Chinese Philosophy
Lao Tzu: Selections



1

   The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
   Having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; having a name, it is the Mother of all things.
Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be,
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.
   Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.

2

   All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing this they have the idea of ugliness; they all know the skill of the skillful, and in doing this they have the idea of what the want of skill is.
   So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to the idea of the other; that difficulty and ease produce the through the one the idea of the other; that the ideas of height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and that being before and behind give the idea of one following the other.
   Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything, and conveys his instructions without the use of speech.
   All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership; they go through their processes, and there is no expectation. The work is accomplished, and there is no resting in it.

5

   Heaven and earth do not act from any wish to be benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of the grass are dealt with. The sages do not act from any wish to be benevolent; they deal with the people as the dogs of the grass are dealt with. . . .

7

   Heaven is long-enduring and earth continues long. The reason why heaven and earth are able to endure and continue thus long is because they do not live of, or for, themselves. This is how they are able to continue and endure.
   Therefore, the sage puts his own person last, and yet it is found in the foremost place; he treats his person as if it were foreign to him, and yet that person is preserved. Is it not because he has no personal and private ends, that therefore such ends are realized?

8

   The highest excellence is like that of water. The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things, and in its occupying, without striving, the low place which all men dislike. Hence it is near to the Tao.
   The excellence of a residence is in the suitability of the place; that of the mind is in the stillness of the abyss; that of relationships is in their being with the virtuous; that of government is in its securing good order; that of the conduct of affairs is in its ability; and that of any movement is its timeliness. And when one with the highest excellence does not strive against his low position, no-one finds fault with him.

9

   It is better to leave a vessel unfilled, than to attempt to carry it when it is full. If you keep feeling a point that has been sharpened, the point cannot long remain sharp.
   When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honors lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself. When the work is done, and one's name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.

11

   The thirty spokes unite in the one center; but it is on the empty space for the axle that the use of the wheel depends. Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness that their use depends. The door and windows are cut out from the walls to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space that its use depends. Therefore, whatever has existence serves for profitable adaptation, and what does not have existence for actual usefulness.

14

   We look at it, and we do not see it, and we name it "the Equable" We listen to it, and we do not hear it, and we name it "the Inaudible." We try to grasp it, and do not get hold of it, and we name it "the Subtle." With these three qualities, it cannot be made the subject of description; and hence we blend them together and obtain The One.
   Its upper part is not bright, and its lower part is not obscure. Ceaseless in its action, it yet cannot be named, and then it again returns and becomes nothing. This is called the Form of the Formless, and the Resemblance of the Invisible; this is called the Temporary and the Interminable.
   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 day, and are able to know it as it was of old in the beginning, this is called the Tao.

18

   When the great Tao ceased to be observed, benevolence (jen) and righteousness (i) came into fashion. Then wisdom and cleverness appeared, and hypocrisy followed at their heels. When harmony no longer prevailed among kin, loyal sons first appeared; when the states fell into disorder, loyal ministers appeared.

22

   The partial becomes complete; the crooked, straight; the empty, full; the worn out, new. He whose desires are few gets them; he whose desires are many goes astray.
   Therefore, the sage holds in his embrace the one thing of humility, and manifests it to all the world. He is free from self-display, and therefore he shines; from self-assertion, and therefore he is distinguished; from self-boasting, and therefore his merit is acknowledged; from self-complacency, and therefore he acquires superiority. It is because he is thus free from striving that therefore no one in the world is able to strive with him. . . .

25

   There was something undefined and complete, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth. How still it was and formless, standing alone, and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere and in no danger of being exhausted! It may be regarded as the Mother of all things. I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of the Tao. . . .
Humanity takes its 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.

26

   Gravity is the root of lightness; stillness is the ruler of movement.1
   Therefore a wise prince, marching the whole day, does not go far from his baggage wagons. Although he may have brilliant prospects to look at, he quietly remains in his proper place, indifferent to them. How should the lord of innumerable chariots carry himself lightly before the kingdom? If he do act lightly, he has lost his root; if he proceed to active movement, he will lose his throne.

33

   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 is satisfied with his lot is rich; he who goes on acting with energy has a firm will.
   He who does not fail in the requirements of his position, continues long; he who dies and yet does not perish, has longevity.

34

   All-pervading is the Great Tao. It may be found on the left hand and on the right.
   All things depend on it for their production, which it gives to them, not one refusing obedience to it. 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 to accomplish his great achievements. It is through his not making himself great that he can accomplish great things.

43

   The softest thing in the world2 dashes against and overcomes the hardest; that which has no substantial existence3 enters where there is no crevice. I know hereby what advantage belongs to doing nothing.
   There are few in the world who attain to the teaching without words, and the advantage arising from non-action.

46

   When the Tao prevails in the world, men send their swift horses to draw dung-carts. When the Tao is disregarded in the world, the war-horses breed in the borderlands.
   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 acquire things. Therefore, the sufficiency of contentment is an enduring and unchanging sufficiency.

53

   If I were to suddenly gain fame, and put in charge of a government according to the Great Tao, what I should be most afraid of would be a boastful display.
   The Great Tao is very level and easy, but people love the by-ways.
   Their court-yards shall be well-manicured, but their fields shall be poorly cultivated, and their granaries empty. They shall wear elegant and ornamented robes, carry a sharp sword at their girdle, pamper themselves in eating and drinking, and have a superabundance of property and wealth; such princes are robbers and boasters. This is certainly contrary to the Tao.

61

   What makes a great state is its being like a low-lying, down-flowing stream; it becomes the center to which all other states under heaven tend. . . .
   Thus it is that a great state, by condescending to small 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 favor.
   The great state only wishes to unite men together and nourish them; a small state only wishes to be received by, and to serve, the other. Each gets what it desires, but the great state must learn to abase itself.

63

   It is the way of the Tao to act without acting, to conduct affairs without trouble, to taste without discerning flavor, to consider what is small to be great, and to consider a few as many, and to recompense injury with kindness.
   The master of the Tao anticipates things that are difficult while they are easy, and does things that would become great while they are small. All difficult things in the world are sure to arise from a previous state in which they were easy, and all great things from one in which they were small. Therefore, the sage, while he never does what is great, is able on that account to accomplish the greatest things. . . .

67

   . . . I have three precious things which I prize and hold fast to. The first is gentleness; the second is economy; and the third is avoiding taking precedence over others. With that gentleness I can be bold; with that economy I can be liberal; avoiding taking precedence over others, I can become the vessel of the highest honor. These days men give up gentleness and are all for being bold; they give up economy, and are all for liberality; they are all in last place, and seek only to be in the first place. The end of all these things is death.
   Gentleness is sure to be victorious even in battle, and maintain its ground firmly. Heaven will save its possessor: his very gentleness will save him.

77

   May not the Tao of Heaven be compared to the bending of a bow? The part which was high is brought low, and that which was low is raised up. So Heaven diminishes where there is superabundance, and supplements where there is deficiency.
   It is the Tao of Heaven to diminish superabundance, and to supplement deficiency. It is not so with the way of man. He takes away from those who have not enough to add to his own superabundance.
   Who can take his own superabundance and therewith serve all under heaven? Only he who is in possession of the Tao.
   Therefore, the sage acts without claming the results as his; he achieves his merit and does not rest in it. He does not wish to display his superiority.

ENDNOTES

1 Gravity and stillness are both aspects of the Tao.
2 That is: water.
3 That is: the Tao.


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Updated 10-8-96