The Tao Te Ching, sometimes translated as the “Classic of the Virtuous Way”, is rumored to have been written by Lao Tzu. He is said to have been a sage of the royal court, or also a magistrate or astrologer, perhaps during the Warring States Period, though others claim he was a contemporary of Confucius. In Chinese Daoism, he is venerated as one of the great elders present at creation (Taji) and is credited as the author of the Tao Te Ching.
While Confucianism, formed mainly from the aforementioned basis of the Analects, can be said to advocate for a strong state, rigid mores, and deference to cultural customs, the Tao Te Ching is uniquely distinct. Confucianism has much to say about politics, but Taoism is far more ontological and existential. As with early Gnostic Christianity, Taoism is concerned with the appropriate and formless “Way”, or Tao, of all things. In the Analects, Master Kong encourages individuals to make appropriate propitiations, or actions, but the Tao Te Ching encourages “not acting” (3) and centering oneself in the Tao, which is beyond good and evil, and Taoism is suspicious of the pursuit of knowledge, as is common for theology which prefaces faith over reason. However, the Tao Te Ching does offer some political advice for the Master: relinquish the desire to control, the Will to Power, and let the people lead with humility -a great Master allows the people to believe they have accomplished great things.
The text is composed of approximately 5,000 characters and 81 short chapters.
“Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will be blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity” (9).
“Colors blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.
The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open as the sky” (12).
“A good traveller has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.
Thus the Master is available to all people
and doesn’t reject anyone.
He is ready to use all situations
and doesn’t waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.
What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man’s teacher?
If you don’t understand this, you will get lost,
however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret” (27).
“Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.
The more you know,
the less you understand.
The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing” (47).
“The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold onto:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.
He doesn’t think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day’s work” (50).
For this reading I used Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching.