Tao Te Ching Summary
The Tao Te Ching is basically everybody's handy guide to Taoism. These eighty-one short chapters cover the ways of the "Way" and lay out all the main ideas of one of the world's most old-school philosophies.
The main attraction in the TTC is the Tao itself, which is the great flow of everything—like everything. The Tao is the mysterious, unnamable process through which everything in the Universe happens. Throughout the book, the great Tao is held up as an example of how we all should try to live our lives.
The TTC tells us that the Tao has a ton of virtues; it's humble, non-judgmental, generous, flexible, and peaceful (for the most part). The Tao is also the master at wu wei, or "unattached action," and if a person practices this as well, they can effortlessly succeed in life. In the mind of the TTC, it's only through personal discipline and by releasing desire that we can find these virtues and reach enlightenment in oneness with the Tao.
- First, we're told that the Tao that can be named isn't actually the eternal Tao. (Huh, what is it then?)
- The eternal Tao is actually the nameless origin of everything there is. It's the place where Heaven, Earth, and all that good stuff came from.
- The named Tao is the "mother of myriad things," which you might interpret to mean all the different stuff that eventually came to physically exist in the Universe—which is a lot of stuff (1.4).
- Next, we dip into ideas about desire vs. lack of desire.
- According to the TTC (as we'll loving refer to the Tao Te Ching from here on out), lack of desire allows us to see the "essence" of the Tao, while desire lets us see its "manifestations" (1.5-6).
- Mega-Taoist scholars might disagree, but we're gonna go out on a limb and say that "essence" means the spirit of the Universe and "manifestations" refers to everything that physically exists.
- Even though the Tao's essence and manifestations are different, they are still unified, and that, dear Shmoopers, is "the door to all wonders," which could be oneness with the Tao (or the front door of your local Pinkberry) (1.9).
- This chapter drops some wisdom about dualities.
- Once we know beauty, we know ugliness.
- Once we know good, we know evil.
- High and low, long and short—all these opposites support each other and can't exist without one another.
- The sages, the super-wise Tao dudes, use this knowledge of dualities to live their lives with the Tao.
- For one, they live with the wu wei, or unattached action.
- Context Alert! Wu wei (also known as unattached action, effortless action, or the action of no action) is a big-deal concept in Taoism. It's slippery to define, but mostly it's about living in the moment, being relaxed, and not obsessing over outcomes.
- Anyway, the sages also do other cool stuff like teach the power of silence and live life without valuing material things.
- This chapter ends by giving us the secret to the sages' success: they don't dwell on success, so it never goes away.
- How very wu wei of them.
- Now, we get some advice on how to run a society.
- The TTC claims it's a bad idea to make a big deal about overachievers.
- If we do, then everybody starts fighting because they want to be a big deal too.
- It's also a bad idea declare things that are hard to find as valuable.
- If we do this, everybody starts stealing the hard-to-find stuff.
- A sage ruler will free the people from all these bogus desires, while also keeping the people's bellies full and their souls satisfied.
- The TTC declares that if society is basically free of sneaky schemers, then the few sneaky schemers out there won't dare to sneak and scheme.
- (Let's all take a second to imagine a Washington, D.C. run by sages.)
- Our next nugget of wisdom is that the Tao is empty.
- But it's not like empty empty, because it's also the source of all things.
- Eventually, the Tao has its way with everything.
- Sharp things gets dull.
- Knots come loose.
- Lights go dim.
- The dust of everything mixes together.
- You could see this as a "time heals all" or a "time destroys all" kind of thought.
- Since the Tao is everything, it's hard to recognize… but it still exists.
- Nobody knows where it comes from because it is older than everything.
- It's even older than the Emperor, which probably references the Jade Emperor, the ultimate god in ancient Chinese Mythology.
- (Wow, so the Tao is older than God. We wonder if it needs a wheelchair ramp to get into its house.)
- Heaven and Earth are totally unbiased, says the TTC.
- Makes sense, right? If a meteor slams into the Earth, it doesn't exactly care who or what it slams into. You could be super-nice or super-mean, and you still might get squished.
- The sages take a cue from the Heaven and Earth and also think of people without bias.
- In a famous line, the TTC tells us that the sages "regard people as straw dogs" (5.4).
- Chinese history bomb: Back in the day, the Chinese used dog figurines made of straw in rituals. After the rituals, they ditched the straw dogs because they had no more meaning.
- So the cynical way to interpret this line of the TTC is that people don't matter.
- But another way of looking at it, which seems more in line with everything else, is that we should recognize that we only inhabit our physical bodies for a little while before everything we're made of goes on to become something else.
- We're all just a part of the Tao, man!
- Next, we're told that the space between Heaven and Earth is like a bellows, which is a thing blacksmiths used to use to blow air into their fires.
- So even though the space between Heaven and Earth might look empty, it's always fanning the flames of creation.
- This chapter also stresses the idea that too many words cause failure.
- Nothing compares to silence.
- Could this mean that talking too much doesn't allow us to recognize the Tao?
- This short chapter is all about girl power and celebrates what it calls the "Mystic Female" (6.2).
- It seems like it's reminding us to recognize the sacred power of femininity, which is pretty darn impressive because all life come from it.
- This constantly creating feminine spirit is flowing all around us and never gets worn out.
- (This is a good thing. If it did, everything would either instantly wither and die, or blip out of existence. Either option sounds depressing.)
- The TTC points out that Heaven and Earth are eternal, and the reason they last forever is that they don't ever think of themselves.
- (It's not like we ever hear the sky whining, "What about meeee?")
- So the sages take another cue from Heaven and Earth by always putting others first.
- In the end, the sages actually achieve their goals by not being all grasp-y all the time.
- This chapter tells us that water needs to be our new role model.
- Water is super good because it gives to everything without complaining and flows to places people turn their noses up at.
- In this way, it's a whole lot like the Tao.
- Now we get a list of everything that's cool about water.
- 1) It's deep... like spiritually deep, man.
- 2) It gives with kindness.
- 3) It's honest, reflecting everything as it is.
- 4) It controls everything within its power equally and impartially.
- 5) It's totally adaptable, always changing to match its environment.
- 6) It has great timing (which probably means that it does the right things at the right times, not that water is good with jokes).
- The last couple lines remind us that water is most awesome because it spreads all its awesomeness without complaining or expecting anything.
- The ever-wise TTC advises that it's a bad idea to overfill your cup.
- If you've ever gotten soda all over your hand from an overfull Big Gulp, you know the TTC is right again.
- Chances are the TTC is using this overfull cup as a metaphor for excess.
- Too much of anything is bad, right?
- We get the same kind of idea next with the metaphor of an over-sharpened knife.
- Not sure if you're ever sharpened knives, but if you do it too much they get thin and break easily.
- So again, too much of anything...
- Now, we get some specific examples of the dangers of excess.
- If you fill your house with valuable stuff like gold and jade, then no one can protect you from the big bad thieves who will come to take it all from you.
- Wealth and power makes people arrogant, and disaster follows.
- If you do happen to get famous, says the TTC, it's best to take a step back from it.
- Getting all wrapped up in it is going to bring you down.
- This chapter kicks off by asking us a bunch of questions.
- We're guessing the TTC is just trying to make us think and is not actually asking our advice.
- So with that in mind, here are some deep questions to get lost in:
- Is it possible to be totally at one with everything and never stray from that oneness?
- If we concentrate our energy and find total relaxation, can we be as simple as babies again? (Hopefully, not too baby-like, or else we'd need diapers...)
- If we don't get all wrapped up in the world, will we be clean of imperfections?
- By loving the people we rule, can we rule without manipulating them?
- Can we keep our minds peaceful while still actively processing the world around us?
- The chapter ends by defining something called the "Mystic Virtue," which is basically the ability to help and teach those around you without being all full of yourself about it.
- Okay, this one's all about the awesomeness of emptiness.
- Don't think emptiness is awesome?
- Well, the TTC has some things for you to consider...
- How about how the hub of a wagon wheel has to have holes in it for the spokes to fit into?
- Without those empty holes, the wheel wouldn't work.
- How about the fact that a container can't contain anything without the emptiness inside of it?
- The same thing goes for rooms; without emptiness, rooms don't exist.
- And then there's doors and windows... awesome things. Awesome empty things.
- Yup: emptiness is totally and completely necessary for the function of a whole lot of things.
- Now, we get what seems like a lecture on overstimulation.
- We're told "the five colors" make us blind, "the five sounds" make us deaf, and "the five flavors" make us not able to taste anything.
- You could most definitely interpret this other ways, but this could be warning us that indulging too much in the senses eventually ruins your enjoyment of them.
- Like if you eat pounds of chocolate every day, eventually you want to puke whenever you see a bag of M&Ms.
- Next, we're warned that racing and hunting can make us crazy.
- We're guessing this isn't meant literally.
- Instead, the TTC is warning us that it's a bad idea to be over-competitive and to constantly be searching for something.
- This chapter wraps us by telling us that the sages care for "the stomach not the eyes" (12.6).
- Like everything in the TTC, this could mean a billion things, but our theory is that it thinks we ought to focus on finding a deep sense of wellbeing, rather than worrying only about the superficial stuff we can see with our eyes.
- All right, let's talk about the self, says the TTC.
- In a nutshell, we're warned not to get obsessed with what other people think about us.
- Somewhat ironically, if we're worrying about other people's good and bad opinions of us all the time that actually means we're way fixated on ourselves.
- Ultimately, this all ends up with us living in constant fear.
- The TTC argues that "the greatest misfortune is the self," which might mean that the worst thing that can happen to us is for us to get too wrapped up in ourselves (13.2).
- This doesn't mean that we shouldn't value ourselves, though.
- We should value ourselves in the same way we value the world around us.
- You might say that this means we should just be moderate in our self-love.
- We should remember that we're no better or worse than anything else in the world.
- The TTC ends this chapter with one final wisdom bomb: people who love themselves in the same way they love the world can be entrusted with the world.
- What do you think about that?
- Could it mean that these are the sorts of people who have the stuff to really take care of society as a whole?
- The TTC tells us to look at the Tao even though it can't be seen, to listen to it even though it can't be heard, and to reach for it even though it doesn't have any form.
- That all may sound kinda pointless, but maybe what the TTC is saying is that even though the Tao is metaphysical (spiritual, intangible) in nature, we should try to attune ourselves to it.
- Now we're told that the Tao isn't bright or dark (which makes sense, since it's invisible).
- The Tao is also endless; we can't see its end or beginning.
- It is the "form of formless" and the "image of the imageless," which you could interpret as meaning that even though it cannot be seen or felt, it also makes up all things that can be seen or felt (14.13-14).
- You could also interpret that a bunch of other ways, so have at it.
- The last piece of advice this chapter has for us is that we should use the ancient wisdom of the Tao in our modern lives.
- This chapter is all about what we can learn from the ancient Tao masters.
- The ancient sages knew they could never fully understand the Tao; that they could never fully see into its depths.
- Because they couldn't totally figure out the Tao, they we're forced to describe it. (Kind of a challenge to describe something you don't understand, huh?)
- To be a great Tao master you needed the following qualities on your resume:
- Careful and cautious, but not crazily so.
- Serious in a respectful way, like a guest.
- Loose; kind of easygoing.
- Genuine and simple.
- Opaque and hard to read (maybe because of how deep they were?).
- Even though their thoughts were complex, they could still find clarity.
- Even though they had inner peace, that didn't make them inactive. (These dudes were doing all kinds of Tao-y stuff.)
- The Tao master also never wanted to be overfilled.
- With what, we wonder?
- Or did emptying their minds help them to find clarity?
- It could be all of those at once.
- The TTC advises us to empty ourselves in order to find peace.
- When we're empty, we can truly see all the stuff going on around us.
- When we find tranquility, we return to our own true nature, which is just a part of a larger natural cycle.
- There's a clarity in knowing that we're part of a constant natural flow.
- If we're disconnected from the flow, we cause all kinds of trouble.
- If we accept it impartially, then we can get rid of the self and be at one with the eternal Tao.
- Looks like it's time for the TTC's opinion on what makes a good ruler.
- The best rulers are so subtle and good at what they do that the people don't even notice them.
- The next best are not as subtle, but they're still good, so they get mountains of praise from the people.
- Things start going seriously downhill when a ruler rules though fear.
- And we've hit rock-bottom when a ruler is totally incompetent and despised.
- The TTC advises us to have no trust in rulers who don't have any trust in themselves.
- The rulers who are seriously the best of the best do things calmly and are careful with their words.
- They get things done in such a natural, unassuming way that the people think they got everything done all by themselves.
- This first line throws us for a loop when it tells us, "The great Tao fades away" (18.1).
- Whoa, we thought the Tao was eternal.
- Could it be referencing the idea that the Tao encompasses nothingness as well things we can touch?
- Could this mean that the concept of the named Tao can fade away?
- It could be the second one since the next line mentions the intellectual concepts of benevolence and justice.
- Maybe this section is telling us that in order to be at one with the eternal Tao, we have to keep these concepts in the front of our minds.
- Or it could be warning us of what happens when we let our connection with the great Tao fade from our lives because that last section gives us some dire scenarios with advice on how to deal with them.
- Next, we're advised that if our families are falling apart, we need to focus on love and loyalty.
- And if our nations are in chaos, we need to know that somewhere there are ministers who are loyal.
- We get another curveball thrown our way at the top of this chapter.
- This whole time the TTC has been telling us how awesome those sages were, but now it tells us to "End sagacity; abandon knowledge." If we do, the people will totally benefit from it (1.19).
- On top of this, we're also told that if we stop benevolence, or compassion, then the people will go back to being charitable. (Huh?)
- And lastly, we're told that if we end cunning and lust for profit, then there will be no more thieves and bandits.
- Some of these ideas—the first two especially—might seem to contradict the other stuff the TTC's been telling us, but the last few lines give us some clarity.
- Again, here, we're reminded to live simply and selflessly, and to decrease our desires.
- So maybe the chapter is saying that everybody is better off if there aren't any would-be sages sitting around on their piles of books, thinking they're better than everybody else.
- Similarly, it could be saying that people will naturally be more generous with each other if nobody is self-righteously giving to those they think are beneath them.
- And then there's the last one, which isn't much of head-scratcher: if nobody is selfishly lusting after profit in our society, then there would be no stealing.
- Again, we're warned against getting too obsessed with knowledge; it only causes worries.
- Next, we're asked some questions that make us think about the relativity of things.
- What's the difference between being respectful and scornful?
- What's the difference between good and evil?
- Doesn't it all depend on your perspective?
- Now, the TTC goes into a description of how living as a Tao master can separate you from other people.
- When everybody is happy and enjoying a feast, you can seem uninvolved, like a baby who isn't smiling yet.
- Other people may seem bright and clear, but you can seem muddled.
- Other people might seem way more with it, while you seem detached.
- Really, though, you're as peaceful as the ocean; you're connected to the infinite wind that's blowing around you.
- Other people may seem like real winners because they're out there achieving goals and stuff, while a person living with the Tao might seem like a big-time loser.
- But valuing the Tao is the real success.
- All right, time for some more seeming contradictions about the Tao.
- Even though it is unclear and indistinct, still we can see images in it, still there is substance to it.
- It seems like this might just be reminding us that that everything we can see and touch is part of the great, big, impossible-to-totally-understand Tao.
- We're reminded that the Tao is eternal and has been spoken of ever since ancient times—even times more ancient than this book.
- It is the source of all things.
- So if there's anything you don't like about your life, you can take it up with the Tao.
- (Not that it'll apologize or anything.)
- This chapter gives us a lesson on yielding—and not just when you see a red-and-white, triangular sign.
- Just because a leaf of grass bends doesn't mean that it won't be straight again.
- So if somebody comes at you with some conflict, just let them do their thing and go about their business.
- What's the point of arguing, really?
- The sages don't flaunt their knowledge, which allows people to see just how smart they are.
- They don't go around bragging about how awesome they are, which is the thing that makes them the most awesome.
- We close out by talking about the joys of yielding again.
- The sages didn't fight with the world, so the world could never fight with them.
- Don't talk so much, people—at least that's what the TTC thinks.
- It's better to use fewer words that say a lot rather than a lot of words that say nothing.
- We can find an example of this in nature with the wind and the rain—neither of which lasts very long.
- So let's all be a little more like the wind and rain; let's do our thing in short bursts that pack a real punch.
- The next chunk of this chapter gives us a lesson on how we become whatever we set our minds on.
- If we focus on the Tao, we're with the Tao.
- If we focus on virtue, then virtue is with us.
- If we focus on loss, then all we are is loss.
- If we live our lives distrusting everybody, then nobody will trust us.
- Not for the first time, the TTC lectures us on the dangers of arrogance.
- We're told, "Those who are on tiptoes cannot stand" (24.1), which probably means that if you try to stand taller than others all the time you'll eventually fall over (unless you're a massively talented ballerina).
- This is basically a metaphor for the idea that people who brag are not only destined to look like idiots, but are actually inherently idiotic.
- People who are with the Tao hate arrogance and treat it like "leftover food or tumors" (24.7). Eww.
- Even though arrogance is part of the Tao like everything else, it's an unfortunate part of the Tao that real-deal Tao masters don't engage in.
- This one starts by talking about some formless thing that existed before the Heaven and Earth.
- (Hmm... what could it be?!)
- It's quiet.
- It's changeless, but is endlessly circulating.
- It's the mother of the world.
- We're guessing you've guessed what it is.
- Yup, it's the Tao.
- The TTC admits that it doesn't know the name of the Tao; Tao is only the name that's used.
- The best way to describe it is "great," and "great" means that it's constantly receding and returning like a big, whopping ocean of everything (25.9).
- The TTC closes this one out with the general hierarchy of everything there is.
- Humans follow Earthly laws (because what choice do we have?)
- Earth follows Heavenly laws. (It can't exactly stop revolving around the Sun, now can it?)
- Heaven follows the Tao. (The Tao is the flow of everything, so the Universe doesn't get much choice in that, either.)
- Lastly, the Tao follows the laws of nature, which is what it's basically made of, right?
- It's the way—the flow of everything.
- Now, it's time to talk about how important it is to be grounded.
- This chapter starts by telling us that "Heaviness is the root of lightness" (26.1), which might be saying that in order to have the looseness needed to be with the Tao, you also have a grounded kind of personality.
- Next, the chapter goes into a metaphor about the sages traveling for a whole day without leaving behind heavy supplies.
- This metaphor could represent the way we sometimes have to carry around serious thoughts and understandings as we go through our lives.
- Chapter 26 takes us deeper into metaphor land when it asks "How can the lords of ten thousand chariots / Apply themselves lightly to the world?" (26.7-8).
- Our best guess is that the lords of thousand chariots are people with a lot of power and responsibility.
- So this question is pointing out how people like this have to be rooted in a serious sense of responsibility.
- We're told that good travelers don't leave tracks.
- This is probably a metaphor for the way those who are with the Tao go through life humbly, without raising a bunch of fuss about it.
- We're also told that good speech doesn't seek faults, which could mean that it's useless to spend all your time criticizing other people.
- The sages don't abandon anyone, says the TTC.
- They don't abandon things either, and all this non-abandonment is called enlightenment.
- This stuff is probably not meant literally.
- We doubt the sages took everybody they ever met with them everywhere they went. (Talk about a crowd.)
- We also doubt the sages carried everything they ever came into contact with along with them; that would make them all hoarders, which doesn't seem all that sage-like to us.
- Instead, these lines probably mean that the sages learned from everything and everyone.
- The next lines support this idea, saying you can learn from good people and bad people too.
- Good people who don't realize that they can learn from bad people are destined to be confused.
- This one gives us a laundry list of advice.
- We've got to be in touch with both our masculine and feminine sides, the TTC tells us.
- On that note, we've got to be the "watercourse of the world" (28.2).
- That's the place where the energy of everything meets.
- As we have been in other chapters, we're next advised to try to be like babies, who exist in a simple, open state.
- We're to hold onto the white and the black, both sides of the Tao that are represented by the yin-yang. (Fess up: you know at least one person with a yin-yang tattoo, don't you?)
- We also have to be honorable and humble.
- Repeating another image from earlier, the TTC tells us we need to be simple like plain wood.
- The TTC points out that when plain wood splits it can be made into tools.
- We figure this is a metaphor for the way a person who finds simplicity can make themselves useful.
- According to the TTC, sages can use their simplicity to be leaders and unite the greater whole.
- Chapter 29 has a warning for all those military dictators out there.
- It's useless to try to control the world because the world cannot be controlled.
- Anybody who tries to control it is doomed to fail.
- If they try to squeeze it in their hands, they'll lose it.
- The Tao is all about balance, and everything has its place in that—leaders and followers, hot thing and cold things, strong things and weak things.
- The sages recognize that the best thing to do is eliminate extremes, excess, and arrogance.
- Hmm. It feels like the TTC has given us that advice before.
- Now it's time to criticize the military and the use of force in general.
- According to the TTC, there's not much point in using soldiers to solve problems since eventually somebody else's soldiers are going to attack you in retaliation.
- We're told that thistles and thorns grow where armies camp—sounds like a metaphor for how military force is bad, right?
- Even though the TTC is saying that violence is a bad idea, it also gives advice on how a good military commander behaves.
- We could see this as showing that the TTC recognizes that sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
- Anyway, the TTC claims that a good commander achieves the necessary results and then stops.
- They don't overreach and dominate their enemy.
- They don't brag about their victories and they only fight when it's absolutely necessary.
- Looks like the military is in for another bashing from the TTC.
- Here, it says that all things hate a strong military.
- It tells us that the military is not a tool for honorable men.
- When honorable men are forced to use violence, they only do it out of necessity.
- They remain detached from the whole thing and don't find any glory in victory.
- The TTC points out that people who enjoy killing are never going "to achieve their ambitions upon the world" (31.14).
- This might be referencing the fact that all the great conquerors and great empires in history have eventually failed.
- In the end, we're told, everyone who dies in war should be mourned.
- Even victory should be treated like it's a funeral.
- The Tao is eternally nameless, says Chapter 32. (Sounds like a lot of other chapters, right?)
- It's important for rulers to hold onto to it.
- If they do, everything will be in harmony and good fortune will come to all.
- There will be no need to force things to be good; they just will be good.
- Next, we're warned about names.
- We have to know when to stop naming things.
- If we know when to stop, then we avoid danger.
- The chapter ends by again comparing the Tao to water, saying that it's like streams that flow into rivers that flow into oceans.
- This one's all about knowing yourself.
- The TTC says that you're pretty smart if you understand others, but you're totally enlightened if you understand yourself.
- Then it tells us that you're strong if you overcome others, but it's only when you overcome yourself that you're truly powerful.
- (How do you overcome yourself, we wonder. Are we talking about inner strength? Yeah, probably.)
- We're also told that if we find contentment, then we're pretty well off, but if we go through life vigorously we've found real willpower.
- (That one kind of debunks the idea that master Taoists just sit around meditating all day.)
- Last of all, the TTC hits us up with these somewhat cryptic lines: "Those who do not lose their base endure / Those who die but do not perish have longevity" (33.7-8).
- We'll say that the base probably means your spiritual relationship with the Tao.
- If that's firm, then you'll survive.
- But if you're the Tao-iest of the Tao, the positive effects you've had on the world will live on after you die.
- Again, the Tao is compared to water; this time it's compared to a flood that can flow around any object it comes into contact with.
- All living things depend on the Tao to exist, but the Tao doesn't take credit for it.
- It doesn't try to rule over us; it feeds us without demanding anything.
- The Tao doesn't desire anything, and since it doesn't make a big deal about itself it's easy to not notice it.
- Everything returns to it, though, making it great.
- Of course, it doesn't think of itself as great, which is the thing that makes it greatest of all.
- Our two cents is that this chapter is again advising us to be humble, selfless, and to try our best to help out those around us.
- "Hold the great image / All under heaven will come," the TTC claims (35.1-2).
- This could mean that if you're at one with the Tao, then people will come to you.
- The next line adds that when they come, they'll come peacefully.
- We're reminded that the Tao can't be tasted, seen, or heard.
- Still, we can use it.
- And it doesn't matter how much we use it since it will never run out.
- Now, we're greeted with a list of statements that might seem contradictory at first.
- If we want to shrink something, we have to expand it first.
- If we want to weaken something, we have to strengthen it first.
- If we want to get rid of something, we have to encourage it first.
- If we want to seize something, we have to give that thing first.
- All of these truths give us "subtle clarity" (36.9).
- So maybe this all means that even though these things are contrary to how we might normally think, once we truly understand them we'll have really found the wisdom of the Tao.
- Next, we're told that the weak eventually overcome the strong, which goes along with the idea that constantly fighting is not the way to truly be strong.
- The Tao never tries to do anything, yet everything that's done is caused by it.
- It simply is.
- If the sovereign (which could mean a ruler… or even you) holds onto the idea of the unattached action of the Tao, then everything will be swell.
- Again, we're reminded of the importance of humility and decreasing desire.
- If we find true stillness, then anything is possible.
- All right, let's talk about virtue according to the TTC.
- People who are truly virtuous just are; they don't force it.
- People who are truly generous and kind don't go around announcing how generous and kind they are.
- They don't do generous things just so people will think they're generous.
- People who hide behind etiquette and rules to show that they're good are posers when it comes right down to it.
- True virtue runs deeper than that.
- Truly great people don't "dwell on the flower" (38.28).
- Given what the rest of this chapter is saying, we figure a flower isn't necessarily a good thing in this context.
- Maybe it's a symbol of surface-level beauty.
- If we want to truly be beautiful and virtuous, then our beauty comes from within.
- Finding oneness comes with all kinds of benefits.
- You'll find clarity like the sky.
- Peace like the Earth.
- Spiritual power like the gods.
- Vital energy like all the living things around you.
- Rulers who've found this oneness show everybody how they should be living.
- If we don't find oneness, bad stuff happens.
- A sky without clarity breaks apart.
- The Earth without peace erupts.
- When gods don't have spiritual power, they disappear.
- When living things lose their energy, they all die.
- When rulers don't have this oneness, they lose their position.
- Good rulers base everything on those beneath them.
- Good rulers don't want to be shiny like jade.
- They want to be dull like rocks.
- We're guessing this all means that good rulers don't forget the little people, and they aren't into a lot of flash.
- It's true, right?
- Those ruler-dudes who squish the little people and spend all their time building giant statues of themselves don't always last that long.
- Here's a mini wisdom bomb for you.
- Everything that exists came from nonexistence, or in the words of the TTC, "Being is born of nonbeing" (40.3).
- So somewhere back in the ancient past all things came out of nothingness, and eventually everything will return to it.
- But in the Tao, nothing isn't nothing.
- It's filled with infinite possibilities.
- Different kinds of people have all kinds of different reactions to the Tao.
- The most enlightened people hear about it and diligently practice it.
- Your average person practices sometimes… but sometimes doesn't.
- The lowest kind of person makes fun of it, like they do to everything they don't understand.
- But if nobody made fun of it, it wouldn't be the Tao.
- The true Tao is hard to understand and full of contradictions.
- Very often it appears to be its opposite, or maybe it's made of opposites that exist at the same time.
- This is why the true Tao is hidden and nameless.
- What words could ever sum up something this complex?
- This chapter digs into the concept of yin and yang.
- Basically, these are the two opposing forces within the Tao that work in harmony to keep everything rolling along.
- (That's a seriously basic definition. Click here for way more detail.)
- In the beginning, there was only the one Tao, but then it split into yin and yang, which then split into everything there is.
- If we want to live healthy lives, we have to find the balance between yin (humble female energy) and yang (more aggressive male energy).
- In life, we have to see what we've gained in our losses and what we've lost in our gains.
- It's all a balance, and one that's constantly shifting back and forth.
- Here comes a couple more seeming contradictions.
- The softest things override the hardest things.
- Things that seem like they have no substance can creep into things that seem totally solid.
- The TTC takes a lesson from this stuff.
- So a person who acts with the Tao isn't hardcore about everything; they act with subtlety.
- Now we're told that we should act, but we should be unattached to our actions.
- So basically... yeah, you should totally do stuff.
- But don't get all wrapped up in the things you do.
- Play it cool, bro.
- Time for more deep questions.
- Which is more important, being rich and famous or truly knowing yourself?
- Which is more painful, gaining things or losing them?
- When we base our lives on making money to buy stuff, all we ever want to do is buy more stuff.
- And when all we are is the things we have, then we've lost something that's pretty darn important: our true selves.
- It's only when we live simply that we can truly be satisfied.
- … Aaaand here come some more seeming contradictions.
- Great perfection, a.k.a. the Tao, might seem flawed.
- Great fullness, a.k.a. the Tao, might seem empty.
- Still, the Tao does its thing without stopping.
- Sometimes something that's straight might seem bent.
- People who are super-skilled at something or are great speakers might seem like they aren't skilled or great at all.
- "Stillness overcomes movement," we're told (45.9).
- This all might be getting at the way Tao masters live simply and quietly.
- They don't do more than is necessary, but when they do something they make it count.
- They don't talk more than is necessary, but when they speak the few words they say pack a wallop.
- The answer to world peace?
- A world where everybody has the Tao.
- In this world, fast horses will all be used to till the soil for farming.
- A world where people don't have the Tao is a place where there's so much fighting that warhorses are forced to give birth on the battlefield.
- This kind of world is full of the greatest crime: greed.
- It's full to the biggest disaster: discontentment.
- To put it simply, a world that's full of greed and dissatisfaction is a pretty miserable place to be, and it's not a place where people are at one with the Tao.
- (Sigh... that sounds a little bit like a certain world we know.)
- This chapter claims that we can know the Tao without ever going out the door or looking out of a window.
- It doesn't do any good to physically travel to places in search of enlightenment.
- The true sage looks inward to find the Tao.
- They don't have to go anywhere at all.
- Here, we're told that the pursuit of knowledge does gain us stuff.
- But gaining isn't always a good thing since all it does is make you want to gain more of the same thing.
- To find the Tao, you have to lose, lose, and lose some more.
- When you've found the Tao, you can engage in unattached action, which can mean that when you do stuff you don't get super obsessed with the outcome.
- If you're constantly trying to control every little thing, you're never going to achieve the thing you want to achieve.
- The sages don't get stuck in one way of thinking.
- They're constantly open to what people have to say.
- They treat everybody the same, whether the people are good or bad.
- The sages also live out in the world; they don't go hide on mountaintops.
- It's kind of their job to take care of all people, like parents take care of children.
- (Like children, huh? Then we'd love it if a sage came by and took us to Chuck E. Cheese.)
- Rhinos, tigers, and soldiers... oh, my!
- This chapter represents the dangers in life with rhinos, tigers, and soldiers, and it points out ways to avoid them.
- If we're overly cautious, we never truly live.
- If we're too bold, we're just begging to die.
- And if we live with excess, overindulging in everything, those rhinos, tigers, and soldiers are going to have us in no time.
- If we live with the Tao, however, and practice moderation, the bad things in life will have a much harder time taking hold of us.
- Every living thing comes from the Tao and is then shaped by its own virtue, or living energy.
- Living things are then shaped by the forces around them.
- Therefore we should respect the Tao and value the virtue.
- We shouldn't try to control it, but should know it for what it is.
- Our own virtue helps us to grow, learn, and perfect ourselves.
- It creates us, but doesn't own us.
- It helps us do stuff, but it doesn't brag about it.
- It feeds what we do, but doesn't control our actions.
- This Mystic Virtue is kind of like our trusty sidekick.
- Well, a trusty sidekick that lives inside of us.
- The next time it's Mother's Day, remember to send a card to the Tao.
- It turns out, the Tao is the mother of the world and every living thing.
- Knowing that we are the children of the Tao helps us to avoid all the dangers in life.
- We should close our mouths and shut our doors so that we can live peaceful lives.
- But if we're always all up in everybody's business, our lives will blow chunks.
- If we live with constant discipline, we can go though life seeing clearly and can avoid all the disasters that await.
- The path of the Tao is wide and simple to walk, but people still get distracted by side paths like greed.
- When this happens, governments are corrupt, crops don't grow, and warehouses are empty of wares.
- So, basically, society falls apart.
- You can always tell when a society is living without the Tao because the rulers wear fancy clothes, have dangerous weapons, and are crazy rich.
- When rulers live like this, it's the same thing as robbery, and it's totally not in line with the Tao.
- (Sounds like the TTC and the Occupy Movement would get along.)
- The TTC wants us to know that something that's well-established can't be uprooted, and that something that's held strongly can't be taken from us.
- If this is the case, then our descendants will celebrate it forever.
- We wonder what this "thing" is.
- Does the TTC mean a person's relationship with the Tao?
- Is it saying that if we have a strong spiritual foundation, no one can take it away from us?
- Seems likely.
- Now we get a passage about how you can spread the way of the Tao.
- First, you can cultivate it in yourself, then in your family, then in your community, then your in country, and then in the world.
- So if you live with the Tao, it slowly spreads from you to everybody around you and goes further and further.
- You don't have to go out and evangelize.
- Next, we're told that you can see the Tao of others through yourself, of other families through your family, of other communities through your community.
- Could this be another way of encouraging you to establish a firm, personal relationship with the Tao, and to let that that radiate outward?
- The chapter ends by telling us to observe the world with the world.
- But how do we know that the world is?
- It's just another part of the Tao like everything else.
- If we have that strong spiritual foundation, we can see it for what it is.
- The most virtuous kinds of people are like newborn babies.
- We figure this means they exist in a state of simplicity, not that they scream all night and poop themselves.
- These virtuous types get all kinds of benefits.
- They aren't stung by insects, clawed by beasts, or attacked by birds.
- We're guessing this isn't meant literally; otherwise, it would be totally okay to let babies run wild in zoos.
- No, instead these animals are probably symbolic of all the bad stuff in human interactions: lies, greed, jealously, etc.
- These types of people handle things gently, but they still get things done.
- The key is being in harmony with the Tao, which gives you the clarity you need to be simple and virtuous.
- The main thing to avoid is being too aggressive.
- If you spend all your energy in one sudden burst, it quickly runs out.
- Doing this is contrary to the Tao, and things that are contrary to the Tao quickly fade away.
- Keep your mouth shut, lectures the TTC.
- People who talk all the time don't know that much, but people who are silent know a lot.
- We're told to shut our doors, which could mean a bunch of different things.
- Look inward for enlightenment?
- Avoid the desires of the outside world?
- We're also told to make a sharp staff blunt.
- Chances are this is a metaphor, not an actual suggestion that you go dull all your steak knives.
- But what is it a metaphor for?
- Could it be another suggestion that we live softly, with unattached action?
- We're also told that we have to unravel the knots, which probably is another reference to living simply.
- Dimming the glare is also a good idea, according to the TTC.
- This could be the TTC once again telling us to be humble; to not live flashily.
- Lastly, we have to mix the dust, which might be a reference to the way the sages should live out in the world and not go hide on a mountaintop somewhere.
- If a person does all these things, they might just discover what's called "Mystic Oneness," or unity with the Tao (56.9).
- People who have the Mystic Oneness are kind of like a less flashy version of a superhero.
- They take part in the world, but they can't be harmed by it.
- They aren't lured by its temptations.
- They don't allow themselves to be flattered by people's good opinions of them, but they aren't hurt by people's negative opinions either.
- They move forward with the Tao, and eventually they are honored by the world.
- Hmm, a little Mystic Oneness sounds pretty good right now.
- This chapter wants to give a little advice to the rulers and governments out there.
- First, it's important to rule with integrity and to be honest, straightforward, and all that good stuff.
- Try not to use the military if it's at all possible; if you have to, then use sneak attacks.
- It's best to not meddle too much in the affairs of other countries or the affairs of your people.
- The TTC is sure this is good advice because it knows what happens when rulers don't follow this advice.
- When governments pass a ton of restrictive laws, the people end up being poor and turn into criminals to survive.
- Also, if a country is super militaristic and all its people are armed, things get super chaotic super fast.
- If a ruler follows the Tao, he or she can avoid all this bad stuff.
- As a ruler, practicing unattached action, limiting interference, and decreasing personal desire will make the lives of all the people better over time.
- Here comes a little more advice for rulers.
- If you aren't overbearing as a ruler, the people are automatically simple and honest.
- If you constantly spy on your citizens and boss them around, they'll just find more and more sneaky ways to avoid your scrutiny.
- Now, we dive into the idea that it's hard to tell what's right and wrong.
- It's also hard to tell if something that's happened is good or bad.
- A horrible tragedy might seem... um... horrible, but who knows what good things it might lead to?
- People have been confused about this stuff for a long time, and we're not going to solve it anytime soon.
- So while the sages hold themselves to the way of the Tao, they don't judge people who don't.
- The sages have personal discipline, but they don't criticize people who live other ways.
- The sages are enlightened, but they don't go around saying they're better than everybody else because of it.
- Whether you're governing people or serving Heaven, it's best to conserve your energy.
- Be moderate and give yourself over to the Tao, and you'll steadily accumulate virtue.
- If you do these things, there's nothing you can't overcome.
- You'll know no limits.
- When you have a firm spiritual foundation in the Tao, you'll be everlasting.
- Hm... what could that last statement mean?
- If everything eventually fades within the Tao, how can we be everlasting?
- Could it mean that we live on in the positive relationships that we build with other people?
- Or is it that by recognizing and accepting that we're part of an eternal flow, we also recognize that the substance we're made of is immortal?
- Our consciences might fade back into non-being, but everything we're made of continues in the Tao.
- Okay, we have to quote the first line of this chapter: "Ruling a large country is like cooking a small fish" (60.1).
- Fun idea, but what the heck does it mean?
- Well, the next line reminds us that when a country is ruled with the Tao, everything is hunky dory.
- So chances are that the fishy first line is some kind of metaphor for living with the Tao.
- Maybe cooking a small fish is tough because they're easy to overcook.
- So when you're ruling a country, it's important to be moderate in everything.
- Next, we're told that when a country is ruled with the Tao, neither its gods nor its demons can harm it.
- So the demons must be all the bad stuff like violence and turmoil that can happen when a ruler's got no Tao.
- But who are the gods in this equation?
- Natural forces, maybe?
- Or maybe the term "gods" represents stuff that seems positive, but can actually cause damage.
- So maybe if a country is overly passive or generous, this can hurt it as well.
- Moderation in all things, right?
- Ultimately, though, this chapter leaves us with the idea that nonviolence is the way to go.
- Like the gods, the sages don't harm people.
- Choose peace, and peace will come back to you.
- This chapter takes the idea of humility and applies it to the way that large, powerful countries ought to behave.
- If large countries are humble, then they'll retain their influence.
- If large countries spend all their time bossing around all the other countries, they'll eventually fall and will be taken over by the smaller countries they used to pick on.
- You can take this advice and apply it to your own life as well.
- When you're the boss, don't be a jerk to your employees.
- When you're rising up through the ranks, don't be ruthless.
- You never know when you might lose your power and need a helping hand.
- The Tao is everything.
- Kind people treasure it.
- Unkind people are protected by it.
- Since good words and actions can improve people, we should never abandon people who are unkind.
- There's hope for everyone, right?
- All this is the wisdom of the Tao, and it's the greatest gift there is.
- When a new Emperor is crowned, jade and horses might seem like impressive offerings, but they don't compare to the gift that is the Tao.
- The ancients found all the answers to life in the Tao, and we can too.
- Chapter 63 starts with some oldies but goodies.
- Unattached action is the way to go.
- Manage things, but don't interfere too much.
- Respond to hatred with compassion (kind of a "turn the other cheek" sort of philosophy).
- And now for some more good advice...
- Don't get overwhelmed by big tasks.
- Think of them as a series of small tasks.
- Do one thing at a time, and eventually you'll get it all done.
- The sages never tried to do anything great, and so they achieved greatness.
- Be careful about making promises lightly; people who do this usually can't follow through, so they're not really all that trustworthy.
- The sages recognized that even things that seemed easy could be difficult, but by recognizing this nothing was ever that difficult for them.
- First, we're advised to deal with small problems before they turn into big ones.
- Then we're reminded that the biggest trees grow from small saplings and that the tallest towers start from heaps of dirt.
- Also, the longest journeys start with the dirt beneath our feet.
- So everything has to start somewhere, right?
- Again, the TTC reminds us not to meddle too much or grasp too hard, or else we'll fail in what we try to do.
- It's also important to put just as much energy into the end of a task as the beginning; otherwise, we'll fail for sure.
- The sages desire not to desire.
- They don't value things that are hard to get.
- They try to help people, but they're always careful not to meddle too much in what's going on around them.
- The ancient sage kings used the Tao to help people.
- Instead of ruling through clever tricks, they ruled with straightforward honesty.
- This encouraged the people to live with simplicity.
- If you govern with craftiness, then the people will become crafty.
- Governing craftily is the same thing as robbing the country.
- Living simply with the Tao is called the Mystic Virtue.
- The Mystic Virtue is infinite and goes beyond material things.
- It is the thing that connects all things.
- This chapter points out the power of being humble with a pretty great metaphor.
- Rivers and oceans take all of the water in the world into them simply because they are the lowest points on the Earth.
- So we can lead people in the same way.
- By playing up our low status and being humble, the people will come to us.
- By not trying to seize power, power will come to us.
- The Tao is so great that it can't be compared to anything.
- If it could be compared to anything, then it wouldn't be the Tao.
- Kinda makes sense, right?
- If the Tao is everything there is, then what else is there to compare it to?
- The way of the Tao has three main treasures:
- 1) Compassion
- 2) Conservation
- 3) Humility
- Living without any of these leads to death.
- Living with them is a victory.
- The best generals aren't big, aggressive jerks who love war.
- They don't stomp around being angry all the time.
- The greatest victories are won without violence.
- The greatest leaders lead with humility.
- In this way, they are unified with the Tao—though it is the most powerful thing there is, it never brags about its power.
- This is the most important lesson the ancient sages have for us.
- Let's talk military strategy.
- According to the TTC, it's best to let the enemy be the aggressor.
- By biding your time and strategically retreating, you create a situation where your enemy is more likely to make a mistake.
- The chapter uses a cool metaphor for this when it advises armies to behave more like a guest than a host.
- A good guest waits patiently and takes cues from the host, right?
- If somebody likes people to take off their shoes in the house, then most people do so—if they ever want to be invited back again, anyway.
- If an army behaves the same way and allows the enemy to take the lead, then the army learns the way its enemy thinks, which is info that can eventually be used against the enemy when the right time comes.
- The TTC tells us that this is a kind of compassion, and that when two armies that have the same strengths meet, the one with the most compassion will win.
- We're told that even though the way of the Tao is based on simple, universal truths, it can be tough for people to understand.
- Therefore, a lot of people don't get the sages either.
- However, the fact that few people truly understand the sages makes them all more valuable.
- They might look simple, but they hold the most valuable thing there is.
- The sage-iest thing about sages is that they know the things they don't know and recognize the ways in which they're flawed.
- The thing that makes the sages perfect is that they recognize their own imperfections.
- If we recognize our failings and learn from them, then they have no power over us.
- Brute force is a terrible way to rule, because as soon as you show a hint of weakness the people take you down with force.
- It's important to give the people freedom and to make sure they're allowed to pursue their livelihoods without a lot of interference.
- Sage rulers:
- 1) Know themselves, but don't brag about themselves.
- 2) Respect themselves, but don't talk about how cool they are all the time.
- People who are super bold and go rushing into everything end up dead.
- People who have courage without being overly aggressive are the ones who will survive.
- The Tao doesn't fight, but always wins.
- It doesn't speak, but always answers.
- It doesn't do things in a rush, but gets everything done.
- The Tao is like a loose net that holds everything there is.
- So like the Tao, it's important for us be relaxed and to not rush into doing or saying things we might regret.
- Looks like the TTC is not into the death penalty.
- In this chapter, it argues that there's not much point in capital punishment since it does absolutely nothing to deter crime.
- Do places with the death penalty have less crime than those that don't?
- Click here for some statistics that might help answer that question.
- When a government executes someone, it's stealing the job of the master executioner, which could be a way of referring to the Tao, karma, or to Death itself.
- Whatever you want to call it, it's the master executioner's job to take people's lives, and when we try to do its job for it we only end up hurting ourselves.
- The TTC isn't done telling rulers how to rule.
- It warns that the people starve when a ruler overtaxes them.
- When a ruler is too forceful and controls every little thing, the people eventually become hard to control.
- The people will rebel if the ruler lives a fancy life at their expense.
- If the people's lives are awful, they won't care if they die, so there's no reason they won't violently rebel against their corrupt ruler.
- This chapter begins by observing that dead things are dry and brittle, while living things are soft and flexible.
- The TTC takes a lesson from this and say that we should live with flexibility.
- If we are rigid and super set in our ways, then the world is going to break us.
- An army that's inflexible will lose.
- A rigid tree is easy to chop down.
- So even though something might seem big and powerful, it's not nearly as powerful as something that's small and nimble.
- We begin by using a simile to say that the Tao is like drawing a bow.
- If the arrow is pointed too low, you have to raise the bow to compensate, and vice versa.
- Everything has to be perfectly balanced in order for it to hit its mark.
- The Tao naturally balances everything.
- When something becomes excessive, it reduces it.
- When something is reduced, it fills it up again.
- Unfortunately, people sometimes act against this idea.
- They reward excess with more excess and deficiency with more deficiency.
- You could apply this concept to that whole "rich get richer, while the poor get poorer" idea.
- People who have the Tao give whenever they have an excess of anything.
- And, of course, they never brag about anything they give.
- They give humbly and expect nothing in return.
- The TTC would like to remind us that water should be our role model.
- Though is seems soft and weak, it can overcome anything, no matter how hard and strong the thing seems.
- In the same way water slowly but surely wears down a mountain, we can achieve any task if we approach it softly and take our time.
- The TTC claims that everybody in the world knows this is true, but that it's sometimes hard to put it into practice.
- Our first instinct seems to be to fight fire with fire, rather than fire with water.
- The chapter ends by telling us again that humility is the way to go.
- Through humility we gain personal power.
- The TTC points out that after any fight there's bound to be some residual bad feelings.
- The best thing to do is forgive and forget.
- Now, we shift a bit to talk about lending.
- Those who follow the Tao never expect anything back when they lend something to someone.
- People who are truly generous receive more in the end than people who are real penny-pinchers.
- This is the way of the Tao.
- Small countries can be well-armed, but they shouldn't use their arms unless they absolutely have to.
- Sounds like a "good defense is the best offense" kinda strategy, huh?
- Just because the people have boats, chariots, weapons, and armor doesn't mean they ought to show them off.
- They should just have them in case they need them.
- The best thing is for people to live at peace in their homeland, enjoying their simple lives and customs.
- Neighboring countries should live in harmony and not bug each other all the time.
- Our final chapter begins by pointing out that sometimes beautiful words aren't true and that true words sometimes aren't beautiful.
- You could interpret this as noting how people can hide lies in flowery speeches, while the truth is much easier to find in simple, straightforward statements like the Tao masters use.
- Next, we're reminded that there's not much good in debating; it's just a waste of energy, really.
- The sages would watch a debate and say it was all a bunch of flowery words without a lot truth in them.
- Now we're told that people who know a little about a lot of things don't really know too much, but people who know a lot about a couple things know a ton.
- Like the Tao, the true sage doesn't fight with the world, he or she gives without expecting anything in return.