The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name (1.1-2)
Talk about awesome and amazing... the true Tao is so great and eternal that there is no word that can possibly sum it up. Even the word "Tao," which we use to represent it, isn't enough. The nameless Tao is the great flow of everything there is, was, or will be, and our puny speech just isn't enough to nail it down. So should we have even have bothered to write the sentences we just wrote? Hey, you can't fault us for tryin'.
Thus being and non-being produce each other (2.3)
Okay, wait. How can something that doesn't exist create something that does? The thing is that Tao practitioners think of the Tao as encompassing both existence and nonexistence. But even the void isn't devoid of anything. They think of it as the "pregnant void," which is kind of a primordial soup of possibilities. In the Taoist mind, being and nonbeing flow back and forth. Everything is in balance.
So indistinct! It seems to exist
I do not know whose offspring it is
Its image is the predecessor of the Emperor (4.8-10)
So if the Tao gives birth to everything, what originally gave birth to the Tao? According to these lines—nothing. The Tao has always existed. It even came before the Emperor, which here could represent an earthly ruler, or even the Jade Emperor, an ultimate god-figure from ancient Chinese mythology.
The valley spirit, undying
Is called the Mystic Female
The gate of the Mystic Female
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth (6.1-4)
The Mystic Female sounds this old hippie lady on our street who does yoga all the time and has a massive collection of crystals. It represents the great Tao itself and the way in which the Tao gives birth to everything. Taoists revere feminine energy and females in general because they're the source of life. So maybe you should send this quote to your Mom on Mother's Day.
Above it, not bright
Below it, not dark [...]
The image of the imageless
This is called enigmatic
Confront it, its front cannot be seen
Follow it, its back cannot be seen (14.9-17)
Uh, how can something that's imageless have an image? Could this mean that the physical things we see around us are just the tip of the iceberg? That the Tao is so vast and incomprehensible that we can only see a fraction of what it is? The answer is: maybe.
From ancient times to the present
Its name never departs (21.13-14)
Belief in the Tao didn't just start with the Tao Te Ching. People came up with the idea way before this book was written. Really, this book is just an accumulation of thousands of years philosophy and belief. When did the idea of Tao first pop into our brains? Nobody knows. Maybe around the time any ideas first popped into our brains.
Independent and changeless
Circulating and ceaseless (25.4-5)
These lines get at the idea that the Tao exists in eternal cycles. We can see these cycles in the world around us, right? Let us all think back to that first earth science class we took. There's the water cycle, the tides, the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. It's hard to deny that there are cycles everywhere we look.
Higher people hear of the Tao
They diligently practice it
Average people hear of the Tao
They sometimes keep it and sometimes lose it
Lower people hear of the Tao
They laugh loudly at it
If they do not laugh, it would not be the Tao (41-1.7)
So the best people diligently practice the Tao, so-so people do it every once and a while, and the lowest of the low just make fun of it. Is it a little contradictory that the TTC says there's a hierarchy among people, even when that hierarchy is based on closeness with the Tao? What do you think?
Myriad things, backed by yin and embracing yang
Achieve harmony by integrating their energy (42.5-6)
Yin and yang are the two great opposing forces that make up the Tao. Living things can only find peace when they balance these forces. This is different from other religions, which look at existence as a battle between good and evil. Here, one side isn't trying to destroy the other; both sides exist together.
Everyone in the world calls my Tao great (67-1)
How can this possibly be true if everyone in the world isn't a Taoist? Could this be saying that every religion can fit into the Tao? Maybe so, since Taoists think the Tao encompasses everything, even Gods.
Heaven and Earth are impartial
They regard myriad things as straw dogs
The sages are impartial
They regard people as straw dogs (5.1-4)
So straw dogs were actual little dogs made out of straw that the Chinese used in rituals. After the rituals were over, the figurines were tossed. So here, the TTC is telling us that the Tao looks at people and all living things the same way. Some might say, "Whoa, that's kinda harsh. Don't I matter?" But a Taoist would see this as a lesson in humility. Our lives come and go, and the less value we place on ourselves, the closer we become to the Tao.
What does "the greatest misfortune is the self" mean?
The reason I have great misfortune
Is that I have the self
If I have no self
What misfortune do I have? (13.8-12)
Could this mean that if a person is totally humble and selfless, then nothing bad can happen to them? So, like, if a piano falls out of a window they're passing under, the piano will somehow mystically avoid them? Well, Taoists probably wouldn't go that far. But if something bad does happen to someone who's totally selfless, they don't get all upset about it. There's no "Why me?!" action going on. They don't think they're entitled to anything in particular and don't expect anything of the world.
The people all have goals
And I alone am stubborn and lowly (20.23-24)
Ah, but what if your goal is to be lowly and humble? Doesn't that give you a goal just like the other people? A Tao master might say, "Yeah, but true humility is the only goal worth achieving," but they'd say it in a way that seems way smarter.
Therefore the sages hold to the one as an example for the world
Without flaunting themselves—and so are seen clearly
Without presuming themselves—and so are distinguished
Without praising themselves—and so have merit
Without boasting about themselves—and so are lasting (22.7-11)
Since the Tao is everything and manages not to brag about it, the sages try to follow its example and not brag about anything either. This goes for their own humility as well. If a dude went around bragging about how humble he was, that would kind of defeat the purpose of humility, now wouldn't it?
Those who praise themselves have no merit
Those who boast about themselves do not last
Those with the Tao call such things leftover food or tumors
They despise them
Thus, those who possesses the Tao do not engage in them (24-5.9)
All right, so boastfulness has to be part of the Tao (since everything is part of the Tao), but it's a part of the Tao that the sages hate. Just to play Devil's advocate, could this be seen as a form of pride? If we're truly humble, who are we to judge which part of the Tao is good and which part is bad?
Return to the state of plain wood
Plain wood splits, then becomes tools
The sages utilize them
And then become leaders
Thus the greater whole is undivided (28.15-19)
Here, the TTC advises rulers that they need to rule with humility. But how exactly does a truly humble person ever end up ruling? If a person were truly humble, wouldn't they give up the throne? Maybe the TTC is recognizing that somebody has to rule, but that when they do so, they'll get way better results if they do it with humility.
Therefore, sages never attempt great deeds all through life
Thus they can achieve greatness (63.12-13)
Does this seem a little contradictory? If we don't try to do anything great, how would we manage to, you know, do anything great? Well, a sage might tell you that to be truly humble and selfless is the greatest thing, but also that people who don't torture themselves about the end-goal of greatness often end up doing greater things than people who obsess over being rich and famous.
Those of ancient times who were adept at the Tao
Used it not to make people brighter
But to keep them simple (65.1-3)
How would you feel if the government suddenly turned Taoist? What if its main goal was suddenly to guide us toward being humble and simple? How do you think people would react?
Not daring to be ahead in the world
Thus able to assume leadership
Now if one has courage but discards compassion
Reaches widely but discards conservation
Goes ahead but discards being behind
Then death! (67.14-19)
Oh, man. Does this mean that the Tao gives the death penalty to those who aren't humble? We probably aren't meant to take this as literally as it sounds. After all, plenty of humble people die before their brag-y friends do. Could it just be warning that pride can totally ruin your life?
Manage the work of detached actions (2.10)
A lot of times people mistake Taoists for these totally passive people who think it's a bad idea to do much of anything. That's not how true Taoists roll, though. In this quote, we see that they are into action, a.k.a. doin' stuff. But a true sage is unattached to his or her actions and practices wu wei. They don't rip their hair out over outcomes and instead try to act spontaneously with the flow of the Tao.
I alone am quiet and uninvolved
Like an infant not yet smiling (20.11-12)
This isn't the only place in the TTC where it says that being like a baby is a good thing. Chances are this isn't recommending that we poop on ourselves, drool, and only eat mushy stuff. Instead, it's more about approaching everything we do with simplicity and a kind of innocent openness to what may happen.
Because they do not contend, the world cannot contend with them (22.12)
This is the kind of line that makes people think that Taoists are passive to the max. But just because the sages don't go around fighting with everybody they meet doesn't mean that they don't make things happen. Instead of forcing things to happen, they approach things gently and meet a lot less resistance as a result. They kick it wu wei style.
The Tao is constant in non-action
Yet there is nothing it does not do (37.1-2)
Don't gloss over this head-scratcher. It's kinda like one of the most fundamental ideas of Taoism. The Tao is the great flow of everything, right? So everything that happens is caused by it. However, according to Taoists, the Tao is the absolute embodiment of unattached action. So even though it's about as proactive as something can be, it acts gently and without judgment or expectation.
The weak is the utilization of the Tao (40.2)
We usually think of being weak as a bad thing, but the TTC thinks it's awesome. Think on that for a hot sec. How could allowing yourself to be weak get you closer to the Tao? And how could that idea be attached to the idea of the wu wei, or unattached action?
The softest things of the world
Override the hardest things of the world (43.1-2)
Don't think this true? Then how about the way water wears down mountains? Or the way a gas leak can creep through city streets? Or squishy little viruses and bacteria can take out whole populations? Yup, it's pretty hard to deny that things that seem soft and weak can have their own kind of power.
Holding on to the soft is called strength (52.8)
In a world where everybody expects us to be strong, it can be pretty hard try to always live with this idea of unattached action. Can you think of scenarios that would really put the philosophy of wu wei to the test?
Take the world with non-interference (57.3)
A lot of people would say that the resistance movements of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. put this idea into action by leading nonviolent revolutions to achieve social change. What's your take on it? Can passive resistance really be called non-interference? Or is it still interfering, but just in a passive way? Or is passively interfering exactly the sort of thing the TTC is recommending?
All living things, grass and trees,
While alive, are soft and supple
When dead, become dry and brittle
Thus that which is hard and stiff
is the follower of death
That which is soft and yielding
is the follower of life (76.3-9)
When things are alive, they're soft. When they're dead, they dry up and harden (uh, gross). If you flow through life with unattached action, then you're jibing with the living Tao, but if you're totally inflexible, you're holding the bony hands of Death.
The bold in daring will be killed
The bold in not daring will survive (73.1-2)
What does it mean to be brave? Our movie theaters are crammed with superheroes doing all kinds of dangerous stuff to save the world, but do these heroes meet the bravery standards of the TTC? Can you think of a situation in which it takes more courage to not do something than to do it?
Therefore the sages:
Place themselves last but end up in front
Are outside of themselves and yet survive
Is it not due to their selflessness?
That is how they can achieve their own goals (7.5-9)
In Taoism, the theme of compassion ties directly into the theme of humility. The sages are selfless, and one of the ways their selflessness shows is that they're always giving to others. You might interpret this quote as showing that generosity itself is a goal worth achieving.
End benevolence; abandon righteousness
The people return to piety and charity (19.3-4)
Wait a sec. We thought the sages were supposed to be benevolent—meaning compassionate? How is ending benevolence supposed to help anybody? It could be that this quote is telling us that we shouldn't be self-righteous with our generosity. If we truly give without expecting anything in return, then other people will pick up on our cues.
Therefore the good person is the teacher of the bad person
The bad person is the resource of the good person (27.22-12)
How are bad people good for anybody? Aren't they... bad? What this quote might be saying is that the good ought to help the bad and also that good people can learn from bad people's mistakes. This quote might also combat the notion that everything is relative to Taoists. There is a good way and bad way to live, but the good Taoist accepts even bad people for what they are.
High benevolence takes contrived action
And acts without agenda
High righteousness takes contrived action
And acts with agenda (38.9-12)
Oh, snap. This one seems to prove our point from that earlier quote about benevolence and righteousness. Acting without agenda in this context means that a person gives and is kind without any thought to what they might get in return. If a good sage gives somebody his or her last dime, they'd do it without ever expecting to get paid back.
Those who are good, I am good to them
Those who are not good, I am also good to them
Thus the virtue of goodness (49.3-5)
Sayings like this remind us a whole lot of the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. According to the Bible, Jesus also preached that we should be kind to everyone, whether they're our friends or enemies. These religions may have popped up thousands of miles away from each other, but at their core are they really that different?
Therefore the sages are:
Righteous without being scathing (38.13-14)
If you've ever had a sanctimonious lecture from somebody who thinks they're better than you, then you totally get where these lines are coming from. Taoism is all about self-discipline, but it's totally not about lecturing everybody else about how undisciplined they are. Just to ask a question, though... is there ever a time when a self-righteous lecture from someone has done you any good? Are they always a bad thing?
The sages also do not harm people
They both do no harm to one another
So virtue merges and returns (60.7-9)
This one could be saying that when we're kind to others, others are more likely to be kind to us. It seems to suggest that if everybody out there is being kind, then all of a sudden we'll end up with a kinder world. Is this just wishful thinking? Can kindness truly spread in this selfish world?
The Tao is the wonder of all things
The treasure of the kind person
The protection of the unkind person [...]
Those who are unkind
How can they be abandoned? (62.1-7)
This one looks to the Tao as an example. Whether a person is kind or unkind, it still gives them life and nourishes them, so we ought to follow its example. The Tao is a bit like that overly kind grandparent who helps you out even when you totally don't deserve it. Some might argue that this contradicts other passages in which the Tao seems to almost punish those who behave badly. A Taoist would probably tell you, though, that those people brought it on themselves.
Respond to hatred with virtue (63.5)
This one really reminds of the Christian saying about turning the other cheek. To quote JC: "But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also" (Matthew 7:12). What do you think? How similar or different are these two philosophies on how to deal when people are mean to us?
The more they assist others, the more they possess
The more they give to others, the more they gain (81.8-9)
Okay, this one's also really similar to Christian ideas. Like, oh say, this classic: "Give, and you will receive" (Luke 6:38). The important thing in both religions isn't that giving will actually get you something tangible in return. If you lend your neighbor a cup of milk, they might not necessarily lend you one later on (although they're kind of jerks if they don't). The point here is that the act of giving itself is a gain.
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations (1.5-6)
To the TTC, being full of greedy desire is about the worst thing there is. It leads to all kinds of problems in our lives and, worst of all, it distances us from the Tao. If we're mega-desirous, all we can see is the Tao's "manifestations," or the physical world. But if we're greed-free, we can see the "essence," or spirit, of the Tao. Is the TTC right in saying that greed and desire are the worst things? Can you think of something worse?
Do not treasure goods that are hard to obtain
So the people will not become thieves (3.3-4)
Wow, so our entire society totally ignores this, doesn't it? We totally value things that are rare. Gold, emeralds, trash bags full of cash—these things are valuable to us because they're hard to get. What would our society look like if one day we suddenly decided that these things weren't worth anything anymore? After all, they're only worth something because we decided they were.
Let the people have no cunning and no greed (3.12)
Once again, Taoism is reminding us a whole lot of Christianity. Ever heard the saying "Money is the root of all evil"? Yeah, that's Timothy 6:10 coming 'atcha. Taoism might not throw around the word evil quite as much, but Taoists would definitely agree that money and our greedy desire for it cause a whole bunch of the problems in our society.
Gold and jade fill up the room
No one is able to protect them
Wealth and position bring arrogance
And leave disasters upon oneself (9.5-8)
This one takes the anti-greed warning to a whole new level. It's actually dangerous for you to be rich. Having a lot of stuff can make you a target for thieves, etc. What other kinds of disasters can having a lot of money bring?
Thirty spokes join in one hub
In its emptiness, there is the function of a vehicle
Mix clay to create a container
In its emptiness, there is the function of a container
Cut open doors and windows to create a room
In its emptiness, there is the function of a room (11.1-6)
This one shows how important emptiness is to basic things like containers and even the room you're sitting in right now. But can we also apply this to our bank accounts? How could having a pretty empty account actually improve our lives? Would it at all?
End cunning; discard profit
Bandits and thieves no longer exist (19.5-6)
There you have it, Shmoopers. The TTC has the whole crime problem solved. If we're not greedy and scheming for profit all the time, then our whole society will be crime-free. It definitely makes sense in theory. If none of us place value on money and stuff, then no one would want to steal money and stuff. What do you think? Is a society like this even possible?
Fame or the self, which is dearer?
The self or wealth, which is greater?
Gain or loss, which is more painful?
Thus excessive love must lead to great spending
Excessive hoarding must lead to heavy loss (44.1-5)
Being rich and famous—it's a lot people's dream, right? This quote seems to be saying that it's the worst dream a person could have. Anybody who's ever watched a VH1 special on a forgotten pop star can say how awful it is to lose fame and fortune. What's your opinion? Is the struggle worth it, even if you might lose it eventually? Or is the TTC right in saying that no matter what, it'll ruin your life?
There is no crime greater than greed
No disaster greater than discontentment
No fault greater than avarice
Thus the satisfaction of contentment
is the lasting satisfaction (46.5-9)
According to the TTC, getting stuff only makes us want more stuff. So what's the point in getting anything? What do you think? Could you ever be content with no material possessions at all?
Therefore, sages desire not to desire
They do not value goods that are hard to acquire (64.21-22)
This one's echoing a lot of the ideas that we've already talked about. Here's a question for you to think about, though. Is there such a thing as being greedy for non-greediness? Is it possible for a person to desire not having desire so much that it becomes unhealthy?
Therefore the sage holds the left part of the contract
But does not demand payment from the other person
Those who have virtue hold the contract
Those without virtue hold the collections
The Heavenly Tao has no favorites
It constantly gives to the kind people (79.4-9)
Again, the TTC takes a lesson from the Tao, which gives to every living thing without expecting anything back. We're all in debt to the Tao, but it's a debt we're not expected to pay. Is it possible to have a society without debt? Or is this just an idealistic dream?
The one who uses the Tao to advise the ruler
Does not dominate the world with soldiers
Such methods tend to be returned (30.1-3)
The place where the troops camp
Thistles and thorns grow
Following the great army
There must be an inauspicious year (30-4.7)
Here, the TTC hits us up with the metaphor of thistles and thorns to get across just how much harm armies can do. Using military force causes so much pain that it even makes plants grow that cause pain. Obviously, the TTC doesn't mean this literally, unless the ancient Chinese had some kind of plant-warfare that we don't know about.
A good commander achieves result, then stops
And does not dare to reach for domination
Achieves result but does not brag
Achieves result but does not flaunt
Achieves result but is not arrogant
Achieves result but only out of necessity
Achieves result but does not dominate (30.8-14)
Two things... 1) Notice how the theme of humility ties in here. If a military commander wants to be any good at his job, he'd better be humble about it. 2) Notice that the TTC admits that there is such a thing as a good military commander. So don't go saying that the TTC doesn't support our troops.
A strong military, a tool of misfortune
All things detest it (31.1-2)
Whoa, what would happen if a presidential candidate said something like this? Our guess: it'd take about an hour for them to no longer be a presidential candidate. Do you think this is totally true? Is a strong military always a bad idea?
Those who have been killed
Should be mourned with sadness
Victory in war should be treated as a funeral (31.20-22)
To the TTC, no victory in war should ever be celebrated since so many people inevitably suffered and died on the way there. What's your opinion? Is there ever reason to celebrate a victory in war?
Those who overcome others have strength
Those who overcome themselves are powerful (33.3-4)
So in a way, it might take a drug addict a lot more strength to overcome his addiction than it would to win a kickboxing match. How can this idea be exploded outward? If this is true for all the little people out there, how can it be true for big whoppin' countries?
The violent one cannot have a natural death (42.15)
We can't help but notice how similar this is to the Christian saying "For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew: 26:52). These parallels between Christianity and Taoism just keep happening.
Govern a country with upright integrity
Deploy the military with surprise tactics (57.1-2)
For one, this quote is definitely evidence that the TTC admits that war is sometimes necessary. If it's giving advice on how to fight, that has to be true, right? Secondly, does anybody think there might be a contradiction in the idea that a ruler should rule honestly, but fight sneakily?
When people have many sharp weapons
The country becomes more chaotic (57.8-9)
So this quote argues that when the people of a country have a lot of weapons, then the whole country ends up being more violent and chaotic. Tell this to somebody in the NRA, and you'll hear a whole other argument about how guns make everything more peaceful. Which side do you think is right?
Therefore, an inflexible army will not win
A strong tree will be cut down
The big and forceful occupy a lowly position
While the soft and pliant occupy a higher place (76.10-13)
Here's more evidence that the TTC isn't totally and completely against warfare. If it's giving advice on how to win a battle, it has to be recognizing that sometimes we just have to go there. The key advice here is that being flexible and adapting to changes will win a battle more quickly than brute force. Do think this is always true?
Small country, few people
Let them have many weapons but not use them (80.1-2)
Okay wait... How about that quote earlier that said arming the people would make a country chaotic? Does that not apply to small counties? It seems like this quote is totally recognizing that sometimes countries and people have to use violence to defend themselves from bullies. Ultimately, it seems like while Taoism seriously advises against war and violence of all kinds, it's not an all-pacifism-all-the-time kind of religion.
In loving the people and ruling the nation
Can one be without manipulation? [...]
Raising without domination
This is called the Mystic Virtue (10.7-17)
The devious Frank Underwood from House of Cards would think that this one's a joke. We can just hear Kevin Spacey laughing now. Do you think it's actually possible to rule over people without using any kind of manipulative tactics? The TTC says it totally is and that if you dominate people with manipulative tactics, eventually it will cause you to lose all the power you gained.
The highest rulers, people do not know they have them
The next level, people love them and praise them
The next level, people fear them
The next level, people despise them (17.1-4)
So the TTC gives four levels of rulers here: the completely incompetent ones whose people hate them, harsh dictators whose people fear them, populist ones whose people adore them, and, best of all, rulers who are so humble and subtle that the people don't even know they're being ruled. We figure almost every ruler currently on the planet falls somewhere on that spectrum. Think of a few modern-day leaders and figure out where they land. Would the TTC approve of them?
Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose (29.1-6)
Therefore, the honored uses the lowly as basis
The higher uses the lower as foundation
Thus the rulers call themselves alone, bereft, and unworthy
Is this not using the lowly as basis? Is it not so?
Therefore, the ultimate honor is no honor
Do not wish to be shiny like jade
Be dull like rocks (39.15-21)
Here, the TTC advises that rulers be humble (there's that theme of humility creeping into other themes again). Which kind of ruler would you rather have: one who constantly talks about how awesome they are, or one who isn't flashy at all? Which rulers in the world right now follow this idea and which don't?
When there are many restrictions in the world
The people become more impoverished (57.6-7)
These days in the USA there's a lot of debate on what kind of restrictions the government ought to put on Wall Street and the banks. Mr. Banker might point to this quote from the TTC and say, "Hah! See, no restrictions means money for all." But then Mr. Occupy might say, "Um, whatever. How about all the places where the TTC warns about the dangers of getting rich and the importance of being generous to everyone?" On which side of the debate do you fall?
When governing is lackluster
The people are simple and honest (58.1-2)
Hmm... would a candidate ever get elected if they promised the people a lackluster government? It's kind of an iffy word choice, but this snippet is getting at the same ideas as the rest of the TTC. Those in power should be humble and straightforward with the people. Can you think of any leader who's truly been like this?
Ruling a large country is like cooking a small fish (60.1)
Okay, we had to throw this one in there. How fun is this quote? It might seem pretty random if you've never tried to cook a small fish. The key things to know is that it takes just the right level of heat, and you have to be careful how much you poke it with that spatula or else it might fall apart. So to rule a large country you need be patient, humble, and not too extreme in anything you do. Also, you should eat fish because it's good for you. And delicious.
Therefore, using cleverness to govern the state
Is being a thief of the state
Not using cleverness to govern the state
Is being a blessing of the state (65.6-9)
We doubt this quote is suggesting that our rulers ought to be stupid, although it does sort of sound like that. Instead, it seems like yet another warning about using a bunch of manipulative tactics. If you do, your government will eventually fall like a house of cards. That's the second House of Cards reference for this theme. Can you tell what we've been binge-watching?
The people's hunger
Is due to the excess of their ruler's taxation
So they starve (75.1-3)
Some questions to consider about taxes: 1) At what point are they an example of the government overexerting its power? 2) At what point are they the right thing to do for the good of the people? The Democrats and Republicans have been duking it out for years over this one. Where do you fall?
When people no longer fear force
They bring about greater force
Do not limit their place
Do not reject their livelihood (72.1-4)
Here's the big warning for all you tyrannical dictators out there. Go ahead and rule your country by force, but one day you'll weaken and the people will take the power back—and most likely they'll take it back violently. Don't say the TTC didn't warn you. Hmm. We wonder if tyrannical dictators ever browse thorough Shmoop.
Intelligence comes forth
There is great deception (18.3-4)
So this one points to intelligence as being a big root of a lot of problems. When humans became sentient, meaning that we realized that we were alive, our big brains made it harder for us to be one with the flow of the Tao. Seems like there are real parallels here with the Judeo-Christian story of "Adam, Eve, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil." Click here to see what differences and similarities you can find.
End sagacity; abandon knowledge
The people benefit a hundred times (19.1-2)
Hold on, now. All throughout, the TTC is telling us how awesome the sages are, but here it's telling us to end sagacity, which means being all sage-y and stuff. What gives? Our take is that the TTC is saying it's a bad idea to put sages on a pedestal. The simple wisdom of the Tao is out there for everybody to find. You don't have to go get a degree in sage-iness to find oneness.
Those who understand others are intelligent
Those who understand themselves are enlightened (13.1-2)
An overly simple reading of this one might lead somebody to think that we should only look inward to find enlightenment. But in other sections, the TTC encourages us to learn from others and to not be super full of ourselves. What's your take? How can we find a balance between the two?
Without going out the door, know the world
Without peering out the window, see the Heavenly Tao
The further one goes
The less one knows (47.1-4)
Wait... don't scrap those plans for studying abroad just yet. Yeah, it looks like the TTC is saying that traveling makes us dumber, but we probably don't have to read it quite that literally. We prefer to interpret these lines as a warning that we shouldn't expect to be suddenly enlightened just because we traveled thousands of miles to hang out with some sage on a mountaintop. Traveling is awesome. Go for it. But know that the simple wisdom of the Tao is everywhere; you don't have to hop on a plane to find it.
Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss
Loss and more loss
Until one reaches unattached action (48.1-4)
Um, so why would we want to pursue the Tao if it's going to make us lose stuff? If the Taoists put a recruitment commercial on TV (which they'd never do), they'd probably have a hard time selling their philosophy with a promise of personal loss for all. What these lines seem to be getting at, though, is that only by emptying our minds can we truly find oneness with the Tao.
The sages have no constant mind
They take the mind of the people as their mind (49.1-2)
Some people might say this makes the sages totally wishy-washy, to which a sage would probably smile, kindly listen to the critic's opinion, learn from it, and then move on without arguing. The TTC thinks we can learn a lot more by going into every situation without preconceptions of what we'll learn from it. How hard is that, though? Being totally open-minded 24/7 sounds like a real challenge if you ask us.
If I have a little knowledge
Walking on the great Tao
I fear only to deviate from it
The great Tao is broad and plain
But people like the side paths (53.1-5)
What could these side paths be? Seems like they're sort of deviations from the way of the Tao. Could it be the lure of getting wrapped up in intellectual concepts that complicate our minds and put a wall between us and the Tao? How can a Taoist know which paths are worth pursuing and which are going to lead them into dangerous territory?
Those who know do not talk
Those who talk do not know (56.1-2)
In general, the TTC is a big fan of silence and is super-suspicious of blabbermouths. There are lots of other places where the book talks about the wisdom of silence. To the TTC, even if a person gives a long and well-informed lecture on any topic, that person still might be missing the most important thing of all: the simple wisdom of the Tao that's flowing all around them. How can a person listen and learn from what's around them if they're always busy talking about what they think they know?
To know that you do not know is highest
To not know but think you know is flawed (71.1-2)
The TTC is also not a fan of know-it-alls. You know the type. They go around acting like they know everything about everything, but really they're all talk. What's much more impressive to the TTC is a person who can admit what they don't know and start from there. It can be kinda hard to figure out what we don't know though, can't it? How can we know what we don't know if we don't know it?
Those who know are not broad of knowledge
Those who are broad of knowledge do not know (82.5-6)
What do you figure this one means? Could it be another reminder that intellectualism is just going get in the way of enlightenment? Also, it could be saying it's better to know a lot about one thing than it is to know a little about a lot. What's your opinion? Which idea fits best with the overall message of the Tao Te Ching?