Lao Tzu

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The Unvarying Way

Personal Conduct

Gentleness ad Frugality 

Tranquility and Clarity 


Renouncing Ambition





Lao Tzu may have lived between 571 and 490 BCE. His existence and dates are somewhat uncertain. Probably at some time in the second or third century BCE a collection of writings called the Tao Te Ching appeared, attributed to Lao Tzu. This name means the old master, and there is little historical evidence to further identify the author. Ssu-ma Ch’ien, the Grand Historian of China, born in 145 BCE gives three different accounts of Lao Tzu’s identity, without being able to decide which one if any is correct. There is reason to suppose, in fact, that the Tao Te Ching is an anthology of Taoist ideas from various periods in Chinese history.

 The writings, however, have a special place in the development of ideas, as they provided an explanation of the origin of the universe free of divine intervention. For Lao Tzu, the universe emerges out of nothing in accordance with the Tao or unvarying way. This is a foreshadowing of current theories that see the universe created by a quantum fluctuation in the vacuum or as a random event in the infinitesimal foam of space-time. Lao Tzu has the same relationship to such theories as Democritus has to atomic theory—both are at the starting point of a long and complex development that leads to modern ideas.

An interpretation of the gnomic statements that Lao Tzu makes about the unvarying way is that it is the underlying law that makes the universe lawful. Under the action of this law, the universe exists as a coherent, evolving entity rather than as a nonsensical, transient freak. The same law continues to act in the biological realm. The Taoist viewpoint is that one should live in conformance with this law, in conformance with the harmony of nature. On this basis, Lao Tzu is able to develop rules for the conduct of life and government from the same concept of the unvarying way as gives rise to the creation of the world. The Taoist seeks to live in harmony with nature and to avoid actions contrary to the unvarying way.  The unvarying way is the way things are.

The logical simplicity of this approach is contrasted by the ecumenical way in which different ideas are juxtaposed in what appears to be a somewhat arbitrary sequence. People who love the Tao Te Ching stoutly defend its sequence of chapters in all of their idiosyncrasies. And, in fact, there are said to be over fifty translations into English that follow that sequence. The variances between these  translations are extensive and indicate the cryptic nature of the brief groups of Chinese ideograms that are being translated.  The sequence has been changed in the following extracts to develop logical groupings.

    The following extracts contain selections on origins, personal conduct, government, and war to be found in the Tao Te Ching.

1 Origination

  There was something undefined and complete, 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!

  Having no name, it is the originator of heaven and earth; gaining a name it becomes the mother of all things.

  Beneath these two aspects all is the same, even as things and their names multiply. Put together, we see the mystery they hold: mystery wrapped up in mystery—the subtle gateway.

  I do not know its name, so I speak of it as the unvarying way (the Tao). Making a further effort to label it, I call it great.


2  The Unvarying Way

   The unvarying way that can be preached is not the enduring and unchanging way.  The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.

  We look at it, and we do not see it, and we name it 'the invisible.'  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 intangible.'  With these three qualities, it cannot be made the subject of description; blended together they are a unity.

    The unvarying way is all pervading, it may be found on the left or the right.

  The unvarying way is hidden, and has no name; but it is the way things are, which is skillful at imparting to all things what they need to make them complete.

    All things depend on it and it does not desert them.  Ambitionless, it may be found in the smallest things.  It clothes all things, but does not act as a master. Always without desire, it may be called insignificant. All things return to it: it may be named great.

    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.

  Likewise, the relation of the unvarying way to all the world is like that of the great rivers and seas to the streams from the valleys.

  There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet there is nothing better for attacking things that are firm and strong. There is nothing so effectual for causing change.

  Water has the highest excellence.  It benefits all things, and occupies without striving the low place which all men dislike.  Hence it is close to the way things are.

  The unvarying way relies on non-action, and so there is nothing which it does not do.

  The way things are is to act without thinking of acting; to conduct affairs without feeling the trouble of them; to taste without consuming; it considers what is small as great, and a few as many; and it recompenses injury with kindness.

    The unvarying way moves by contraries, and weakness marks the course of its action.

    As soon as the way is expressed in a creative act, it has a name.  When it once has that name, men can know how to come into equilibrium with it.  When they know how to come to equilibrium, they can be free from risk of failure and error.


Personal Conduct

     The unvarying way which originated everything under the sky can thus be considered the mother of all. To know the mother is to know the child. When the child reveres the qualities of the mother that he retains, he will be free of peril to the end of his life.

    He who has in himself abundantly the attributes of the unvarying way is like an infant.  Poisonous insects will not sting him; fierce beasts will not seize him; birds of prey will not strike him.

    An infant's bones are weak and its sinews soft, but yet its grasp is firm.  It knows nothing yet of the coming together of male and female, and yet its virility may be roused: though small, it is complete.  All day long it will cry without its throat becoming hoarse—showing the harmony in its constitution.

    This harmony points to the unvarying way, knowledge of which leads to enlightenment. Forcing life is bad; too much effort strains the breath and weakens the body.

  Achieve male strength yet retain female receptiveness: as many rivulets flow to one stream, so all will come to him. Thus he retains constant excellence, with the simplicity and purity of a child. Knowing how brightness attracts attention, he always keeps within the shadows, displaying humility to all beneath the sky. In unchanging excellence he does not deviate from the natural way. He who knows how glory shines, yet is humble—see how all men come to him. With unchanging excellence he is as natural as uncarved wood.

  There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet there is nothing better for attacking things that are firm and strong. There is nothing so effectual for causing change.

  When things have become strong, they begin to grow old, which may be said to be contrary to the unvarying way.  Whatever is  contrary to the unvarying way soon ends.

  Man at his birth is soft and weak; at his death, stiff and hard.  So it is with all things.  Trees and plants, in their early growth, are soft and supple; at their death, dry and withered.

  He who relies on the strength of his forces does not conquer: a tree which is strong and stretches out broadly, invites destruction.

  Therefore the firm and strong occupy a lower place than the soft and weak.


4  Gentleness ad Frugality

   When the intelligence and emotions are held together in one embrace, they can be kept from separating.  When one gives undivided attention to the breath, and brings it to the utmost degree of pliancy, he can become as tender as a child.  When he has cleansed his imagination, his insight becomes without a flaw.

    But I have three precious things which I prize and hold fast.  The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; and the third is shrinking from taking precedence of others.

  With gentleness I can be bold; with frugality I can be liberal; shrinking from taking precedence of others, I can become the highest of men.  Today people give up gentleness and are all for being bold; they give up frugality, and are all for being liberal; they flee the hindmost place, and seek only to be foremost—all of which are fatal.

  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 acts firmly has will.

  There is no guilt greater than to harbor desire; no calamity greater than to be discontented with one's lot; no fault greater than desire for acquisitions.  Therefore contentment with sufficiency is an enduring and unchanging contentment.

    Fame or life, which do you hold more dear? Life or wealth, which would you hold on to? Gain one and lose the other—which brings more sorrow and pain?

  Who cleaves to fame loses what is greater; who hoards much loses much.

  Who is content has no fear of shame. Who knows when to stop incurs no harm. Free from such danger, life can be long.


5  Tranquility and Clarity

Silent pauses mark spontaneity in nature.  A violent wind does not last for a whole morning; a sudden rain does not last for the whole day.  To whom is it that these two things are owing?  To heaven and earth.  If heaven and earth cannot make such spasmodic actions last long, how much less can man!

  The state of vacancy should be brought to the utmost degree, and that of stillness guarded with unwearying vigor.               

    All things come into being, and then we see them return to their original state.  When vegetation has flourished, we see it return to its root.  This returning to their root is what we call tranquility; and that tranquility may be called fulfilling their natural end. That fulfillment we may can the unchanging way.

  To know the unchanging way is to be enlightened; not to know it leads to wild movements and evil outcomes.  The knowledge of that unchanging rule produces capaciousness and forbearance, and a community of feeling with all things. From this feeling comes a power that is at one with nature.  In that harmony with nature he possesses the unvarying way.  Possessed of the unvarying way, he endures long; and to the end of his bodily life is exempt from danger of decay.

  Let him keep his senses quiet, and shut up the doorways to desire, and all his life he will be exempt from laborious exertion. Let him revel in the senses and become breathless in the promotion of his affairs, and all his life there will be no safety for him.

  Who uses well his outward vision illuminates his inward vision, warding off  danger and holding on to the unchanging.

  The perception of small things is the secret of clarity; guarding of what is soft and tender is the secret of strength.

  Without going outside his door, one may understand all that takes place under the sky; without looking out from his window, one may perceive the unvarying way of the heavens.  The farther one travels, the less one knows.

   Men of the highest type, when they hear about the unvarying way, earnestly carry it into practice.  Men of the middle type, when they have heard about it, seem now to keep it,  now to lose it. Men of the lowest type, when they have heard about it, laugh greatly at it.  If they did not laugh, it would not be fit to be the unvarying way.



   When one with the highest excellence does not wrangle about his low position, no one finds fault with him.

  By being lower, rivers and seas are able to receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams—thus they rule over them all.  So it is that a wise leader, wishing to be above men, puts himself by his words below them, and, wishing to be before them, follows them.

  The earliest people did not know that there were rulers.  In the next age they loved them and praised them.  In the next, they feared them; in the next they despised them. When rulers had no faith in the unvarying way, the people had no faith in the rulers.

  How deferential the earliest rulers appeared, showing the importance they set on their words! Yet their work was done and their undertakings were successful, while the people all said, "We did it ourselves!"

  A wise leader has said, "I will not try to change things, and the people will be transformed by themselves; I will be fond of tranquility, and the people will by themselves become correct.  I will not pursue riches, and the people will by themselves become rich; I will manifest no ambition, and the people will become as natural as uncarved wood"

  A wise leader grasps humility, and manifests it to all the world.  Free from self ­display, he is conspicuous; free from self-assertion, he is distinguished; free from boasting about himself, he is valued greatly; free from self-complacency, he acquires superiority.  Free from striving ambition, he finds none strives against him.

  Thus a wise leader 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 such ends are therefore realized?

  Seize power and try to manipulate people, you will not succeed.  People have their own way and cannot be manipulated.  What you attempt to seize, you destroy; what you attempt to grab, you lose.


7  Renouncing Ambition

Renounce our learning and discard our wisdom, the people will benefit a hundredfold.  Renounce our benevolence and discard our righteousness, the people will again become filial and kindly.  Renounce our stratagems and discard our scheming for gain, there will be no thieves nor robbers.

  To not value and employ men of superior ability keeps people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize expensive possessions keeps them from becoming thieves; not to excite their desires is to keep their minds from disorder.

 Therefore the wise leader empties their minds of ambition, fills their bellies, tempers their desires, and strengthens their bones.

When people do not fear death, why try to frighten them with death?  If people are in awe of death, and those who do wrong are put to death, who would dare take up that task ?

Nature presides over the delivery of death.  He who would inflict death in place of nature may be described as hacking at wood in the room of a skilled carpenter.  One seldom seizes the occupation of a skilled carpenter without cutting one's own hands!

When the people do not fear what they ought to fear, their greatest dread will descend on them.



There is no calamity greater than lightly engaging in war.  To do that is to risk losing all that is precious. Thus it is that when opposing weapons clash, he who deplores it conquers.

He who would assist a leader of men in harmony with the unvarying way will not advise mastery by force of arms.  Such a course is sure to bring retribution.

A master of the art of war has said, "I do not dare to host aggression; I seek the hospitality of defense.  I do not dare to advance an inch; I prefer to retire a foot."  This is called gaining ground without advancing, baring the muscles without exposing them, flourishing a  weapon one does not have; advancing against the enemy in the direction of no-enemy.

Skilled in the unvarying way, a wise leader is not the aggressor; skilled in warfare, he is cool headed; a victor, he does not humiliate his foe; commanding men, he humbly applies his art. In not contending lies his strength. By the efforts of others, his work is carried out, following the unvarying way of the heavens.

A skillful leader strikes a decisive blow and stops.  He does not further assert his mastery.  He will strike the blow but not follow this with arrogance.  He strikes as a matter of necessity, not from a wish for mastery.

Wherever an army camps, briars and thorns spring up.  When an army passes, famine will follow.

Now weapons, however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen—hateful, it may be said, to all creatures.  Therefore they who follow the unvarying way do not like to employ them.

As instruments of evil omen, those sharp weapons are 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; and he who delights in the slaughter of men cannot get his will in the world.

On occasions of festivity to be on the left hand is the prized position; on occasions of mourning, the right hand.  The lesser army officer has his place on the left; the commander in chief has his on the right—the place of mourning.  He who has killed multitudes of men should weep for them with the bitterest grief; so the victor in battle has the place of mourning. The superior man ordinarily considers the left hand the most honorable place, but in time of war the right hand.



  Adapted from the text of James Legge, available via FTP from Project Gutenberg in electronic form. Other sources have been consulted to shed further light on what the original text may have been saying, because there are significant differences in the translations. For example, one may say that for the people, the sage is like a baby; the same text may be translated by another to say that the people are like a baby to the sage. Given these differences, it is important to understand the viewpoint of the person doing the translation. One can expect that passages translated by a Buddhist will often differ from those translated by a Christian, that of a Taoist from that of a Confucian. The translations also differ according to the poetic sensitivities of the translator. If one comes to the Tao Te Ching as an English reader, one needs to read a variety of translations if one is to approach the original meaning of the text.

  The Tao The King by Lao-Tse, translated by James Legge. This Victorian translation is wordy as Legge tries to include the many nuances that the original text may have. It also has some doggerel passages as Legge attempts to translate Chinese verse into English verse. Most other translators do not try to do this. It is a valuable text to compare against some of the more freewheeling translations.

  Lao Tzu —Tao Te Ching, translated with an introduction by D. C. Lau. Penguin Books, London, England, 1963. I found this an excellent translation. The author has a scholarly knowledge of  Chinese and presents a translation in clear simple English. Also an excellent introduction.

  Lao Tzu —Tao Te Ching, translated with an introduction  and commentary by Robert G. Hendricks. Ballantine Books, New York, 1989. This translation makes use of texts of the Tao Te Ching that were discovered in  Hunan Province in 1973. The translation has a delightful flow to it, even though it is a line-for-line translation. In addition, it provides the complete Chinese text and a commentary.

  Tao-tech-king, translated by Bhikshu Wai-tao and Dwight Goddard. In A Buddhist Bible, edited by Dwight Goddard, E. P. Duton & Co., Inc., 1938. This is an interpretive translation which is very much more wordy than the cryptic Chinese text. Bhikshu Wai-Tao is a member of the Taoist-Buddhist Brotherhood and has made use of the works of Taoist commentaries and living Taoist masters. It therefore provides a valuable counterbalance for translations made by a Confucian or a Christian.

  Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Addis and Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1993. This is the tersest of the translations, as it seeks to emulate the brevity of the Chinese text. It reads in a charming way and is provided with Chinese ideograms for selected lines, together with a glossary of the Chinese words involved.

  Tao Te Ching, translation with commentary by Ellen M. Chen. Paragon House, New York, 1989. This recent translation treats the Tao Te Ching as a religious text that carries humanity back to its roots in nature. There is an extensive introduction and commentary. While the author tries to be helpful be inserting key Chinese words into the text next to their translation, this interferes with what would otherwise be smooth reading.

  The Way And Its Power, translation and introduction by Arthur Waley. Grove Press, New York, 1958. This has an introduction that sets the historical scene for the emergence of Taoist philosophy and religion. The translation is a little dry, but is always interesting for the shade of difference it presents in relation to other translations. There are helpful footnotes.

  Lao Tzu — Tao Te Ching, translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Wildwood House Ltd, London, 1973. This is a large, beautiful book in which every translated chapter is accompanied by its Chinese text and by splendid illustrations reflecting the pre-occupation with nature found in the text. The translation reads well and the book is a delight to browse through.

  A Source Book In Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1963. This is an excellent review of the whole of Chinese philosophy that puts the Tao Te Ching in perspective with other philosophies of its time. There is a clear and succinct translation of the Tao Te Ching, which has also been published separately as The Way of Lao Tzu: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1963. 

  Web Site:  Tao Te Ching translated by Charles Muller, 1991,1997.

                                 Selection and adaptation Copyright © Rex Pay 2000