Wednesday 17 March 2021

I Read The Tao Te Ching So You Don't Have To (Taoism)

I Read The Tao Te Ching So You Don't Have To (Taoism)

PLEASE NOTE: This is not my first holy rodeo. Thus far, I have absorbed the teachings of  The Quran (Islam - 2016), The Satanic Bible (LaVeyan Satanism - 2017), Dianetics (Scientology - 2018), The Bible (Christianity - 2019), and The Book Of The Law (Thelema - 2020).
2021 is my sixth consecutive year of analysing a religious scripture. I chose the Tao Te Ching (the central text to Taoism) simply because it was overdue.

The tale of the Tao Te Ching starts with a spiritual teacher known as Lao Tzu (or Laozi). Many crazy narratives persist about this man, including how his mother was pregnant with him for 62 years and how he lived for nine hundred and ninety years (after 13 rebirths). But whatever happened, his name has adorned the cover of every Tao Te Ching since its conception, fully credited as the sole author moments before he vanished for eternity. Gone without a trace! Leaving behind no genuine evidence to prove he existed in the first place. And that is why numerous scholars conclude he did not.

These researchers hypothesise that this legendary figure was but a myth. Their notions are supported by a string of solid arguments, for example, the direct translation of Lao Tzu's name being "old master". It sounds like a made-up title, right? We must also acknowledge that portions of the Tao Te Ching date back to the 4th century BC, during an age when China was exploding with new developments of behaviour and thought. Schools were springing up all over the country, teaching humans to live better and rulers to rule better. And one such school was the school of Dao. The story goes that a stack of writings were authored here from separate minds, stitched together and placed under the singular Lao Tzu's moniker to create the Tao Te Ching we love today. But why?

One theory points towards another (provably authentic) teaching superstar known as Confucius. Heard of him? Interestingly, the Confucianism and Taoism philosophies arose in China around the same time. Yet, many consider them opposite doctrines, the former with its strict traditional values and the latter with its looser guidance favouring reserved spontaneity. Due to these comparisons, some have suggested that Lao Tzu's character was an invention used as a tangible opponent to Confucius' Chinese influence. (Side note: multiple biographical accounts do speak about a one-off meeting between these two, even if the exchange differs quite substantially, depending on whose side you're on)

As life went on, both of these monumentally inspirational philosophies continued to transform China and then the world forever onward. The two seemingly contradictory instructions now effortlessly coexist, not only in nations but in individuals too, assisting different aspects of one's life duties and quests for inner peace. But while Confucius may have the more recognisable name, it is the work of the Tao Te Ching that has exceeded in popularity, with an estimated double amount of followers (12 million), and often declared "the second most translated book in the world beneath only the Bible". Facts like this give me hope. If a text so harmonious lives inside that many heads, then there's a chance our species might be ok after all.

Moving on and a logical next question would be, what is the Tao? And unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Directly translated as "The Way", the Tao is not even the Tao. It's a placeholder name used to describe the name of the thing you cannot name. The Tao is undefinable, which means that as soon as you think you've defined it, you have already lost it completely. By naming it, it becomes something else with predefined criteria and limitations, lumped into a finite box and immediately losing its infinite power. And that does not make my job any easier.

To start, I'd like to quickly point towards Janthopoyism, a standalone spiritual philosophy I have developed; check us out. Needless to say, when I was digesting the Tao Te Ching, I did so from that perspective, and while these two worlds slotted together with minimal splintering, I still can only offer my interpretation of these other interpretations. So with that flash of shameless promotion aside, my conclusion goes like this:

The Tao is the spirit of the Universe living within and outside of everything. It is the cosmic life force, the rawest form of electrical current that underlies all. It is the source code, the systematic perpetual forward motion of time, the flowing progression of vibrations, the evolution of physical manifestation, the ultimate reality, except further beyond and deeper within anything we have the ability to comprehend.

I am confident that the above paragraph falls roughly in the same ballpark as anybody's Taoistic understanding. However, the insight from renowned Chinese philosopher Zhang Zai is the one I gravitated towards the fastest. He labelled the Tao as the vital energy fundamental to ch'i, and therefore, the motive behind life itself. I also connected these teachings to specific New Thought movements, particularly Wallace D. Wattles' theory of a "formless substance", one which we can collaborate with to bring about a vaster fortune. This assumption may not be entirely in line with Tao Te Ching's schooling, but I have convinced myself that it is of the same essence.

Perhaps the most helpful explanation I've read is this: the Tao is not "everything". Instead, Tao encompasses "everything" and "nothing" as well. Taoists prefer the word "nothing" over "everything" because there are fewer connations to it. "Everything" immediately conjures up mental imagery, which needs to be cancelled out by "nothing" if we wish to grasp any awareness whatsoever. This approach makes sense too, because there are invisible atomic vibrations between everything anyway. From the nothing, everything is born. The space between stuff is what makes the stuff.

One can also effortlessly connect Taoism to pantheistic beliefs, which equate the Universe and "God" as the same by definition. It's the eternal creator; omnipotent, omnipresent, indestructible, infallible, and infinite, permeating time and space. That is the Tao, and that is "God" to the best of my comprehension. They are different terms with identical definitions of a higher power—not as some cruel Abrahamic personified figure, but as the literal highest power, i.e. the universal laws constructing then running it all. The Tao Te Ching is not so blatant in this comparison and hints in another direction by claiming the Tao came before Heaven as the raw material behind even that. But these are merely details of a hardly definable word. I hold no reservations that the Tao describes my firm belief in what "God" is, according to Janthopoyism, and according to many people (while disputed by others too).

So that's fun, but what good does it do? How can you apply this information to your life in any practical manner? And the simple answer is, you don't.

Janthopoyism: Your New Religion

The Tao Te Ching teaches wu wei, the route of "inaction" or (more effectively) "effortless action". Shed any friction, roll with the flow, do not interfere. Locate the calmest place where you do as little as possible. Make no plans and accept whatever happens, dealing with it exclusively at the moment it arrives. Otherwise, please sit back and watch in awe as the Tao performs its job with absolute perfection. Annoyingly, the decidedly Christain phrase "let go, let God" applies without flaw.

This practice is something I have pursued for many years, and my dedication has doubled after reading this book. The New Thought Movement preaches that we must follow the path of least resistance and was most likely derived from Taoism itself. Hinduism has similar sentiments that predate both of these, certainly a core component of Taoism's philosophic development. Regardless, I myself have written texts damning active exertion as an indication that you're doing something wrong. And while I struggle to "live in the now" at the best of times, I can appreciate how wants and desires are counter-Tao because they are future tense. We should not pursue anything. We should focus on enjoying what life gives us at this minute, come what may.

And the deeper you go, the more curious the Tao Te Ching's information becomes. One logical proposal I resist is that we will never lose if we do not play. It takes two to fight, so be submissive, and you will "win" every time. Certainly, one can find contentment in these ideas of inaction, but I, unfortunately, define myself by my drive. I fear any alternatives! Could I perhaps still play my cards with restraint? Careful to follow the most comfortable flow by utilising intense selection for the data I allow near me? I believe so. "Ignorance is bliss" has become such a dirty phrase to indicate childlike foolishness, but I have gradually grasped it as a powerful tool of intentional creation.

Ok, so basically, do nothing by "religious" order. It seems great on paper! Sign me up! But if you're honest with yourself, doing nothing is way more challenging than it looks. As Taoism clarifies, doing nothing is still actively doing something. You need to be and let it be, allowing everything to unfold without your meddlesome paws, riding smoothly upon the natural wave wherever it takes you. Any belief worth its sugar will teach lessons in the same vein.

It's a worldview you have to live with and practice each day, one which I am consciously aligning my thought process to, making more sense of it the longer we spend time together. And these teachings apply to our modern world of hyperspeed communications impeccably. When last did someone say something upsetting online? Did you want to react? Did you notice others responding from a heightened position of emotional conditioning? And did these heated exchanges make the world a better place? From what I have witnessed, it usually ends in louder voices and personalised insults. Thankfully, there have been tense moments during my recent days when the recollection of the Tao has returned me to an immediate peace. And when peace reigns inside of you, the pursuit of a dispute falls ludicrous. It is a counterproductive motion, one meriting avoidance.

If anything I've said sounds confusing, then do not fear! The Tao Te Ching is here to help! Just kidding. The Tao Te Ching is not written to provide answers. Seeking answers is against the Tao already. And even if you embark on this journey, hundreds of translations are available, each shooting off in oft-contradictory directions (owed to the English language's lack of many terms to match Classical Chinese concepts). An additional issue is the ordering of collected verses, standing as a haphazard structure that continues to frustrate scholars today. The original slivers of paper were slapped together based on similar wording, which proved to be a silly move, causing the teachings to jump around in a disjointed fashion. Some of the more carefree interpreters even shuffle the lines around to suit their narrative! This attitude could be regarded blasphemous to some but forgivable by others, especially considering the shoddy job they were forced to work with anyway.

Another stumbling point that people overlook is that the Tao Te Ching was not written for us. Back in the China day, spiritual philosophy and politics functioned hand in hand, governments even exploiting religious beliefs for their gain. Hence, multiple ancient texts directly address the emperors, cleverly tackling the "head" of the nation. The Tao Te Ching is no different. It is primarily an instruction manual explaining the correct way to run an empire while holding these authoritative figures accountable for their troubles. This viewpoint is more important than people realise because when discussing "inaction", some suggestions are unrealistic to an individual but make far more sense when applied to a governmental group. Of course, specific liberal translations tried to widen the inclusion by shifting words like "empire" to "universe" or "world", but it didn't settle the book from feeling slightly off to me. From what I gather, the Zhuangzi (arguably the second most important of Taoist literature) focuses deeper upon your everyday man, and I look forward to reading that whenever the Tao delivers it to me.

On a personal gripe, I also have an irrational aversion to wordplay that jumps to opposites in attempts of sounding smart, but are ultimately inapplicable to anything. A typical example I just made up would go something like, "It is the dark and the light, the up and the down and the sideways. Nothing is everything, but everything is nothing and the time you waste is wasting your time". Do you get what I mean? It's bad writing! And the Tao Te Ching is stuffed full of them at every turn. I breathe in and accept its intention within the greater scheme of things, but if my message here can deter one fellow writer from executing this lazy composition style, then this inclusion was worth it!

Finally, many of my notes (especially in the beginning) questioned what the Tao Te Ching was trying to do. What's the incentive here? It's not about happiness or enlightenment, right? Those things are pursuits! And even the goal of understanding the Tao is action, therefore the wrong way. It explicitly teaches us to learn less and dumb ourselves down! Furthermore, the religious aspect itself is debatable (common among Eastern faiths, to be fair). The Tao Te Ching is far detached from the world of deities while the afterlife has not a whisper of concern. So what is it? WHAT IS IT??

From my perspective, it is simply the root of all faiths. Irrespective of what you subscribe to, the Tao can apply as the undercurrent to everything/anything/nothing. It is the way of life, the "correct" way of living, and despite my earlier reservations, I wholeheartedly believe its texts to be true. The proof of the Tao is in its longevity. Don't forget that this manual is older than the Bible! Yet, these words are still appropriate to today's modern world irrespective of background, perhaps more so than ever before, remaining in tune forever. There's very little I need to say beyond that.

I'd like to gradually wind down by highlighting the apprehension I've held while writing this piece. When I announced the Tao Te Ching as my 2021 scripture studies, my friends' reaction was overwhelmingly positive. More people expressed their support for this project than any other of my previous religious explorations, gushing their praises so openly that it made me nervous. What if I hated it? What if (god forbid) I didn't get it?? They'd chase my fraudulent ass out of town! Thankfully, this was far from the case. Sure, I have reluctances towards certain verses (many of my favourite life-traits are reportedly contrasting to The Way, including ambition, knowledge, and travel), but this was not enough to knock me off course. Above everything, I closed this book with an armful of enthusiasm which I shall be dumping upon you right now.

Of every religious teaching I've read, the Tao Te Ching was the best one. It is the most enlightened I've felt after any holy text, and I know I can always fall back on these words for help whenever I need them. Unlike every other faith I've looked into, Taoism is logical, applicable, and not weird whatsoever. The amount of wisdom that these verses can initiate within anyone is infinite, and it has the potential to change your life forever. If you spent the rest of your days chilling within this space, your mental health would gently sway in the wind, and you would be a better person for it in all aspects. I know this will stand true for me.

If someone said to me that the Tao Te Ching was the best book ever written, I would be unable to argue. On the contrary, I have this deep calling to write my own interpretation, which I will do as soon as possible. I will call it Jao Te Ching. And it will be excellent, you'll see.
We Need to Talk About Translations

As previously noted, the "second most translated book in history" has been rewritten by so many minds that selecting a singular publication to follow is a daunting task in itself. There are over 250 versions in Western languages alone. One could endlessly lose themselves in the chase for the perfect adaptation (and I intend to), but for the sake of analyses, how many versions before a person draws the line? Six versions. That was my definitive answer. Hopefully with this amount, I have covered enough ground. If not, the Tao flows on within me and without me anyway. Below are the books I ultimately chose.

D.C. Lau (published 1963)
As a globally respected Chinese sinologist and translator, it's no surprise that my Penguin hardcopy of the Tao Te Ching was Lau's version. His expertise in this field of language offers us one of the more direct translations, and even if his introduction/conclusions were borderline unreadable, his educated stance proved invaluable to my understanding. Of every Tao Te Ching I read, I got the vibe that D.C. Lau knew his stuff the best.
His translation is the one I have included below with my detailed analysis.
I read it twice.
Available online here.

Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (published 1989)
If forced to recommend one Tao Te Ching translation, I wouldn't feel forced whatsoever, as this collaboration effortlessly swoops in at the top slot. Its simplistic clarity did not sacrifice the poetics, and when I needed help, this was the first direction I'd run. Perfect for first-timers! Very impressive! Good show, Gia-Fu and Jane!
Available online here.

James Legge (published 1891)
As a Scottish scholar and sinologist best known for his early Classical Chinese translations, Legge's Tao Te Ching is on everyone's A-list of recommendations. It wins many points for such a smooth experience, but I wasn't a fan of his silly push for poetics, unnecessarily beating lines into rhymes. Never trust a translation that rhymes! Phrases will favour something over something else for the wrong reasons! Still, it is a decent place to start.
Available online here.

Aleister Crowley (published 1923)
When I discovered that the most famous occultist of all time had written an adaptation of the Tao Te Ching, I couldn't resist! Due to unmistakable similarities, I'm confident that Aleister's version is based on James Legge's work (or they both came from the same source), but Crowley's trademark spooky mysticism pokes through, justifying its existence as a unique addition to any student's collection. I enjoyed it!
Available online here.

Ellen Marie Chen (published 1989)
When seeking the big-name translators, everyone forever applauded Ellen Chen as a top-notch voice, and I was eager to spend some time together. Unfortunately, I quickly realised that her work was catered for proper academics, holding the poetic complexities intact without regard to clarity whilst littering every line with bracketed Chinese terminology. Complex! That said, I imagine once you eat the Tao Te Ching for breakfast, this version will serve as an appreciated acquired taste for those who crave stronger kicks.
Available online here.

Ursula K. Le Guin (published 1997)
Finally, American fiction author Le Guin gave it a go, and her adoration for Taoism oozes through her every word, coming out the other side as the most balanced and forgiving translation on this list. She also blesses her pages with helpful footnotes explaining her phrase choices, providing a sturdy journey from beginning to end. Very cool!!
Available online here.

It's worth noting that both Stephen Mitchell and Jonathan Star perpetually fell upon my radar as essential contenders. Unfortunately, time is a finite resource, but I will get to them eventually. Sorry, boys!

Another cool text I stumbled upon is this side-by-side collection of translations, including the aforementioned D.C. Lau and Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English, among others. I have not read it in full, but just looking at these pages make me smile.

Finally, on those occasions when my brain cogs jammed from something extra sticky and no translation could free me, I visited Taostic's explained section for an extra shove of help. And it always did so.

Ok, whew, wtf, let's get this party started already! Coming up right now is my in-depth scrub of the Tao Te Ching! But just know that while almost all verses are included, there are some missing when I found them to be repetitive or uninspiring. May I suggested reading the Tao Te Ching along with my words? It'll maximise the value.

Drumroll, and away we go.



The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.

It has no name, it's not even a thing, you just can’t.

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

This ties in perfectly with my theory that the Tao is the raw energy "formless substance" which literally everything is made of.

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

Annoying and contradictory but also important. "Manifestations" is the keyword of this substance's evolution. I also appreciate that, contrary to most Taoistic understandings, there is some leeway when it comes to desires. This gives me room to better slot my life into it, thanks!
You must not want anything and you must go with the flow if you wish to see the mystery of the Tao. But it's only through wanting to see the result of these mysteries that you can. Something like that?
Meanwhile, Ursula K. Le Guin strayed from the others, stating that the second line was "the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants" which makes much more sense in the greater context.


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

It’s the age-old truth where, for example, sadness is required to grasp happiness. Opposites depend on one another to exist.

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

Kind of the Tao theme here. You can't teach the Tao, you live the Tao, and others can learn it by observation.

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

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

Beautiful words and fits the criteria of my theory exactly. It's the source of life moving forward.


Not to honor men of worth will keep the people from contention;
not to value goods which are hard to come by will keep them from theft;
not to display what is desirable will keep them from being unsettled of mind.

This makes logical sense.

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

But this does not! It's so far away from what anyone would consider the correct way to be treated. Keep the masses dumb and happy! Keep the clever afraid of action! I have an issue with this, but who wouldn’t?
Although, one could defend that the entire Tao philosophy is passiveness and non-action. It's less about enforcing ignorance and more about diverting them away from the suffering of human kind's infinite longing. It's tough to swallow due to the wording but I don't think it's exclusive to the people; it's the path all must follow, even those with great power.


The way is empty, yet use will not drain it.
Deep, it is like the ancestor of the myriad creatures.
Blunt the sharpness;
Untangle the knots;
Soften the glare;
Let your wheels move only along old ruts.

Too poetic to take seriously.

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

The mention of God is interesting because Taoism is regarded as a non-theistic belief by many. Still, this verse indicates that even God came from this stuff. In my interpretation of God and the Tao, they are interchangeable, or at least aspects of one another.


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

I don't get this. Are we supposed to be on the sides of sages? Verses like this convince me that the Tao Te Ching was never meant to be read by general society.
The Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English uses the word "impartial" instead of "ruthless" which is way more digestible. It's like nature, it doesn't really care about your individual life. I get that. It makes sense to avoid differentiation once you view everything as coming from the same source point. Screw your ego.

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

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

A bellows is one of those squeezy things you use to force air into a fire.
In that way, this fun verse makes sense. It's empty but if you work it, stuff comes out! And you can do so forever without the mechanism getting tired.
And then to conclude: speak less! Fewer words are more!


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.
Dimly visible, it seems as if it were there,
Yet use will never drain it.

I don't care what anyone says, they're talking about a vagina. Read that again and tell me that's not vagina talk. And once you can locate a level of maturity, it actually makes sense. All life is formed up there. The vagina does the work of the Tao like nothing else, surely.


Heaven and earth are enduring.
The reason why heaven and earth can be enduring is that they do not give themselves life.
Hence they are able to be long-lived.

You can’t kill what was never alive. Again, if you don’t play you can’t lose. There is no result.

Therefore the sage puts his person last and it comes first,
Treats it as extraneous to himself and it is preserved.

Is it not because he is without thought of self that he is able to accomplish his private ends?

Connecting to the previous statement, the sage must mimic "heaven and earth". His lack of involvement follows The Way without resistance.

I like the Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English offering of the first two lines:
The sage stays behind, thus he is ahead.
He is detached, thus at one with all.


Highest good is like water.
Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to the way.

I feel like water is one of the easiest visuals to grasp when illustrating The Way. Effortless and formless and vital.

In a home it is the site that matters;
In quality of mind it is depth that matters;
In an ally it is benevolence that matters;
In speech it is good faith that matters;
In government it is order that matters;
In affairs it is ability that matters;
In action it is timeliness that matters.

It is because it does not contend that it is never at fault.

I nearly didn't include this because it all seemed a bit obvious, but the "in affairs it is ability that matters" leapt out to me.
More specifically, Ellen Chen's translation: "(His/her) projects (shih) are carried out by good talents (neng)". That is something I have thought about a lot and it is a deep-rooted teaching from Janthopoyism as well as Darma from Hinduism. Stick to your talents for they are what you are naturally good at. They require the least action from you, whereas someone else will struggle more. Your best contribution to the world has already been chosen for you.


Rather than fill it to the brim by keeping it upright
Better to have stopped in time;
Hammer it to a point
And the sharpness cannot be preserved for ever;

A full vessel is difficult to carry and can be spilt.
James Legge's translation described this second part as, "If you keep feeling a point that has been sharpened, the point cannot long preserve its sharpness". I thought this was way better but Ellen Chen's "to temper and sharpen a sword, its edge could not be kept (pao) long". It makes me wonder if they mean over-use, over-sharpening, or hammering it into shape will ultimately weaken the blade? It all works.

There may be gold and jade to fill a hall
But there is none who can keep them.

Riches put a house at risk, so true, so true.

To be overbearing when one has wealth and position
Is to bring calamity upon oneself.
To retire when the task is accomplished
Is the way of heaven.

If your name or wealth becomes too big, it will ruin you. Pull back once you’ve reached the goal. I have no idea how to apply this to my life. I can't fathom reaching that point. It will be the death of me, I guess.


In concentrating your breath can you become as supple
As a babe?

Babies are oft-revered in the Tao. My understanding is that they are the ultimate being of submission. Yet while they do nothing, they trust the flow, are cared for, and are protected.
Ursula K. Le Guin states that this chapter is about meditation. The above verse would support her case.

Can you love the people and govern the state
Without resorting to action?

Again, directly addressing a governmental body. And it's a big ask. Does any leader in our modern world adhere to this instruction? Is it even feasible considering our current worldly systems?

When your discernment penetrates the four quarters
Are you capable of not knowing anything?

I take this to mean that even with tons of knowledge, you still know nothing. Indeed, the more you know, the more you know you don't know. My experience, for sure. And I know a lot.


Thirty spokes share one hub.
Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the cart.
Knead clay in order to make a vessel.
Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel.
Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room.
Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room.

Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.

This is really great. The value of the nothing is more than the something. The empty spaces are what make things what they are; makes things functional.
The Ursula K. Le Guin translation leads with "Thirty spokes meet in the hub. Where the wheel isn’t is where it’s useful", which is easier.


The five colors make man's eyes blind;
The five notes make his ears deaf;
The five tastes injure his palate;
Riding and hunting
Make his mind go wild with excitement;
Goods hard to come by
Serve to hinder his progress.

A warning against excess. Unsure what's up with the "five" specifications but whatever, Lao.

Hence the sage is
For the belly
Not for the eye.

Therefore he discards the one and takes the other.

My initial understanding of this was literal. Stuff like hunger should be fixed, but pretty and luxurious solutions are not the way. I've always said this. Any meal will do as long as it's healthy! The cheaper the better!
This is definitely the Tao but I see other translations view "belly" as "gut feeling" or "the inner eye" which I guess is way more poetic so, ok, fine, I accept everything.


What is meant by saying favor and disgrace are things that startle?
Favor when it is bestowed on a subject serves to startle as much as when it is withdrawn.
This is what is meant by saying that favor and disgrace are things that startle.
What is meant by saying that high rank is, like one's body, a source of great trouble?
The reason I have great trouble is that I have a body.
When I no longer have a body, what trouble have I?

Same thing here. Whether in a low position or a high position, you will fear either never obtaining the power or losing it. Hence why you must accept whatever happens.
Also, without a body, none of this would be a problem. I love that wording, even though it's basically saying that only in death do we end the suffering. Buddhism 101?

Hence he who values his body more than dominion over the empire can be entrusted with the empire.
He who loves his body more than dominion over the empire can be given the custody of the empire.

I found this confusing. It appears other translations lean more towards loving yourself and the world in equal amounts. Treat everything the same way you treat yourself? Something like that. Not always applicable especially for masochists.


What cannot be seen is called evanescent;
What cannot be heard is called rarefied;
What cannot be touched is called minute.

These three cannot be fathomed
And so they are confused and looked upon as one.

An admirable attempt at describing the indescribable. Tao is a formless substance; the root vibration of all things. But it is essentially nothing as far as we can perceive, for even the spaces between physical matter are buzzing with this stuff (electrons, baby!). Everything you can comprehend is a crude version of what it is, a dumbed-down variation so we can understand the reality around us. But it's not it. Because reality is a persistent illusion built by our own perception, the Tao making conscious sense of itself; Maya.

Its upper part is not dazzling;
Its lower part is not obscure.
Dimly visible, it cannot be named
And returns to that which is without substance.
This is called the shape that has no shape,
The image that is without substance.
This is called indistinct and shadowy.
Go up to it and you will not see its head;
Follow behind it and you will not see its rear.

The Tao is what always was. It came before and ultimately evolved into everything even us. It's the formless substance taking form to where we are now but it's still the same vibrational stuff. We are made of it, we are perceiving it, it is The Way.


Of old he who was well versed in the way
Was minutely subtle, mysteriously comprehending,
And too profound to be known.
It is because he could not be known
That he can only be given a makeshift description:

What were the old masters of the Tao like? It's impossible to know but these verses will attempt to describe them.

Tentative, as if fording a river in winter,
Hesitant, as if in fear of his neighbors;
Formal like a guest;
Falling apart like the thawing ice;
Thick like the uncarved block;
Vacant like a valley;
Murky like muddy water.

Poetic comparisons to earthly items used to understand the masters' manner. I adored James Legge's interpretation of the second to last line, "unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into anything".
The uncarved wood is a signature symbol of the Tao Te Ching. Undamaged and full of potential.

Who can be muddy and yet, settling, slowly become limpid?

This is perhaps my favourite illustration of the Tao. How do you clean muddy water? You leave it alone, dumbass. So good.

He who holds fast to this way
Desires not to be full.
It is because he is not full
That he can be worn and yet newly made.

I initially took this to mean that a person who has been through something profound has no desire to look fresh. You look worn because you are. You have earned it.
However, based on other interpretations, it's more about not pursuing fulfilment. Again, Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English simplified it best with "Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change.". There's something liberating about this instruction. All spiritual quests are fueled by the promise of something new or completion. The Tao views this as a path of action that can easily spin off course into bad places.


I do my utmost to attain emptiness;
I hold firmly to stillness.
The myriad creatures all rise together
And I watch their return.
The teaming creatures
All return to their separate roots.
Returning to one's roots is known as stillness.
This is what is meant by returning to one's destiny.
Returning to one's destiny is known as the constant.
Knowledge of the constant is known as discernment.

Stillness and emptiness should be the primary goals of life because it is the inevitable. Before life and after life, this is the default state. To achieve this during the brief period of living is to connect to the source.

Woe to him who wilfully innovates
While ignorant of the constant,

I took this as a repeated teaching about action only causing more issues because the more you achieve, the more you have to lose (see Mo' Money Mo' Problems – The Notorious B.I.G.). Furthermore, it's all a distraction from the eventuality of stillness. Why are humans always in a rush to do things? Is it to escape some inherent fear of death? Perhaps the Tao is teaching us to embrace this certainty instead of avoiding the thought.

But should one act from knowledge of the constant
One's action will lead to impartiality,
Impartiality to kingliness,
Kingliness to heaven,
Heaven to the way,
The way to perpetuity,
And to the end of one's days one will meet with no danger.

This is my own interpretation but I think it might be saying that, by doing nothing, you come closer to heaven/death, and therefore, are liberated from the fear of it. Get this right and death itself can do you no harm.
Other translations allude to death not being the end because the Tao will exist forever. Life flows on within you and without you.


The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects.
Next comes the ruler they love and praise;
Next comes one they fear;
Next comes one with whom they take liberties.

When there is not enough faith, there is lack of good faith.

The different tiers of leadership and it's wonderful. The best rulers are those you do not even realise are ruling you. But the further away from the Tao you go, the more intrusive they become; the ones you admire, then the ones you fear, then the ones you rebel against. If a leader loses trust in their people, the people will become untrustworthy. This can apply to EVERYTHING.

Hesitant, he does not utter words lightly.
When his task is accomplished and his work done
The people all say, 'It happened to us naturally.'

This is the best. When the true ruler completes a task, the people believe they did it themselves. Brilliant.


When the great way falls into disuse
There are benevolence and rectitude;
When cleverness emerges
There is great hypocrisy;
When the six relations are at variance
There are filial children;
When the state is benighted
There are loyal ministers.

This is bewildering but also a strong example of what makes Taoism so unique. Qualities such as benevolence and rectitude and cleverness seem admirable but are still no substitute for the Tao. Even if your intentions are good, to have intentions is wrong. You are taking matters into your hands rather than going with the natural flow.
It is also calling attention to how family devotion often arises when the family is falling apart, or how loyal ministers only appear when the nation is in turmoil. They seem like good things but are deviations. Very tricky but fascinating.

FYI: the "six relations" are father and son; two brothers; husband and wife. No girls allowed, I guess. Surprise!


Exterminate learning and there will no longer be worries.

Exterminate the sage, discard the wise,
And the people will benefit a hundredfold;
Exterminate benevolence, discard rectitude,
And the people will again be filial;
Exterminate ingenuity, discard profit,
And there will be no more thieves and bandits.

This continues directly on from the previous piece. All of these things we considered to be good qualities (sainthood, wisdom, kindness, morality etc) but they disrupt the path to discovering the True Way. Stop trying to be something! Just beeeee.
Ellen Chen uses the word "artistry" rather than "ingenuity" which I wholeheartedly fight against.

Exhibit the unadorned and embrace the uncarved block,
Have little thought of self and as few desires as possible.

There's that uncarved block again! That last line is basically the teachings in one squirt.


I alone am inactive and reveal no signs,
And wax without having reached the limit.
Like a baby that has not yet learned to smile,
Listless as though with no home to go back to.
The multitude all have more than enough.
I alone seem to be in want.
My mind is that of a fool - how blank!
Vulgar people are clear.
I alone am drowsy.
Vulgar people are alert.
I alone am muddled.
Calm like the sea;
Like a high wind that never ceases.
The multitude all have a purpose.
I alone am foolish and uncouth.
I alone am different from others
And value being fed by the mother.

Hahaha, I found a note to myself here which read I DON'T UNDERSTAND THIS CHAPTER AT ALL, I NEED THIS EXPLAINED TO ME PLS.

My confusion is not unwarranted as this verse is one of the most hotly debated in all of the Tao Te Ching. My hard copy of D.C. Lau's translation is littered with footnotes and certain lines are shifted around depending on who you speak to. I even note some scholars debate its authenticity. The reason is obvious. It shifts to an unusually personal and self-pitied voice, very unlike the Lao Tzu we have come to depend on.
I don't feel equipped to comment on it, so let's just move on, shall we? :)


In his every movement a man of great virtue
Follows the way and the way only.

Aleister Crowley's translation was, "The sole source of energy is the Tao" which is exactly how I've been interpreting this whole thing. It's the source energy.

As a thing the way is
Shadowy and indistinct.
Indistinct and shadowy,
Yet within it is an image;
Shadowy and indistinct,
Yet within it is a substance.
Dim and dark,
Yet within it is an essence.
This essence is quite genuine
And within it is something that can be tested.

This verse really spoke to me, there's a lot to love in here. At times the Tao Te Ching can be overly poetic and intentionally contradictory in its explanations. But right here it's noting the Tao as a testable substance. It reaffirms my understanding.
Furthermore, the word "essence" is often replaced in other translations. Ursula K. Le Guin uses "spirit" which is lovely, while Ellen Chen uses "life seed" which is even better.


Therefore the sage embraces the One and is a model for the empire.

He does not show himself, and so is conspicuous;
He does not consider himself right, and so is illustrious;
He does not brag, and so has merit;
He does not boast, and so endures.

It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position to contend with him.

I like all of this. It feels counter-intuitive but is logical. Be humble to earn respect.
Some great simplified lines from the Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English version (as per usual), such as:
"And set an example to all. Not putting on a display, They shine forth," and
They do not quarrel, So no one quarrels with them."


To use words but rarely
Is to be natural.

Hence a gusty wind cannot last all morning, and a sudden downpour cannot last all day.
Who is it that produces these? Heaven and earth.
If even heaven and earth cannot go on forever, much less can man.
That is why one follows the way.

This is an easy analogy to grasp and something I am already trying to nurture within my life. Speak less.

When there is not enough faith, there is lack of good faith.

And here is another line that our world needs to better grasp. When you do not trust, how can you expect to be trusted?


He who tiptoes cannot stand; he who strides cannot walk.

He who shows himself is not conspicuous;
He who considers himself right is not illustrious;
He who brags will have no merit;
He who boasts will not endure.

Again this is clear, logical, and worthy of your consideration.

From the point of view of the way these are 'excessive food and useless excresences'.
As there are Things that detest them, he who has the way does not abide in them.

It is really funny how the "excessive food and useless excresences" varies from version to version.
James Legge says it's remnants of food and a tumour.
Aleister Crowley says it's garbage and cancer.
Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English say it's extra food and unnecessary luggage.
And Ellen Chen says it's excess nature and superfluous actions.


There is a thing confusedly formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
Silent and void
It stands alone and does not change,
Goes round and does not weary.
It is capable of being the mother of the world.
I know not its name
So I style it 'the way'.

I can only reiterate how this applies to my Taoistic understanding perfectly. It's the same substance, the electrical current of the world running through every atom which is, in essence, identical everywhere, and is everywhere, and always has been. But it also perpetually moves because everything is evolving using this material yet it never gets tired. How could it? It is the pure energy so many spiritual teachings speak of.
Hence the mother of the world. It's the mother of everything.
Ursula K. Le Guin's footnotes on this one were in tune with me. She refers to it as an "unshaped, undifferentiated lump" aka the formless substance. She goes onto say, "Though it is before everything, it follows what is" which I love as it applies to my evolution ramble.

Man models himself on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the way,
And the way on that which is naturally so.

Here and elsewhere it indicates that the Tao came before even "God". That is nonsensical to me as it limits the description of "God" to be something other than what it has the potential to be. My classification is one of the "creator", the source energy, and the system which ensures a constant forward motion. The Tao fits my definition of God without flaw, perhaps even better than any other definition I've come across.
People will argue but there is no need to argue. God is a word and you need not fear it.
James Legge uses the term "law" in his version, as in “Man takes his law from the Earth” which I preferred.


This was one of the only verses that I didn't really gain anything from. It wasn't terrible and I could have forced something out, but it didn't appeal like the others, so I've omitted it. Maybe you'll disagree!


One who excels in travelling leaves no wheel tracks;
One who excels in speech makes no slips;
One who excels in reckoning uses no counting rods;
One who excels in shutting uses no bolts yet what he has shut cannot be opened.
One who excels in tying uses no cords yet what he has tied cannot be undone.

Therefore the sage always excels in saving people, and so abandons no one;
Always excels in saving things, and so abandons nothing.

I like it. You’ve got to save everyone! Otherwise, you’re not very good at what you do, Mr Sage.

This is called following one's discernment.

This line comes directly after and there are a few ways people go with "following one's discernment".
Chen and Feng/English state this line as "following the light".
Meanwhile, Legge is more secretive with "hiding the light of his procedure".
And then Crowley does his own thing as per usual: "the Occult Regimen" lol ok.

Hence the good man is the teacher the bad learns from;
And the bad man is the material the good works on.
Not to value the teacher
Nor to love the material
Though it seems clever, betrays great bewilderment.

This is called the essential and the secret.

This took me a moment, but I reached a conclusion. The master helps someone but that someone is also imperative to the material as they help refine the teaching. If either the material is weak or the person is unable to follow, it’s irrelevant, because anyone who witnesses the lesson will believe that it doesn’t work.


Know the male
But keep to the role of the female

This is a thorny road. As we know, in Taoism, the passive and soft are the closest to The Way. That is why the female role is favoured because she is the "weakness" (Crowley) or the "feeble" (Legge). Problematic! Even if the heart is in the right place by arguably placing women on a superior pedestal, it's still a sexist similarity shared between so many religions.
Alternatively, the Feng/English translation registers the "strength of man" but argues to "keep a woman's care". That's probably easier to cautiously accept.

And you will again return to being a babe.

And you will return to being the uncarved block.

These two lines are situated quite far apart but are so often repeated that I wanted to note them together. It's about being pure, untouched, and uninfluenced.

Know the white
But keep to the role of the black

Such a nondescript statement although the online translation of D.C. Lau's differed from my print copy, using the word "sullied" instead. Weird and unhelpful.
Both Ursula K. Le Guin and Aleister Crowley speak to the effect of "Knowing light and staying dark" which really should be the norm. It makes sense. The light is The Way, you must follow it. But remain dark, as in unknowable and formless.

When the uncarved block shatters it becomes vessels.
The sage makes use of these and becomes the lord over the officials.

Hence the greatest cutting does not sever.

Most translations agree that these final lines are a call to non-violence, which is good.


Whoever takes the empire and wishes to do anything to it I see will have no respite.
The empire is a sacred vessel and nothing should be done to it.
Whoever does anything to it will ruin it;
whoever lays hold of it will lose it.

Again with the "empire" although it's worth noting that Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English interpret the word here as "universe" while Ellen Chen uses the "world". Chen's second line in full reads "The world is a spirit vessel" which nearly knocked me off my chair.
Is this a better approach to apply the Tao to your life? By replacing "empire" with "universe/world" in all circumstances? It won't work all of the time but maybe some of the time.
Either way, the message is clear and strong. Don't force change in accordance with your perception. Let things flow otherwise you’ll break it. Although... how do you break the Tao? You'll only break yourself. That's probably it.

Therefore the sage avoids excess, extravagance, and arrogance.

Just hammering this bit in as a repeat.


One who assists the ruler of men by means of the way does not intimidate the empire by a show of arms.

This is something which is liable to rebound.
Where troops have encamped
There will brambles grow;
In the wake of a mighty army
Bad harvests follow without fail.

This verse seems contradictory to my understanding of the Tao. It's more "mystical" in a sense, similar to other religions. If you do wrong, karma may return with unfavourable methods. You will be punished for doing wrong according to this philosophy. It feels out of sync with the flow for me.
However, there are ways to spin it. Perhaps the "brambles" are symbolic of force creating resistance because you are swimming against The Way? And "bad harvest" could be talking about the inevitable economic devastation which follows a brutal war?

One who is good aims only at bringing his campaign to a conclusion and dare not thereby intimidate.
Bring it to a conclusion but do not brag;
Bring it to a conclusion but do not be arrogant;
Bring it to a conclusion but only when there is no choice;
Bring it to a conclusion but do not intimidate.

This is great. If without option, the best leader will strike quickly with one goal: to end it. No boasting, no intimidation, no exploitation. Only swift retaliation, designed to finish the conflict immediately.

A creature in its prime doing harm to the old
Is known as going against the way.
That which goes against the way will come to an early end.

Curiously, almost every translation writes this one differently, even at times indicating that ageing itself is against the Tao. But I prefer the above version from Lau. Those who are young and harm the old shall be punished.


It is because arms are instruments of ill omen and there are Things that detest them that the one who has the way does not abide by their use.

My own stupidity is infinite, my notes took this as literal "arms". Because our arms carry out tasks and we are preaching inaction, so your arms are the enemy!
As it turns out, it means arms as in weaponry. I should have kept this to myself.

Arms are instruments of ill omen, not the instruments of the gentleman.
When one is compelled to use them, it is best to do so without relish.
There is no glory in victory, and so to glorify it despite this is to exult in the killing of men.
One who exults in the killing of men will never have his way in the empire.

This entire page is fantastic. If you have no choice, then you can use weapons. But no one should enjoy such a thing, even if you win using them.

When great numbers of people are killed, one should weep over them with sorrow.
When victorious in war, one should observe the rites of mourning.

Killing is never something to derive pleasure from. You must feel horrible. Even victory in war is a funeral.


The way is for ever nameless.
Though the uncarved block is small
No one in the world dare claim its allegiance.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it
The myriad creatures will submit of their own accord,
Heaven and earth will unite and sweet dew will fall,
And the people will be equitable, though no one so decrees.

Sooo if you could control the Tao then the world would bow to you? And it would rain? And everyone would be fair to one another without being told to?
Legge and Crowley seem to think the last two lines are separated out and mean that the sky rains and hydrates our survival without man's interference, again proving that we do not need to try to control everything. I prefer this! But then again, the "equitable" word does not apply. Droughts! Some people are not getting anything!

Only when it is cut are there names.
As soon as there are names
One ought to know that it is time to stop.
Knowing when to stop one can be free from danger.

In division, we separate pieces then call them different names. This is a sign we've gone too far. You lose the singular picture when you focus upon the parts.

The way is to the world as the River and the Sea are to rivulets and streams.

The whole universe is led by and runs into The Way.


He who lives out his days has had a long life.

Sounds so dumb. Aleister Crowley says “he who dieth without dying, liveth for ever.” which comes across cooler. Meanwhile, Ursula K. Le Guin claims "To live till you die is to live long enough" which is stronger.


The way is broad, reaching left as well as right.
The myriad creatures depend on it for life yet it claims no authority.
It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.
It clothes and feeds the myriad creatures yet lays no claim to being their master.

For ever free of desire, it can be called small;
Yet as it lays no claim to being master when the myriad creatures turn to it, it can be called great.

It is because it never attempts itself to become great that it succeeds in becoming great.

A few of these lines are repeated elsewhere, but as a complete piece, this is one of the better descriptions within my comprehension.
The Tao is the energy of life. It is everything but it does not control what you do. Literally, everything is the result of it, but it demands no credit (nor do we give it any). It (indirectly?) clothes and feeds us. It is great in infinite size but is also very small, as in the vibrations of electrons. Other translations say creatures "return to it", as in death, as in our essence leaving our bodies, liberated to connect back into the overall "invisible" energy again. And it does so effortlessly.


Have in your hold the great image
And the empire will come to you.
Coming to you and meeting with no harm
It will be safe and sound.

Nobody says this, but I take it to be the LOA side of the deal. If you can allow the Tao to flow through your life properly, you can manifest magic.

Music and food
Will induce the wayfarer to stop.

It's difficult to know where to separate these lines. Some translations attach it to the above, others, below. Regardless, it appears to be saying that music and food can be distractions whereas the Tao causes no hindrance (see below)? I am gutted music is placed in the bad books here!

The way in its passage through the mouth is without flavor.
It cannot be seen,
It cannot be heard,
Yet it cannot be exhausted by use.

I think James Legge was the clearest here. “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.”


If you would have a thing shrink,
You must first stretch it;
If you would have a thing weakened,
You must first strengthen it;
If you would have a thing laid aside,
You must first set it up;
If you would take from a thing,
You must first give to it.

This is called subtle discernment:
The submissive and weak will overcome the hard and strong.

This is where the Tao Te Ching excels like no other. It provides concepts that are wholly counter-intuitive and yet highly logical once set out.
Crowley's first line was the best: “In order to draw breath, first empty the lungs”.
I also loved Chen's "What is to be abolished, Must first be established". Great!

The fish must not be allowed to leave the deep;
The instruments of power in a state must not be revealed to anyone.

And then you go and spoil it all by saying something stupidly questionable like this.
Both Chen and Gia use the word "displayed" instead of "not be revealed to anyone" which is easier.
Le Guin goes as far as to sections these lines off, disregarding them as an "anticlimax" and an "intrusion".
Here I remind everyone that the order of the Tao's verses is hotly debated by scholars. Slips of text were stuck together in what was assumed coherent narratives, but it's far from certain.


The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it,
The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.
After they are transformed, should desire raise its head,
I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord.

The Tao doesn't act yet it does everything. And if we can understand this, then everything will fall into place around us.
However, if we want to understand this and want everything to fall into place, then we've already messed it up. You have to just let it be without desire or attempts of influence. It must have no purpose to you.
Keeping life as simple as possible is the best place to start (according to various translations).
I think it's also saying that once everything clicks, you may think you've played a role in the success, and that too is going against the flow.


A man of the highest virtue does not keep to virtue and that is why he has virtue.
A man of the lowest virtue never strays from virtue and that is why he is without virtue.

James Legge's interpretation claims that those with the highest virtue do not show themselves off, therefore they understand and fully own them. Meanwhile, those of lower virtue cling to their qualities in fear of losing them, and in that way, never truly had them. The vibe is wrong, it becomes a negative experience.
Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English's message was even better. When one is not aware of their goodness, it's a sure sign of their goodness. Whereas those who are trying to be good are obviously not good, for if they were, why would they be trying?

The former never acts yet leaves nothing undone.
The latter acts but there are things left undone.

Those with the highest virtues never need to do anything and therefore everything is already done. The lower always need to be doing something and therefore can never complete the task.

A man of the highest benevolence acts, but from no ulterior motive.
A man of the highest rectitude acts, but from ulterior motive.
A man most conversant in the rites acts, but when no one responds rolls up his sleeves and resorts to persuasion by force.

Self-explanatory. Concerning the last line, the most disciplined and obedient will force others to be disciplined and obedient. Not a recommended stance.

Hence when the way was lost there was virtue;
When virtue was lost there was benevolence;
When benevolence was lost there was rectitude;
When rectitude was lost there were the rites.

The rites are the wearing thin of loyalty and good faith
And the beginning of disorder;
Foreknowledge is the flowery embellishment of the way
And the beginning of folly.

I love how this illustrates the descending order of goodness. Some of the earliest points are even desirable traits but are stepping stones to a quick fall.
Rectitude = Righteousness.
Rites = Proprieties (Legge/Chen); Convention (Crowley); Ritual (Feng/English); or Obedience (Guin).
It seems whichever way, it's a diss of religion as an attempt of control. In doing so, they lose their power, which rings more true today than ever.
Foreknowledge = Opinion, according to Ursula K. Le Guin, which I like.

Hence the man of large mind abides in the thick not in the thin, in the fruit not in the flower.

Therefore he discards the one and takes the other.

It's like those who get lost in the superficial beauty of a flower without going for the provided sustenance from the plant.
"Thick/thin" is "solid/flimsy" (according to Legge) and "real/surface" (according to Feng/English).

It's also fun to note that the line "Therefore he discards the one and takes the other." is the final line for chapters XII, XXXVIII, and LXXII.


Of old, these came to be in possession of the One:
Heaven in virtue of the One is limpid;
Earth in virtue of the One is settled;
Gods in virtue of the One have their potencies;
The valley in virtue of the One is full;
The myriad creatures in virtue of the One are alive;
Lords and princes in virtue of the One become leaders of the empire.
It is the One that makes these what they are.

Here is a list of things that have possessed the Tao from the beginning: Heaven, Earth, Gods/Sprits, valleys, everything that is alive, and royalty. I have excluded the subsequent verse as it simply goes through these items again, highlighting how useless they are without the Tao.

Hence the superior must have the inferior as root;
The high must have the low as base.

Something really clicked in me here. The low is stability. It is the ground needed to constructively move upward. That's why the Tao is the lowest form. It is the foundation on which everything is created. You can't build up to get closer to it. You have to strip down.
Other translations say "humbled" instead of "inferior". What an easy and practical instruction. Start by removing all arrogance and you will edge towards The Way. I start immediately.

Hence the highest renown is without renown,
Not wishing to be one among many like jade
Nor to be aloof like stone.

Most translations talk about how one should avoid "sparkling like a jade" or "clattering (making noise) like a stone".
But good ol' Crowley swung the last line into the opposite, stating "They do not seek to appear fine like jade, but inconspicuous like common stone". That sounded more Tao to me.
But then Le Guin goes in the deepest with, "Jade is praised as precious, but its strength is being stone". Now that's really nice.


Turning back is how the way moves;
Weakness is the means the way employs.

Remember that the yin and yang are always spinning. And it could also be referring to stripping back like we discussed earlier. Finding the root to progress, not moving forward and therefore away from it.
As for "weakness", this is the newborn concept again.

The myriad creatures in the world are born from
Something, and Something from Nothing.

I go off on my own mission here but the Janthopoyism creationism connects to this verse, at least for me. It's the vibrational formless substance of nothing, manifesting into something to perceive itself, i.e: us and all living creatures/physical beings. And from this something, is born more something, the act of reproduction furthering evolution, The Way moving forward now through us. At least in our tiny little narrative anyway, as the Tao permeates the Universe, obvz.


When the best student hears about the way
He practises it assiduously;
When the average student hears about the way
It seems to him there one moment and gone the next;
When the worst student hears about the way
He laughs out loud.
If he did not laugh
It would be unworthy of being the way.

I like the last bit and it's also a clever method of covering your back. If someone laughs at the Tao, it's ok! They are a bad student and it's not for everyone.

Hence the Chien yen has it:
The way that is bright seems dull;
The way that is forward seems to lead backward;
The way that is even seems rough.
The highest virtue is like the valley;
The sheerest whiteness seems sullied;
Ample virtue seems defective;
Vigorous virtue seems indolent;
Plain virtue seems soiled;
The great square has no corners.
The great vessel takes long to complete;
The great note is rarefied in sound;
The great image has no shape.

At first glance (and many glances following) this is the type of verse I dislike the most. Opposites are presented which appear meaningful, but are anything but applicable.
Thankfully, some authors have made the effort to fashion practical guidance here, and I'd like to highlight the ever-giving Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English duo, who offer the following:

"Going forward seems like retreat;" - this line makes complete sense in all translations as it's everything we've been taught already. Less is more! Reduce yourself to a simpler form.
"The easy way seems hard;" - 100% spot-on. The Tao is the easiest way, the simplest flow, the closer to nothing, the better. But it's very difficult to do that!
"The highest Virtue seems empty;" - we are taught to do nothing; that in doing anything you are not virtuous. Why? Because if you're trying to be virtuous then by very definition you can't be virtuous, for you wouldn't be trying if you were! Therefore, the highest virtue appears to be void of anything.

I also must show you Aleister Crowley's way, ending with: “Its stability is change. Its form is without form. Its fullness is vacancy. Its utterance is silence. Its reality is illusion.”
This agrees with the "formless source matter" that I believe through and through. Reality is an illusion. We have evolved to perceive a physical universe that is not truly there. Maya!

The way conceals itself in being nameless.
It is the way alone that excels in bestowing and in accomplishing.

The nameless thing is so important. Naming takes away from it, lumps it into a category, comes with predetermined ideas. It cannot be named because it is everything and nothing. It cancels itself out lol.


The way begets one;
One begets two;
Two begets three;
Three begets the myriad creatures.

I'm unconvinced that a single translator understood this verse, myself included. The Way is ground zero and from itself, it evolved into the Universe/God/One. This environment created two, which could be many dualistic concepts (the yin and yang philosophy is often proposed). However, in my mind, it's got to be the man and the woman. And then these two beget three, naturally reproducing a baby. After that, I'm unsure, but perhaps it's simply that birth continues exponentially from there?

The myriad creatures carry on their backs the yin and embrace in their arms the yang and are the blending of the generative forces of the two.

Yin and yang! In this context, we have several definitions such as "breaths/energy" leading to "harmony". But again it is Crowley who speaks my language with “obscurity" leading to “manifestation”. It spins the pre-manifested raw source into tangible material, which ultimately goes around, back to obscurity in death.

There are no words which men detest more than 'solitary', 'desolate', and 'hapless', yet lords and princes use these to refer to themselves.

Thus a thing is sometimes added to by being diminished and diminished by being added to.

Standard. By losing something, you no longer have it to lose, therefore you gain. Conversely, whatever you gain is at risk of being lost, and therefore you lose that security you had before.

What others teach I also teach.
'The violent shall not come to a natural end.'
I shall take this as my precept.

The last line emphasises this verse as the foundation of Lao Tzu's teachings. Those who live violently don’t die naturally. But is that true, though? Hey, Lao? Does that still apply to our modern world? Some very violent men have lived to quite a ripe old age. There's probably something deeper here though.


The most submissive thing in the world can ride roughshod over the hardest in the world;
That which is without substance entering that which has no crevices.

"The immaterial enters the impenetrable," says Ursula K. Le Guin.
I can think of a few examples. Water wearing down rocks. And the wind blowing down rigid structures. Soft things will destroy the hard. Honestly, we've all seen how this can be applied to human debate. Someone who loses their cool and becomes aggressive is quickly made a fool of by the one who keeps their calm and doesn't resort to insults. There's some practical application right there.

The teaching that uses no words, the benefit of resorting to no action, these are beyond the understanding of all but a very few in the world.

There are days I feel like I am one of the few. There are other days I know I am not.


Your name or your person,
Which is dearer?
Your person or your goods,
Which is worth more?
Gain or loss,
Which is a greater bane?

Logical. Material gain is a burden. Anyone who's gone travelling will tell you that. I also think it's talking about the chase for fame or possessions, as it sacrifices the importance of your life for something of far lesser value; something you may get but may lose too. Regardless, I am certain I can have it all!

That is why excessive meanness
Is sure to lead to great expense;
Too much store
Is sure to end in immense loss.

I have certain discomforts with this section. "Excessive meanness (lack of generosity)" like what? Saving money? Define "excessive"? I'd also like to know how Lao Tzu is so "sure" on the last line. Not everyone loses everything! Except when they die, but if they had a good time, who cares? Good inheritance for the kids too. I dunno, I believe there is a way even within The Way.

Know contentment
And you will suffer no disgrace;
Know when to stop
And you will meet with no danger.
You can then endure.

It's good advice but it's also very much about being cautious and staying safe. There is a common argument against Taoism that it's the coward's way out. I believe it doesn't have to be. But considering this entire passage, it doesn't quite fit into my reckless fun.


This may be the only page of the Tao that gave me nothing at all. Go make your mind up but it was much of the same in my eyes.


When the way prevails in the empire, fleet-footed horses are relegated to ploughing in the fields;
When the way does not prevail in the empire, war-horses breed on the border.

Tao is a way of peace. During times of Tao, horses are used for fertiliser and pulling agricultural machinery. During times of war, horses are weaponry. Poor horsies.

There is no crime greater than having too many desires;
There is no disaster greater than not being content;
There is no misfortune greater than being covetous.

Hence in being content, one will always have enough.

Can't argue with the logic of that last line. By finding satisfaction in what you have, you'll have enough. A difficult place to get to when we're drowning in all this Western capitalism though! Feed me more!


Without stirring abroad
One can know the whole world;
Without looking out the window
One can see the way of heaven.
The further one goes
The less one knows.

Fuck. That. Noise.


In the pursuit of learning one knows more every day;
In the pursuit of the way one does less every day.
One does less and less until one does nothing at all, and when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone.

Instead of acquiring new information, forget information. You can only accomplish everything by having nothing to do. How bored must Taoists be though? Honestly, the modern world is far too scary to sit still in. Perhaps that’s the problem.

It is always through not meddling that the empire is won.
Should you meddle, then you are not equal to the task of winning the empire.

As before, some translations say "heaven" instead of "empire", which I prefer.
Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English say the following: "The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering."
Either way, I 100% subscribe to this notion. Everything needs to be effortless or you're doing it wrong. You're swimming upstream and you're going to get battered, mate.


The sage has no mind of his own.
He takes as his own the mind of the people.

Those who are good I treat as good.
Those who are not good I also treat as good.
In so doing I gain in goodness.
Those who are of good faith I have faith in.
Those who are lacking in good faith I also have faith in.
In so doing I gain in good faith.

I love love love this! Treat everyone well without exception. It’s powerful and essential to all beliefs, despite so few dedicating to it. I won't settle for anything less. I judge scripture on this basis alone.

The sage in his attempt to distract the mind of the empire seeks urgently to muddle it.
The people all have something to occupy their eyes and ears, and the sage treats them all like children.

And then in the same breath, it's ruined! Many translations are similar, but thankfully, there are those like me who refused to believe it at face value and took the liberty to warp it into our own happy place. Here are the best examples:

James Legge:
"The sage appeareth hesitating to the world, because his mind is detached. Therefore the people look and listen to him, as his children; and thus doth he shepherd them."

Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English:
"The sage is shy and humble - to the world he seems confusing.
Others look to him and listen.
He behaves like a little child."

Ursula K. Le Guin:
"They mingle their life with the world,
they mix their mind up with the world.
Ordinary people look after them.
Wise souls are children."

Ursula was particularly opposed to this verse, stating in her footnotes, "the last line is taken to mean that the wise treat ordinary people like children. This is patronizing, and makes hash out of the first verse". I hear you, Le Guin.


I have heard it said that one who excels in safeguarding his own life does not meet with rhinoceros or tiger when travelling on land nor is he touched by weapons when charging into an army.
There is nowhere for the rhinoceros to pitch its horn;
There is nowhere for the tiger to place its claws;
There is nowhere for the weapon to lodge its blade.
Why is this so? Because for him there is no realm of death.

The fact that it starts "I have heard it said," is interesting. It is not a statement, it is a rumour. Regardless, the message is a confusing one. Is it that you cannot kill someone who has already accepted death? Or is it that those who are truly in tune with the Universe manifest no harm? No translation explained itself.


The way gives them life;
Virtue rears them;
Things give them shape;
Circumstances bring them to maturity.

Therefore the myriad creatures all revere the way and honor virtue.
Yet the way is revered and virtue honored not because this is decreed by any authority but because it is natural for them to be treated so.

Again, my interpretation is bulletproof. We all come from the Tao; the Universal Energy. This evolves into physical matter, and everything is then nurtured by its environment. It is life, and in that way, everything worships the Tao by default. You can’t help but do so because you and everything you do is part of it.
The rest of the verse repeated older texts, hence why I opted to exclude it.


The world had a beginning
And this beginning could be the mother of the world.
When you know the mother
Go on to know the child.
After you have known the child
Go back to holding fast to the mother,
And to the end of your days you will not meet with danger.

I guess every religion needs its creation story, right? All translations agree that this tale begins with the mother which could mean many things. The Universe? God? Mother Earth/Nature? Regardless, the assumed gender is correct for are we not born from a mother? And the child is... us? Or the physical world? Whichever is fine but never forget the source and then you will flow free and safe.
I can do it. I wanna be here with that.

Block the openings,
Shut the doors,
And all your life you will not run dry.
Unblock the openings,
Add to your troubles,
And to the end of your days you will be beyond salvation.

Feng/English/Crowley/Legge use "mouth" and "breath" instead of "opening" and "doors". Keep quiet and breathe easy for a chilled life. But if you release your voice and breathe outward, then you are no longer safe. I actually teach this quite explicitly in Janthopoyism.

To see the small is called discernment;
To hold fast to the submissive is called strength.

Or as Aleister Crowley puts it, “To perceive that Minute Point is True Vision; to maintain the Soft and Gentle is True Strength.”
Or as Morrissey says, "It's so easy to laugh. It's so easy to hate. It takes guts to be gentle and kind."


Were I possessed of the least knowledge, I would, when walking on the great way, fear only paths that lead astray.
The great way is easy, yet people prefer by-paths.

Going with the flow is easy but we overcomplicate it and we get "sidetracked" (Feng/English).
Ursula K. Le Guin smashed it best with, "The great way is low and plain, but people like shortcuts over the mountains."

The court is corrupt,
The fields are overgrown with weeds,
The granaries are empty;
Yet there are those dressed in fineries,
With swords at their sides,
Filled with food and drink,
And possessed of too much wealth.
This is known as taking the lead in robbery.

Far indeed is this from the way.

So sad that this is a bigger problem now more than ever! To be so rich while others suffer is not The Way. It's fucking robbery, man!


Cultivate it in your person
And its virtue will be genuine;
Cultivate it in the family
And its virtue will be more than sufficient;
Cultivate it in the hamlet
And its virtue will endure;
Cultivate it in the state
And its virtue will abound;
Cultivate it in the empire
And its virtue will be pervasive.

Hence look at the person through the person;
Look at the family through the family;
Look at the hamlet through the hamlet;
Look at the state through the state;
Look at the empire through the empire.

How do I know that the empire is like that? By means of this.

This was a long verse with very little to gain personally. "Hamlet" has been called "neighbourhood" and "village" elsewhere. "Empire" has been called "kingdom", "world", and "universe" elsewhere. It is in these things that the Tao can be observed.
Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English simplify as always, putting the last lines as, "How do I know the universe is like this? By looking!"


One who possesses virtue in abundance is comparable to a new born babe:
Poisonous insects will not sting it;
Ferocious animals will not pounce on it;
Predatory birds will not swoop down on it.

Pretty sure this is untrue. Do insects not sting babies? Ursula K. Le Guin tried her best to defend this, stating the baby is not aware of the dangers therefore they don't exist. But fat load of good that'll do the baby when it dies from a bear attack, right? Where were the parents?!

Its bones are weak and its sinews supple yet its hold is firm.
It does not know the union of male and female yet its male member will stir:
This is because its virility is at its height.
It howls all day yet does not become hoarse:
This is because its harmony is at its height.

This is a lot but it's got some good examples to further emphasise the Tao's affection towards the newborn as a symbol.
Babies have strong grip, sure, but my grip is stronger. Jared 1, Baby 0.
I googled it and male babies get erections even in the womb! So that's true and weird!
Finally, no one can deny that babies somehow scream for hours yet their vocals remain crazy strong! How?? Babymetal!

A creature in its prime doing harm to the old
Is known as going against the way.
That which goes against the way will come to an early end.

This is a repeated section form earlier and I don't buy it. Some pretty wicked people live long.
Ursula again comes to the rescue as best as she could, explaining that the Tao is eternal and therefore never gets old. We do get old because we are not eternal, we are not the Tao, and therefore we... die?


One who knows does not speak;
One who speaks does not know.

This is a hugely famous saying. I notice its truth more and more. People who don’t know much about a topic tend to argue more readily. Defensiveness is a glaring sign of uncertainty. If you know you're right, why would you bother trying to convince anyone else? Loud people are trying to convince themselves.

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

If you ever need further proof that Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English provide the kindest of translations, simply compare the above to the following:

Keep your mouth closed.
Guard your senses.
Temper your sharpness.
Simplify your problems.
Mask your brightness.
Be at one with the dust of the Earth.


Govern the state by being straightforward;
Wage war by being crafty;
But win the empire by not being meddlesome.

During my first read, it was at this exact point where I realised we weren't being spoken to. This was a guide for governments! It's a teaching of rule. We can apply much of it to our lives, sure, but we are not the target audience.
"Control the world by doing nothing," says Le Guin's last line.

The better known the laws and edicts
The more thieves and robbers there are.

Further evidence here. The more laws they put on us, the more criminals there will be.

Hence the sage says,
I take no action and the people are transformed of themselves;
I prefer stillness and the people are rectified of themselves;
I am not meddlesome and the people prosper of themselves;
I am free from desire and the people of themselves become simple like the uncarved block.

And here again. Ambitious governments are not great. Conquering or meddling, it’s a bad way. Leave the people alone! It's an appreciated message


When the government is muddled
The people are simple;
When the government is alert
The people are cunning.

It is on disaster that good fortune perches;
It is beneath good fortune that disaster crouches.

"Muddled" is an interesting choice of word. Other more suited I've read include "dull" and "light-handed".
The last two lines also appear true in my experience. The worst things often force us to change in good ways. And for disaster to strike you indicates you had the good fortune to lose in the first place, right? Taoism!

Therefore the sage is square-edged but does not scrape,
Has corners but does not jab,
Extends himself but not at the expense of others,
Shines but does not dazzle.

This is poetic and agreeable. The last two lines in particular apply nicely.


In ruling the people and in serving heaven it is best for a ruler to be sparing.
It is because he is sparing
That he may be said to follow the way from the start;
Following the way from the start he may be said to accumulate an abundance of virtue;
Accumulating an abundance of virtue there is nothing he cannot overcome;
When there is nothing he cannot overcome, no one knows his limit;
When no one knows his limit
He can possess a state;
When he possesses the mother of a state
He can then endure.
This is called the way of deep roots and firm stems by which one lives to see many days.

This is a fat chunk of text but it's easy to follow and it’s enjoyable teachings. It feels logical.


Governing a large state is like boiling a small fish.

D.C. Lau left us a footnote here, explaining that a small fish is easily spoilt when touched. Thanks for clarifying!

When the empire is ruled in accordance with the way,
The spirits lose their potencies.
Or rather, it is not that they lose their potencies,
But that, though they have their potencies, they do not harm the people.
It is not only they who, having their potencies, do not harm the people,
The sage, also, does not harm the people.
As neither does any harm, each attributes the merit to the other.

What a sloppy verse! Other interpretations are a little less clumsy but what’s interesting is an admission of spirits and their power (ghosts of ancestors, spiritual energy etc). These can harm you. Such beliefs run rife in Eastern (and many Western!) traditions, but Tao seemed different when it came to anything supernatural. It's a small hint towards what is believed about the afterlife, a topic largely ignored by the scripture.


In the union of the world,
The female always gets the better of the male by stillness.

Being still, she takes the lower position.

Always a dodgy place to go, saying the woman plays small to conquer the man. It's probably true in many cases but feels a little dated. Still, it ties in well with the next few lines...

Hence the large state, by taking the lower position, annexes the small state;
The small state, by taking the lower position, affiliates itself to the large state.

Thus the one, by taking the lower position, annexes;
The other, by taking the lower position, is annexed.
All that the large state wants is to take the other under its wing;
All that the small state wants is to have its services accepted by the other.
If each of the two wants to find its proper place,
It is meet that the large should take the lower position.

It took me many translations to get this, but it's something like a smaller country going into a union with a bigger country. The bigger country wants more people so it gets what it wants, meanwhile the smaller country is now better protected. One could argue that the smaller country, in being smaller, is at the best advantage in this arrangement, as it becomes less of a target. The bigger country would be the target if there was one. Either way, both countries are submitting to one another in order to dominate one another. It's mutual compliance to exploit for benefits.


The way is the refuge for the myriad creatures.
It is that by which the good man protects,
And that by which the bad is protected.

Beautiful words when offered will win high rank in return;
Beautiful deeds can raise a man above others.

Even if a man is not good, why should he be abandoned?

Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English have their second/third lines as, "It is the treasure of the good man, and the refuge of the bad."
This whole section is important to me. It is in tune with my beliefs and a dazzling difference between Taoism and Abrahamic pursuits. Even bad men are not abandoned by the Tao. How could they be? We are all a result of it.

Hence when the emperor is set up and the three ducal ministers are appointed, he who makes a present of the way without stirring from his seat is preferable to one who offers presents of jade disks followed by a team of four horses.
Why was this way valued of old?
Was it not said that by means of it one got what one wanted and escaped the consequences when one transgressed?

Aleister Crowley's thoughts were stronger here: “this gift were not to be matched against the Tao, which might be offered by the humblest of men."
The Tao is a gift that is more valuable than any but can be received or even offered by anyone. And whoever ”gets it” is instantly purified, free of guilt. I understand this. You let go.


This is a very good page.

Do that which consists in taking no action;
Pursue that which is not meddlesome;
Savor that which has no flavor.

This works as a satisfying summary of the Taoist teaching. Go with the flow, touch nothing, don’t reach for the fancy.

Make the small big and the few many;
Do good to him who has done you an injury.

Lay plans for the accomplishment of the difficult before it becomes difficult;
Make something big by starting with it when small.

Difficult things in the word must needs have their beginnings in the easy;
Big things must needs have their beginnings in the small.

Therefore it is because the sage never attempts to be great that he succeeds in becoming great.

Everything starts out small, so it's best to tackle a problem long before it becomes a problem. This includes being nice to those who are not nice to you. Prevention is the best way to minimise the need for action.

One who makes promises rashly rarely keeps good faith;
One who is in the habit of considering things easy meets with frequent difficulties.

Therefore even the sage treats some things as difficult.
That is why in the end no difficulties can get the better of him.

The first two lines make sense. The second two are tricky. The sage treats everything as if it's a difficult task and therefore doesn't know the meaning of the word? Or perhaps they view everything as having the potential to become very difficult and therefore always catch it when it's small and easy? That would make a lot of sense except it's not quite what's being said lol.


It is easy to maintain a situation while it is still secure;
It is easy to deal with a situation before symptoms develop;
It is easy to break a thing when it is yet brittle;
It is easy to dissolve a thing when it is yet minute.

Deal with a thing while it is still nothing;
Keep a thing in order before disorder sets in.

Same sentiments as before and remains just as logical. What's interesting is that verses like this one appear to contradict the Tao's core message of not acting. However, if you dig deeper, it's telling you that action is often unavoidable, but the earlier you act, the better you can minimise your meddling until it's basically nothing. It took me a while to get this.
A tree that can fill the span of a man's arms
Grows from a downy tip;
A terrace nine storeys high
Rises from hodfuls of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles
Starts from beneath one's feet.

Really hammering that imagery in and doing a wonderful job of it. Those final two lines are probably the most famous of all the Tao Te Ching's teachings.

In their enterprises the people
Always ruin them when on the verge of success.
Be as careful at the end as at the beginning
And there will be no ruined enterprises.

This is quite profound. People ruin things because they get careless as they rush towards its end. Treat everything with the same care as you do in the beginning all the way to the finish line. I can apply this to a lot of examples. Relationships are a good one.


Another page supporting my theory that the Tao Te Ching is not written for ordinary civilians. And if this is the case, where do we draw the line? Which parts are for us? I get that non-action is essential advice for a governing body but does this really apply to our daily lives?

Of old those who excelled in the pursuit of the way did not use it to enlighten the people but to hoodwink them.
The reason why the people are difficult to govern is that they are too clever.

This is a bother. Are we supposed to know this?
The only saving grace is the "Of old" lead-in. Is this speaking specifically of long times past? Is it no longer applicable?

Hence to rule a state by cleverness
Will be to the detriment of the state;
Not to rule a state by cleverness
Will be a boon to the state.

It feels like we’re reading secret government documents here.

Only then is complete conformity realized.

"Conformity" is another red-flag word, one which Legge also uses while Crowley prefers "accordance".
But Chen says "harmony" and Feng/English/Le Guin say "oneness" soooo let's go with those instead! :D


The reason why the River and the Sea are able to be king of the hundred valleys is that they excel in taking the lower position.
Hence they are able to be king of the hundred valleys.

I do adore these real-life analogies but sometimes you've got to stop and question their relevance. How is this illustration applicable to my life? Must I drag my body over the ground for centuries until I erode the earth away? I am not a river!

Therefore, desiring to rule over the people,
One must in one's words humble oneself before them;
And, desiring to lead the people,
One must, in one's person, follow behind them.

Therefore the sage takes his place over the people yet is no burden;
takes his place ahead of the people yet causes no obstruction.
That is why the empire supports him joyfully and never tires of doing so.

Again, the Tao makes the most sense when guiding authority. Forceful leadership is not the solution. You need people to feel like you’re not making them do anything. They will feel free and in control, and then they will support you. Roll safe.

It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position to contend with him.

Nutshell moment. There is no competition if you do not compete.


The whole world says that my way is vast and resembles nothing.
It is because it is vast that it resembles nothing.
If it resembled anything, it would, long before now, have become small.

I take this to be about specifics. Every other religion I can think of is more specific than Taoism, hence they limit themselves. They create borders, and in turn, the scope shrinks. Taoism may seem vague but this is the source of its timelessness.
Ursula K. Le Guin had a good one here, "Everybody says my way is great but improbable. All greatness is improbable. What’s probable is tedious and petty."

I have three treasures
Which I hold and cherish.
The first is known as compassion,
The second is known as frugality,
The third is known as not daring to take the lead in the empire;
Being compassionate one could afford to be courageous,
Being frugal one could afford to extend one's territory,
Not daring to take the lead in the empire one could afford to be lord over the vessels.

Now, to forsake compassion for courage, to forsake frugality for expansion, to forsake the rear for the lead, is sure to end in death.

The three treasures changes per translation, so let's take a vote amongst the seven I read!

D.C. Lau: compassion, frugality, and not daring to take the lead in the empire.
James Legge: gentleness, economy, and shrinking from taking precedence of others.
Aleister Crowley: gentleness, economy, and humility.
Elen Chen: motherly love, frugality, and daring not to be at the world's front.
Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English: mercy, economy, and daring not to be ahead of others.
Ursula K. Le Guin: mercy, moderation, and modesty.

The results are in, and we're looking at: gentleness/mercy (2 votes each), economy (3 votes), and some variation of daring to not take the leading position (4 votes).

I noted Crowley's final lines as standing out. "That gentleness maketh me courageous, that economy generous, that humility honoured. Men of today abandon gentleness for violence, economy for extravagance, humility for pride: this is death."

Through compassion, one will triumph in attack and be impregnable in defence.
What heaven succours it protects with the gift of compassion.

Whether compassion, gentleness, mercy, or motherly love, this treasure appears to be of the utmost importance.


One who excels as a warrior does not appear formidable;
One who excels in fighting is never roused in anger;
One who excels in defeating his enemy does not join issue;
One who excels in employing others humbles himself before them.

Straightforward and true. You don't let your arrogance or emotions dictate your person. The last line is particularly beneficial. You hire people to learn from them, to gain from their additional skillset, not to order them around.

This is known as the virtue of non-contention;
This is known as making use of the efforts of others;
This is known as matching the sublimity of heaven.

I like that middle line. Make use of others, that's what a team is.


The strategists have a saying,
I dare not play the host but play the guest,
I dare not advance an inch but retreat a foot instead.

This is known as marching forward when there is no road,
Rolling up one's sleeves when there is no arm,
Dragging one's adversary by force when there is no adversary,
And taking up arms when there are no arms.

In times of war, do not engage nor make the first move, rather "march without advancing" (Chen), "giving the attacker no opponent." (Le Guin). It's admirable although I'm sure some war strategists would disagree. Although some may not!

There is no disaster greater than taking on an enemy too easily.
So doing nearly cost me my treasure.
Thus of two sides raising arms against each other,
It is the one that is sorrow-stricken that wins.

I like this. To flatten an enemy is to give up the treasure/Tao (or "gentleness" according to some). It’s those who regret the battle regardless of the outcome that are the true victors in a more fundamentally spiritual sense.
Curiously, almost all translations talk of "underestimating" the enemy and not striking hard enough, which doesn't sit with my understanding. I gravitate much closer to Ursula K. Le Guin who says, "Nothing’s worse than attacking what yields. To attack what yields is to throw away the prize."


My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice,
Yet no one in the world can understand them or put them into practice.

The funniest lines in the Tao Te Ching.

It is because people are ignorant that they fail to understand me.
Those who understand me are few;
Those who harm me are honoured.

Therefore the sage, while clad in homespun, conceals on his person a priceless piece of jade.

That last line is something I understand and recognise how unlike me it is. It's in the mystery that the sage has value. Me, I give everything about myself away. I'll be sure to work on that, Mr Tzu.


To know yet to think that one does not know is best;
Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty.

The more you know, the more you know you don't know. Of every Tao teaching, this is the one I've mastered. I'm agnostic on the fence in all matters, baby! I believe it's the only position you can see everything 360.

It is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it.
The sage meets with no difficulty.
It is because he is alive to it that he meets with no difficulty.

The Incredible Hulk, right? "That's my secret, Cap. I'm always angry."
Other translations have made the alteration to: "The sage is not sick. Because he is sick of sickness, Therefore he is not sick."


When the people lack a proper sense of awe, then some awful visitation will descend upon them.

Sounds scary.
Chen's translation was quite different to the others, with "When the people fear no power, Then great power has indeed arrived". I'll buy that too.

Hence the sage knows himself but does not display himself,
Loves himself but does not exalt himself.

Good distinctions. Keep your love for yourself to yourself.


He who is fearless in being bold will meet with his death;
He who is fearless in being timid will stay alive.
Of the two, one leads to good, the other to harm.

It's eye-opening to equate timidness with bravery. We are taught that meekness is a weakness. We are encouraged to be daring. We fear being considered timid, hence why it's a brave option in itself.

Heaven hates what it hates,
Who knows the reason why?

Haha cop-out, but I do get it. We don't actually know anything. Stop pretending you do! Agnosticism ftw. Verses like this help to further stir Taoism into my established beliefs.


When the people are not afraid of death, wherefore frighten them with death?

Such a great line. When people have nothing to lose, what can you threaten them with?

There is a regular executioner whose charge it is to kill.
To kill on behalf of the executioner is what is described as chopping wood on behalf of the master carpenter.
In chopping wood on behalf of the master carpenter, there are few who escape hurting their own hands instead.

Most translations appear to talk of a literal official executioner as if that job is just a part of society. Perhaps it was back then. I suppose it still is in some regions. But I'd expect the Tao Te Ching to take more of a stand against the practice?
Thank goodness for Ursula K. Le Guin who quotes Arthur Waley's translation, changing "executioner" to "The Lord of Slaughter". This rightfully places the role of death into the Tao, and is therefore stating that humans are morally incorrect to ever make this type of a decision. That's the one!


The people are hungry:
It is because those in authority eat up too much in taxes
That the people are hungry.
The people are difficult to govern.
It is because those in authority are too fond of action
That the people are difficult to govern.
The people treat death lightly:
It is because the people set too much store by life
That they treat death lightly.

100% and still depressingly relevant today!

It is just because one has no use for life that one is wiser than the man who values life.

Putting too much value on life will cause you to live in fear of losing it. Life is overrated!


A man is supple and weak when living, but hard and stiff when dead.
Grass and trees are pliant and fragile when living, but dried and shrivelled when dead.
Thus the hard and the strong are the comrades of death;
The supple and the weak are the comrades of life.

Not all of Tao Te Ching's metaphors land but this one works perfectly. We are taught hardness is strength but in life, we can clearly see this is untrue. To be alive is to be soft. Remember the persistent baby analogy? It makes complete sense here too! For what's softer than a baby? Who has more life ahead of them? So fresh and so clean!

Therefore a weapon that is strong will not vanquish;
A tree that is strong will suffer the axe.
The strong and big takes the lower position,
The supple and weak takes the higher position.

Another well put verse on an excellent page. Too much strength makes you a target. When you’re at the top the only way is down. Can I pick the middle though?
Elen Chen (among others) have a different first-line to likes of, "Hence an unyielding army is destroyed".


It is the way of heaven to take from what has in excess in order to make good what is deficient.
The way of man is otherwise: it takes from those who are in want in order to offer this to those who already have more than enough.
Who is there that can take what he himself has in excess and offer this to the empire?
Only he who has the way.

It's painful how much this applies to our current world, perhaps more so than ever. Our governments bleed the people dry while big corporations bathe in tax relief. The richest are richer than ever before, the poor growing in numbers. It's heartbreaking. It is not The Way.

Therefore the sage benefits them yet exacts no gratitude,
Accomplishes his task yet lays claim to no merit.

Is this not because he does not wish to be considered a better man than others?

Please do what you can to benefit the world but never flaunt it. All humans are equal and you must not try to be seen as anything otherwise. Powerful stuff!


In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water.
Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.
This is because there is nothing that can take its place.

The classic spiritual analogy. Be like water. It's the softest thing yet impossible to damage. It patiently erodes mountains yet does not change itself in the process. Also, like, without it, we all perish fast!

That the weak overcomes the strong,
And the submissive overcomes the hard,
Everyone in the world knows yet no one can put this knowledge into practice.

Not a great vote of confidence here, but at least it's recognised how difficult this practice is to apply to our lives.

Straightforward words seem paradoxical.

The Tao Te Ching in a box, just add water.


When peace is made between great enemies,
Some enmity is bound to remain undispelled.
How can this be considered perfect?

Therefore the sage takes the left-hand tally, but exacts no payment from the people.
The man of virtue takes charge of the tally;
The man of no virtue takes charge of exaction.

Those who know the Tao ensure they do what is fair but do not demand to be treated fairly. Meanwhile, those resisting the Tao want what is owed to them first and foremost.

The Feng/English translation makes life easy with:
"Therefore the sage keeps his half of the bargain
But does not exact his due.
A man of Virtue performs his part,
But a man without Virtue requires others to fulfill their obligations."

It is the way of heaven to show no favoritism.
It is for ever on the side of the good man.

That's a nice thought.


Reduce the size of the population and the state.
Ensure that even though the people have tools of war for a troop or a battalion they will not use them;
And also that they will be reluctant to move to distant places because they look on death as no light matter.

Reducing the size of the population (by, say, China's former one-child policy) is not something I'm opposed to but it's still questionable wording. Thankfully, other translations talk about having a small kingdom already, not explicitly reducing the numbers.
Both James Legge and Aleister Crowley have a different position on the second line, stating that even if one man has the capabilities to do the work of more men, he should not be employed to do so. I like that.
Again, it is fair for nations to have weapons but they should not use them. It makes sense but it's a grey area in itself. Does not the person with many possessions open themselves up to theft? Therefore, does not the person with weaponry open themselves up to attack? Maybe that's fairyland talk.
Finally, people should not want to go on adventures because they might die. I disagree.

Bring it about that the people will return to the use of the knotted rope,
Will find relish in their food
And beauty in their clothes,
Will be content in their abode
And happy in the way they live.

Be grateful for what you have.
Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English's first line was "Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing." which is not a future I subscribe to.

Though adjoining states are within sight of one another,
And the sound of dogs barking and cocks crowing in one state can be heard in another,
yet the people of one state will grow old and die without having had any dealings with those of another.

Neighbours must stay separated. Much like the rest of this page, I do not connect with this either. Do you?
Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English were kinder, with, "Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die."


Truthful words are not beautiful;
Beautiful words are not truthful.
Good words are not persuasive;
Persuasive words are not good.
He who knows has no wide learning;
He who has wide learning does not know.

Typical Tao conversing wordplay here but the sentiment is good.
Aleister Crowley's second line was “Those who know do not argue; the argumentative are without knowledge.”. I have come to witness this as a truth in my experience.

The sage does not hoard.
Having bestowed all he has on others, he has yet more;
Having given all he has to others, he is richer still.

Give it away and you will have more. I am starting to see much evidence of this idea.

The way of heaven benefits and does not harm;
The way of the sage is bountiful and does not contend.

The final verse!
"Do no harm" is the first of the closing message. And we'll let Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English neatly tie up the rest:

"The Tao of the sage is work without effort."