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Tao Te Ching by Stephen Mitchell

24 July, 2022 - 17 min read


I. Brief Summary

Tao Te Ching (dao-de-jing) is a classic Chinese literature which was written about 2000 years ago by Lao Tzu. This is a translated version in English. To follow the Tao (way of all things) and realize their true nature is to embody humility, spontaneity, and generosity. It is not the rigidity that brings harmony in life but the softness. It's not the action that brings transformation, but the inaction. Master does not teach its students because they will find their own way. The Tao is always nameless. A master does not teach its students the art of living. This is another book on my list that has more depth per page. I will come back to it frequently.

II. Big Ideas

  • Tao is deep wisdom which is one of the wonders of the world.

    • Doing not-doing which is seen as passivity, but nothing could be further from the truth. Right strokes and right movement happens by itself without any interference of the conscious will. This is the paradigm of non-action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game plays the game. The poem writes the poem.
    • Nothing happens when we trust the superior intelligence of the body and universe.
    • Softness is opposite of rigidity, and is synonymous with suppleness, adaptability, endurance.
    • The more truly solitary we are, the compassionate we can be. The more we let go of what we love, the more present our love becomes.
  • There is a problem with spiritual teachers. They have to be blabbermouths. But their words are fingers pointing at the moon; if you watch the finger, you can't see the moon. The truth is right before our eyes, under our noses.
  • Act without doing anything.
  • Develop enough self-reliance to give up the idea of self.
  • The Master stays behind, that is why she is ahead. The Master is satisfied wherever she is, she is neither behind nor ahead.
  • Detachment results in clarity and clarity expresses love.
  • Water is source of all life. It overflows into everything and it moves everywhere. Our lives are fluid like water.
  • Do your work and step back. Let it go.
  • Let the body become until you see light. That is, until your heart is at peace.
  • Let the events take their course.
  • The true teacher realizes that there is nothing to teach that is why she can teach anyone who wants to learn.
  • Emptying your mind doesn't mean suppressing your thoughts, but stepping back from them. When mind is empty then only it can respond to natural things without prejudice.

    • If good happens, good; if bad happens, good.
    • When you erase the blackboard, then only you can write something new.
  • Unless your know yourself and accept yourself, you can't let go of yourself. When you know yourself, you know others. But knowing others is not intelligence. Knowing yourself is wisdom.
  • Peace means wholeness.
  • A Master has no goal or agenda. Master exist to go along for a ride.
  • You can never lose the Tao, but you can find it.
  • The greatest love seems indifferent because it has no preference.
  • Success and failure are equally irrelevant to Master because her mind heart rests in the Tao.
  • Master does not care for fame.
  • Master knows we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.
  • The mark of a genuine person is straightforwardness. He has nothing to hide nor defend.
  • Those who talk don't know and those who know don't talk. The former signals ignorance, not the openness of not-knowing.
  • A Master never governs her people because she knows power does not signify Tao. To govern people is teaching them Tao.
  • A Master is above people not to feel superior but looking from a higher vantage point, she can see more.
  • There are 3 treasures: compassion, frugality and daring not to be the first one. Whoever has compassion can be brave. Whoever has frugality can be generous. Whoever dares not to be first in the world can become the leader of the world.
  • The less rigid, the readier for life or death. This is called discipline of life.
  • The greatest help is wholeheartedly trusting people to resolve their own problems.
  • Master never blames others. He seeks within to reason for his failure, so he can fix his mistake.
  • Master has no possession, the more he does for others, the happier he is. The more he gives to others, the happier he is.

III. Quotes

  • Where is the way to the Way? What a question!
  • He who knows doesn't talk, but words are no hindrance for him. He uses them as he would use gardening tools.
  • Coming in is life, going out is death.
  • Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. This source is called darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding.
  • When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad. Being and non-being create each other. Difficult and easy support each other. Long and short define each other. High and low depend on each other. Before and after follow each other. Therefore the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn't possess, acts but doesn't expect. When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever.
  • If you overesteem great men, people become powerless. If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal.
  • The Master leads by emptying people's minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve.
  • Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.
  • The Tao is like a well: used but never used up.
  • The Master stays behind; that is why she is ahead. She is detached from all things; that is why she is one with them.
  • The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to.
  • In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don't try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.
  • When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everybody will respect you.
  • Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people's approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.
  • Colors blind the eye. Sounds deafen the ear. Flavors numb the taste. Thoughts weaken the mind. Desires wither the heart. The Master observes the world but trusts his inner vision. He allows things to come and go. His heart is open as the sky.
  • Success is as dangerous as failure. Hope is as hollow as fear. What does it mean that success is a dangerous as failure? Whether you go up the ladder or down it, you position is shaky. When you stand with your two feet on the ground, you will always keep your balance. What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear? Hope and fear are both phantoms that arise from thinking of the self. When we don't see the self as self, what do we have to fear?
  • Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn't seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things.
  • Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace.
  • Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source. Returning to the source is serenity. If you don't realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow. When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king. Immersed in the wonder of the Tao, you can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you are ready.
  • When the body's intelligence declines, cleverness and knowledge step forth.
  • Throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier. Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing. Throw away industry and profit, and there won't be any thieves.
  • Stop thinking, and end your problems.
  • Must you value what others value, avoid what others avoid? How ridiculous!
  • Since before time and space were, the Tao is. It is beyond is and is not. How do I know this is true? I look inside myself and see.
  • Express yourself completely, then keep quiet. Be like the forces of nature: when it blows, there is only wind; when it rains, there is only rain; when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.
  • When the ancient Masters said, "If you want to be given everything, give everything up."
  • He who stands on tiptoe doesn't stand firm. He who rushes ahead doesn't go far. He who tries to shine dims his own light. He who defines himself can't know who he really is. He who has power over others can't empower himself. He who clings to his work will create nothing that endures.
  • If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.
  • The Tao is great. The universe is great. Earth is great. Man is great. These are the four great powers. Man follows the earth. Earth follows the universe. The universe follows the Tao. The Tao follows only itself.
  • A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants. A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is. Thus the Master is available to all people and doesn't reject anyone. He is ready to use all situations and doesn't waste anything. This is called embodying the light.
  • There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind; a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest; a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted; a time for being safe, a time for being in danger. The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them. She lets them go their own way, and resides at the center of the circle.
  • All things end in the Tao as rivers flow into the sea.
  • Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich. If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever.
  • If you want to shrink something, you must first allow it to expand. If you want to get rid of something, you must first allow it to flourish. If you want to take something, you must first allow it to be given. This is called the subtle perception of the way things are. The soft overcomes the hard. The slow overcomes the fast. Let your workings remain a mystery. Just show people the results.
  • The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done. When there is no desire, all things are at peace.
  • The Master doesn't try to be powerful; thus he is truly powerful. The ordinary man keeps reaching for power; thus he never has enough.
  • When the Tao is lost, there is goodness. When goodness is lost, there is morality. When morality is lost, there is ritual. Ritual is the husk of true faith, the beginning of chaos. Therefore the Master concerns himself with the depths and not the surface, with the fruit and not the flower. He has no will of his own. He dwells in reality, and lets all illusions go.
  • In harmony with the Tao, the sky is clear and spacious, the earth is solid and full, all creature flourish together, content with the way they are, endlessly repeating themselves, endlessly renewed. When man interferes with the Tao, the sky becomes filthy, the earth becomes depleted, the equilibrium crumbles, creatures become extinct. The Master views the parts with compassion, because he understands the whole. His constant practice is humility.
  • When a superior man hears of the Tao, he immediately begins to embody it. When an average man hears of the Tao, he half believes it, half doubts it. When a foolish man hears of the Tao, he laughs out loud. If he didn't laugh, it wouldn't be the Tao. Thus it is said: The path into the light seems dark, the path forward seems to go back, the direct path seems long, true power seems weak, true purity seems tarnished, true steadfastness seems changeable, true clarity seems obscure, the greatest are seems unsophisticated, the greatest love seems indifferent, the greatest wisdom seems childish. The Tao is nowhere to be found. Yet it nourishes and completes all things.
  • Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it, embracing his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe.
  • The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world. That which has no substance enters where there is no space. This shows the value of non-action. Teaching without words, performing without actions: that is the Master's way.
  • Fame or integrity: which is more important? Money or happiness: which is more valuable? Success of failure: which is more destructive? If you look to others for fulfillment, you will never truly be fulfilled. If your happiness depends on money, you will never be happy with yourself. Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.
  • Whoever can see through all fear will always be safe.
  • Without opening your door, you can open your heart to the world. Without looking out your window, you can see the essence of the Tao. The more you know, the less you understand. The Master arrives without leaving, sees the light without looking, achieves without doing a thing.
  • In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped.
  • If you close your mind in judgements and traffic with desires, your heart will be troubled. If you keep your mind from judging and aren't led by the senses, your heart will find peace. Seeing into darkness is clarity. Knowing how to yield is strength. Use your own light and return to the source of light. This is called practicing eternity.
  • The great Way is easy, yet people prefer the side paths. Be aware when things are out of balance. Stay centered within the Tao.
  • Those who know don't talk. Those who talk don't know. Close your mouth, block off your senses, blunt your sharpness, untie your knots, soften your glare, settle your dust. This is the primal identity. Be like the Tao. It can't be approached or withdrawn from, benefited or harmed, honored or brought into disgrace. It gives itself up continually. That is why it endures.
  • If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself.
  • Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.
  • A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it. Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it. He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers. He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.
  • Thus, when a new leader is chosen, don't offer to help him with your wealth or your expertise. Offer instead to teach him about the Tao.
  • Act without doing; work without effort. Think of the small as large and the few as many. Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.
  • What is rooted is easy to nourish. What is recent is easy to correct. What is brittle is easy to break. What is small is easy to scatter.
  • Rushing into action, you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them. Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe. Therefore the Master takes action by letting things take their course. He remains as calm at the end as at the beginning. He has nothing, thus has nothing to lose. What he desires is non-desire; what he learns is to unlearn. He simply reminds people of who they have always been. He cares about nothing but the Tao. Thus he can care for all things.
  • The ancient Masters didn't try to educate the people, but kindly taught them to not-know. When they think that they know the answers, people are difficult to guide. When they know that they don't know, people can find their own way.
  • If you want to learn how to govern, avoid being clever or rich. The simplest pattern is the clearest.
  • All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power.
  • I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.
  • All of the embody the virtue of non-competition. Not that they don't love to compete, but they do it in the spirit of play.
  • The generals have a saying: "Rather than make the first move it is better to wait and see. Rather than advance an inch it is better to retreat a yard." This is called going forward without advancing, pushing back without using weapons.
  • My teachings are easy to understand and easy to put into practice. Yet your intellect will never grasp them, and if you try to practice them, you'll fail.
  • Not-knowing is true knowledge. Presuming to know is a disease. First realize that you are sick; then you can move toward health.
  • Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.
  • Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it. The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows this is true, but few can put it into practice. Therefore the Master remains serene in the midst of sorrow. Evil cannot enter his heart. Because he has given up helping, he is people's greatest help.
  • Failure is an opportunity. If you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame.
  • True words aren't eloquent; eloquent words aren't true. Wise men don't need to prove their point; men who need to prove their point aren't wise. The Master has no possessions. The more he does for others, the happier he is. The more he gives to others, the wealthier he is. The Tao nourishes by not forcing. By not dominating, the Master leads.