Confucius or Lao Tzu?

by Christopher Lovejoy on March 30, 2014

Not long after I concluded my series of commentaries on the Tao Te Ching, I began reading a well-worn copy of a book entitled Tao: The Pathless Path, by Chandra Mohan Jain, a.k.a. Osho.

As some of you may already know, Osho was a brilliant maverick in the worlds of spirituality, philosophy, and religious studies. In his book, Tao, he tells the story of how Confucius met Lao Tzu.

Lao Tzu is thought by many to be the original author of the Tao Te Ching, which has gained worldwide influence since it was published, being the most published book in history, after the Holy Bible.

The influence of Confucius on Chinese culture over past centuries has also been considerable. His approach to life is diametrically opposed to that of Lao Tzu, as the following tale demonstrates:

Confucius was always worried about Lao Tzu and his teachings. It is said that once he went to see Lao Tzu. Of course, he was older than Lao Tzu, so he wanted Lao Tzu to behave in a mannerly way, as an old man expects. But Lao Tzu was sitting and he would not even stand to greet him. He would not even say, “Sit down, sir,” and he didn’t pay much attention to him. Confucius became very angry. What type of master is this? And he said, “Don’t you follow any manners?”

Lao Tzu said, “If you feel like sitting, you sit; if you feel like standing, you stand. Who am I to say anything about it? It is your life. I do not interfere.”

Confucius was shocked. Then he asked something about the superior man, the gentleman, and Lao Tzu laughed and he said, “I have never come across any ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’. Men are men as trees are trees and everything participates in the same existence. Nobody is superior and nobody is inferior and it is all nonsense and rubbish!” Confucius became very much afraid. And this man Lao Tzu had tremendous silence around him; he was a pool of silence.

Confucius came back. His disciples asked, “What about Lao Tzu?”

He said, “Never go near this man, he is dangerous. If you come across a tiger, you can save your life in some way. If you come across a lion, you can save yourself. But this man is very dangerous. He is like a dragon, a flying dragon! He will kill you! Never go! Whenever you hear that Lao Tzu is around, escape!

Osho goes on to say:

Confucius was very much worried about Lao Tzu’s teaching. The teaching is so utterly different, so utterly true, so utterly amoral, so utterly rebellious, and so utterly individual. It believes in no man-made laws, only in nature. Trust in nature is Tao.

And Lao Tzu says you can rest in life, because even while you are walking you can remain unmoving. Your innermost center can remain unmoving; you can become the center of the cyclone. The wheel moves but the hub remains. The wheel goes on moving, but it moves on something that is not moving. Act, do, but remain a nondoer deep within. Talk, speak, but remain in silence deep within.

Lao Tzu says, let contradictions meet. Let paradoxes dissolve. Be paradoxical, because life is paradoxical. Live, and yet live as if you were dead. Then, when you die, die as if you were entering another life – higher life, greater life. Let paradoxes meet, mingle, and fuse into one unity.

Confucian thought is of division, classification, categorization. Life is life, life is struggle. Death is death, death is rest – clear-cut divisions. Lao Tzu says there are no distinctions, no clear-cut distinctions. Life is death, death is life. A man can live tremendously and yet deep down remain absolutely transcendental, away, far away, distant, not involved at all. You can walk through the river and your feet can remain untouched by the water; you can be a lotus flower. And that is the true life. You speak and yet you speak not. Something in your being remains far away. You touch the earth and yet something in you remains high in the skies.

Confucian life will be a very ordinary life – very logical, mathematical, classified, but very ordinary. Taoist life is really extraordinary, very rich, because it contains the negative and the positive both, the yin and the yang both, conflict and cooperation both, love and hate both, life and death both.

Always remember, let there be a harmony in the contradictions within you, then you will reach to the highest point and the highest peak. Don’t choose one, choose both together. Be courageous. Don’t be miserly in choosing. When life gives you a paradox, choose the whole paradox: swallow it whole, digest it completely, and you will become a flying dragon.

(Tao: The Pathless Path, by Osho, p. 117-119)

In his book, Osho makes a vital distinction that eloquently illustrates the essential difference between the way of Lao Tzu and the way of Confucius: via negativa and via affirmativa, respectively.

These Latin phrases translate as ‘by way of negation’ and ‘by way of affirmation’, which correspond with a question that I have often asked in my studies of the Tao Te Ching: let it be or make it so?

If Confucius followed the way of affirmation, with insistence on following rules of propriety and cultivating virtue, Lao Tzu followed the way of negation by being natural, authentic, and spontaneous.

Osho, in chapter 5 of his book, Tao: The Pathless Path, explores this fundamental difference in detail, while maintaining that it’s critically important for individuals to know which path is best for them.

Via affirmativa is a Western phenomenon; via negativa is an Eastern phenomenon. Whereas the first affirms contrived cultivation, the second negates contrivance for the sake of natural celebration.

The Western philosopher is absorbed by law and logic in support of cultivation; the Eastern mystic absorbs love and insight in support of celebration, and where law and logic have little room for love and insight, love and insight can make room for law and logic.

Obviously, the latter approach to life is the more inclusive approach, which is not to say that it’s the better approach – only different, or more precisely, complementary. Having followed via affirmativa for much of my life, I can now appreciate all the more the value of via negativa.

If Confucians are inclined to say to others, “behave yourself, cultivate virtue”, Taoists are more inclined to say, “best be still, best be empty; be receptive, be responsive: allow Tao to move through you.”

Aside: “best be still” is code for “best be desireless”; “best be empty” is code for “best be memoryless”. The implication is thus: where desires interfere, memories condition and complicate.

The Tao Te Ching is a guide to wisdom, to knowing by being and seeing rather than thinking. I invite you to read it with heart, to see and to know if via negativa, the pathless path, is for you.

What follows is the entire text of this ancient book of wisdom, which is especially useful for getting a sense of continuity, with links to commentary that I wrote over the past 83 weeks.

The Ancient Wisdom

Verse 1
The Beloved Mystery

The Tao is both
named and nameless.
As nameless, it is the
origin of all things;
as named, it is the
Mother of 10,000 things.

The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal name.

Ever desireless, one can
see the mystery;
Ever desiring, one sees only
the manifestations.
The mystery itself is the doorway
to all understanding.

Verse 2
Enlightened Sagacity

Under heaven
all can see beauty as beauty
only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good
only because there is evil.

Being and nonbeing produce each other.
The difficult is born in the easy.
Long is defined by short, the high by the low.
Before and after go along with each other.

So the sage lives openly
with apparent duality and paradoxical unity.
The sage can act without effort
and teach without words.

Nurturing things
without possessing them,
he works, but not for rewards;
he competes, but not for results.

When the work is done,
it is forgotten.
That is why it lasts forever.

Verse 3
A Matter of Priorities

Putting a value
on status will create

If you overvalue
people begin to steal.
By not displaying
what is desirable,
you will cause
the people’s hearts
to remain undisturbed.

The sage governs
by emptying minds and hearts,
by weakening ambitions
and strengthening bones.

Practice not doing …
When action is pure and selfless,
everything settles
into its own perfect place.

Verse 4
Truly, Infinitely Yours

The Tao is empty
but inexhaustible, bottomless,
the ancestor of it all.

Within it,
the sharp edges become smooth;
the twisted knots loosen;
the sun is softened by a cloud;
the dust settles into place.

It is hidden but always present.
I do not know who gave birth to it.
It seems to be
the common ancestor of all,
the father of things.

Verse 5
Fair Mind, Even Hand

Heaven and earth
are impartial;
they see the 10,000 things
as straw dogs.
The sage is not sentimental;
he treats all his people
as straw dogs.

The sage is like
heaven and earth:
To him none are
especially dear,
nor is there anyone
he disfavors.
He gives and gives,
without condition,
offering his treasures
to everyone.

Between heaven and earth
is a space like a bellows;
empty and inexhaustible,
the more it is used,
the more it produces.

Hold on to the center.
Man was made to sit quietly
and find the truth within.

Verse 6
Passively, Naturally

The spirit
that never dies
is called
the mysterious feminine.

Although she becomes
the whole universe,
her immaculate purity
is never lost.

Although she assumes
countless forms,
her true identity
remains intact.

The gateway to
the mysterious feminine
is called
the root of creation.

to her voice,
hear it echo
through creation.

Without fail,
she reveals her presence.
Without fail,
she brings us to our own perfection.

it is invisible,
it endures;
it will never end.

Verse 7
With or Without Ego?

Heaven is eternal –
the earth endures.
Why do heaven and earth
last forever?

They do not live
for themselves only.
This is the secret
of their durability.

For this reason,
the sage puts himself last
and so ends up ahead.
As a witness to life, he endures.

Serve the needs of others,
and all your own needs will be fulfilled.
Through selfless action,
fulfillment is attained.

Verse 8
On Living Naturally

The supreme good
is like water,
which nourishes all things
without trying to.
It flows to low places
loathed by all persons.
Therefore, it is like the Tao.

Live in accordance
with the nature of things.
In dwelling,
be close to the land.
In meditation,
go deep in the heart.

In dealing with others,
be gentle and kind.
Stand by your word.
Govern with equity.
Be timely in choosing
the right moment.

One who lives
in accordance with nature
does not go against
the way of things.
He moves in harmony
with the present moment,
always knowing the truth
of just what to do.

Verse 9
Too Little, Too Much

To keep on filling is not as good as stopping.
Overfilled, the cupped hands drip – better to stop pouring.

Sharpen a blade too much and its edge will soon be lost.
Fill your house with jade and gold and it brings insecurity.
Puff yourself up with pride and no one can save you from a fall.

Retire when the work is done; this is the way of heaven.

Verse 10
A Separate Peace

Carrying body and soul
and embracing the One,
can you avoid separation?

Can you let your body
become as supple
as a newborn child’s?

In the opening and shutting
of heaven’s gate,
can you play the feminine part?

Can you love your people
and govern your domain
without self-importance?

Giving birth and nourishing;
having, yet not possessing;
working, yet not taking credit;
leading without dominating.

One who heeds this power
brings the Tao to this very earth.
This is the primal virtue.

Verse 11
I, Empty and Silent

Thirty spokes
converge upon a single hub;
it is on the hole in the center
that the use of the cart hinges.

Shape clay into a vessel;
it is the space within that makes it useful.
Carve fine doors and windows,
but the room is useful in its emptiness.

The usefulness of what is
depends on what is not.

Verse 12
Living and Trusting

The five colors
blind the eye.
The five tones
deafen the ear.
The five flavors
dull the taste.
The chase and the hunt
craze people’s minds.

Wasting energy
to obtain rare objects
only impedes
one’s growth.

observe the world
but trusts
their inner visions.
They allow things
to come and go.
They prefer
what is within
to what is without.

Verse 13
No Praise, No Blame

Favor and disgrace
seem alarming.
High status greatly
afflicts your person.

Why are favor
and disgrace alarming?
Seeking favor
is degrading: alarming
when it is gotten,
alarming when it is lost.

Why does high status
greatly afflict your person?
The reason we have
a lot of trouble is that
we have selves.
If we had no selves,
what trouble would we have?

Man’s true self
is eternal, yet he thinks,
I am this body and
will soon die.
If we have no body,
what calamities
can we have?

Those who see
themselves as everything
are fit to be guardians
of the world.
Those who love
themselves as everyone
are fit to be teachers
of this world.

Verse 14
Living Beyond Form

That which cannot be seen
is called invisible.
That which cannot be heard
is called inaudible.
That which cannot be held
is called intangible.
These three cannot be defined;
they are merged as one.

Each of these three
is too subtle for description.
By intuition you can
see it, hear it, feel it:
the unseen, unheard, untouched
are present as one.

Its rising brings no dawn,
its setting no darkness;
it goes on and on, unnameable,
returning into nothingness.

Approach it
and there is no beginning;
Follow it
and there is no end.
You cannot know it,
but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.

Finding how things
have always been
brings one into harmony
with the Way.

Verse 15
Profoundly Spacious

The ancient masters
were profound and subtle,
their wisdom unfathomable,
a group difficult to describe.
One can only describe them
indirectly, by their appearance:

Watchful, like those
crossing a winter stream;
alert, like those aware of danger;
simple, as uncarved wood,
hollow, like empty caves,
yielding, like ice about to melt,
amorphous, like muddy water.

The muddiest of waters
clear as they are stilled,
and out of this stillness,
awareness of life arises.

They who keep to the Tao
carry no intention to be full,
but it is precisely because
they are never full that they can
remain like hidden sprouts and
do not rush to early ripening.

Verse 16
Harmony is Divinity

Become totally empty.
Let your heart be at peace.
Amidst the rush of
worldly comings and goings,
observe how endings
become beginnings.

Things flourish, each by each,
only to return to the Source …
to what is and what is to be.

To return to the root is to find peace.
To find peace is to fulfill one’s destiny.
To fulfill one’s destiny is to be constant.
To know the constant is called insight;
not knowing invites eternal disaster.

Knowing the constant
provides perspective.
This perspective is impartial.
Impartiality is the highest nobility;
the highest nobility is divine.

Being divine,
you have unity with the Tao.
Being at one with the Tao is eternal.
This way is everlasting,
not endangered by physical death.

Verse 17
Subtle Guidance

With great leaders above them,
people barely know that they exist.

Next comes those whom they love and praise.
Next comes those whom they fear.
Next comes those whom they despise and defy.

When leaders trust no one, no one trusts them.

Great leaders speak little, and rarely if ever speak carelessly.
They lead without self-interest – and leave no traces.
After all is said and done, the people say, “we did it ourselves.”

Verse 18
Living Without Rules

When the greatness
of the Tao is present,
action arises from
the heart of the soul.

When the greatness
of the Tao is absent,
action is generated
from the rules of
kindness and justice.

If you need rules
to be kind and just,
if you act virtuous,
this is a sure sign
that virtue is absent.
Thus we see the
great hypocrisy.

When kinship falls
into discord,
piety and rites
of devotion arise.
When a country falls
into chaos and confusion,
official loyalists appear;
patriotism is born.

Verse 19
On Being Individual

Give up sainthood,
renounce wisdom;
it’ll be a hundred times
better for everyone.

Throw away
morality and justice
and people will do
the right thing.

Throw away
industry and profit
and there will be
no thieves.

All of these
are outward forms alone;
they are not sufficient
in and of themselves.

It’s more important
to see the simplicity,
to realize one’s nature,
to cast off selfishness
and temper desire.

Verse 20
Say No to Striving

Give up learning
and you will be free from all your cares.
What is the difference between yes and no?
What is the difference between good and bad?
What is the difference between beautiful and ugly?

Must I fear what others fear?
Should I fear desolation when there is abundance?
Should I fear darkness when light shines everywhere?

In spring, some go to the park and climb the terrace,
but I alone am drifting, not knowing where I am.
Like a newborn babe before it learns to smile,
I am alone, without a place to go.

Most people have too much;
I alone seem to be missing something.
Mine is indeed the mind of an ignoramus
in its unadulterated simplicity.

I am but a guest in this world.
While others rush about to get things done,
I accept what is offered.
I alone seem foolish, earning little, spending less.

Other people strive for fame;
I avoid the limelight, preferring to be left alone.
Indeed, I seem like an idiot: no mind, no worries.

I drift like a wave on the ocean.
I blow as aimless as the wind.

All seem to settle into their grooves;
I alone am stubborn and remain outside.
But where I am most different from others
is in knowing to receive sustenance
from the great Mother and Father.

Verse 21
The Supreme Virtue

The greatest virtue
is to follow the Tao
and the Tao alone.

The Tao is elusive
and intangible.
Although formless
and intangible,
it gives rise to form.
Although vague
and elusive,
it gives rise to shapes.
Although dark
and obscure,
it is the spirit,
the essence,
the life breath
of all things.

Through the ages,
its name
has been preserved
in order to recall
the Beginning
of all things.

How do I know
the ways of all things
at the Beginning?
I look inside myself and
see what is within me.

Verse 22
Wholesomely Whole

The flexible are preserved
the bent become straight;
the empty are filled;
the exhausted become renewed;
the poor are enriched;
the rich are confounded.

sages submit themselves to the One.
Because they don’t display themselves,
people see their light.
Because they have nothing to prove,
people trust their words.
Because they don’t know who they are,
people recognize themselves in them.
Because they have no goal in mind,
everything they do succeeds.

The old saying that the flexible
are preserved unbroken is surely right;
as you align truly with wholeness,
everything comes to you.

Verse 23
Open Up and Trust

To talk little is natural:
fierce winds
do not blow all morning;
a downpour of rain
does not last the day.
Who does this?
Heaven and earth.

But these are
exaggerated, forced effects,
and that is why
they cannot be sustained.
If heaven and earth
cannot sustain a forced action,
how much less
are we able to do so?

Those who follow the Way
become one with the Way.
Those who follow goodness
become one with goodness.
Those who stray from the Way
and from goodness,
become one with failure.

If you express the Way,
power flows through you;
your actions are those of nature,
your ways those of heaven.

Open yourself up to the Tao,
trust your impulses and responses,
and everything falls into place.

Verse 24
Purify to Perfection

If you stand on tiptoe,
you cannot stand firmly.
If you take long steps,
you cannot walk far.

Showing off
does not reveal
will not produce
They who are
are not respected.
Those who brag
will not endure.

These ways of acting
are odious, distasteful.
They’re superfluous,
like pains in the stomach,
or tumors in the body.

When walking
the path of the Tao,
this is the very stuff
that must be uprooted,
thrown out,
and left behind.

Verse 25
Great = Boundless

There was
formless and perfect
even before
the universe was born.

It is serene.
Empty. Solitary.
Unchanging. Infinite.
Eternally present.
It is the Mother
of the universe.

For lack of
a better name,
I call it the Tao.
I call it great.
Great is boundless;
is eternally flowing;
ever flowing,
it is constantly

the Way is great,
heaven is great,
earth is great,
people are great.

to know humanity,
understand earth.
To know earth,
understand heaven.
To know heaven,
understand the Way.
To know the Way,
understand the great
within yourself.

Verse 26
Peacefully, Blissfully

If heaviness is at
the root of lightness,
then stillness is the
master of unrest.

Realizing this,
peaceful, blissful persons
are centered, poised
in the midst of activity;
although surrounded
by much abundance,
they are not swayed.

Why would anyone
flit about like a fool?
If you let yourself
be blown to and fro,
you lose touch with
the root of your being.
To be restless is to
lose your center.

Verse 27
Following the Light

Knowers of truth
travel without leaving traces,
speak without causing harm,
give without keeping track.

The doors they close,
though having no locks,
cannot be opened.
The knots they tie,
though using no cords,
cannot be undone.

Be wise and help all beings
impartially, abandoning none.
Waste no opportunities:
this is called following the light.

What is a good person
but a bad person’s teacher?
What is a bad person
but a good person’s student?

If the teacher is not respected
and the student not cared for,
chaos and confusion arise,
however clever one might be;
this is the great vital secret.

Verse 28
On Living Virtuously

Know the strength of a man,
but keep a woman’s care!
Be a valley under heaven;
if you do, the constant virtue
will not fade away. You will
become like a child again.

Know the white, keep to the black,
and be the pattern of your world.
To be the pattern of your world is
to move constantly on a path of virtue
without erring a single step,
and return yet again to infinitude.

Those who appreciate splendor
with enough humility and grace
act in accordance with eternal power.
To be a fountain for your world is
to live a life of virtue and abundance.

When the formless assumes form,
the original qualities invariably fade;
in returning to these original qualities,
you can be a witness to anything.
Truly, the best governor governs least.

Verse 29
A Time and A Place

Do you think
you can take over
the universe
and improve it?
I do not believe
it can be done.

Everything under heaven
is a sacred vessel
and cannot be controlled.
Trying to control leads to ruin;
trying to grasp, we lose.

Allow your life
to unfold naturally.
Know that it too
is a vessel of perfection.

Just as you
breathe in and breathe out,
there is a time for being ahead
and a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion
and a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous
and a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe
and a time for being in danger.

To the sages,
all of life is a movement
toward perfection,
so what need have they
for the excessive,
the extravagant,
or the extreme?

Verse 30
We Can Do Better

Those who would
guide leaders of others
in the uses of life
do well to warn them
against the use of arms
for conquest.
Weapons often turn
on the wielders.

Where armies settle,
nature offers nothing
but briars and thorns.
After a great battle
has been fought,
the land is cursed,
the crops fail,
the earth is stripped
of its Motherhood.

After you have attained
your purpose,
you must not parade your success,
must not boast of your ability,
must not feel pride;
rather, you must regret
that you were unable
to prevent the war.

You must never think
of conquering others by force.
Whatever strains with force
will decay soon enough.
It is not attuned to the Way.
Not being attuned to the Way,
its end comes all too soon.

Verse 31
Without Weapons?

are tools of violence;
all decent persons
detest them.
followers of the Tao
never use them.

Arms serve evil.
They are the tools of those
who oppose wise rule.
Use them only as a last resort.
For peace and quiet are dearest
to the hearts of those who are decent,
and to them, even a victory
is no cause for rejoicing.

Those who think
triumph beautiful
are those with a will to kill,
and those with a will to kill
shall never prevail
upon the world.

It is a good sign
when our higher nature
comes forward,
a bad sign
when our lower nature
comes forward.

With the slaughter
of multitudes,
we have grief and sorrow.
Every victory is a funeral;
if you win a war,
you celebrate by mourning.

Verse 32
Perfect Goodness?

The eternal Tao has no name.
Although simple and subtle,
no one in the world can master it.

If kings and lords could harness them,
the 10,000 things would naturally obey.
Heaven and earth would rejoice
with the dripping of sweet dew.
Everyone would live in harmony,
not by official decree,
but by their own goodness.

Once the whole is divided,
the parts need names.
There are already enough names;
know when to stop.
Know when reason sets limits
to avoid peril.

Rivers and streams
are born of the ocean,
and all creation is born of the Tao.
Just as all water flows back
to become the ocean,
all creation flows back
to become the Tao.

Verse 33
Vulnerably, Invincibly

Those who
understand others
have knowledge;
Those who
understand themselves
have wisdom.

Mastering others
requires force;
Mastering the self
calls for inner strength.

If you realize
you have enough,
you are truly rich.

Those who
give themselves
to their positions
surely live long.
Those who
give themselves
to the Tao
surely live forever.

Verse 34
From Good to Great

The Great Way is universal;
it applies to the left or the right.
All beings depend on it for life,
but never are they possessed.

It accomplishes its purpose,
but makes no claim for itself.
It covers all creatures like the sky,
but dominates them it does not.

All things shall return to it
as if returning to their homes,
but never does it lord over them;
thus, may it be called great.

Sages imitate this conduct:
by not assuming greatness,
by not declaring greatness,
they relax into greatness.

Verse 35
Worldly Pleasures?

All seekers go to them
who keep to the One.
They flock to them
and receive no harm,
for in them they find
peace, security, happiness.

Music and dining
are passing pleasures,
yet they cause people to stop.
How bland and insipid
are the things of this world
when you compare them
to the Tao!

When you look for it,
there’s nothing to see;
when you listen for it,
there’s nothing to hear;
when you make use of it,
there’s nothing to exhaust.

Verse 36
Obscurity Wisdom

Should you want
to contain something,
you must deliberately
let it expand.

Should you want
to weaken something,
you must deliberately
let it grow strong.

Should you want
to eliminate something,
you must deliberately
allow it to flourish.

Should you want
to take something away,
you must deliberately
grant it access.

The lesson here is called
the wisdom of obscurity.
The gentle outlast the strong.
The obscure outlast the obvious.

Fish cannot leave deep waters,
and a country’s weapons
should not be displayed.

Verse 37
What if I Do Nothing?

The Tao
does nothing,
yet leaves
nothing undone.

If the powerful
could center
themselves in it,
the whole world
would transform
by itself in its
natural rhythms.

When life is simple,
pretenses fall away;
our essential natures
shine through.

By not wanting,
there is calm,
and the world
straightens itself.

In silence,
one finds the anchor
of the universe
within oneself.

Verse 38

Truly good people
are not aware of their goodness
and are therefore good.
Foolish people try to be good
and are therefore not good.

Masters do nothing,
yet leave nothing undone.
Ordinary people
are always doing things,
yet much more is left to be done.

The supreme virtue
is to act without a sense of self.
The supreme kindness
is to give without condition.
The supreme justice
is to see without preference.

When the Tao is lost,
there is goodness.
When goodness is lost,
there is morality.
When morality is lost,
there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

The greatest masters
follow their own natures,
not the trappings of life.

It is said:

They stay with the fruit not the fluff.
They stay with the firm not the flimsy.
They stay with the true not the false.

Verse 39
Being, Boundlessly

These things
from ancient times
arise from One:

the sky, whole and clear;
the earth, whole and firm;
the spirit, whole and full;
the 10,000 things are whole,
and the country is upright –
all these by virtue of wholeness.

When we interfere with the Tao,
the sky loses its clarity,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles;
creatures fall into extinction.

nobility is rooted in humility,
loftiness based on lowliness.
This is why noble people
refer to themselves
as alone, lacking, unworthy.

The pieces
of a chariot are useless
unless they work
in accordance with
the whole.

People’s lives
come to naught
unless they live
in accordance with
the whole universe.

Playing one’s part
in accordance with
the universe
is true humility.

too much honor
means no honor at all.
It is never wise
to shine like jade
and resound
like stone chimes.

Verse 40
Returning, Yielding

is the motion
of the Tao.

is the way
of the Tao.

The 10,000 things
are born of being.
Being is born
of nonbeing.

Verse 41
Beyond Appearances

Great scholars hear of the Tao
and they begin diligent practice.
Middling scholars hear of the Tao
and they keep some and lose some.
Inferior scholars hear of the Tao
and roar with the laughter of ridicule.
Without that laughter, however,
the Tao would not be the Tao.

Some constructive sayings on this:
the way of illumination seems dark,
going forward seems like a retreat,
the easy way seems hard, true power
seems weak, true purity seems
tarnished, true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest art seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent, and
the greatest wisdom seems childish.

The Tao is hidden and nameless;
the Tao alone nourishes and provides
and brings everything to fulfillment.

Verse 42
O, Sweet Harmony

The Tao
gives birth to one,
one gives birth to two,
two gives birth to three,
three begets the 10,000 things,
and the 10,000 things carry yin
and contain yang, in balance,
as they circulate in harmony.

People suffer
at the thought of being
without parents,
without food, or without worth.
Yet this is the way
kings and lords once
described themselves,
for one gains by losing,
and loses by gaining.

What others taught, I teach:
the violent do not die natural deaths;
this is my fundamental teaching.

Verse 43
Proceeding Softly

The softest of all things
overrides the hardest of all things.
That without substance
enters where there is no space.
Hence I know the value of nonaction.

Teaching without words,
performing without actions –
few in this world can grasp it –
this is the master’s way.
Rare indeed are those
who obtain the bounty of this world.

Verse 44
On Living Fruitfully

Which means more to you,
you or your renown?
Which brings more to you,
you or what you own?
I say what you gain is more trouble
than what you lose.

If love is the fruit of sacrifice,
wealth is the fruit of generosity.

Contented persons
are never disappointed.
Those who know when to stop
are preserved from peril;
only thus can they endure long.

Verse 45
Beyond Superficial

The greatest
seems imperfect,
and yet its use
is inexhaustible.
The greatest
seems empty,
and yet its use
is endless.

Great straightness
seems twisted.
Great intelligence
seems stupid.
Great eloquence
seems awkward.
Great truth
seems false.
Great discussion
seems silent.

conquers cold;
conquers heat.
and tranquility
keep things in order
with the universe.

Verse 46
Living Contentedly

When the world is in tune with the Way,
running horses are retired for tilling the fields.
When the world is out of tune with the Way,
warhorses are bred in the countryside.

There is no greater loss than losing the Tao,
no greater curse than covetousness,
no greater tragedy than discontent;
the worst fault is wanting more – always.

Contentment alone is enough. Indeed,
the bliss of eternity is found in Contentment.

Verse 47
On Living by Being

Without going
out the door,
know the world.
Without looking
out the window,
you just might see
the ways of heaven.

The further one goes,
the less one knows.

sages do not
venture forth,
and yet know,
do not look,
and yet name,
do not strive,
and yet find

Verse 48
Let Be and Let Go?

Learning fosters
daily accumulations.
Practice with the Tao
brings daily diminishing,
decreasing and decreasing,
until nothing is done.

When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.

True mastery arises
by letting things go their own way –
not by interfering.

Verse 49
Innocent Wisdom?

Aware of the needs of others,
sages have no fixed minds.

Those who are good
they treat with goodness;
those who are bad
they also treat with goodness,
as the nature of their being is good.

They are kind to the kind
and they are kind to the unkind,
as the nature of their being is kindness.
They are faithful to the faithful
and they are faithful to the unfaithful.
Sages live in harmony with all
below heaven: they see everything
as their own selves; they love
everyone as their own children.

All people are drawn to them;
they behave as little children.

Verse 50
Immortality Realized

Between birth and death,
three in ten are followers of life;
three in ten are followers of death;
and those who merely pass
from birth to death
also number three in ten.

Why is this so?
Because they clutch to life
and cling to this passing world.

But there is one in ten, they say,
who are so full of life and so sure of life
that tigers and wild bulls stay clear.
Weapons turn from them on battlefields,
rhinoceroses have no place to horn them,
tigers find no place for claws, and soldiers
have no place to thrust their blades.

Why is this so?
Because they dwell in that place
where death cannot enter.

Realize your essence
and you’ll be a witness to
the end without ending.

Verse 51
With Hidden Virtue

The Way
connects all living beings
to their Source.

It springs into existence,
unconscious, perfect, and free;
it takes on a physical body,
allowing circumstances to complete it.

all beings honor the Way
and value its virtue.
They have not been commanded
to worship the Tao
and do homage to virtue,
but they always do so

The Tao gives them life.
Virtue nourishes and nurtures them,
rears, shelters, and protects them.
The Tao produces but does not possess;
the Tao gives without expecting;
the Tao fosters growth without ruling.
This is called hidden virtue.

Verse 52
A Practice Most Divine

All under heaven
have a common beginning,
and this beginning
is the Mother of the world.

Having known the Mother,
we proceed to know her children;
having known the children,
we go back to be with the Mother.

Keep your mouth shut,
guard the senses,
and life is ever full;
open your mouth,
always be busy,
and life is beyond hope.

Viewing the small is called clarity;
staying flexible is called strength.
Drawing on the shining radiance,
we return yet again to the light
and save ourselves misfortune.

This is called
the practice of eternal light.

Verse 53
Caring Beneficently

If I have even just a little sense,
I should walk in the Great Way,
and my only fear would be straying.

The Great Way is smooth and straight,
and yet the people prefer devious paths.
This is why the court is corrupt, the fields
lie in waste, and the granaries are empty.

Dressing magnificently, wearing a sharp sword,
stuffing themselves with food and drink,
amassing wealth to the extent of not knowing
what to do with it all, is like being a robber.

I say this pomp at the expense of others
is like the boasting of thieves after a looting.

This is not the Tao.

Verse 54
To the Tao be True

Whosoever is planted in the Tao
will not be rooted up.
Whosoever is embraced by the Tao
will not slip away.

Generations honor generations endlessly.
Cultivated in the self, virtue is realized;
Cultivated in the family, virtue overflows;
Cultivated in community, virtue increases;
Cultivated in the state, virtue abounds.

The Tao is everywhere present,
becoming everything and everyone.
To see it truly, see it as it is.
In a person, see it as a person;
In a family, see it as a family;
In a country, see it as a country;
In the world, see it as the world.

How do I know this is true?
By looking inside myself.

Verse 55
In Perfect Harmony

Those in harmony
with the Tao
are like newborns.
Deadly insects
will not sting them.
Wild beasts
will not attack them.
Birds of prey
will not strike them.
Bones are weak,
muscles are soft,
yet their graspings
remain firm.

They have not
experienced the union
of man and woman,
but remain whole.
Their manhood or womanhood
stay strong and sure:
they scream all day
without becoming hoarse.
This is perfect harmony.

To know harmony
is to know the changeless;
to know the changeless
is to have insight.
Things in harmony
with the Tao remain;
things that are forced
do grow for a while,
but then wither away.
This is not the Tao.
Whatever is against the Tao
soon ceases to be.

Verse 56
With Silent Knowing

Those who know do not talk.
Those who talk do not know.

Block all passages:
close your mouth, cordon off your senses;
blunt your sharpness, untie your knots;
soften your glare, settle your dust.
This is primal union, the secret embrace.

Those who know this secret
are not moved by attachment or aversion,
swayed by profit or loss,
nor touched by honor or disgrace.
They are beyond the cares of others
and yet come to hold
the dearest place in their hearts.

This is the highest state of humanity.

Verse 57
On Being a Leader

If being a leader is your wish,
learn about following the Tao.
Stop trying to control, let go
of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.

How do I know this is so?
Because in this world, the greater
the restrictions and prohibitions,
the more people are impoverished;
the more advanced the weapons of state,
the darker the nation;
the more artful and crafty the plan,
the stranger the outcome;
the more laws are posted,
the more thieves appear.

Therefore the sage says:
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and people become rich.
As I refrain from imposing myself on others,
they ceaselessly become themselves.

Verse 58
Wholly Wholesome

When rulers know their own hearts,
the people remain pure and simple.
When rulers meddle with people’s lives,
the people become restless and disturbed.

Bad fortune is what good fortune leans on;
good fortune is what bad fortune hides in.
Who knows the ultimate end of this process?
Is there no norm of right?
Yet, what is normal soon becomes abnormal;
people’s confusion is indeed long-standing.

Thus, masters are content to serve
as examples and not impose their wills.
They are pointed but do not pierce;
they straighten but do not disrupt;
they illuminate but do not dazzle.

Verse 59
Thrift, in Moderation

In governing people and serving nature,
nothing surpasses thrift and moderation.

Restraint begins with giving up one’s ideas.
This depends on virtue gathered in the past.
With a store of virtue, nothing is impossible.
If nothing is impossible, there are no limits.
If you know no limits, you are fit to lead.

This is the way to be deeply rooted
and firmly planted in the Tao –
the secret of long life and lasting vision.

Verse 60
Immunity from Evil

Governing a large country
is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.

Approach the universe with the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that evil is not powerful,
but its power will not be used to harm others.
Not only will it not do harm to others,
but sages themselves will also be protected.

If only rulers and their people
would refrain from harming each other,
all of the benefits of life would
accumulate in the kingdom.

Verse 61
A Balance of Power

A great country
is like the lowland,
toward which
all streams flow.
It is the reservoir
of all under heaven,
the feminine of the world.
The female overcomes
the male with stillness,
by lowering herself
through her quietness.

So if a great country
lowers itself
before a small one,
it wins friendship and trust,
and if a small country
can lower itself
before a great one,
it will win over
this great country.
The one wins by stooping;
the other, by remaining low.

Verse 62
The Principal Principle

The Tao is the treasure house,
the true nature,
the secret Source of everything.
It is the treasure of the good person
and the refuge of the bad.

If persons seem wicked,
do not cast them away.
Awaken them to your words,
elevate them with your deeds,
repay injuries with kindness.
Do not cast them away;
cast away their wickedness.

When new leaders are chosen,
do not offer to help them
with your wealth or expertise.
Help them to meditate on The Principle;
offer to teach them about the Tao.

Why did the ancients
make so much of The Principle?
Is it not because it is the Source of all good
and the remedy for all evil?
Is it not the most noble thing in the world?

Verse 63
Without Difficulties?

Practice nonaction.
Work without doing.
Taste the tasteless.
Magnify the small,
increase the few.
Reward bitterness
with care,
and see simplicity
in the complicated.
Achieve greatness
in little things.

Take on difficulties
while they are still easy;
do great things
while they are still small.
The sage does not attempt
anything very big,
and thus achieves greatness.

If you agree too easily,
you will be little trusted;
because sages always
confront difficulties,
they never experience them.

Verse 64
Be … Here … Now

What is at rest
is easily managed;
what is not yet manifest
is easy to prevent.
The brittle is easily shattered,
the small is easily scattered.

Act before things exist;
manage them
before there is disorder.
Remember: a tree
that fills a man’s embrace
grows from a seedling.
A tower nine stories high
starts with one brick.
A journey of a thousand miles
begins with a single step.

Act, and you destroy it;
grasp, and you lose it.
Sages do not act,
and so are not defeated;
they do not grasp
and therefore do not lose.
People usually fail when
on the verge of success.
So give as much care
at the end as at the beginning;
then, there will be no failure.

Sages do not treasure
what is difficult to attain.
They do not collect
precious things; they learn
not to hold on to ideas.
They help the 10,000 things
find their own nature,
but do not venture
to lead them by the nose.

Verse 65
Cunning and Caring

The ancient ones
were simple-hearted
and blended with
the common people.
They did not shine forth, and
they did not rule with cleverness,
and so the nation was blessed.

When they think
they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know
that they do not know,
people can find their own way.

Not using cunning
to govern a country
is good fortune
for the country.
The simplest pattern
is the clearest.
Content with
an ordinary life,
you can show all people
the way back
to their own true nature.

Verse 66
Leading by Serving

Why is the sea
ruler of a hundred streams?
Because it lies below them;
humility gives it its power.

those desiring
a position above others
must speak humbly;
those desiring to lead
must follow.

Thus, when a sage
stands above the people,
they do not feel the heaviness
of his or her weight;
and when a sage stands
in front of the people,
they do not feel hurt.

Sages stay low
so the world never tires
of exalting them.
They remain servants
so the world never tires
of making them their leaders.

Verse 67
What Truly Matters?

All the world talks
about my Tao
with such familiarity –
what folly!
The Tao is not
something found
in the marketplace
or passed on
from father to son.
It is not something
gained by knowing
or lost by forgetting.
If the Tao were like this,
it would have been lost
and forgotten long ago.

I have three treasures,
which I hold fast
and watch closely:
The first is mercy;
the second is frugality;
the third is humility.

From mercy
comes courage.
From frugality
comes generosity.
From humility
comes leadership.
If one were bold
but had no mercy,
if one were broad
but not frugal,
if one went ahead
without humility,
one would die.

Love vanquishes
all attackers;
it is impregnable
in defense.
When heaven wishes
to protect someone,
does it send an army?
No, it protects with love.

Verse 68
The Ultimate Unity

A good soldier is not violent.
A good fighter is not angry.
Good winners do not contend.
Good employers serve their workers.
The best leader follows the will of the people.

All of them embody
the virtue of non-competition;
this is also called
the virtue of non-contending.
This is called employing the powers of others.

This, since ancient times,
has been known as
the ultimate unity with heaven.

Verse 69
On Losing Enemies

There’s a saying among soldiers:
“I dare not make the first move
but would rather play the guest;
I dare not advance an inch
but would rather withdraw a foot.”

This is called
going forward without advancing,
pushing back
without the use of weapons.

There is no greater misfortune
than feeling “I have an enemy”;
for when “I” and “enemy” exist together,
there is no room left for my treasure.

Thus, when two opponents meet,
the one without an enemy will surely triumph.

When armies are evenly matched,
the one with compassion wins.

Verse 70
On Dressing Plainly

My teachings
are very easy to understand
and very easy to practice;
yet so few in this world
understand, and so few
are able to practice.

My words
have an ancestor;
my deeds have a lord.
The people have
no knowledge of this,
and therefore
have no knowledge of me.

This is why
sages dress plainly,
even though
their interiors are filled
with precious gems.

Verse 71
Exposing the Sickness

Knowing ignorance is strength;
Ignoring knowledge is sickness.

Only when we are sick of our sickness
shall we cease to be sick.

The sage is not sick but is sick of sickness;
this is the secret of health.

Verse 72
To Live in Harmony

When people lack
a sense of awe,
disaster will follow.
When people do not fear
worldly power,
a greater power will arrive.

Do not limit
the view of yourself.
Do not despise
the conditions of your birth.
Do not resist
the natural course of your life.
In this way, you will never
weary of this world.

sages know themselves,
but make no show of themselves;
love themselves,
but do not exalt themselves.
They prefer what is within
to what is without.

Verse 73
The Net of Heaven

Bold action
against others
leads to death.
Bold action
in harmony
with the Tao
leads to life.
Both of these
sometimes benefit,
sometimes injure.

It is heaven’s way
to conquer without striving:
it does not speak,
yet it is answered;
it does not ask,
yet it is supplied with all that it needs;
it does not hurry,
yet it completes everything on time.

The net of heaven catches all;
its mesh is coarse,
but nothing slips through.

Verse 74
Everlasting Change

If you realize
that all things change,
there is nothing
you will try to hold on to.
If you are not afraid
of dying, there is nothing
you cannot achieve.

There is always
a lord of death.
They who take the place
of the lord of death
are like those who cut
with the blade
of a master carpenter.
They who cut with the blade
of a master carpenter
are sure to cut their own hands.

Verse 75
No More Demands

When taxes are too high,
people go hungry.

When governments are too intrusive,
people lose their spirit.

Act for the people’s benefit:
trust them; leave them alone.

Verse 76
Soft, Gentle, Pliable

We are born gentle and weak;
at death, we are hard and stiff.

All things,
including grass and trees,
are soft and pliable in life,
dry and brittle in death.

Stiffness is thus
a companion of death,
flexibility a companion of life.
An army that cannot yield
will be defeated;
a tree that cannot bend
will crack in the wind.

The hard and stiff will be broken;
the soft and supple will prevail.

Verse 77
In Support of Equity

The way of heaven
is like drawing a bow:
the high is lowered
and the low is raised.
When there is more
than enough, it reduces,
and when there is less
than enough, it increases.

The way of humankind
is the exact opposite:
it reduces the deficiency
and adds to the surplus;
it strips and denies the needy
to serve and cater to those
who simply have too much.

Only those who keep the Tao
offer their surplus to others.
Who has more than enough
and gives it to the world?
Only those in keeping with
the way of heaven, the Tao.

Masters of the Tao
keep giving as there is
no end to their wealth.
They act without expectation,
succeed without taking credit,
and do not think for a moment
they are better than anyone else.

Verse 78
To Live Like Water

Nothing in the world
is softer and weaker than water,
but for wearing down the hard,
the unyielding, nothing can surpass it.

There is nothing like it.
The weak overcomes the strong;
the soft surpasses the hard.
In all the world, there is no one
who does not know this,
but no one can master this practice.

Therefore, masters remain serene
in the midst of sorrow;
evil cannot enter their hearts.
Because they have given up helping,
they are people’s greatest help.

True words appear paradoxical.

Verse 79
Without Resentment

After a bitter quarrel,
some resentment remains.
What can one do about it?
Being content with what you have
is always best in the end.

Someone must risk returning
injury with kindness, or hostility
will never turn to goodwill.
So the wise always give
without expecting gratitude.

One with true virtue
always seeks a way to give.
One who lacks true virtue
always seeks a way to get.
To the giver comes fullness of life;
to the taker, just an empty hand.

Verse 80
My Utopian Dream

Imagine a small country with few people:
they have weapons and do not employ them;
they enjoy the labour of their hands and
do not waste time inventing labor-saving machines.

They take death seriously and do not travel far.
Since they dearly love their homes, they are not interested in travel.
Although they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.

They are content with healthy food, pleased with useful clothing,
satisfied in snug homes, and protective of their way of life.

Although they live within sight of their neighbours,
and crowing cocks and barking dogs can be heard across the way,
they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

Verse 81
Living Conclusively

True words
are not beautiful;
beautiful words
are not true.
Good people
do not argue;
those who argue
are not good.
Those who have virtue
do not look for faults;
those who look for faults
have no virtue.

Sages do not
accumulate anything,
but give everything
to others; having more,
the more they give.

Heaven does good to all,
doing no evil to anyone.
Sages imitate it, acting
for the good of all, opposing
themselves to no one.

Concluding Thoughts

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