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18: Tao Te Ching (followed by "Notes on the Spiritual Life")


Tao Te Ching Made Easy

The Wisest Little Book In The World

The Tao Te Ching is a seminal work in at least four disciplines:
Religion; Philosophy; World History; and Asian Civilization


Twenty-five centuries ago an elderly Chinese sage named Laotzu wrote a short book that still speaks to the modern heart. This book's most striking quality is its mixture of high spirituality with practical, down-to-earth advice on how to live more fully day-to-day.

Curb your tongue and your senses
And you are beyond trouble.
Let them loose
And you are beyond help.

Dr. Lin Yutang, the eminent scholar, tells us: "If there is one book in the whole of Oriental literature, which should be read above all others, it is, in my opinion, Laotzu's . . .It is one of the profoundest books in the world's philosophy. . . .most profound and clear, mystic and practical." And, it must be added, breathtaking in scope. Although only 40 pages long, this little slip of a book sketches a view of the universe, gives a philosophy of life, offers a notebook of advice on governing a country, and even provides several pages on how to wage wars:

A good general, daring to advance, dares also to halt.
He will never press his triumph beyond need.
What he must to he does but not for glory.
What he must do he does but not for show.
What he must do he does but not for self.
He does it because it has to be done.

Some scholars question whether there really was a Laotzu (pronounced Lout-zoo). Legends abound but solid facts are few. Perhaps the book was compiled over centuries by many sages. In any event, this small book is the distilled wisdom of one branch of Chinese thought. The recurring themes are simplicity and naturalness; spontaneity; humility; an easy flowing with life; a reliance on mankind's basic good sense; and a trust in the final authority of the heart. Laotzu's book contains great pools of wisdom. You can dive into them over and over throughout your life, and never reach bottom, and never tire.

People appreciate welcome from the perfect host
Who barely seeming to exit,
Exists most of all.


The book's title, Tao Te Ching is literally translated "The Classic on the Virtue". Other renditions are "The Book of Life" or "The Book of Tao". Tao, the key word, is pronounced Dow and is variously translated "The Way" or "The Path" or "The Word" (as in "In the beginning was the Word…") or simply as "God" (where God is thought to be synonymous with the rhythms and natural laws of the universe).

Gladly does the Tao receive
Those who wish to walk in it.
Gladly does its power uphold
Those who choose to use it well.
Gladly does the Tao abandon
Those who abandon it.

The Tao Te Ching is one of the most translated books in the world, second perhaps only to the Bible. Nearly 100 English translations exist.* The translators always report rough going. The original is terse and sometimes obscure. Another problem is that mere words, according to Laotzu, can never encompass the infinite grandeur and complexity of life, or of God. Laotzu begins his book: "Existence is beyond the power of words to define." Another translator puts that same line another way: "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao." Whichever translation you prefer, it's clear that Laotzu will not accept Ultimate Truths or Final Answers. The goal, he seems to say, is to simplify your thoughts, not to fill your head with clattering theories:

False teachers of life use flowery words to start nonsense.
And since those who argue never settle anything
The sensible person does not argue. . . .
A person who knows how little he knows is well.
A person who knows how much he knows is sick.


* Witter Bynner's is my favorite tanslation. Most quotes are from this book.

Laotzu turns away from elaborate metaphysics and focuses on life as we live it day by day. And his prescription is that we accept life . . . as we find it unfolding around us.

The surest test is a person be sane
Is if he accepts life whole as it is,
Without needing by touch or measure to understand
The untouchable and unmeasurable source of its forms.

Laotzu's emphasis, again and again, is on naturalness and simplicity. Unclutter the heart and brain, he says. Let go the dreams and schemes. Recover the gentleness and softness and innate wisdom of the child.

Man, born tender and yielding,
Stiffens and hardens in death.
All living growth is pliant
Until death makes it rigid.
So those people who have hardened are kin of death.
The people who stay gentle are kin of life. . .
How can a person's life keep its course
If you will not let it flow?
Those who flow as life flows know
They need no other effort:
They feel no wear, they feel no tear,
They need no mending, no repair.

Keep life simple, is Laotzu's message. Easy does it. Swim with, not against, the currents of nature:

"Nature does not have to insist.
Can blow only half a morning,
Rain for only half a day.
And what are these winds and rains but natural:
If nature does not have to insist,
Why should you?"

The West has been fed perhaps too steady a diet of strenuous exertion. Laotzu teaches a gentler, and perhaps more cunning, insight. Leave life alone, he says. Let it unfold according to its own inner wisdom.

Let life open like a flower and then fall.
Force is not the way at all . . .
Those who would take over the world
And shape it to their will
Never, I notice, succeed. . .
The best general does not plunge headlong
Nor is the best soldier a fellow hot to fight.
The greatest victor wins without a battle.



Actually, there is rarely a need for dramatic battles if you keep life tidy and simple right along.

The most involved puzzle in the world
Could have been solved when it was small.
The most confused situation in the world
Could have been faced when it was simple.
The fact that he finds no problem big
Is a sane person's prime achievement.

Not at all surprisingly, Laotzu's Sane Person leaves other people alone. No pushing and no preaching. Probably no other great religious teacher has taken so tolerant, so sympathetic, so trusting a stance. Laotzu's idea is that we respect people, we feel compassion for them. But we don't go telling them what's what. For how can we be sure we know everything? How can we be sure that others don't know more than we?

A sound person's heart is not shut within himself
But is open to other people's hearts:
I find good people good,
And I find bad people good. . .

Laotzu is often said to be the most spiritual and mystical of writers. And hearing these words, we think of a retreat from life, perhaps even a selfish escape. Or we think of people going off to caves or becoming involved in elaborate rituals or techniques. Or we imagine people chasing enlightenment half-way around the world. 'It isn't necessarily so,' says the always down-to-earth Laotzu.

Without going out of the door
One can know the whole world.
Without peeping out of the windows
One can see the Tao of heaven.
The further one travels,
The less one knows.

This teacher's emphasis is ever on living fully an ordinary life, and of being of service to one's neighbors.

"A person at his best, like water,
Serves as he goes along;
Like water he seeks his own level,
The common level of life,
And he loves living close to the earth,
Living clear down in his heart,
Loves kinship with his neighbors,
And the pick of words that tell the truth,
The even tenor of a well-run state,
The fair profit of able dealing,
The right timing of useful deeds,
And for quarreling with no one,
No one quarrels with you."

The Tao Te Ching has much to say about how to lead people and how to govern a country. Indeed, it's one of the great manuals of state craft. The advice, however, is very different from the amoral stratagems of the Western classic, The Prince by Machiavelli. Laotzu's advice, both for the citizen trying to live peacefully with his neighbors and for a President trying to run a country, is the same: don't be sticking your nose in everything, leave people alone, respect their judgments, remember that they probably know a lot more than you think. Laotzu, of course, strikes the homely note even in affairs of state:

"Handle a large kingdom with as gentle a touch as if you are cooking a small fish. . . .

If you manage people by letting them alone,
Ghosts of the dead will not haunt you. . . .
The less a leader does and says
The happier his people;
The more a leader struts and brags
The sorrier his people."

Laotzu suggests that there are spiritual laws, as unchanging as gravity, built into the universe. And one of these is: When you poke something, expect to be poked back. Therefore, he says again and again, the right touch is a very light touch:

Without their knowing
You are at the core of life . . . .
A leader is best
When people barely know that he exists,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
Worst when they despise him.
Fail to honor people,
They fail to honor you.
But of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will all say: 'We did this ourselves.'


And what finally is the goal of Laotzu's teachings? Where are you being lead? The single best word is probably contentment. By flowing with the Tao, as upon the surface of a mighty river, you find life easy and satisfying.

Whoever follows the Tao feels alive.
Whoever keeps to the way of life
Feels at home.
Whoever uses life properly
Feels welcome.

Laotzu, that most wise and gentle man, speaks to our troubled hearts across 2500 years, always as uplifting as blue skies, as practical as wood.
If you enjoyed reading about the Tao Te Ching,
you would probably enjoy this next section as well. Click graphic..


Notes on the Spiritual Life / Strategies For Happiness

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2011