The Laozi Daodejing (better known as the Tao Te Ching in English) is one of the fundamental works of Daoist philosophy and religion. Legend has it that the text was written by the ancient Chinese sage Laozi (Lao-Tzu), whose name literally translates as Old Master and who was probably about as real as Homer. The Tao Te Ching has substantially influenced my approach to life. Studying it is likely to give you a better understanding of deep ecology, Zen Buddhism, and Bruce Lee.
The work is traditionally divided into two parts: the Dao Jing (chapters 1-37) and the De Jing (chapters 38-81). These explore the fundamental concepts of Dao (translated as “the Way”), the Ground of Being out of which all existence arises, and De (translated as “character”), the quality of alignment with Dao. These may have been reversed from an earlier version which puts chapters 38-81 before chapters 1-37. I have chosen, however, to translate the traditional version of the text here, its final and most influential form.
The Tao Te Ching is compressed and gnomic even by the standards of Classical Chinese, and interpretation requires a great deal of thought and sensitivity. This is the fourth major revision I’ve made to this translation since I first put it out in 2004. The translation has deepened over the years as my own understanding has deepened. I find that the more time I spend with the text the more willing I become to veer away from orthodox interpretations to create a version which is uniquely my own. A good thing too, since the text itself explicitly mocks orthodoxy, rigidity, and tradition.
I’ll be making a downloadable ebook version of the text at some point, which will include a longer, more in-depth introduction and the Chinese text alongside. For now, however, here’s the translated English version of the text, on one page.
Tao Te Ching
The Book of the Way
The way that can be talked about is not the eternal Way.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The Nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth;
names are the mothers of the ten thousand things.
Seek to behold the mysteries of Nonbeing
and to perceive the limits of Being.
These two arise together, but are differently named.
Together they’re called profound,
profounder than profound,
the gate of all mysteries.
When all know beauty as beautiful,
When all know goodness as good,
So Being and Nonbeing give birth to each other,
difficult and easy complete each other,
long and short shape each other,
high and low fill each other,
tones and sounds harmonize together,
and front and back follow each other;
these things will ever be so.
That’s why the wise person resides in non-active doings
and abides by non-spoken teachings.
The myriad things arise, but he doesn’t begin them;
they are born, but he doesn’t claim them;
he helps them, but he doesn’t coddle them.
He doesn’t dwell on the things he has accomplished,
and since he doesn’t dwell on them
they are never lost.
Don’t elevate the worthy
and people won’t compete.
Don’t treasure rare goods
and people won’t steal.
Don’t display enticing things
and people’s hearts won’t be troubled.
So the wise ruler
empties minds and fills bellies,
weakens wills and strengthens bones.
He always keeps the people without knowledge or desires
and makes sure that the learned won’t dare to act.
and all things will sort themselves out.
The Way is empty, and won’t fill with use.
It’s deep as the father of the ten thousand things.
Blunt what is sharp. Untangle what is knotted.
Soften what is dazzling. Be one with the dust.
How profound: it both exists and doesn’t.
I don’t know whose child it is.
It was there before God.
Heaven and earth aren’t humane.
They treat the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The wise person isn’t humane.
He treats the common people as straw dogs.
The space between heaven and earth
is like a bellows,
empty but never emptied,
producing more with each movement.
Too much chatter leads to exhaustion.
Better to stay empty.
The valley spirit never dies.
It’s called the mysterious female.
The gate of the mysterious female
is called the root of heaven and earth.
It keeps on existing.
Use will not drain it.
Heaven lasts. Earth endures.
Heaven and earth last and endure
because they don’t live for themselves.
That’s why they live long.
So the wise person,
putting himself last, comes first;
putting himself aside, survives.
Because he doesn’t have selfish desires,
his desires are all fulfilled.
The highest good is like water,
benefiting all things, contending with none.
It dwells in places that people disdain.
Thus it comes close to the Way.
The most important thing
in a dwelling: location;
in a mind: depth;
in relationships: benevolence;
in speech: sincerity;
in government: order;
in projects: ability;
in actions: timing.
Only those who don’t compete
will never be to blame.
Overfilling a cup
isn’t as good as stopping.
A sword oversharpened
won’t keep its edge long.
Halls filled with gold and jade
can’t be preserved.
The arrogance of riches
only brings disaster.
Finish your work and leave.
That’s heaven’s Way.
Though you embrace body and spirit as one,
can you keep them from parting?
Though you focus your breath to a softness,
can you make it a child’s?
Though you cleanse your mind’s dark mirror,
can you keep it from stain?
Though you love the people and order the land,
can you practice inaction?
Though you open and close heaven’s gates,
can you play the female role?
Though you understand the four quarters,
can you be without knowledge?
Things are born and are nourished;
as they arise, don’t claim them,
help them, but don’t coddle them,
as they grow, don’t rule over them —
that’s called profound character.
Join thirty spokes at one hub —
emptiness makes the cart useful.
Fashion clay, make a bowl —
emptiness makes the bowl useful.
Cut doors and windows, make a room —
emptiness makes the room useful.
Substance is beneficial,
The five colours blind the eyes.
The five tones deafen the ears.
The five flavours dull the palate.
Riding and hunting drive the heart wild.
Rare goods warp behaviour.
That’s why the wise
act for the belly, not the eyes.
Letting one go, they keep the other.
Favour and disgrace both bring disquiet.
Value great disaster as much as your own body.
Favour and disgrace both bring disquiet
because favour is base:
received, it brings disquiet;
lost, it brings disquiet.
Favour and disgrace thus both bring disquiet.
Value great disaster as much as your own body
because you can only meet disaster if you have a body.
If you had no body, how could you meet disaster?
Treat both body and world alike,
and the world can be entrusted to you;
love both body and world alike,
and the world can be handed over to you.
Looked for, not seen: that’s obscure.
Listened for, not heard: that’s faint.
Grasped at, not held: that’s subtle.
These three can’t be fully known
and so are joined as one.
Neither dazzling above nor darkened below,
uncertain, unnameable, they go back to nothing.
They’re the form of the formless, the shape of nothingness,
with no front when met,
no rear when followed.
Hold to the ancient Way to manage today’s affairs.
Knowing the ancient beginning —
that’s the warp and weft of the Way.
The ancient masters of the Way
were subtle, mysterious, profound, discerning,
deeper than can be fathomed.
Since they can’t be fathomed
we must struggle to describe them:
cautious, like those who cross streams in winter;
wary, like those suspicious of their neighbours;
respectful, like guests;
yielding, like ice about to melt;
simple, like uncarved wood;
wide and empty, like valleys;
mixed up, like muddy water.
Who, being muddy, can through calmness become clear?
Who, being still, can through movement come to life?
Those who kept the Way didn’t desire to be full.
Because they were not full, they could withdraw and be renewed.
Reach the heights of emptiness.
Plumb the depths of stillness.
All things arise together;
I watch for their return.
Though all things flourish, each one
goes back at last to its root —
When you know what’s eternal, you’re wise.
When you don’t know what’s eternal, you’re reckless.
So know what’s eternal. That makes you magnanimous,
which makes you impartial,
which makes you whole,
which makes you like heaven,
which makes you like the Way,
which makes you enduring:
your body might die, but you won’t pass away.
The best ruler’s subjects don’t know he exists.
The next best is loved and praised.
The next best is feared.
The worst is despised.
Those who lack trust
Be careful with words — each one is precious —
so that in the end, when your work is done
the people all say:
“That’s how we naturally are.”
When the great Way is neglected,
you get benevolence and righteousness.
When erudition emerges,
you get great hypocrites.
When the family breaks down,
you get filial piety.
When the country is in chaos,
you get patriots.
Do away with wisdom, get rid of knowledge,
and the people will benefit a hundredfold.
Do away with benevolence, get rid of righteousness,
and the people will return to filial compassion.
Do away with cunning, get rid of profit,
and there will be neither robbers nor thieves.
These three aren’t enough as a teaching,
so let these be added:
display the plainness of undyed silk;
preserve the simplicity of uncarved wood;
decrease your self-interest, diminish your desires.
Do away with learning, and be without worries.
What’s the difference between
a “yes” which is informal
and a “yes” which is formal?
What’s the difference between
beauty and ugliness?
What others fear cannot go unfeared —
Most people are making merry
as at the sacrifice of oxen,
as if climbing a terrace in spring.
I alone am still and expressionless
like an infant who has not yet smiled.
Wearily I wander
like one with no place to return to.
The mass of men have more than enough;
I alone am lacking.
Mine is the mind of a fool, confused, bewildered.
Most people see things clearly;
I alone am clouded over.
Most people are perceptive;
I alone am perplexed,
calm as the sea,
whirling without rest.
All people have a purpose;
I alone am slow and stubborn.
I alone, unlike others,
value sustenance from the Mother.
Great character follows the Way.
The Way is vague and hazy,
but though hazy and vague, there are images in it;
though vague and hazy, there are objects in it;
though deep and dark, there is vitality in it,
true vitality, with truth at its heart.
From past to present its name has not been lost,
and by it can be seen the father of all things.
How do I know the father of all things?
The misshapen will be made whole.
The crooked will be made straight.
The hollow will be filled.
The worn will be renewed.
Those with little will receive.
Those with much will be confounded.
And so the wise
take Oneness to be the world’s model.
They don’t show off, and so are distinguished;
they don’t insist they’re right, and so they shine;
they don’t boast, and so have merit;
they don’t brag, and so endure.
Because they don’t compete,
nothing in the world can compete with them.
The ancient saying
that what is misshapen will be made whole
isn’t made of empty words.
It’ll come true and come back to you.
Few words. That’s nature’s way.
High winds don’t last all morning,
thunderstorms don’t last all day.
What makes them so? Heaven and earth.
If heaven and earth can’t make things last,
how can we?
So in everyday affairs
those with the Way join with the Way,
those with character join with character,
those who lose join with loss.
The Way gladly takes those with the Way,
character gladly takes those with character,
loss gladly takes those who lose.
Those who lack trust breed distrust.
Those on tiptoe aren’t stable.
Those who stride too wide can’t walk.
Those who show off aren’t distinguished.
Those who insist they’re right don’t shine.
Those who boast lack actual merit.
Those who brag do not endure.
From the Way’s perspective
these things are like excess food,
like extra baggage.
All other things detest them,
so those with the Way avoid them.
Something arose from chaos
before heaven and earth were born,
soundless, formless, alone, unchanging.
Circling unceasingly, it can be considered
the Mother of heaven and earth.
I don’t know its name.
If forced, I would call it “the Way”;
if compelled to name it, I would call it “the Great”.
Greatness implies departure.
Departure implies distance.
Distance implies return.
The Way is great,
heaven is great,
earth is great,
and people are great.
(Four great things in this realm,
and people are one of them!)
People follow earth,
earth follows heaven,
heaven follows the Way,
and the Way follows its own nature.
Weight is the root of lightness;
stillness, the ruler of rashness.
That’s why the superior man, travelling all day,
does not abandon his store wagons.
Though surrounded by luxury,
he dwells in quiet and calm.
How could a king with ten thousand chariots
count himself lighter than the world?
In lightness the root is lost.
In rashness his rule is lost.
Good walkers leave no tracks.
Good speakers make no slips.
Good counters need no beads.
Good locks use no bolt or bar
yet cannot be opened;
good knots use no ropes or cords
yet cannot be untied.
So the wise person
is always good at saving people
and thus no one is abandoned;
he is always good at saving things
and thus no thing is abandoned.
That’s called inner wisdom.
The good are teachers for the bad;
the bad are resources for the good.
If you don’t value your teachers or cherish your resources,
then even with knowledge you will go far astray.
That’s the essential mystery.
Know the male, but keep to the female;
be a mountain stream for the world.
As a mountain stream for the world,
eternal character won’t depart
and you’ll return to infancy.
Know whiteness, but keep to blackness;
be a model for the world.
As a model for the world,
eternal character won’t falter
and you’ll return to boundlessness.
Know honour, but keep to disgrace;
be a valley for the world.
As a valley for the world
eternal character will suffice,
and you’ll return to the plainness of uncarved wood.
When uncarved wood is split
it is made into tools,
but when the wise person is employed
he is made the chief official.
That’s why great governance
doesn’t carve things up.
If you try to take the world and act on it,
you won’t succeed.
The sacred vessel of the world
can’t be acted on or grasped.
Those who try to act will fail.
Those who try to grasp will lose.
That’s why the wise person does not act,
and so does not fail;
he does not grasp,
and so does not lose.
Some beings advance. Others follow.
Some breathe soft, some breathe hard,
some are sturdy, some are frail,
some are stable, some precarious.
The wise person
Those who use the Way to rule
don’t use strength of arms;
such deeds easily rebound.
Wherever troops have been, thorns and brambles grow;
harsh times always follow behind great armies.
What’s best is a fruitful outcome,
not grabbing for power.
Achieve a fruitful outcome without bragging,
as an inevitable result,
When things reach their prime, they grow old;
that’s not the Way.
Whatever is not the Way will come to an early end.
Fine weapons are ill-fated tools.
All things detest them;
thus those with the Way don’t use them.
At home the superior man honours the left;
in battle, he honours the right.
Weapons are ill-fated tools,
not the tools of the superior man;
he uses them only when he has no other choice,
placing tranquillity above all.
He doesn’t find victory in battle beautiful.
Those who find it beautiful
rejoice in the killing of men,
and never achieve their ambitions in this world.
Auspicious events uphold the left;
unlucky events uphold the right.
The lieutenant commander stands on the left,
the commander-in-chief on the right,
as at funeral rites.
When multitudes of men are killed
we weep in sorrow,
and victories in battle are like funeral rites.
The Way is always nameless,
an uncarved block of wood.
nothing in the world can subjugate it.
If princes and kings could keep to it,
all things would submit themselves to them.
Heaven and earth join together
to send down sweet dew —
it falls upon all equally,
though no one commanded it so.
As soon as we begin to carve things up
there are names,
but since there are already names
we must know when to stop.
Knowing when to stop:
that’s how to avoid danger.
Where the Way is concerned, all things in the world
are like valley streams flowing into rivers and the sea.
Understanding others — that’s wisdom;
understanding yourself — that’s enlightenment.
Conquering others — that’s power;
conquering yourself — that’s strength.
Knowing when you have enough — that’s wealth;
keeping to your path — that’s resolve.
If you don’t lose what’s important, you’ll endure.
Those who die without passing away live long.
The great Way drifts along
and can go in any direction.
All things need it to live
and it doesn’t turn from them;
it does its work
but takes no credit.
It clothes and rears all things
without lording it over them.
Always desireless, it can be called small;
but though all things go back to it
it doesn’t lord it over them.
It can be called great,
but to the end it never considers itself great;
thus it can achieve greatness.
Hold to the great Image
and the whole world will come to you,
will come to you without harm,
in safety and peace.
Music and fine dishes
make passing guests stay,
but speaking of the Way
is bland and tasteless.
Too little of it to be seen,
too little of it to be heard —
yet when used it never runs out.
If you wish to gather something
it must first have been spread out;
if you wish to weaken something
it must first have been strengthened;
if you wish to abolish something
it must first have been established;
if you wish to gain something
it must first have received.
That’s subtle insight.
Soft and weak conquer hard and strong.
Fish cannot leave the depths.
The state’s weapons should never be displayed.
The Way always does nothing
and nothing is left undone.
If princes and kings could keep to it,
all things would change by themselves.
If desire arises after that,
I would calm it with nameless simplicity;
once calmed with nameless simplicity,
there will be no more desire.
Without desire there will be stillness,
and the world will settle itself.
The Book of Character
The person of great character isn’t concerned about his character;
that’s why he has character.
The person of little character clings constantly to it;
that’s why he lacks character.
The person of great character doesn’t act,
and doesn’t have any ulterior motives.
The person of little character doesn’t act,
but has his own reasons for not acting.
The person who values benevolence
without any ulterior motives.
The person who values righteousness
with reasons and purposes for doing so.
And the person who values good manners
acts accordingly — and when others don’t do likewise,
he rolls up his sleeves and forces them to.
After the Way is lost
you’re left with character.
After character is lost
you’re left with kindness.
After kindness is lost
you’re left with righteousness,
and after righteousness is lost
you’re left with good manners.
Good manners mean that loyalty and trust have grown thin;
this is the fountainhead of disorder.
And foresight — that’s just a flower of the Way.
It’s where foolishness begins.
That’s why the great man makes his dwelling
in fullness, not thinness,
in the fruit, not the flower.
Letting one go, he keeps the other.
In ancient times, these gained the One:
Heaven, which, gaining the One, grew clear;
earth, which, gaining the One, knew peace;
spirits, which, gaining the One, became divine;
valleys, which, gaining the One, were filled;
the myriad things, which, gaining the One, grew fertile;
and princes and kings, which, gaining the One, set all the world aright.
Based on this I say:
If heaven had no way to be clear, it might split;
if earth had no way to be peaceful, it might burst;
if spirits had no way to be divine, they might fade;
if valleys had no way to be filled, they might dry up;
if the myriad things had no way to be fertile, they might perish;
if princes and kings had no way to be upright, they might tumble.
That’s why the noble take the humble as their root,
why the high take the low as their foundation.
That’s why princes and kings call themselves orphaned, lonely, poor —
that’s taking humility as the root, isn’t it?
Those honoured highest don’t take honoured names.
So don’t desire to clink like jade.
The clatter of stone will do.
The Way moves in reverse.
Weakness is its practice.
All things in the world are born from Being,
and Being is born from Nonbeing.
When great men hear the Way
they follow it diligently.
When average men hear the Way
sometimes they keep to it, sometimes not.
When inferior men hear the Way,
they laugh loudly.
If they didn’t laugh, it wouldn’t deserve to be the Way.
That’s why there are these sayings:
The bright Way seems dark.
The Way forward seems to go back.
The level Way seems rough.
The deepest character seems hollow.
The greatest whiteness seems soiled.
Immense character seems insufficient.
Strong character seems weak.
Simple truths seem to keep changing.
The Great Square has no corners.
The Great Vessel is finished late.
The Great Note has little sound.
The Great Image is shapeless.
The Way is hidden and has no name.
Yet only the Way completes things.
The Way gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two give birth to Three.
Three give birth to ten thousand things.
The myriad things shoulder yin and embrace yang,
blending the breath of both for harmony.
People hate most
to be orphaned, lonely, poor.
Yet kings and dukes use these as titles.
Things gain by being diminished.
They lose by being increased.
What all men teach, I also teach.
Strong and violent men
don’t die natural deaths:
that’s the basis of my teaching.
The softest things in the world
ride roughshod over the hardest.
That which has no being
can enter where there’s no space;
that’s how I know the advantages of non-action.
Non-spoken teachings, the advantages of non-action —
few under heaven comprehend these.
Which matters more, body or name?
Body or possessions: which is worth more?
Winning or losing: which is worse?
The more you love, the more you’ll spend;
the more you hoard, the more you’ll lose.
Know what’s enough, and you won’t be disgraced.
Know when to stop, and you won’t be in danger.
That’s how to live long.
Great perfection seems lacking
but is endlessly useful.
Great fullness seems empty
but is inexhaustible.
Great straightness seems bent.
Great skill seems clumsy.
Great eloquence seems awkward.
Calm conquers rashness.
Cold conquers heat.
Cleanliness and calm set the world in order.
When the Way is in the world
swift horses fertilise the fields.
When the Way is not in the world
war horses are raised in the suburbs.
No disaster is greater than not knowing what’s enough.
No error is worse than the desire for gain.
Know that enough is enough;
Without going outdoors,
know all under heaven;
Without looking out the window,
see heaven’s Way.
The further you go, the less you know.
Thus the wise person
knows without going,
understands without looking,
accomplishes without acting.
Those who seek learning gain something daily.
Those who seek the Way lose something daily.
They do less and less
till they arrive at non-action;
they do nothing, and nothing remains undone.
To gain the whole world, never interfere with things.
Once you interfere, it’ll be out of your reach.
The wise person has no mind of his own.
He takes the mind of the people as his mind.
“To the good, I am good.
To the bad, I am also good.
Thus I attain goodness.
“To the true, I am true.
To the untrue, I am also true.
Thus I obtain trust.”
In this world,
the wise restrain themselves.
They muddy their minds for its sake.
The people all use their own ears and eyes,
and the wise treat them all as children.
To be born is to be dying.
Three out of ten are disciples of life;
three out of ten are disciples of death;
and three out of ten move from life to death.
Why is this so?
Because people value life too much.
As you’ve heard,
those who are good at managing their lives
don’t run into rhinos or tigers on the road
or get wounded by weapons in battle.
The rhino has no place to thrust its horn.
The tiger has no place to fasten its claws.
Weapons have no place to pierce their blades.
Why is this so?
Because there is no place for death in them.
The Way bears them, character nurtures them,
matter shapes them, and circumstances form them.
That’s why the myriad things respect the Way and honour character.
They weren’t ordered to do this;
it happened on its own.
So the Way bears them, and character nurtures them,
raises them, rears them,
completes them, matures them,
fosters them, protects them.
It gives them life without laying claim to them,
helps but doesn’t coddle,
lets them grow unsupervised.
That’s profound character.
All things have a beginning,
have a mother.
Once you know the mother, you know the children.
Once you know the children, go back to the mother,
and though your body dies you will not be in danger.
Block the holes, lock the doors,
and to the end you will not have to labour.
Open the holes, get involved with things,
and to the end you will find no salvation.
Notice the little things: that’s discernment.
Hold on to gentleness: that’s strength.
Follow the light back to enlightenment.
Don’t make trouble for yourself.
That’s how to last long.
If I knew anything at all, walking the great Way,
I’d fear going astray.
The great Way is very level,
but people love side tracks.
When the imperial court is grand,
the fields are full of weeds
and the granaries are empty.
Nobles wear colourful robes;
sharp swords hang at their sides.
To be glutted with food,
with excess of riches —
that’s the boasting of robbers,
not the Way!
That which has been built well can’t be uprooted.
That which is tightly held can’t slip away.
Generations to come
will perform ancestral rituals.
Cultivated in the self, character becomes real;
cultivated in the home, it flourishes;
cultivated in the village, it endures;
cultivated in the state, it abounds;
cultivated in the world, it becomes universal.
So look on others as yourself,
other families as your family,
other villages as your village,
other countries as your country,
the whole world as your world.
How do I understand the world’s unfolding?
One filled with character
is like a newborn child:
insects won’t sting him,
Fierce beasts won’t seize him,
Preybirds won’t strike him.
Weak bones, soft muscles, yet a firm grasp;
no knowledge yet of male and female union,
yet his penis stirs, his life-force perfected.
He cries all day without becoming hoarse,
so perfect is his harmony.
To know harmony is to know the eternal;
to know the eternal is to be enlightened.
Life overlived is ominous.
Controlling the breath with the mind is forced.
Things reach their prime, then decay —
that’s not the Way.
Whatever is not the Way will come to an early end.
Those who know don’t speak.
Those who speak don’t know.
Block the holes, lock the doors,
blunt what is sharp, untangle what is knotted,
soften what is dazzling, be one with the dust.
That’s deep unity.
Those who do this
can’t be courted,
Thus they’re the noblest under heaven.
Rule the state with uprightness.
Use your troops with cunning.
Win the whole world by not interfering with things.
How do I know these things? By this:
the more prohibitions there are,
the poorer the people become;
the more weapons there are,
the more chaos reigns;
the more skilful people get,
the stranger their works become;
the harsher the laws,
the more thieves and robbers multiply.
So the wise person says:
“I do not act, and people change themselves;
I love stillness, and people govern themselves;
I don’t interfere, and people become rich;
I have no desires, and people return to simplicity.”
Where government is feeble and loose,
the people are simple and honest;
where government is intrusive and probing,
the people are restless and cunning.
Good fortune rests on disaster;
disaster hides in good fortune.
Who knows where will it end?
Nothing is reliable.
Straight reverts to twisted,
goodness to witchery.
The people’s confusion
has lasted long indeed!
That’s why the wise person
squares, but doesn’t cut;
points, but doesn’t pierce;
straightens, but doesn’t overstretch;
shines, but doesn’t dazzle.
Nothing governs the people and serves heaven
as well as frugality.
Frugality means preparing early
and accumulating character.
All things can be overcome like this, without limit.
One can then have the country,
and with the mother of the country
one can long endure.
This is called deep roots, firm base,
the Way of long life and lasting vision.
Running a large country
is like cooking a small fish.
Done in accordance with the Way,
demons will not have power.
(They won’t lose their power,
but it won’t harm people.)
Not only that; the wise person
won’t harm people either.
Since neither does harm,
character flows and returns between them.
Large states flow down to the feminine principle,
where all under heaven meets.
In stillness the female conquers the male;
in stillness she takes the lower position.
So a large state, lowering itself,
can win over a small one,
and a small state, lowering itself,
can win over a large one.
One can win by becoming low
or staying low.
Large states want no more than to unite and nurture people.
Small states want no more than to join with and serve people.
To give both what they wish, therefore,
the large state should lie low.
The Way is the storehouse of all things,
the treasure of the good man
and the refuge of those who aren’t as good.
Fair words gain honour,
noble deeds enrich —
but whyever should you abandon
those who aren’t as good?
For when the Son of Heaven is enthroned
and the three dukes are set in place,
gifts of jade disks and four-horse chariots
can’t match sitting and presenting the Way.
Why did the ancients value this Way?
Didn’t they say:
“Those who ask of it receive,
and those with guilt escape fault?”
Thus it was valued by all under heaven.
Act without acting,
get involved without interfering,
find flavour in the flavourless.
Treat the small as great, the few as many.
Respond to resentment with character.
Plan for difficulties while things are still easy;
deal with big problems while they are still small.
Difficulties always arise from what is easy;
great problems always arise from what is tiny.
The wise person never tries to do great things;
thus he accomplishes great things.
If you give your word too lightly
few will trust you.
If you see all things as easy
you will find them hard.
Therefore the wise person
treats all things as difficult,
and, to the end, never encounters difficulties.
Things at rest are easy to grasp.
What hasn’t begun is easy to plan for.
Brittle things are easy to break.
Tiny things are easy to scatter.
So act before things come into being.
Bring order before chaos begins.
A tree which takes both arms to embrace
is born from a miniscule shoot;
a tower nine storeys high
is raised from a pile of dirt;
a journey of a thousand miles
begins beneath your feet.
He who interferes will be defeated;
he who holds on to things will lose them.
Therefore the wise person doesn’t interfere,
and so is not defeated;
he doesn’t hold on to things,
and so does not lose them.
People often give up on projects
right before they succeed;
but if you proceed at the end as at the beginning,
you won’t fail.
The wise person
desires not to desire,
doesn’t value rare goods,
learns not to learn
and returns to what the masses ignore.
By this he helps all things
to find their natural state —
by not acting.
The ancient masters of the Way
didn’t use it to enlighten people
but to keep them simple.
People are hard to govern
because they know too much.
Because of this,
ruling with cleverness
robs the state;
not ruling with cleverness
enriches the state.
To understand this
is to understand a principle,
and if you understand it always
that’s profound character.
Profound character is deep and distant;
things go back with it
into the great confluence.
Rivers and seas are kings of the hundred valleys.
Because they are good at lying low
they are kings of the valleys.
So the wise person,
wishing to be above the people,
speaks as if he were below them;
wishing to lead the people,
he acts as if he follows them.
And thus the wise person
stays above without the people feeling weight,
stays in front without the people being hindered.
The whole world happily pushes him forward
without tiring of him.
Because he does not compete,
no one in the world can compete with him.
All under heaven say my Way is great
and unlike anything else.
Because it is great, it is unlike anything else;
if it were like anything else, how small it would be!
I have three treasures
which I guard and hold fast:
the first is compassion,
the second, frugality,
and the third is not daring to be first in the world.
Compassion allows me to be bold.
Frugality allows me to be generous.
And not being first in the world
allows me to master all things.
If today I were
to leave compassion to pursue boldness,
to leave frugality to pursue generosity,
to leave being the last to pursue being first,
that would be death!
In battle, the compassionate will conquer;
in defence, the compassionate will stand firm.
Heaven will save and protect them
Good generals aren’t warlike.
Good fighters don’t rage.
Good conquerors don’t engage opponents.
Good leaders place themselves beneath their subordinates.
That’s the character of not competing,
the strength of using people.
It’s called being a match for heaven,
the highest achievement of the ancients.
There’s a saying about warfare:
“I do not dare to play the host, but play the guest instead;
I do not dare to advance an inch, but retreat a foot instead.”
That’s called moving without moving,
rolling up your sleeve without showing your arm,
fighting without foes,
wielding without weapons.
No disaster is worse than treating your opponent lightly;
those who do so will soon lose my treasures.
When contending armies are equally matched,
the one that grieves will conquer.
My words are very easy to understand
and very easy to practice.
Yet no one in the world can understand them
or practice them.
Words have ancestors, deeds have masters:
those who don’t understand this
don’t understand me.
Few understand me.
That’s why I matter.
The wise person wears coarse cloth
but carries jade in his heart.
To know that you don’t know — that’s highest.
Thinking you know when you don’t — that’s flawed.
The wise person is not flawed
because he sees flaws as flaws.
Only because he sees flaws as flaws
can he be flawless.
Power reaches its zenith
when the people don’t fear it.
Don’t intrude into their homes
or suppress their livelihood.
If you don’t suppress them,
they won’t weary of you.
The wise person
knows himself, but can see beyond himself;
loves himself, but doesn’t overvalue himself.
Leaving one, he keeps the other.
Courage to dare gets you killed.
Courage not to dare keeps you living.
One of these brings benefit, the other harm.
Heaven hates what it hates —
who knows why?
Even the wise person finds it hard to understand.
doesn’t compete, yet conquers with ease;
doesn’t speak, yet responds well;
can’t be summoned, yet comes on its own;
takes things easy, yet plans all things well.
Heaven’s net is vast,
but though its mesh be wide, it loses nothing.
If the people don’t fear death,
there’s no point in using death to frighten them.
Whereas if the people fear death all the time
we could take the twisted and kill them,
so none would dare to be perverse.
But there is always an executioner to do the killing.
If you take his place and kill,
that’s like cutting wood in place of the master carpenter;
few of those who do that
don’t hurt their own hands.
The people starve.
When rulers eat too much tax-grain,
the people starve.
The people are hard to govern.
When rulers get involved with things,
the people are hard to govern.
The people regard death lightly.
When rulers care too much for life,
the people regard death lightly.
Those who don’t strive after life
are better than those who value it.
People at birth are soft and supple;
at death, they’re stiff and rigid.
Plants at birth are soft and fragile;
at death, they’re dried and withered.
The stiff and rigid are disciples of death;
the soft and supple are disciples of life.
Unyielding armies are extinguished;
unbending branches break.
The strong and great sink down.
The flexible rise up.
Heaven’s Way is like the bending of a bow.
What’s high gets pulled down.
What’s low gets pulled up.
Those with too much will be diminished.
Those with too little will be increased.
Heaven’s Way takes from those with too much
and gives to those with too little.
Human ways are different:
they take from those with too little
and give to those with too much.
Who can give of their abundance to the world?
Only those with the Way.
Therefore the wise person
benefits others, expecting nothing.
He doesn’t dwell on what he has accomplished.
He has no desire to display his worth.
Nothing in the world is as soft and weak as water.
Yet there is nothing better for attacking
the hard and the strong.
Nothing can take its place.
Weak conquers strong,
soft conquers hard.
Everyone knows this,
but no one can practice it.
The wise person says:
“To take the country’s filth
is to master soil and grain;
to endure the country’s misfortune
is to be king under heaven.”
True words seem paradoxical.
After resolving unhappiness,
how can this be good?
So the wise person takes the debtor’s position
instead of expecting repayment.
Those with character repay others;
those without it take from others.
Heaven’s Way has no favourites
but is always with the good man.
Let the state be small, with few people.
Let complicated machines go unused.
Let the people take death seriously, and not travel far.
Then though there be boats and carts, none will ride in them;
though there be armour and weapons, none will display them.
Let the people return to knotting cords and using them.
Let food be delicious, clothes be beautiful,
dwellings be peaceful, customs be delightful.
Then even though neighbouring states can see one another
and hear each other’s chickens and dogs,
the people, until they die of old age,
won’t come and go between them.
True words aren’t beautiful.
Beautiful words aren’t true.
Good people don’t argue.
Those who argue aren’t good.
Those who know aren’t learned.
Learned people don’t know.
The wise person doesn’t hoard.
Using what he has for others,
he gains even more;
giving what he has for others,
he possesses even more.
Heaven’s Way helps without harming.
The wise person’s Way
is to act without contending.