The book to be discussed in this article is a book written long time ago, it is  though amazing to experience it nowadays, as it has still so much to say about contemporary life. I must say that have found complicated to be able to comment and to understand some of the poems, due of the complexity of Chinese and Asian culture for a western man, but I should say that it is extraordinary and a wonderful experience to read Lao Tsu and his poems. The title of the book is Tao Te Ching, but it is more commonly known as the Tao.

It is the Tao that can be told, which will never be the eternal Tao. The Tao speaks of human nature and to the human condition. The Tao Te Ching deals with what is permanent on us. It speaks about us, inner creatures, and of a possible inner failure, which are both, indelibly written into our very structure as human beings. This is a work of metaphysical psychology, beyond biological and social factors, which have been main concerns of modern psychology. It tells how the fundamental forces of the cosmos are mirrored in our own individual inner structure, and it invites us to try to live in direct relationship to all of these forces.

The legend tells that Lao Tsu was a real person who lived in China, in the region of Henan province six centuries before the Christian era. Confucius, who was another really important figure in Asian thought, met him and came down away amazed by the man. He said: I know a bird can fly, a fish can swim, an animal can run. For that which runs a net can be made; for that which swims a line can be made; for that which flies a corded arrow can be made. But the dragon’s ascent into heaven on the wind and the clouds is something which is beyond my knowledge. Today I have seen Lao Tsu who is perhaps like a dragon. Lao Tsu seems to have been the keeper of the imperial archives at the ancient capital of Luoyang. Seeing the decay of his contemporary society, he decided to go away to the desert. But at Hangu Pass was stopped by Yin Xi, who knew of his wisdom, and asked him to put it on writing, giving birth to the Tao Te Ching.

Tao means way or path; the way things are; the way human nature is constituted, the deep dynamic structure of our being; ethically, it means the way human beings should conduct themselves with others; it also means a spiritual guidance to us, the way of inner search. The Tao is inconceivable, if followed it never ends, if you try to grasp it, cannot be held… It is a cosmic force or principle that expands or flows outward, or more precisely perhaps, it descends into the creation of the universe, “the 10.000 things”. We are told that the Tao is a force or a movement of return. Lao Tsu believed all creation returned to the source.

According to the author, the ego is a construction that has nothing to do with the source and blockades the interplay of fundamental inner forces. The ego is an impediment to reach the way to the Tao. The secret of living is to open ourselves to the fundamental cosmic forces that constitute the ultimate nature of the universe, both the movement that descends from the source and the movement of return. 

Lao Tsu

With the Tao, we find ourselves in front of a teaching about nature and naturalness that compels us to see even our urgent concerns about the environment and our planet in a way that is far more immediate and at the same time far more inclusive than we might have imagined. We shall see that the same holds true for other inescapable issues of our time, including the colossal problems of war and violence, the crisis of moral leadership, and the complexities of intimate human relationships.

As we just said, the Tao Te Chin is based in naturalness, but also on the ideas of non-being and non-action. It abides in non-action yet nothing is left undone. Surprisingly, to be natural has become complex for modern man. According to the writer, inwardly involves a state of openness or receptivity that is subtle, elusive and active. The objective, the book states, should be becoming aware of a supreme creative power, which human beings were created to contain and express. A mind governed by desires perceives the world of appearances. What exists behind these appearances can be known by the mind that exists behind the desires in ourselves. A mind that is full of content knows a universe requiring that we go behind the apparent mind, which means opening to non-being. 

The book also tells us about female versus male. It says that it is of great mistake to connect Yin-Yang with male-female. It also says that in so far as the female designates universal, metaphysical energy, the movement of opening and return is simply inevitable. The female becomes that which is forgotten, that which is not understood. Inevitable, that is, granted the fallen nature of humanity, our disconnection from the authentic possibilities of our life. 

An enlightened human is this one whose inner self is conscious of the relationship of Yin and Yang. The study that leads to the emergence of this consciousness within ourselves is known as the path, or Tao, the way of inner spiritual practice. The psychological condition of those who seek to experience both fundamental forces in themselves in this way must inevitably appear incomprehensible and even foolish to the unenlightened, and to the unenlightened parts of their own minds, which are accustomed to rationality and to the imposition of concepts and forms onto the outer and inner life. In Alchemy, and in the relationship with psychology of leadership, political and spiritual, we read about the difficult path and the culmination is presented as the alchemical marriage, or the embracing of the Yin and Yang within themselves.

In relation to social relations and to political strife, and connecting this to the search for an inner balance, the author points out: therefore the still and unbending is the disciple of death. The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life. Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle. A tree that is unbending is easily broken. The hard and strong will fall. The soft and weak will overcome. To be a warrior in the outer life, one must be a warrior in the inner life, one must govern in the outer life and one must govern in the inner life. 

The book starts with this statement: The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth, in the void all starts. It tells about non-action, about not interfering, it tells “if nothing is done, then all will be well.” Then it starts enumerating all the poems included in the Tao Te Ching. I have chosen some of these poems, the ones that took my attention most:

Better stop short than fill to the brim.

Number nine: 

Over sharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.

Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.

Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.

Retire when the work is done.

This is the way of heaven.

Number ten speaks about the primal virtue, about leading yet not dominating, working yet not taking credit, bearing yet not possessing, it asks the question: are you able to do nothing?

Number eleven: Profit comes from what is there, usefulness from what is not there. 

Number twelve: Therefore the wise are guided by what they feel and not by what they see, letting go of that and choosing this. 

Yin Yang

Number thirteen: 

Accept being unimportant, do not be concerned with loss or gain. This is called accepting disgrace willingly.

Misfortune comes from having a body. Without a body, how could there be misfortune?

Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.

Love the world as your own self, then you can truly care for all things. 

Number fourteen: 

Stand before it and there is no beginning.

Follow it and there is no end. Stay with the ancient Tao, move with the present. Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.

Number fifteen: 

Who can wait quietly while the mud settles? 

Who can remain still until the moment of action? 

Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfilment.

Not seeking fulfilment they are swayed by desire for change.  

Number sixteen:

Empty yourself of everything 

Let the mind become still 

The ten thousand things rise and fall while the self watches their return. 

They grow and flourish and then return to the source. 

Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.

The way of nature is unchanging.

Knowing constancy is insight. Not knowing constancy leads to disaster.

Knowing constancy, the mind is open.

With an open mind, you will be open hearted. 

Being openhearted, you will act royally.

Being royal, you will attain the divine.

Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao.

Being at one with the Tao is eternal.

And though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away. 

Number eighteen:

When the great Tao is forgotten, kindness and morality arise

When wisdom and intelligence are born, the great pretence begins.

When there is no peace within the family, filial piety and devotion arise.

When the country is confused and in chaos, loyal ministers appear.

Number nineteen:

Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom, and it will be a 100 times better for everyone.

Give up kindness, renounce morality, and people will rediscover final piety and love.

Give up ingenuity, renounce profit, and bandits and thieves will disappear.

These three are outward forms alone: they are not sufficient in themselves.

It is more important to see the simplicity, to realise our true nature, to cast off selfishness, and temper desire.

Number twenty: 

Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles.

Is there a difference between yes and no?

Is there a difference between good and evil?

Must I fear what others fear? What nonsense!

Other people are contended, enjoying the sacrificial feast of the ox.

In spring some go to the park and climb the terrace.

But I alone am dim and weak.

Others are sharp and clever, but I alone am dull and stupid.

Oh, I drift like the waves of the sea, without direction, like the restless wind.

Everyone else is busy, but I alone am aimless and without desire.

I am different.

I am nourished by the great mother.

Number twenty five:

Something mysteriously formed born before heaven and earth.

In the silence and the void, standing alone and unchanging, ever present and in motion.

Perhaps it is the mother of 10 thousand things.

I do not know its name, call it Tao.

For lack of a greater word, I call it great.

Being great, it flows

It flows far away

Having gone far, it returns

Therefore, Tao is great 

Heaven is great

Earth is great

The human being is also great

These are the four great powers of the universe, and the human being is one of them.

The human being follows the earth.

Earth follows heaven

Heaven follows the Tao

Tao follows what is natural

Sculpture Lao Tsu

Number twenty seven: 

What is a good person?

The teacher of a bad person

What is a bad person?

A good person’s charge

If the teacher is not respected, and the student not cared for, confusion will arise, however clever one is.

This is the crux of mystery

Number twenty nine: 

Do you think you can conquer the universe and improve it?

I do not believe this can be done

The universe is sacred

You cannot improve it

f you try to change it, you will ruin it

If you try to hold on to it, you will lose it

So sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind. Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes easily; sometimes there is strength and sometimes weakness; sometimes one is up and sometimes down.

Therefore the wise avoid extremes, excesses, and complacency. 

Number thirty: 

Whenever you advise rulers in the way of Tao, counsel them not to use force to conquer the universe.

For this would only cause resistance.

Thorn bushes spring up wherever the army has passed.

Lean years follow in the wake of a great war.

Just do what needs to be done.

Never take advantage of power.

Achieve results, but never glory on them.

Achieve results, but never boast

Achieve results, but never proud

Achieve results, because this is the natural way

Achieve results, but not through violence

Violence is followed by loss of strength 

This is not the way of the Tao 

That which goes against the Tao, comes to an early end. 

Number thirty one:

Weapons are instruments of fear

They are not tools of the wise.

They use them only when there is no choice.

Peace and quiet are dear to their hearts.

And victory not cause of rejoicing

If you rejoice in victory, then you delight in killing

If you delight in killing, you cannot fulfil yourself

Number thirty three:

Knowing others is wisdom

Knowing the self is enlightenment

Mastering others requires force 

Mastering the self needs strength

Those who know they have enough are rich

Perseverance is a sign of willpower

Those who stay where they are endure

To die but not to perish is to be eternally present

Number thirty six:

That which shrinks must first expand

That which fails, must first be strong

That which is cast down, must first be raised

Before receiving, there must be giving

This is called perception of the nature of things

Soft and weak overcome hard and strong

Fish cannot leave deep water and a country’s weapons should not be displayed

Number thirty eight: 

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness. When goodness is lost, there is kindness.

When kindness is lost, there is justice

When justice is lost, there is ritual.

Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion. 

Knowledge of the future is only a flowery trapping of Tao

It is the beginning of folly. Therefore truly great people dwell on what is real and not what is on the surface.

On the fruit and not the flower

Therefore accept the one and reject the other

Tao in written form

Number forty:

Returning is the motion of the Tao

Yielding is the way of the Tao

The 10 thousand things arise from being

Being arises from not being

Number forty two: 

The Tao begot one

One begot two

Two begot three

And there begot the 10 thousand things

The ten thousand things carry Yin and embrace Yang

They achieve harmony by combining these forces.

People hate to be orphaned, widowed or worthless, but is how the wise describe themselves.

For one gains by losing and loses by gaining

What others teach, I also teach, that is a violent person will die a violent death!

This is the essence of my teaching

Number forty three: 

The softest thing in the universe overcomes the hardest thing in the universe that without substance can enter where there is no room.

Hence I know the value of non-action

Teaching without words and working without doing are understood by very few.

Number forty five:

Great accomplishment seems imperfect.

Yet it does not outlive its fullness.

Great fullness seems empty, yet it cannot be exhausted.

Great intelligence seems stupid.

Great eloquence seems awkward.

Movement overcomes cold.

Stillness overcomes heat.

Stillness and tranquility restore order in the universe.

Number forty seven:

Without going outside, you may know the whole world.

Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven

The farther you go, the less you know.

Thus the wise know without travelling; see without looking; work without doing.

Number forty eight:

The world is governed by letting things take their course. It cannot be governed through interference.

Number forty nine:

The wise do not hold opinions.

They are aware of the needs of others.

I am good to people who are good.

I am also good to people who are not good.

Because virtue is goodness.

I have faith in people who are not faithful.

Because virtue is faithfulness.

The wise are shy and humble.

They behave like small children to the world they seem confusing

Yet people look to them and listen.

Number fifty two:

The beginning of the universe is the mother of all things.

Knowing the mother, you also know the sons. 

Knowing the sons, yet remaining in touch with the mother, brings freedom from the fear of death.

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

Seeing the small is insight

Yielding to force is strength

Using the outer light, return to insight

And in this way be saved from harm

This is learning constancy

Number fifty six:

Those who know do not talk

Those who talk do not know.

Close your mouth

Guard your senses

Temper your sharpness

Simplify your problems

Mask your brightness

Be at one with the dust of the earth

This is primal union

Those who have achieved this state do not distinguish between friends and enemies, between good and harm, between honor and disgrace.

This is the highest state of being.

Number fifty seven:

Rule a nation with justice

Wage war with surprise tactics

Become the master of the universe without striving

How do I know this? Because of this!

The more laws restrictions there are, the poorer people become.

The sharper men’s weapons, the more trouble in the land.

The more ingenious and clever people are, the more strange things happen.

The more rules and regulations, the more thieves and robbers. 

Therefore the wise one says: I take no action and people behave themselves. I enjoy peace and people become honest. I do nothing and people become rich. I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.

Number fifty eight:

When the country is ruled with a light hand, the people are simple.

When the country is ruled harshly, the people are cunning.

Happiness is rooted in misery.

Misery lurks beneath happiness.

Who knows what the future holds?

There is no honesty.

Honesty becomes dishonest 

Goodness becomes delusion.

People’s delusion lasts for a long time.

Therefore the wise are sharp but not cutting.

Pointed but not piercing, straightforward but not unrestrained, brilliant but not blinding.

Number fifty nine:

In caring for others and serving, there is nothing like using restraint.

Restraint begins with giving up our own ideas.

This depends on virtue gathered in the past.

If there is a good store of virtue, then nothing is impossible.

If nothing is impossible, then there are no limits.

If we know no limits, then we are fit to rule.

The mother principle of ruling holds good for a long time.

This is called having deep roots and a firm foundation.

The Tao of long life and eternal vision. 

Number sixty two:

Tao is the source of the 10 thousand things.

It is the treasure of the good and the reference of the bad.

Sweet words can buy honor

Good deeds can gain respect if people are bad, do not abandon them.

Therefore on the day the emperor is crowned, or the three officers of state installed, do not send a gift of jade and a team of horses, but remain still and offer the Tao.

Why does everyone value the Tao so much?

Isn’t it because you find what you seek and are forgiven when you sin?

Therefore this is the greatest treasure in the universe.

Number sixty three:

Practice non-action.

Work without doing.

Taste the tasteless.

Magnify the small, increase the few.

Reward bitterness with care.

See simplicity in the complicated.

Achieve greatness in small things.

In the universe the difficult things are done as thought they were easy.

In the universe great acts are made up of small deeds.

The wise do not attempt anything very big.

And this achieves greatness.

Easy promises make for little trust.

Taking things lightly results in great difficulty.

Because the wise always confront difficulties.

They never experience them.

Number sixty four:

Therefore the wise seek freedom from desire

They do not collect precious things

They learn not to hold on to ideas

They bring people back to what they have lost.

They help the 10 thousand things find their own nature, yet they refrain from action.

Number sixty six: 

Because you do not compete, you will not have competition.

Number sixty seven:

I have three measures which I hold and keep.

The first is mercy; the second is economy; the third is daring not to be ahead of others. From mercy comes courage; from economy comes generosity; from humility comes leadership. 

Number sixty eight:

A good soldier is not violent.

A good fighter is not angry.

A good winner is not vengeful

A good employer is humble

This is known as the virtue of not striving

This is known as the ability to deal with people

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

Number seventy three:

A brave and passionate person will kill or be killed. A brave and calm person will always preserve life. Of these two which is good and which is harmful?

Some things are not favoured by heaven. Who knows why?

Even the wise are unsure of this.

The Tao of heaven does not strive and yet it overcomes.

It does not speak and yet it answers. 

It does not ask, yet all its needs are met.

It seems to have no aim and yet its purpose is fulfilled.

Heaven’s net is cast wide though its meshes are coarse, nothing slips through.

Number seventy six: 

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

Green plants are tender and filled with sap.

At their death they are withered and dry.

Therefore the still and unbending is the disciple of death.

The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.

A tree that is unbending is easily broken.

The hard and strong will fall.

The soft and weak will overcome.

Number seventy eight:

Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water. Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better; it has no equal

The weak can overcome the strong.

The supple can overcome the stiff.

Under heaven everyone knows this, yet no one puts it into practice. Therefore the wise says: “If you take on the humiliation of the people, you are fit to rule them. If you take upon yourself the country’s disasters, you deserve to be ruler of the universe”.

The truth often sounds paradoxical.

Number eighty one:

Truthful words are not beautiful.

Beautiful words are not truthful

Good people do not argue

Those who argue are not good

Those who know are not learned

The learned do not know

The wise never try to hold on things.

The more you do for others, the more you have

The more you give to others, the greater your abundance.

The Tao of heaven is sharp but does not harm.

The Tao of the wise is to work without effort

Some comments about the book:

The world of manifestation is a world in which all phenomena are the result of the interplay of two opposing forces. It is wisdom to realise that everything one can see in this world has its opposite, every force evokes and depends upon a counterforce. Distortion and illusion come from not understanding this, from affirming the good, for example, and ignoring or naively seeking to destroy that which opposes the good. The wise understand all of life amid the ten thousand things as basically a play of forces. Moral teachings that attempt to break the complementary relation of good and evil are doomed to failure, and breed violence to others and to oneself.

Another important point is that humanity has a cosmic destiny, whereas most of what we call morality concerns relative and ephemeral social values, often having to do mainly with what is good or bad only for the individual person or group. The impartiality of the wise refers to the universal context within which they understand the meaning of human life and its possibilities.

Water is one of Lao Tsu’s principal symbols for the Tao, along with the infant, the female, the valley and the uncarved block. Water does not resist, yet it conquers all; it is tasteless – suggesting the invisibility of the Tao – yet life-giving. It moves through all that lives and in movement remains clear and pure. It is supple, flexible and humble; it does not compete; it flows naturally to the lowest places.  

An interesting statement is that one receives from reality exactly what one seeks from it. As you sow, so you reap. The Tao, as the whole of nature, does not violently impose its will. Tao follows nature. It is spontaneously what it is, through its own nature. 

The principle intention in the life of the wise is to pass on to others what they have understood of the way, of the Tao. For the wise, the other is neither good nor bad – the other is only an individual who is or not following the way. And because all meaning and happiness for humanity depends ultimately on following the Tao, the wise teacher seeks only, and naturally, to arrange the details of his or her relationship to others to support and further their progress along the way. This is an immensely important issue, within the confines of which lies the whole question of spiritual transmission, communal forms, and the metaphysical basis of ethics.

The book also comments on the concept of small. It says that it is exceedingly fine, light, invisible, and soon-mysterious as it may sound: consciousness of the Tao is Tao. The highest consciousness is consciousness of itself. This self-luminous light expands and descends into the world of the ten thousand things. In the book the Upanishad we find this statement: small as a grain of rice is the self… Yet greater than all the worlds. 

To die but not to perish is to be eternally present: this is immortality or Europeans’ survival of the soul after the death of the body. Asian thought is more dynamic, tangible and immediately relevant. It talks about now and here.

The book speaks about the concept of goodness, it says that it is that righteousness not forcing the body to obey the thought, but rather the appearance of a new principle within ourselves which the body and the mind voluntarily and instantly obey. 

From the one the universe is created and at all levels of the world all phenomena are the result of the harmonisation of two opposing forces. The foolish identify with one force and are defeated by the counterforce. This is violence. The wise do not seek to triumph in this way. 

The human being is a microcosm. By seeing within, one can know the laws of the universe. But, of course, one must understand how to see, how to search within. “Know therefore what is work, and also what is wrong work”. “All actions take place in time by the interweaving of the forces of nature; but the man lost in selfish delusion thinks that he himself is the actor”. (Bhagavad Gita)

Lao Tsu speaks of the accumulation of a certain force within oneself, which confers to the individual a capacity that is beyond ordinary understanding. No one can be a ruler (of others or of oneself) without this mysterious capacity… It reminds us that there is also the need for long and persistent inner work. We are being told, in short, that our lives are a reflection of the quality of our attention.

The book tells about the Nirvana as the total awareness of Sambara: freedom is the total awareness of slavery; Knowledge is the total awareness of ignorance. Such awareness is a tangible force and can carry with it the power of feeling and sensing that itself conducts a great liberating energy into our human life.  

We find rulers who interfere too much, who impose their will upon the people. The true master of the people, and of the people in oneself, loves and cares for their life and they spontaneously return that love. One must destroy only that which is truly harmful to the state or to oneself and this cannot be discerned without the authentic, impartial love for the whole that is the mark of the wise, of the master. 

Based on the book The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu.

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