself, but appears not to value himself.
He discards the external, and attends to the inner.
Boldness in daring to defy the law brings death;
Boldness in not daring to do so avoids death.
Of these two cases, the one appears advantageous and the other injurious, and yet "When heaven's anger strikes, who can say why?" Therefore even the Sage finds it difficult to decide between them.
It is the way of heaven not to strive, yet it skilfully overcomes;
not to speak, yet it skilfully responds;
not to call, yet men come to it.
Its demonstrations are quiet, and yet its plans are skilful and effective.
The net of Heaven is cast wide; its mesh is large, yet nothing escapes.
When the people do not fear death, it is useless to try to frighten them with death.
If the people were always afraid of death, and I could always seize those who do wrong and put them to death, who would dare to do wrong?
There is always one who presides over the infliction of death. To inflict death in the place of this one is like cutting wood in the presence of a master carpenter. Seldom is it that in so doing he does not cut himself!
The people suffer from famine: it is because of the excessive taxes of their rulers.
The people are difficult to govern: it is because of the excessive regulation by their rulers.
The people make light of dying: it is because of the greatness of their labours in seeking for the means of living.
Thus it is better to forget about living than to place a high value on it.
Man at his birth is supple and submissive; at his death, stiff and unbending. So it is with all things. Trees and plants, in their early growth, are soft and fragile; at their death, dry and withered.
Thus it is that:
firmness and strength are the companions of death,
softness and weakness the companions of life.
he who relies on the strength of his forces does not conquer;
a tree which is strong and broad invites the axe.
what is firm and strong is inferior to what is soft and weak.
May not the Way of Heaven be compared to the testing of a bow?
What was high is brought low, and what was low is raised up.
It diminishes where there is excess, and supplements where there is deficiency.
It is the Way of Heaven to diminish where there is excess, and to supplement where there is deficiency. It is not so with man. He takes from those who have little to add to his own store.
Who can take his own surplus, and therewith serve all under heaven? Only he who is in possession of the Way.
the ruling Sage acts without claiming the results as his;
he achieves his merit and does not rest arrogantly in it.
He does not wish to display his superiority.
There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet for attacking things that are firm and strong there is nothing better, for there is nothing so hard that water will not wear it down.
Everyone understands that the soft overcomes the hard, and the weak the strong, but no one is able to carry it out in practice.
Therefore a sage has said:
"He who accepts his state's reproach is hailed as lord of the altar;
he who bears men's woe is called a king".
Words that are strictly true seem paradoxical.
When peace is made after great animosity, the one who was in the wrong is sure to retain a grudge. How can this be
The wise man keeps his side of the bargain,
but does not insist on the speedy fulfilment of it by the other.
He who has the Way regards all the conditions of the agreement.
He is has not the Way regards only the conditions favourable to himself.
The Way is impartial; it is always on the side of the good.
The best state would be small, with few people.
Though there be individuals with the abilities of ten or a hundred men,
there would be no employment of them.
The people would regard death gravely, and have no thought of travel.
Though they have boats and carriages,
they would have no occasion to ride in them;
though they have armour and sharp weapons,
they would have no occasion to use them.
There may be a neighbouring village within sight,
and the voices of its fowls and dogs may be heard,
but the people will grow old and die without knowing it.
Make the people return to the use of knotted cords instead of written characters.
They will thinks their coarse food sweet;
their plain clothes beautiful;
their poor dwellings places of rest;
their common simple ways sources of enjoyment.
Sincere words are not fine;
Fine words are not sincere.
Those who are skilled in the Way do not dispute about it;
the disputatious are not skilled in it.
Those who know the Way are not extensively learned;
the extensively learned do not know it.
The Sage does not accumulate for himself.
The more he expends for others, the more does he posses of his own;
the more he gives to others the more does he have himself.
With all the sharpness of the Way of Heaven, it does no injury;
with all the doing in the way of the Sage, he does not strive.
4.1. These two lines are relocated from the end of this chapter since they clearly belong with the first two lines.
5.1. Straw dogs were used in religious ceremonies, after which they were discarded without sentimentality.
12.1. These lines are most likely an interpolation. The meaning clearly intended is that by classification we lose the experience of reality.
16.1. D C Lau believes the clause [kingliness of character. Kingliness leads to heaven. Heaven leads to] to be an interpolation.
20.1. Legge has "nursing mother".
28.1. There is a probable interpolation here:
When you know the white, yet hold onto the black,
You'll be the model to the country.
Being the model to the country,
Your constant virtue will not be lost,
And you'll return to the condition that is without limit.
- see Lau.
28.2. A play on words: "vessels" is also a term for government officials.
33.1. Original text reads [He who is satisfied with his lot is rich; he who goes on acting with energy has a firm will.] which does not fit with the rest of the chapter. Some translators have suggested that a line is missing before each of these lines. I suspect instead that they have been reversed in sequence.
56.1. The "doors" and "gates" are the intelligence and the emotions.
58.1. i.e. "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".
70.1. Following the suggestion of D.C. Lau.
A very short bibliography. Many other worthwhile translations and interpretations exist.
The Sacred books of China: The texts of Taoism / Translated by James Legge
New York:, Dover Publications,. 1962
Tao te ching / translated from the Chinese by Ch`u, Ta-Kao; illustrated by Willow Winston
London; Boston:, Unwin Paperbacks,. 1982
The Tao te ching: a new translation with commentary / Ellen M. Chen.
1st ed.. New York:, Paragon House,. 1989.
Te-tao ching / Lao-tzu; a new translation based on the recently discovered Ma-wang-tui texts; translated, with and
introduction and commentary, by Robert G. Henricks
London:, Bodley Head,. 1990
Tao and method: a reasoned approach to the Tao Te Ching / Michael LaFargue.
Albany:, State University of New York Press,. c1994.
The way and its power: the Tao Te Ching and its place in Chinese thought / Arthur Waley
London:, Mandala Books,. 1977
Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching / edited by Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue.
Albany, N.Y.:, State University of New York Press,. 1998.
The tao of the Tao te ching: a translation and commentary / Michael LaFargue
Albany, N.Y.:, State University of New York Press,. c1992
Tao te ching / translated by D. C. Lau
Rev. ed.. Hong Kong:, Chinese University Press,. c1989
Tao te ching: the classic book of integrity and the way / Lao Tzu; translated, annotated, and with an afterword by
Victor H. Mair; woodcuts by Dan Heitkamp
New York:, Bantam Books,. 1990
Tao: a version of the Chinese classic of the sixth century B.C. / Michael Hartnett.
[Dublin]:, New Writers' Press,. c1971.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005