and Notes

-- by Jacob

This is a "Pre-Introduction" to the Introduction by your Editor.

“The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or…ideologies…all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they posses.” **** C.S. Lewis, "The Abolition of Man"

"Tao Te Ching" is commonly translated as "The Way and Integrity (or Virtue)". The book is a collection of short, pithy "sayings" or proverbs. It is thought to have been compiled into printed form and circulated around the 3rd century BC. It is similar to the Jewish or Christian OT "Book of Proverbs". Click [ Here ]. However, whereas the Book of Proverbs contains practical advise in a fairly easy to understand format regarding leading a prosperous, successful, righteous existence in THIS Life - the Tao Te Ching is written in the obscure, obtuse, mystical "Oriential Wisdom" format.

It is interesting to note that the word "Tao" (pronounced "dow") is usually rendered in the Chinese form WITHOUT translation. This is because translators are at odds as to an acceptable English word to render it into. Many agree that "Way" or "Path" approaches to the meaning. This, however, is also VERY misleading, since Tao does NOT speak of a path or a way or a philosophy or a method. In its essence, the Tao speaks of a "Being" - the Ultimate, the Origin, The Source, the Uncreated Reality - who the Jewish and Christian faith refer to as "Yahweh" (meaning perhaps, "I AM", that is, "The One who exists") and the mystical philosophy of Jacob Boehm refers to as "The Nothing" from whence ALL else is derived !!

Of great interest from the Christian perspective, Jesus Christ proclaims that He Himself is "The Way", and that NO MAN comes to the (His) Father except though Him !!

Jesus replied, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." ** John 14:6

Another interesting point to consider - as commented upon in the introduction - are the allusions to war(fare), soldiers and leadership in the manuscript. This is similar to the VERY copious accounts of warfare in the Hebrew scriptures (Bible OT) and the Christian NT.

The commentator makes the point that while these references MAY (??) refer to action in the outer world, they CAN most certainly be applied to the INNER warfare that takes place between the "earthly man" (man of THIS creation) and the developing "divine man" (man of heaven).

In the Christian NT, the Apostle Paul uses MANY military allusions to refer to the INNER battle that is being waged during the transformation of the "natural man" into the "divine man" under the mentorship of the indwelling "Spirit of Christ".

"For though we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not human weapons, but are made powerful by God for tearing down strongholds. We tear down arguments and every arrogant obstacle that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to make it obey Christ." **** 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

Jacob Boehme, a Christian mystic, writes: "All the teachings of Christ have no other object than to show us how we may re-ascend to our virginal unity with him. As Christ was born in a stable, and cradled in a manger, so is Christ in man ever born amidst the animals in man. The newborn Savior is ever laid in a cradle between the ox of self-will and the ass of ignorance, in the stable of the animal condition in man; and from thence the king of pride (as Herod), finds his kingdom endangered, and seeks to kill the child, who is to become the ruler of the 'New Jerusalem' in man."

You may read more concerning THIS concept [ Here ].

In his Letter to the Ephesians in the Christian NT, the Apostle Paul outlines BASICALLY what is the ENTIRE purpose of the Spirit of God working THROUGH Jesus Christ IN mankind during THIS dispensation -- namely that the fallen, "natural man" be renewed and regenerated "unto FULL stature, into the image of Christ". Anything less than this is but worthless, carnal, dead "RELIGION" !!!

".... to equip the saints (the members of Christ) for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God – a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ's full stature. So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching - by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head. From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love.

So I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles (unbelievers) do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. Because they are callous, they have given themselves over to indecency for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn about Christ like this, You were taught with reference to your former way of life to lay aside the old man - who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and to put on the new man who has been created in God's image – in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you." **** Ephesians 4:12-32


You may read a copy of the FULL text of the "Tao Te Ching" [ Here ].


The eighty-one short chapters known as the "Tao Te Ching" have been translated more often than any other book in the world, with the single exception of the Bible. Like the Bible, the Tao Te Ching is a book whose appeal is as broad as its meaning is deep. It speaks to each of us at our own level of understanding, while inviting us to search for levels of insight and experience that are not yet within our comprehension. As with every text that deserves to be called sacred, it is a half-silvered mirror. To read it is not only to see ourselves as we are but to glimpse a greatness extending far beyond our knowledge of ourselves and the universe we live in.

"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao". These words are among the most famous in all the literature of the world. They were first offered, however, not to modern, Western people like ourselves who, approaching the twenty-first century, are ready to admit that we have given too much place to discursive thought and rationalism. They were spoken some 2,500 years ago to a people and in a place, ancient China, far, far removed from us. Any work of art that communicates so enduringly over such enormous reaches of time and cultural diversity addresses, we may be sure, the essence of human nature and the human condition, rather than sociocultural aspects that are peculiar to this or that society. The Tao Te Ching deals with what is permanent in us. It speaks of a possible inner greatness and an equally possible inner failure, which are both indelibly written into our very structure as human beings. Under its gaze, we are not "American" or "Chinese" or "European." We are that being, Man, uniquely called to occupy a precise place in the cosmic order, no matter where or in what era we live.

The Tao Te Ching is thus a work of metaphysical psychology, taking us far beyond the social or biological factors that have been the main concern of modern psychology. It helps us see how the fundamental forces of the cosmos itself are mirrored in our own individual, inner structure. It invites us to try to live in direct relationship to all these forces. To see truly and to live fully: this is what it means to be authentically human. But it is extremely challenging and this challenge was apparently as difficult for the men and women of ancient China as it is for us. We too try in vain to live full lives without understanding what li it means to see. We too presume to act, to do, to create, without opening ourselves to a vision of ultimate reality. This opening and the way to experience it are what the Tao Te Ching is about.

Historical information about the text and its author is scant and cloaked in legend. Even the little information we have is at every point subject to dispute by scholars, although many are willing to accept that Lao Tsu was a real person - born in what is now known as the Honan province in China some six centuries before the Christian era. Tradition has it that Confucius once journeyed to see Lao Tsu and came away amazed and in awe of the man. According to the tale, Confucius described his meeting with Lao Tsu in the following way: "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." *

* Quoted in D. C. Lau, Tao Te Ching (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1963), 8

The tale also tells that Lao Tsu was the keeper of the imperial archives at the ancient capital of Loyang. Seeing the imminent decay of the society he lived in, he resolved to ride away alone into the desert. But at the Hanku Pass he was stopped by a gatekeeper named Yin Hsi, who knew of his reputation for wisdom and who begged him to set down in writing the essence of his teaching. Thus, the legend tells us, the Tao Te Ching came into being.

Legend aside, there is no doubt about the immense importance of this text in the history of China and the Orient. The figure of Lao Tsu and his writings are revered by followers of the Taoist religion, and the message of the Tao Te Ching has been one of the major underlying influences in Chinese thought and culture for more than two thousand years. Throughout the world, when one thinks of the greatest spiritual figures in the history of mankind, Lao Tsu is placed alongside Christ, Gautama Buddha, Moses, and Mohammed.

Some remarks about the language of this work may be of help at this point. The word Tao (pronounced "dow") has been characterized as untranslatable by nearly every modern scholar. But this statement should not lead us to imagine that the meaning of the Tao was any more easily understood by the contemporaries of Lao Tsu. It would be more to the point to say, only half Jokingly, that the word Tao, and even the whole of the Tao Te Ching, is not readily translatable into any language, including Chinese! "My words are easy to understand and easy to perform," wrote Lao Tsu, "Yet no man under heaven knows them or practices them" (Ch. 70).

The present translation generally leaves the word Tao in Chinese. Those who have sought an equivalent in Western languages have almost invariably settled on "Way or Path". Metaphysically, the term "Tao" refers to the way things are; psychologically, it refers to the way human nature is constituted, the deep, dynamic structure of our being; ethically, it means the way human beings must conduct themselves with others; spiritually, it refers to the guidance that is offered to us, the methods of searching for the truth that have been handed down by the great sages of the past — the way of inner work. Yet all these meanings of Tao are ultimately one. In this work we are offered a vision that relates the flowing structure of the universe to the structure of our individual nature, both in itself and as it manifests in the details of our everyday actions in the world.

No linguistic or philosophic analysis of this word can ever capture its essential meaning, because what is being referred to is an experience that can be understood only at the moment it is "tasted" with the whole of our being — simultaneously sensed, felt, and thought; and because this way of experiencing is entirely different from the way almost all of us act and think and feel, in our usual lives.

To say that the realization of metaphysical truth lies in the opposite direction from the way we usually experience our lives is not to say that a different "method" of thinking or experiencing is required. What is at issue is nothing less than the activation of an entirely new power within us, an entirely new movement of consciousness. The point is that man is built to receive, contain, and transform this power and then to make his life a complete expression of it. Nothing else can bring ultimate fulfillment into human life. Yet our lives are lived with little awareness or contact with this force of consciousness. We work, we love, we struggle, we eat, sleep, and dream, we write books and create art, we even worship our gods closed off from it. This is why every sacred teaching in the history of mankind begins as a revolution — incomprehensible, paradoxical, mysterious. Whether it be the gnomic teaching of Lao Tsu — whoever he was and if he was — or the profoundly troubling doctrine of unknowing brought by Socrates, or the exalted, hidden God speaking through Moses and the prophets of Israel, or the shattering sacrifice of love transmitted by Jesus, every sacred teaching remains sacred only as long as it opens a path that has never before been opened and yet always exists and must always exist for humanity.

Look, it cannot be seen — it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard — it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held — It is intangible.
It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.
Stand before it and there is no beginning.
Follow it and there is no end.
Stay with the ancient Tao,
Move with the present.
************ (Ch. 14)

Of equal importance in approaching this text, and the life it calls us to, is the word Te (pronounced "deh"). This word directs our attention to the question of the expression or manifestation in our day-to-day lives of the supreme reality. The present text, following numerous other translations, renders "Te" by the English word "Virtue". But we must be careful not to bring our ordinary moralistic associations to this term. It is true that the word Te introduces us to the ethical dimension of this teaching, but this is ethics that is solidly rooted in metaphysics, and completely separate from ethics considered as the rules of social morality, which vary from culture to culture, epoch to epoch, nation to nation, class to class. Te refers to nothing less than the quality of human action that allows the central, creative power of the universe to manifest through it.

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 ten thousand things.
I do not know its name.
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better 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 king is also great."
These are the four great powers of the universe,
And the king is one of them.
Man follows the earth.
Earth follows heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
Tao follows what is natural.
************ (Ch. 25)

The picture before us is of a cosmic force or principle that expands or flows outward or, more precisely perhaps, descends into the creation of the universe, "the ten thousand things." Together with this, we are told of a force or movement of return. All of creation returns to the source. But the initial coming-into- being of creation is to be understood as a receiving of that which flows downward and outward from the center. Every created entity, ultimately, is what it is and does what it does owing to its specific reception of the energy radiating from the ultimate, formless reality. This movement from the nameless Source to the ten thousand things is Te. And the unique being, man, called here the king, is created to receive this force consciously and is called to allow his actions to manifest that force. Such conscious receiving in human life is Virtue. Thus, the movement that leads back toward the Source is also the opening toward great action in outer life. Virtue is an opening rather than a "doing."

In sum, Lao Tsu distinguished human Virtue from what we ordinarily consider moral action by the cosmic nature of the force that human Virtue manifests. Great action, for Lao Tsu, is action that conducts the highest and subtlest conscious energy. Ordinary moral action is, on the contrary, a manifestation whose source is "lower down" in the vast chain of being as it is portrayed in chapter 25: Tao, heaven, earth, the king (or man), The ego, our ordinary "Initiator of action," is an ephemeral construction, which is formed by factors operating far beneath the level of the Source and which, in the unenlightened state of awareness, represents a kind of blockage or impediment to the interplay of fundamental cosmic forces. In other words, because of our identification of ourselves with the ego, what we ordinarily call action, or "doing," in fact cuts us off from the complete reception of conscious energy in our bodies and actions.

This idea must inevitably sound revolutionary, overthrowing the value we place on socially constructed systems of morality and efficiency. For the point is not only what we do but the source from which we do it. The metaphysical nature of that source determines the ethical, cognitive, and pragmatic value of all' human action — that is, the goodness, truth, and practicality of what we do in our life on earth. Our primary and perhaps only true responsibility is to become individuals who are also conduits for the supreme creative power of the universe. All other responsibilities — for knowing the truth, for feeling the good, and for accomplishing what is useful and effective — must flow from this: in our external world, in our day-to-day lives, and within the recesses of our psychological makeup. In the ancient traditions of the West, this idea has been known as the doctrine of man as microcosm. In Christian and Jewish mysticism, in the philosophy of Plato and the Hermetic tradition, in Islamic esotericism, we find this idea pouring forth in an endless symphony of symbolic forms and profoundly articulated ideas. In the Tao Te Ching it is offered to us as a whisper.


Respect of Tao and honor of Virtue are not demanded.
But they are in the nature of things.
Therefore all things arise from Tao.
By Virtue they are nourished,
Developed, cared for,
Sheltered, comforted,
Grown and protected.
Creating without claiming,
Doing without taking credit,
Guiding without interfering,
This is Primal Virtue.
************ (Ch. 51)

We are now in a position to consider what for many of us is the most compelling aspect of the Tao Te Ching, namely, the putting into practice of its teaching. The metaphysical doctrine now stands before us in outline: an unformed, ungraspable, pure conscious principle lies at the heart and origin of all things; it is referred to as the Tao. This principle moves, expands, descends into form, creating the hierarchically, organically ordered cascade of worlds and phenomena called "the ten thousand things", or simply the great universe — and this movement, especially as it can move through humanity, is called Te, Virtue. At the same time, there is a great tide of return to the source, back toward the undifferentiated, pure reality of the "uncarved block." This movement is also termed Tao. Finally, the supreme whole comprised of both movements is also given the designation Tao. ("Ching", by the way, simply means book.)

Man is built to be an individual incarnation of this whole. His good, his happiness — the very meaning of his life — is to live in correspondence and relationship to the whole, to be and act precisely as the universe itself is and moves. The question before us now is how? The Tao Te Ching offers a powerful and practical answer, describing in almost every chapter this way of living, also known as Tao, the Way.

The secret of living, according to the Tao Te Ching, is to open within ourselves to the great flow of fundamental forces that constitute the ultimate nature of the universe — both the movement that descends from the source and the movement of return.

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.
************ (Ch. 16)

Expressions like this show us why the Tao Te Ching has assumed such great popularity at the present moment. There is a widely shared realization that modern man has arrogantly and foolishly believed in science, a product largely of the intellect alone and not of the whole man, as an instrument for imposing his will upon nature. In the relationships among peoples, Europeans and Americans have often assumed the right to impose their values and desires upon peoples whose lives have not yet based themselves on the technological applications of science. As for Western religion, the Judeo-Christian tradition has sometimes been perceived, rightly or wrongly, as supporting this general tendency in the psychological sphere, especially insofar as it presents a fierce moral demand, a commandment that the individual override his own instinctive, emotional nature, and conform his life to standards that suffocate the vital forces within the body and the heart of every human being.

There is nothing new in this reaction against what is perceived as the tyranny of an intellectualist and puritanical value system. Our culture heard it in the early criticism of the Industrial Revolution — in the work of Blake, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, to name only a few. The first half of the twentieth century has seen aspects of it in the psychoanalytic movement, which sought to open our awareness to the forces of organic nature within us, and in the writings of the existentialists, who called for the recognition of a radical inner freedom unfixed and undetermined by any laws, cosmic or societal. Finally, in recent years we have witnessed the growing interest in mysticism and Eastern religion, which, despite some highly publicized bizarre concomitants, has introduced powerful new ideas into the currents of Western thought; chief among them, perhaps, is the idea of the states of human consciousness and the suggestion that the whole of our lives, individually and collectively, proceeds in a diminished state of consciousness, far from the capacities that would be possible were we to live at the level of consciousness that is natural to us.

It is this last claim that can sound a truly new note for most people and that provides the context in which the Tao Te Ching can speak in a stunning, fresh way about the practical question of how to search and how to live. Once the immensity of the idea of levels of consciousness is felt, the message of the Tao Te Ching soars beyond social and philosophical criticism of our culture. We find ourselves in front of a teaching about nature and naturalness that compels us to see even our very legitimate current 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 ever have imagined. We shall also see that the same holds true for other urgent issues of our time, including the problem of war, the crisis of leadership, and the man-woman relationship.

To understand the practical importance of the idea of nature and naturalness contained in the Tao Te Ching, there is perhaps no better place to start than with the phrase that has become such a part of our contemporary vocabulary that it has assumed the status of a cliché and even a joke: "to go with the flow". Do these words in their popular use mean the same thing as living according to the Tao? Certainly not. !! The distortions of this phrase that have become popular suggest an unthinking passivity along with a naive trust in the flow of outer events. But it is also a distortion to equate the ideal of living in accord with the Tao with simply obeying one's inner emotional and physical desires, as well as one's hidden intellectual prejudices. The point here is well illustrated by an exchange between the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki and his American pupils:

There is a big misunderstanding about the idea of naturalness. Most people who come to us believe in some freedom or naturalness, but their understanding is what we call jinn ken gedo, or heretical naturalness... a kind of "let-alone policy" or sloppiness. . . For a plant or stone to be natural is no problem. But for us there is some problem, indeed a big problem. To be natural is something we must work on. *

* Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (New York and Tokyo,: Weatherhill, 1970, 105-6.

Suzuki's further comments lead us to consider the ideas of non-being (wu) and non-action (wu-wei), which are central to the practical teaching of the Tao Te Ching. He goes on to speak of nyu nan shin, a "smooth, natural mind": When you have that, you have the joy of life. When you lose it, you lose everything. You have nothing. Although you think you have something, you have nothing. But when all you do comes out of nothingness, then you have everything.... That is what we mean by naturalness.

In the words of Lao Tsu:
Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
If they still desired to act,
They would return to the simplicity of formless substance.
************ (Ch. 37)

To be natural, therefore, is not easy. Inwardly, it involves a state of openness or receptivity that is subtle, elusive, and active. It means becoming aware of that supreme creative power which, as has been said, human beings were created to contain and express. Or, from another angle, one might equally say that to be natural is easy, but we have become such unnatural beings that to be open to this force is the most difficult thing in the world. It requires of us an effort that is wholly unlike anything we understand as effort, even including what is ordinarily called "relaxation."

Similarly, our understanding of nature as an external reality invites reconsideration. Our perception of nature is relative to the quality of mind or attention that serves as our instrument of cognition. We see only things, entities, events; we do not directly experience the forces and laws that govern nature and the cosmos.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
************ (Ch. 1)

Let us note: A mind governed by desires can perceive only the world of appearances. What exists behind these appearances can be known only by the mind that exists behind the desires in ourselves.

Let us further note: just as the universe contains "the ten thousand things" — creatures, worlds, stars, stones — so does our mind contain its own "ten thousand things," namely, desires, impulses, fears, and sensations, and the thoughts, logically connected or not, that serve them.

Thus a mind that is full of content knows a universe that is full of things. To go behind the apparent universe requires that we go behind the apparent mind. This may be called "opening to non-being." At the same time, what Lao Tsu called non-being is a force of irresistible, ultimate power. It is most certainly not "nothing" in the usual sense of that word. Nor is it "existence" in the usual sense of the word. Similarly, for ourselves: What lies beneath the glittering surface of our mind or ordinary sense of self are not simply other fabulous "things," such as the psychological "black holes" that modern psychology has revealed to us under the designation of the "unconscious." What lies behind "the ten thousand things" — or, to use Western language, behind the appearances in ourselves and in the universe —is not another world, another "thing" or collection of "things." Not new stars, planets, or black holes; not new desires, sensations, or insights. What lies behind the ten thousand things is the awareness of the ten thousand things.

What lies behind the ego is the awareness of the ego. But this awareness — what is it? We cannot say. Call it Tao. The "other world," the "real world" out there and in here, is simply this world illumined with the inconceivably powerful and subtle energy of consciousness — which we perhaps are beginning to recognize as love itself.

Love — our Western civilization has always needed that word and no doubt still needs it. Speaking against those who would reduce the great Judaic revelation to a system of formal commandments, external demands, and legalistic rulings, the prophets of Israel arose as the hidden voice of conscience conducting the message of inwardness to the feelings of a nation. The shock of the prophetic voice was continually covered over by fear and egoism and the thinking that served these weaknesses. "My thoughts are not your thoughts," God tells Israel through the prophet Isaiah (55:8). "I hate, I despise your feast days," God tells Israel through Amos (5:21). Again and again God calls on Israel to open inwardly to the ultimate mystery that sends its love continuously toward humanity and through humanity to the world we are meant to live in, what we call "earth". Throughout centuries what we clumsily call "Jewish mysticism" speaks only of the need for humanity to receive, to open, to become "like a woman" toward the "fatherhood" of the ultimate mystery.

Following the great line of prophets, there then appeared another prophet, or was he more than a prophet? Again, but with the unfathomable newness, gentleness, and power of the highest energy, the message of love is given. And a life is lived, a death is lived on the cross, the shattering reverberations of which are still unfolding in our world. A sacrifice is offered, a gift is given, and humanity is confronted with the grievous truth that we are unable to accept that gift. We must work and struggle, with a kind of effort totally new and unknown, to receive the gift in the tissues of our being. We must set aside all that tense doing we call action. We must become female, just as creation itself arises as the mother of the ten thousand things.

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
************ (Ch. 1)

Female is all that receives and brings to birth. We are built to receive all the energies of creation in our consciousness and, through the mysterious activity of watchful silence, to allow them to gestate and unfold in the fullness of time.

A great country is like low land.
It is the meeting ground of the universe,
The mother of the universe.
The female overcomes the male with stillness,
Lying low in stillness.
************ (Ch. 61)
The valley spirit never dies;
It is the woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth.
It is like a veil barely seen.
Use it; it will never fail.
************ (Ch. 6)

Lao Tsu's teaching about "the female" is bound to be of great interest in contemporary culture. However, there is no question here of direct application to any social or political issue having to do with the rights of women. It is purely and solely a question of the nature of humanness itself. What is a human being — anterior to the division into man and woman? The point is that a human being can only act, that is, move outward, in a manner that is specifically human, to the extent that he or she can receive the gift of energy being poured out from the source. We are destined to be beings in which the primal two are in conscious, harmonious relationship. We are beings of two movements. It is our exalted but immensely difficult task to find the sensitivity and openness that is the great movement of return designated by the word silence at the same time that we function outwardly — think, play, fight, and create — in the rough-and-tumble vortex of life on earth. The male moves out, the female returns; the male speaks, the female is silent; the male knows, the female is. That is to say, our speech must be rooted in silence; our movement must be permeated by stillness.

Carrying body and soul and embracing the one,
Can you avoid separation?
Opening and closing the gates of heaven,
Can you play the role of woman?
************ (Ch. 10)

There is a tendency in some contemporary scholarship to offer modernistic psychological and political reasons for the prejudice against women in the history of religion and culture throughout the world. No doubt these speculations are valid in many cases and at their level. But insofar as the female designates a universal, metaphysical energy, the movement of opening and return, it is simply inevitable that 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.

In the ancient Chinese idea of yin and yang, * yin is associated with ideas of the female as darkness, death, dissolution — everything that is complementary to yang as male - bright, creational, outpouring. No greater mistake can be made than to equate the female with mere "emotions" or so-called intuition. The emotional function in unenlightened men and women — in us — is as little open to the higher as the actionable function in unenlightened individuals is an outward expression of the higher creative energy. The creation pours down in light and in accordance with rigorous laws of unfolding. It is uncompromising in its action, and it does not "care" for things in a manner that follows our limited and egoistically fantastic standards.

* The idea is ancient, but the symbol of the circle divided into black and white dates from tenth-century neo-Confucianism.

Heaven and earth are impartial;
They see the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
************ (Ch. 5)

Similarly, no greater mistake can be made than to equate the male, the positive, active force of the cosmos with mere thinking or so-called rationality. Thus, yin accords as little with historically conditioned concepts of the feminine as yang accords with historically conditioned concepts of the masculine.

Seen in this way, both the male and the female force are hidden from us in our unenlightened state of consciousness. It requires a precise practice of meditation to become aware of energies as such, and to observe for oneself the laws of their interaction and unfolding movement. This inner practice reveals that all phenomena everywhere depend upon the harmonious relationship of these forces called yin and yang, female and male, return and expression. To be fully human is to develop a power of attention that allows this relationship to take place within one's own psycho-physical organism. A man in whom this attention is highly developed is called a sage, an enlightened human being — although here too there are levels and degrees of inner attainment.

As has been suggested, the study that leads to the emergence of this consciousness within ourselves is known as "the path", Tao understood as the Way of inner spiritual practice. We have just introduced the term "meditation." Setting aside most contemporary meanings of this word, we may characterize meditation as the process of becoming familiar with one's own real structure as a human being. Certain definite conditions, such as physical posture and mental attitude, have in every spiritual tradition been presented as necessary supports for this process. The Tao Te Ching does not offer this kind of advice, apart from the mental attitude so powerfully communicated by the text. In fact, the most important features of the "technical" aspect of meditation can never be written down. The practice of meditation requires direct personal guidance of an exceedingly delicate sort, and as such constitutes a central aspect of the vast and all- important element of spiritual discipline known as the oral transmission. All effective spiritual transmission ultimately takes place directly between people. It can never be learned from a book.

However, important general and theoretical aspects of the practice can be expressed in words and images, and so, returning to the. point at hand, we can say that one of the first truths discovered in the practice of meditation is that the movement of return, the movement back toward one's central self, is a subtle, elusive, and fleeting experience. It is constantly being overridden by the automatically acting aspects of the outward movement, especially the racing chaos of automatic thoughts. Even more subtle and elusive, yet of cardinal importance, is the experience of both forces together within oneself. The metaphysical symbol of this central experience is the yin-yang diagram as a whole. That experience is the knowledge and incarnation of the Tao considered as the whole, of nature and of oneself as the whole.

It is not the intention of this introduction to try to say more about such subtle experiences but to focus on general, theoretical aspects and implications.

Nor is it the intention to try to introduce the teaching of the Tao Te Ching in the form of a system of philosophy. The chapters of the text are interrelated; but, as with every communication from a higher level of spirituality, the interrelation appears to us as replete with contradictions and disconnected images. There is bound to be confusion in our minds about the meanings of yin and yang, and about which sense of the Tao is being referred to in many of the chapters. We can say, however, that one stage of the work of meditation is to discriminate between the two forces, the movement of return and the movement outward. Another stage, presupposing the experience of successive discrimination, is the simultaneous experience of both; a third stage would then be the experience of the moving together into a harmonious relationship of these two forces. That further stages exist there can be no doubt. But it is also certain that we are not in a position to speculate about them.

At every stage of the practice, the truth one needs to experience is hidden and dark, and bears the marks of death. This is the death of all that has been built up by the automatism of the mind and ego. It is the death of forms and the momentary release or appearance of a formless energy. The seeker must allow himself or herself to be the female in relation to that which is waiting to pour itself into the seeker from above — whether it be called truth or the ultimate energy.

Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty and be full;
Wear out and be new;
Have little and gain;
Have much and be confused.
************ (Ch. 22)
Know the strength of man,
But keep a woman's care!
Know the white,
But keep the black!
Be the valley of the universe!
Being the valley of the universe,
Ever true and resourceful,
Return to the state of the uncarved block.
************ (Ch. 28)

The psychological condition of an individual who seeks in this way to experience both fundamental forces in himself must inevitably appear incomprehensible and even foolish to the unenlightened — and to the unenlightened parts of our own minds, which are accustomed, one might even say addicted, to "rationality" and the imposition of concepts and forms onto the outer and inner life.

But I alone am drifting, not knowing where I am.
Like a newborn babe before it learns to smile,
I am alone, without a place to go.
Others have more than they need, but I alone have nothing.
I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused.
Other men are clear and bright,
But I alone am dim and weak.
Other men 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 depressed.
I am different
I am nourished by the great mother.
************ (Ch. 20)
Hence it is said:
The bright path seems dim;
Going forward seems like retreat;
The easy way seems hard;
The highest Virtue seems empty;
The greatest form has no shape.
The Tao is hidden and without name,
The Tao alone nourishes and brings everything to fulfillment.
************ (Ch. 41)

We may now consider the numerous verses of the Tao Te Ching that deal with the question of leadership - political and spiritual. Before citing examples, we need to emphasize the extraordinary difficulty and drama that awaits the individual seeking to embrace the yin and yang within himself. It is not for nothing that in the spiritual language of alchemy this embrace, under the name "alchemical marriage" or the "divine androgen," is presented as the culmination of long and difficult work on oneself. It is a question of developing an attention of such strength and sensitivity that two fundamental cosmic forces, which on one level are intrinsically at war with each other, come together under an even greater force of reconciliation. War is transmuted into love. This reference to the language of Western alchemy may help us confront the political and military language that enters in the second part of the Tao Te Ching. Otherwise, it may be hopelessly puzzling that a text which so consistently speaks of gentleness and yielding suddenly begins speaking of warfare, generalship, armies, and military strategy. This aspect of the Tao Te Ching has led some modern interpreters to take it as a blueprint for achieving purposes completely alien to the goal of inner freedom — such as military conquest or even effective business management and sales programs!

In any case, the Tao Te Ching does speak of struggle and discipline quite as much as it speaks of non-doing and letting go, as in fact do all the inner disciplines of the great spiritual teachings, East and West. It is an extraordinary task to make conscious contact with the energy that reconciles the two great movements of universal reality at the levels in which they operate within the whole of the human psyche.

The exalted vision that has revealed the necessity for this "in between" state is surely what lies at the heart of the Middle Way as it originally took form in the teaching of the Buddha. The same vision informs the esoteric Christianity of Meister Eckhardt; the fathers of Byzantine Christianity, such as Gregory Palamas and Maximus the Confessor; and the Gnostic texts of early Christianity. It is the vision we find in the Jewish mystical writings known as the Zohar and the stories of the Baal Shem Tov and his spiritual descendants. It is, as was said, the central work of alchemy. It is Arjuna's "warfare" in the Bbagavad Gita, the "spiritual combat" of the Philokalia, the Zen Buddhist "Sword of the Mind," the way of the "warrior" as spoken of by Hakuin.

To see the Tao's message as a permissive, passive, self-calming "going with the flow" in the way some modern writers have is to make a mere fantasy out of a profound, subtle doctrine that blends into one vision the truth of Mercy and the truth of Rigor, to use the language of the Kabbalah. To make non-doing into non- struggling is to be an advocate of what has become merely one of the world's great half-truths.

It is possible to understand this teaching concerning the inbetweenness of inner freedom as lying at the root of the Western doctrines of moderation and sobriety that we find in the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. But when we consider the way this Western idea has come down to us, it too must be seen as a degeneration, insofar as it directs us toward a kind of "bourgeois" metaphysics and psychology. "Nothing in excess," as the Greeks and Romans expressed it, cannot at its root mean anything like the existential comfortableness or puritanism it has come to signify. It must have originally emerged out of the same kind of doctrine we find in the Tao Te Ching and the countless other esoteric spiritual teachings of the world: namely, to struggle for an attention or consciousness that can embrace two opposite forces without being swallowed by either. It means living in the midst of both the forces of outer life and the forces of the mystical return while searching in oneself for the consciousness that is at the root and that stands as the reconciling fulfillment of both these movements. This war is love. This love is war.

In the light of these comments, we can now look at what our text tells us about the art of living in the world, and especially the practical art of leadership — what Plato spoke of both symbolically and literally as "statesmanship." The question is, how to live one's daily life in a way that supports and expresses this war of love, this struggle for contact with the transcendently vibrant non-being, emptiness, and formless energy that lies at the heart of the human and the cosmic world.

Surely the following verses, and those like them in the text, tell us something essential about how to govern and how to fight. The historic context of ancient Chinese society — its political strife and social unrest — cannot be ignored. But we must ask ourselves: to what extent do these verses teach us about how to achieve success in the forms by which society enables us to deal with each other, and to what extent do they give us an attitude toward these forms that enables us to seek within while we are compelled to move and act in the social context? To what extent are spiritual principles meant to serve social-psychological goals, and to what extent can social activity become the milieu in which we search for that which transcends "society"? Do we meditate in order to win? Or can we study the laws of pure inner work operating even within the outer battlefield of life?

Therefore the stiff 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.
************ (Ch. 76)
People usually fail when they are on the verge of success.
So give as much care to the end as to the beginning;
Then there will be no failure.
Therefore the sage seeks freedom from desire.
He does not collect precious things.
He learns not to hold on to ideas.
He brings men back to what they have lost.
He helps the ten thousand things find their own nature,
But refrains from action.
************ (Ch. 64)

In the symbolic language of sacred writing, the outer and the inner are spoken of with images and formulations that embrace the laws of one's own inner world and the great outer world simultaneously. In this language, words such as leader, warrior, king, and sage refer both to an individual in relationship to other people and to a part of oneself in its relationship to the other parts that make up one's total inner world. There is or can be a leader in myself — a warrior, king, and sage. There are armies and peoples within myself. There are desires, fears, hopes, needs; there are timid and brave impulses; there are thinkers, dreamers, scoundrels, and madmen. In the Old Testament these are "the people of Israel" whom Moses leads out of the state of slavery.

These are the "people" of Plato's Republic, whom the philosopher-king rules with wisdom and Justice. Like the Tao Te Ching, such texts are "political" in a much vaster and more intimate sense than we may imagine. To be a warrior in the outer life, one must be a warrior in the inner life. To be a king in the outer life, one must be a king in the inner life. To be a sage in the outer life, one must be a sage in the inner life.

Thus, when the Tao Te Ching cautions the ruler against imposing concepts of good and evil onto his people, it is also cautioning us against cutting ourselves off from the vital forces within ourselves through attachment to mental or emotional judging of ourselves. To read anything in the Tao Te Ching as merely advice for the outer life is, putting it bluntly, to desecrate it, that is, to pack it into our own store of illusions, the sum total of which has made our individual and collective life on earth a hypnotic sleep that could very well end with our eyes still closed. But to read it as applying simultaneously to the outer life and to our own inner life is to feel ourselves invited to a life of searching that will be supported by the strongest and greatest energies in the universe.

— Jacob Needleman

I wish to acknowledge with gratitude the help I have received in presenting this introduction to the Tao Te Ching. Dr. Ronald Epstein of the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University made many sensitive and illuminating suggestions based not only on his extensive scholarly expertise in the Chinese language and culture but also on his own considerable personal experience with the realities of religion. I am also deeply grateful to my great friend and editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Toinette Lippe, for inviting me to introduce, edit, and provide notes for this new edition of this much loved translation. Her advice and criticism not only on this manuscript but over the years has been an irreplaceable gift to me. It should be noted that some of the most distinguished spiritual texts and translations that have appeared in English over the past two decades owe an immense amount to her.

As for other translations of the Tao Te Ching that have been of help to me, they are listed in the selected bibliography at the end of the book. Many of these volumes also contain insightful commentaries. Of commentaries that stand alone without being joined to translations of the complete text, I wish to mention two that have proved very valuable to me: A Comparative Study of the Key Philosophical Concepts in Sufism and Taoism, by Toshihiko Izutsu (Tokyo: Keic, Institute in Cultural and Linguistic Studies, 1967), and an unpublished work, Tao Te Ching: The Wisdom of Lao Tzu, by David Stollar.

You may read a copy of the FULL text of the "Tao Te Ching" [ Here ].


It is not my intention here to present historical material or extensive interpretations of the text. Several good academic commentaries are suggested in the selected bibliography. I offer the following only as my own thoughts based on examination of other translations and on the study of many other spiritual philosophies and traditions.


This famous opening might also be rendered as "The way that can be explained is not the eternal Way" or "The path that is well-marked is not the eternal Path." Although the true Way or Path has always existed in eternity and rigorously conforms to precise laws, it must always be discovered for oneself. It is always new. One must always struggle to free oneself from the spell of thoughts and images that are at best reflective only of what has been experienced in the past. The "ordinary," isolated intellect is not the agent through which the living, present moment can be experienced. This ordinary mind is prey to countless suggestions and associations that can impede the experience of reality, and among the most seductive of these suggestions are those that have spiritual or religious content. "The Truth," said Krishnamurti, is a pathless land." The real guide, therefore, does not only give the pupil the truth but offers conditions that help the pupil discover the truth for himself.

Some comment on the meaning of desire may be of help here. In this chapter, no negative Judgment is applied to desiring, although other translators, such as Paul Carus, have thought otherwise. Carus has, "But he who is by desire bound/Sees the mere shell of things around." The present translation may be taken to suggest mainly that through the desires one is drawn toward the manifestations of the ultimate source. These manifestations are the "ten thousand things" and have their own reality, in other words, real effects of the real cause. Trouble begins only when one mistakes the effects for the cause. The main point to be noted here is that the word "desire" can refer to something morally neutral within us or, in other contexts, to the main abnormality and distortion of our nature. In the latter case a more accurate word would be "addiction or craving", which is what a desire becomes when we allow it to absorb the finer energies of our psyche. Craving is a desire that devours us. But desires pure and simple are not to be killed or suppressed; they are an aspect of our human nature, which enter importantly into the process of inner transformation at a certain stage of the way. Confusion between these two meanings has resulted in a great misunderstanding of many spiritual, religious, and philosophical teachings through the ages. In the present translation the context usually makes it quite clear which sense of desire Lao Tsu intended.


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 realize 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. This teaching is an essential aspect of the doctrine that has, in the Western world, often been condemned as heretical or dangerous. In any case it is always a difficult, hidden, and subtle doctrine, easily misunderstood as justifying self-indulgence and even cruelty. Nietzsche's famous "beyond good and evil" echoes this doctrine, and the crimes that have been committed under this banner are ample testimony to the need to understand it only in the, context of a complete spiritual teaching, In Judaism and Islam this idea often forms part of the "esoteric" path, reserved for those who have passed through the moral discipline and training of the "exoteric" or orthodox tradition. Every complete religious tradition comprises these different levels of understanding and practice.


The wise rule by freeing people and themselves from attachment to desires; by helping to strengthen the essential in human nature, "stuffing bellies" and "strengthening bones"; and by reducing the lopsided dependence on acquired mental knowledge and artificially induced desires. According to the twentieth-century spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff, a human being is made up of essence and personality. "Essence" is what is one's own, what one is born with; "personality" is acquired as the result of education and social conditioning. Both are necessary to human life, but each must develop in proper relation to the other.


"Straw dogs," as Wing-Tsit Chan and others point out, "were used for sacrifices in ancient China. After they had been used, they were thrown away and there was no more sentimental attachment to them." * These lines suggest the universal scale against which the wise measure human values. Man 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. The highest forces can care for us only to the extent that we allow them into our own being. In The Guide for the Perplexed, the great twelfth-century Jewish spiritual philosopher Moses Malmonides states that God's providence can act in human life only to the extent that man's intellect is in actual contact with God. Otherwise, human beings are like "cattle" and subject to accidents of every kind. This perspective was never completely incorporated into the mainstream of orthodox Judaism.

* Wing-Tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs- Merrill Co., 1963), 108.


Water is one of Lao Tsu's principal symbols for the Tao, along with the infant, the female, the valley, and the uncarved block. He who lives the Tao acts in his life and dealings as water acts in nature. 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. All things arise from water and return to water. What better image for what Lao Tsu means by non-being and non-acting?

No fight: No blame. This line tersely expresses the idea that he who does not seek to impose his own will is beyond reproach.


More than in most versions, the present translation of this chapter carries a hint of the challenge to live fully in the world while maintaining contact with the source — that is, to be man as a two-natured being, embracing the two aspects of reality simultaneously. In the Bbagavad Gita, Krishna commands the warrior Arjuna to act strongly in the world but without attachment to the results of action. Consider this also as a possible reading of Christ's dictum "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's" (Mark 12:17).


Therefore, the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees. Wing-Tsit Chan, Arthur Waley, Lin Yutang, and most other translators have rendered this line with the word belly: "The sage provides for the belly and not for the eye" (Lin Yutang). This usage obviously expresses the same idea as chapter 3, where belly refers to the essence, what may be felt and sensed as one's own nature, as opposed to what is seen externally and acquired from outside. The lopsided emphasis on the acquired personality disharmonizes the two-natured being of man. The racing thoughts of the "monkey-mind" experienced in meditation may be understood in this context. In Buddhism this condition of mental agitation is an important aspect of what is called "the sanisaric, or deluded mind".


Misfortune comes from having a body: Lin Yutang and Richard Wilhelm do not take the word body literally but rather translate it as "self" and "persona" respectively. Stephen Mitchell's version shares the view that this line refers to believing in the reality of the ego or social self. No doubt there is considerable truth in such readings, but the present translation may be pointing us to something even more fundamental — namely, that the illusion of the ego may itself be rooted in our wrong relationship to the organic reality of the physical body. Lao Tsu's teachings about nature obviously preclude our imagining that he considers the body evil. Perhaps the best echo of the meaning here is to be found in the Tibetan Buddhist text, The Life of Milarepa, in which after his first awesome labors of meditation, Milarepa tells his teacher: "This body is the blessed vessel for those fortunate beings who wish for freedom, but it also leads sinners into the lower realms." (1) Consider also the writings of the Orthodox Christian Fathers, such as Gregory Palarnas. There are no writings in any tradition that more strongly warn us about the powers of the body, yet in the midst of all these warnings, we find St. Gregory saying: "You see, brother, that not only spiritual, but general human reasoning shows the need to recognize it as imperative that those who wish to belong to themselves, and to be truly monks in their inner man, should lead the mind inside the body and hold it there." (2)

(1) Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, The Life of Milarepa (Boulder, Colorado: Prajna Press, 1982), 77.
(2) Gregory Palamas, in E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, Early Fathers from the Philokalia (London: Faber & Faber, 1954), 405.


This chapter is about different qualities of leadership. In all human undertakings, and especially along the way to self-knowledge, great leadership does not call attention to itself. The guide creates conditions and steers just enough to allow people to search for and experience the truth for themselves. A lesser leader inspires loyalty and affection, but if the pupil does not find his or her own free search, this loyalty will turn negative and become fear and resentment. It would be rewarding to study the fate of spiritual communities, of the present as well as the past, in the light of this chapter. The great master shows trust by the quality of attention he gives the pupil and the respect he shows solely for the pupil's inner work. The story is told of the young Swami Vivekananda, who asked his teacher, Sri Ramakrishna, why he bowed to such an unworthy person as he knew himself to be. Sri Ramakrishna, it is said, replied forcefully: "I am not bowing to you! You are nothing! I bow to the atman, the divine self in you."


These chapters affirm the primacy of being at one with the Tao, rather than thinking about it as an ideal. Lao Tsu warns us that concepts of virtue, ideals of wisdom and morality, and all the precepts that are intended to lead us toward the good all too easily make us forget the main thing, which is to open within ourselves to that radiant energy whose action upon us will conform our lives to the Tao. Consider St. Augustine's "Love God, and do what you will," and the spontaneous arising of compassion (karuna) along the way of the bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. "Morality" is often only the imposition of one part of ourselves (the mind) upon the other parts, which remain, as it were, unconvinced and fundamentally untouched. This does not mean that the seeker of the Way foolishly abandons moral rules, but that at a certain point he sees that external morality, without internal morality, can be a kind of tyranny over others and over the living forces within oneself. The way toward this inner morality may seem startlingly or even shockingly opposed to "morality." For example, "Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom". Again, it must be kept in mind that blindly going against conventional morality is as fruitless as blindly obeying convention.


Because of this: Commentators and translators differ as to the exact meaning of this. Is Lao Tsu saying that he knows the ways of creation simply by direct seeing of what he has just described? Should we imagine him pointing to his chest as he says these words? In any case, and speaking more generally, the great metaphysical visions and philosophies of the past are invariably based on what has been directly seen within oneself in the higher states of stillness and meditation. Metaphysics, whether Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Pythagorean, or Taoist, has always been based on experience — the inner experience of man as the mirror of the universe. Such teachings about the cosmos are never mere speculation or based solely on extrapolations from sense observations of the outer world. Here we may rephrase an ancient Hermetic saying: "As above, so within." Only one must learn how to look within. Modern Anglo-American philosophy's tendency to reject metaphysics stems largely from our culture's loss of the art and science of real "seeing."


Arthur Waley's translation further illuminates the meaning of this chapter:

To remain whole, be twisted!
To become straight, let yourself be bent.
To become full, be hollow.
Be tattered, that you may be renewed.


When you are at one with loss,
The loss is experienced willingly.

These lines and what is conjoined with them are perhaps the most puzzling in the whole of the Tao Te Ching, so much so that Richard Wilhelm writes, "On the whole, it is probably sensible to give up the passage as hopelessly beyond interpretation." (1) Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the puzzle has to do with the word "loss". What sort of loss is being spoken of?

The present translation says, "He who loses the way is lost."
It does not say, "He who loses the Tao is lost."

A great deal hinges on this issue. If it is ordinary loss that is being spoken of (including loss of riches, loss of health, loss of reputation, and so on), then we are being told that the follower of the Tao holds to the Tao in the face of all life circumstances. By contrast, if loss of the Tao is involved, then the matter is much more troubling and interesting. It could mean (as some translators have it) that he who loses the Tao is inwardly so lost that he feels no sense of breaking the contact with the most important thing in life. A more subtle reading could be that he who loses what he thinks is the Tao (which is therefore not the Tao that is beyond concepts) voluntarily accepts the sense of loss and is thereby brought back to a deeper movement of return. Yet another reading of this passage, one which I happen to favor and which was offered by the earliest Chinese commentator, Wang Pi, is:

And he who is identified with the abandonment [of Tao] — the abandonment [of Tao] is also happy to abandon him. (2)

In other words, one receives from reality exactly what one seeks from it, "As you sow, so you reap" (Galatians 6:7). The Tao, as the whole of nature, does not violently impose Its will. This interpretation has the virtue of corresponding to the opening lines of the chapter.

(1) Richard Wilhelm, Tao Te Ching (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), 126.
(2) Ariane Rump with Wing-Tsit Chan, Commentary on the Lao Tzu by Wang Pi (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1979), 71.


Tao follows what is natural. This should not be taken to mean that there is a level of reality, called nature, that is distinct from Tao. Tao is spontaneously what it is, through its own nature.


This chapter is important for the light it throws on the way the advanced follower of the Tao, the sage, manifests in the world. I take it to be speaking of the center of gravity of the sage's outward action and the quality of attention he brings to it. To put it simply, the principal intention in the life of the sage is to pass on to others what he has understood of the Way. This, surely, is the highest form of human love, the crux of the mystery in human relationships. Love for one's neighbor here does not mean "liking" the other; it has nothing to do with emotional attraction, nor is it organically or socially conditioned family, sexual, or intellectual love. For the sage, the other is neither "good" nor "bad" — the other is only an individual who is or is not correctly following the Tao. Because all meaning and happiness for humanity depend ultimately on following the Tao, the sage seeks only, and naturally, to arrange the details of his 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.


Small. In these two chapters and in others (for instance, chapter 52), the word small may be taken to mean exceedingly fine, light, invisible, and so on — all these terms referring to that which is the highest and most powerful reality or force in the universe. Such terms invite us to consider as well the quality of awareness that is needed to contact the highest — a very fine, subtle vibration, a consciousness that appears in us under interior conditions of great, vibrant silence. Finally, this "small" Awareness may ultimately be understood as the ultimate force itself or, to put it in other terms, mysterious as it may sound: The consciousness of Tao is Tao. The highest consciousness is intrinsically consciousness of itself. This self-luminous light expands and descends into the world of the ten thousand things. Compare the use of small in the Chandogya Upanishad, III. xiv. 3: "Small as a grain of rice is that Self .. yet greater than all the worlds." Compare also the mustard seed of the Gospels and the "still, small voice" heard by the prophet Elijah.


To die but net to perish is to be eternally present: This rendering invites us to think in a fresh way about immortality, what Western religions refer to as the survival of the soul after the death of the body. Something much more dynamic, tangible, and immediately relevant than our usual theological concept of immortality seems to be offered here. What will die? What must die? What is presence? — now and here.


Virtue is action that springs spontaneously from the vital center of oneself, not merely action done in conformity to an ideal, however noble, that is held by thought. Compare St. Paul's teaching that Christ came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it — in other words, righteousness is not forcing the body to obey the thought but is rather the appearance of a new principle within ourselves which the body and the mind voluntarily and instantly obey. Compare also Nietzsche's "third metamorphosis of the spirit" in Thus Spake Zarathustra, how the spirit became a camel, then a lion, then a child.


From the One the universe is created and at all levels of the world all phenomena are the result of the harmonization of two opposing forces. The wise understand how to live in correspondence with these 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. It is not easy. Compare the Bbagavad Gita 4:17: "Know therefore what is work, and also what is wrong work." And 3:27: "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." *

* Juan Mascaro, The Bbagavad Gita (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1962).


There is nothing to be added. There is nothing missing in ourselves. There are only accretions to be dropped.
Compare the Sufi saying:
When the heart weeps for what it has lost,
The Spirit laughs for what it has found.

In Christianity, this teaching may be discerned in the doctrine that God has already forgiven us; we are already accepted. The human problem is to accept that deeply. The aim of spiritual work is to become able to receive that love.


Three in ten . . . Paul Carus (and Lin Yutang) offer what seem to me an interesting alternate rendering of these lines:

There are thirteen avenues of life; there are thirteen avenues of death; on thirteen avenues men that live pass unto the realm of death.
************ (Carus)
The companions (organs) of life are thirteen,
The companions (organs) of death are (also) thirteen.
************ (Lin Yutang)
He who knows bow to live can walk abroad without fear of rhinoceros or tiger..
What are these rhinoceroses and tigers? Compare Rumi:
A naked man jumps in the river, hornets swarming above him.
The water is the izkr, remembering,
There is no reality but God. There is only God.
The hornets are his sexual remembering, this woman,
that woman. Or if a woman, this man, that.
The head comes up. They sting.
Breathe water. Become river head to foot.
Hornets leave you alone then. *

See also chapter 55.

* Rumi, We Are Three (Athens, Georgia: Maypop Books, 1987), 42.


Translations of this chapter differ considerably. The present translation is unique in connecting restraint with giving up one's own ideas. All the versions, however, suggest that what is being spoken of here is the accumulation of a certain force within oneself, which confers to the individual a kind of capacity that is beyond ordinary understanding. No one can be a ruler (of others or himself) without this mysterious capacity. This chapter is unusual and important therefore, in referring to the cumulative effect or result in inner spiritual work. The luminous way in which Lao Tsu emphasizes the present moment of awareness may lead to a cheapened understanding along the lines of "living for the moment." This chapter corrects that possible misunderstanding and reminds us that there is also the need for long and persistent inner work.


Compare "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matthew 6:34). These two chapters deal with the art of living considered as the practice of giving one's best attention to the present moment with all its details. The sage is distinguished not only by what he does but by the attention he brings to life. Out of this art of living there can emerge great practical wisdom. We are being told, in short, that our lives are a reflection of the quality of our attention.


In the beginning those who knew the Tao did not try to enlighten others, but kept it bidden. They did not explain in words and concepts, or make moral precepts of that which can only be sensed and intuited. The wise do not pander to the "clever," who make mental representations out of sacred ideas and therefore imagine something is understood when it is only named. This chapter, like almost all the text, resonates to the inner search as well: we are being advised, as it were, to keep our own cleverness from making the Way into merely mental information. I take this to be the central meaning of the famous opening of chapter 56:

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

Consider also: "Let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Matthew 6:3).

The way to great unity requires as well great and true separation — discrimination of essences and levels in both the outer and inner life. Compare also the restrictions against certain forms of "mixing" in the Judaic tradition.


Plato tells us that the oracle at Delphi called Socrates the wisest of all men. "What in the world does the god mean?" asks Socrates. "What in the world is his riddle? For I know in my conscience that I am not wise in anything, great or small. Then what in the world does he mean when he says I am wisest?" Socrates then proceeds to question citizens of Athens who have a reputation for wisdom — statesmen, scientists, artists, craftsmen — and is shocked to realize that no one else is any wiser than he. "The fact is that neither of us knows anything beautiful and good, but he thinks he does know when he doesn't and I don't know and don't think I do" (Apology, 21). Socrates' wisdom consists in the awareness that he is not wise.

This succinct chapter offers echoes of a truly momentous idea in the great spiritual traditions, expressed most paradoxically in the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine that nirvana (freedom) is samsara (slavery). Nirvana is the total awareness of samsara; freedom is the total awareness of slavery; knowledge is the total awareness of ignorance. Such awareness is not mere mental awareness, not merely the thought that one knows nothing or is enslaved. It is awareness as a tangible force and can carry with it the power of feeling and sensing that itself conducts a great liberating energy into the tissues of human life. Thus, in the Christian contemplative tradition, the most important factor in the inner life is remorse, "tears" in confrontation with one's own distance from God. This remorse opens the way for the grace or mercy of God to enter. It cannot be simulated; it must be genuine. This is the principal meaning of humility. "Blessed are they that mourn . . ." (Matthew 5:4).


These chapters concern 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. Translators differ on the meaning of the term executioner in chapter 74. The general sense seems to be that one must destroy only that which is truly harmful to the state or to oneself and that this cannot be discerned without the authentic, impartial love for the whole that is the mark of the wise man, of the master.

You may read a copy of the FULL text of the "Tao Te Ching" [ Here ].

Read "Illustrations of the Tao" [ Here ] -- The following illustrations of the Natural Law are collected from such sources as come readily to the hand of one who is not a professional historian.