Study Guide

Tao Te Ching Introduction

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Tao Te Ching Introduction

Are you ready for a heapin' helpin' of ancient Chinese wisdom? You couldn't have come to a better text, Shmooper. The Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing) has been blowing minds and changing lives for over 2,500 years. The worldwide influence of these eighty-one short chapters can't be shortchanged. For one, it's the "bible" of the two main branches of Taoism: the religious branch (which digs deities) and the philosophical branch (which leaves the gods out of it).

On top of that, it's influenced folks from every other religion and philosophy out there: Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and even Christianity. The TTC is actually the second-most translated book after the Bible, which is no small potatoes. So what gives? What's this book got going on that's kept the world a-buzzin' for so long?

The Tao Te Ching is all about the Tao, which is basically the great big flow of everything. Usually translated as the "Way," the Tao is the mysterious, unnamable process through which everything in the Universe happens. Not only is it everything that exists, it's everything that doesn't exist too—to which we can only say, "Whoa."

The Tao Te Ching takes all its life-lessons from the Tao itself. For example, the Tao doesn't go around bragging about how awesome it is, so we ought to be just as humble. The Tao crosses off its universal to-do list without effort, so we should do stuff with the same kind of "unattached action" (a way of being and doing called wu wei). To the TTC, the ultimate goal is to find simple oneness with the Tao; by doing so, we'll discover enlightenment and lead fully realized lives.

Okay, okay... we know you're dying to ask, "Who came up with this stuff?" Well, legend has it that the Tao Te Ching was written by a wise old guy named Lao Tzu (or Laozi). There's a ton of debate about when he lived and if he actually did, but he's a major figure either way. The most popular story is that Lao Tzu was a scribe/librarian for a king, so he had access to the knowledge of all the Tao masters that came before him.

That's right, Lao Tzu never claimed to have come up with this stuff. To him, the TTC was kind of a Taoism for Dummies, a condensed rundown of centuries of Taoist thought. Anyway, one day Lao Tzu was passing through a gate, and a guard begged him to write down everything he knew about the Tao. Lao Tzu said, "You got it, buddy," scribbled the TTC in no time flat, and then rode out of China forever on a water buffalo. (Baller.)

These days, Western scholars especially doubt if there ever really was a Lao Tzu (party poopers). They figure the Tao Te Ching was probably put together over many years by a bunch of different people. Maybe a guy named Lao Tzu was one of them, maybe not. (We're guessing modern scholars are also suspicious of the whole guy-on-a-buffalo part.)

The thing is, though, that to a lot of Taoists, whether or not Lao Tzu wrote the TTC really doesn't matter. After all, the book is all about being humble and selfless, so why give a flip about which individual person originally put these ideas to paper? In a way, wouldn't be more Taoist if the great book of everything and nothing came from everyone and no one at the same time? (To which we again say..."Whoa.")

What is Tao Te Ching About and Why Should I Care?

Why should you care about the Tao Te Ching? Well, if the fact that this book has touched the lives of billions of people for thousands of years doesn't pique your interest, we're not quite sure what will.

We figure if something has this kind of staying power, there must be something to it. The Tao Te Ching is kind of like Madonna. You might not totally dig what it does, but you have to admire the way it just won't quit.

We figure the thing that's given the TTC so much staying power is that there's a little something in it for everybody. No worries if you have zero interest in becoming a Taoist. The TTC isn't going to judge you for that. Like a peaceful old granddad, it will give you some helpful advice and maybe a stick of gum before it sends you on your way. (Okay, we lied about the gum, but not the advice stuff.)

Let's say you're feeling totally overwhelmed by a big research project at school. The TTC has a tip for that. Is there a bully picking on you? Check out what the TTC has to say. Are you feeling generally stressed and run-down? Does everything you do seem completely meaningless? The TTC has advice for all these things. Want to find out what some of these tips might be? Then get to reading.

In the end, this book isn't just chicken soup for the Taoist's soul; it's universal soup for the souls of everyone.

Tao Te Ching Resources


The Awesome Derek Lin
The website of the amazing Derek Lin, whose translation of the TTC we adore.

David James Lee
Want to Skype with a Tao-y kind of guy?

Taoism Galore
This is a great site for all things Tao.


Oprah and Wayne
Dr. Wayne Dyer breaks down Taoism with the one and only Oprah.

Guy on a Buffalo
Could this guy on a buffalo be a reincarnation of Lao Tzu? Probably not.


Lecture from Alan Watts
A famous expert on Eastern philosophies breaks down the Tao.


Lao Tzu and His Trusty Buffalo
Hi ho, buffalo! Away!

Three Amigos
Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha—together at last.

Lao Tzu, the Statue
We wonder if it's easier or harder to be at one with the Tao when you're a statue.

Articles and Interviews

Get Scholarly
In this article, a professor gives us a great rundown on the Tao and Lao Tzu.

Taoism and Martial Arts
Tao master Yuan Xiu Gang busts out some wisdom for you.

It's a Taoist World After All
Learn all about Taosim all over the world.

The Feminine Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin hits us up with some ideas about Taoism from a feminine perspective.


Derek Lin's Translation
Check out what DL has to say about the TTC.

Stephen Mitchell's Translation (With Pics!)
Click here to get Mitchell's much-loved and much-criticized version, complete with some pretty sweet illustrations.

D.C. Lau's Translation
Don't miss this totally respected version.

Ursula K. Le Guin's Translation
The famous science fiction author puts an authoritative stamp on the TTC.

The Tao of Daily Life
Another of Derek Lin's books, which suggests ways to apply the TTC to everybody's everyday life.

The Tao of Pooh
Bet you didn't know Winnie The Pooh was secretly a Tao master.

The Te of Piglet
Yup, Piglet's got a little wisdom up his sleeve, too.

Movies and TV

The Tao of Steve
Not sure if Lao Tzu would've been into this one.

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