Thursday, February 24, 2011

81: The Ideal


True words are not pleasing.
Pleasing words are not true.
Those who are right do not argue.
Those who argue are not right.
Those who know are not learned.
Those who are learned do not know.
The sage does not hoard.
The more he does for others,
The more he has.
The more he thereby gives to others,
The ever more he gets.
Heaven's Way
Is to benefit and not to harm.
The sage's Way
Is to act and not to contend.

The Ideal

The final chapter of the Tao Te Ching sums up the most important aspects of living up to the ideal of Tao, the Way, and what signifies the sage who follows it. The similarities to the Christian ideals, as expressed in the words of Jesus, are obvious...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 81 Translation and Commentary

80: Simple Utopia


Let the country be small,
And the inhabitants few.
Although there are weapons
For tens and hundreds of soldiers,
They will not be used.
Let people take death seriously,
And not travel far.
Although they have boats and carriages,
There's no occasion to use them.
Although they have armor and weapons,
There's no occasion to wear them.
Let people return to making knots on ropes,
Instead of writing.
Their food will be tasty.
Their clothes will be comfortable.
Their homes will be tranquil.
They will rejoice in their daily life.
They can see their neighbors.
Roosters and dogs can be heard from there.
Still, they will age and die
Without visiting one another.

Simple Utopia

Making knots on ropes was believed to be a forerunner to the sophisticated Chinese pictogram writing. Lao Tzu expresses a longing back to previous times, when things were simpler...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 80 Translation and Commentary

79: Honor the Settlement


When bitter enemies make peace,
Surely some bitterness remains.
How can this be solved?
The sage honors his part of the settlement,
But does not exact his due from others.
The virtuous carry out the settlement,
But those without virtue pursue their claims.
Heaven's Way gives no favors.
It always remains with good people.

Honor the Settlement

William Shakespeare dedicated one of his greatest dramas, Romeo and Juliet, to the tragic fact that conflict is so hard to end. Two families remain in a feud that has lasted for generations. It doesn't end until the highest price is paid for it – the death of both Romeo and his Juliet...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 79 Translation and Commentary

78: Water Surpasses All


Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water.
Yet, to attack the hard and strong,
Nothing surpasses it.
Nothing can take its place.
The weak overcomes the strong.
The soft overcomes the hard.
Everybody in the world knows this,
Still nobody makes use of it.
Therefore the sage says:
To bear the country's disgrace
Is to rule the shrines of soil and grain.
To bear the country's misfortunes
Is to be the king of the world.
True words seem false.

Water Surpasses All

Lao Tzu returns to what must be his favorite metaphor for the primary quality of Tao, the Way. Water is yielding, which is exactly what makes it superior. As the Roman poet Ovid pointed out: Dripping water hollows out the stone, not through force but through persistence...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 78 Translation and Commentary

77: Raise the Low


Heaven's Way is like stretching a bow.
The high is lowered and the low is raised.
Excess is reduced and deficiency is replenished.
Heaven's Way reduces excess and replenishes deficiency.
People's Way is not so.
They reduce the deficient and supply the excessive.
Who has excess and supplies the world?
Only the one who follows the Way.
Therefore, the sage acts without taking credit.
He accomplishes without dwelling on it.
He does not want to display his worth.

Raise the Low

Here, Lao Tzu again uses the expression Heaven's Way as if it's synonymous with Tao, the Way. It's a bit strange that he would do so, considering his otherwise consistent perspective on Tao preceding everything, including Heaven. To Lao Tzu, Tao is superior to all. Accordingly, Heaven's Way must be something lesser and later than the Way itself...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 77 Translation and Commentary

76: Life Is Soft and Weak


People are born soft and weak.
They die hard and stiff.
All things such as grass and trees
Are soft and supple in life.
At their death they are withered and dry.
So, the hard and stiff are death's companions.
The soft and weak are life's companions.
The unyielding army will not win.
The rigid tree will be felled.
The rigid and big belong below.
The soft and weak belong above.

Life Is Soft and Weak

Lao Tzu uses drastic imagery, comparing the newborn baby with the dead corpse, the former being soft and the latter stiffening in rigor mortis. The fact that we stiffen after death confirms the point he wants to make...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 76 Translation and Commentary

75: People versus Rulers


People starve.
The rulers consume too much with their taxes.
That is why people starve.
People are hard to govern.
The rulers interfere with too much.
That is why people are hard to govern.
People take death lightly.
They expect too much of life.
That is why people take death lightly.
Truly, only acting without thought of one's life
Is superior to valuing one's life.

People versus Rulers

There are people and there are rulers. Their relation is a complicated one, to say the least. People often have great difficulties suffering the demands of the rulers, and the rulers can have great problems making people obey their commands. Lao Tzu gives some hints to why this is so...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 75 Translation and Commentary

74: The Supreme Executioner


If people are not afraid of dying,
Why threaten them with death?
If people live in constant fear of death,
And if breaking the law is punished by death,
Then who would dare?
There is one appointed supreme executioner.
Truly, trying to take the place of the supreme executioner
Is like trying to carve wood like a master carpenter.
Of those who try to carve wood like a master carpenter,
There are few who do not injure their hands.

The Supreme Executioner

This chapter is unclear in several ways, in its Chinese original, and has been translated in quite different manners. The first part deals with the fear of death, the second with the executioner. The subjects connect, since Lao Tzu first discusses how fear of the death penalty makes people abide by the law, and then moves on to the one executing the punishment...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 74 Translation and Commentary

73: Heaven's Way


Those who have the courage to dare will perish.
Those who have the courage not to dare will live.
Of those two, one is beneficial and one is harmful.
What Heaven detests, who knows why?
Even the sage considers it difficult.
Heaven's Way does not contend,
Yet it certainly triumphs.
It does not speak,
Yet it certainly answers.
It does not summon,
Yet things come by themselves.
It seems to be at rest,
Yet it certainly has a plan.
Heaven's net is very vast.
It is sparsely meshed, yet nothing slips through.

Heaven's Way

Heaven's Way, T'ien chih Tao, is a concept that was old and established already at the time of Lao Tzu. Mankind has always observed and awed at the many movements in the sky. Clouds of different shades and shapes sail through it, occasional rain or snow falls from it, the sun and moon travel it in fixed cycles, and the stars appear in millions at clear skied nights...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 73 Translation and Commentary

72: Don't Make Them Weary


When people do not dread authorities,
Then a greater dread descends.
Do not crowd their dwellings.
Do not make them weary at their work.
If you do not make them weary,
They will not be weary of you.
Therefore, the sage knows himself,
But does not parade.
He cherishes himself,
But does not praise himself.
He discards the one,
And chooses the other.

Don't Make Them Weary

The second part of the Tao Te Ching has several chapters on government, and how to improve it. This is one of them. What Lao Tzu expresses in his views on governing the country, often seems very similar to modern democratic ideals. That would be going too far, though...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 72 Translation and Commentary

71: Knowing Illness


Knowing that you do not know is the best.
Not knowing that you do not know is an illness.
Truly, only those who see illness as illness
Can avoid illness.
The sage is not ill,
Because he sees illness as illness.
Therefore he is not ill.

Knowing Illness

Disease awareness and the lack thereof are frequently discussed in relation to mental disease, where the lack of awareness is said to be common. No wonder, since it's the mind that is affected, and it's by the mind one is made aware. One can't see into oneself. Nor is it easy to regard one's actions from an objective perspective, because the mind is subjective by nature...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 71 Translation and Commentary

70: Easy to Understand


My words are very easy to understand
And very easy to practice.
Still, no one in the world
Can understand or practice them.
My words have an origin.
My deeds have a sovereign.
Truly, because people do not understand this,
They do not understand me.
That so few understand me is why I am treasured.
Therefore, the sage wears coarse clothes, concealing jade.

Easy to Understand

The origin and sovereign of Lao Tzu's words and deeds is obviously one and the same: Tao, the Way. People who don't understand Tao have little chance of understanding what Lao Tzu says, or why he acts the way he does, which is mostly by non-action...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 70 Translation and Commentary

69: Like a Guest


Warriors say:
I dare not be like the host,
But would rather be like the guest.
I dare not advance an inch,
But would rather retreat a foot.
This is called marching without marching,
Grabbing without arms,
Charging without enemy,
Seizing without weapons.
No misfortune is worse
Than underestimating the enemy.
Underestimating the enemy,
I risk losing my treasure.
When equal armies battle,
The grieving one will be victorious.

Like a Guest

The wise warrior would not invite to battle and presume to control the circumstances. Instead, he considers his actions carefully and expects the unexpected...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 69 Translation and Commentary

68: Peaceful Warriors


Excellent warriors are not violent.
Excellent soldiers are not furious.
Excellent conquerors do not engage.
Excellent leaders of people lower themselves.
This is called the virtue of no strife.
This is called the use of people's capacity.
This is called the union with Heaven.
It is the perfection of the ancients.

Peaceful Warriors

It would be going too far to state that Lao Tzu is a pacifist. In his book, he seems to admit to the necessity of war in some cases, or the impossibility to avoid it forever. What he does make clear, though, is that even in the case of war there are virtuous actions and non-virtuous ones...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 68 Translation and Commentary

67: Battle with Compassion


The whole world says that my Way is great like nothing else.
It is great because it is like nothing else.
If it were like everything else,
It would long ago have become insignificant.
I have three treasures that I cherish.
The first is compassion.
The second is moderation.
The third is not claiming to be first in the world.
By compassion one can be brave.
By moderation one can be generous.
By not claiming to be first in the world one can rule.
But to be brave without compassion,
Generous without moderation,
And rule without refraining from being first in the world
Are certain deaths.
So, those who have compassion when they do battle
Will be victorious.
Those who likewise defend themselves
Will be safe.
Heaven will rescue and protect them with compassion.

Battle with Compassion

In the beginning of this chapter, Lao Tzu plays with the word hsiao, which means both `like' and `small.' The latter I dared to translate as `insignificant,' to clarify what kind of small Lao Tzu refers to here. The two words have different pictograms, but they are pronounced the same...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 67 Translation and Commentary

66: Go Low to Stand High


The river and the sea can be kings of a hundred valleys,
Because they lie below them.
That is why they can be the kings of a hundred valleys.
If the sage wants to stand above people,
He must speak to them from below.
If he wants to lead people,
He must follow them from behind.
When the sage stands above people,
They are not oppressed.
When he leads people,
They are not obstructed.
The world will exalt him
And not grow tired of him.
Because he does not resist,
None in the world resists him.

Go Low to Stand High

When Lao Tzu says that there are things that can rule over valleys, it comes as a surprise. He frequently compares Tao to the valley, and who can rule Tao? But the rivers float downwards and the sea is lower than the land, so they behave like Tao in their yielding. By their humble yielding they can become rulers...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 66 Translation and Commentary

65: No Rule by Knowledge


In ancient times,
Those who followed the Way
Did not try to give people knowledge thereof,
But kept them ignorant.
People are difficult to rule
Because of their knowledge.
To rule by knowledge ravages the country.
To rule not by knowledge blesses the country.
To understand these two is to have precept.
To always have precept is called profound virtue.
Profound virtue is indeed deep and wide.
It leads all things back to the great order.

No Rule by Knowledge

In any Eastern culture, when ancient times are mentioned, it's always to point out what would be commendable and wise. The idea that past times were superior to the present is found just about everywhere, even in the Western world prior to the scientific revolution, a few hundred years ago...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 65 Translation and Commentary

64: The Sage Dares Not Act


Stillness is easy to maintain.
What has not yet emerged is easy to prevent.
The brittle is easy to shatter.
The small is easy to scatter.
Solve it before it happens.
Order it before chaos emerges.
A tree as wide as a man's embrace
Grows from a tiny shoot.
A tower of nine stories
Starts with a pile of dirt.
A climb of eight hundred feet
Starts where the foot stands.
Those who act will fail.
Those who seize will lose.
So, the sage does not act and therefore does not fail,
Does not seize and therefore does not lose.
People fail at the threshold of success.
Be as cautious at the end as at the beginning.
Then there will be no failure.
Therefore the sage desires no desire,
Does not value rare treasures,
Learns without learning,
Recovers what people have left behind.
He wants all things to follow their own nature,
But dares not act.

The Sage Dares Not Act

The first half of this chapter adds arguments to what was explained in the previous one: the importance of solving problems before they grow big...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 64 Translation and Commentary

63: Big Is Small at First


Act without action.
Pursue without interfering.
Taste the tasteless.
Make the small big and the few many.
Return animosity with virtue.
Meet the difficult while it is easy.
Meet the big while it is small.
The most difficult in the world
Must be easy in its beginning.
The biggest in the world
Is small in its beginning.
So, the sage never strives for greatness,
And can therefore accomplish greatness.
Lightly given promises
Must meet with little trust.
Taking things lightly
Must lead to big difficulties.
So, the sage regards things as difficult,
And thereby avoids difficulty.

Big Is Small at First

We already know about non-action, wu-wei, and about the importance of avoiding to interfere, but what about tasting the tasteless...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 63 Translation and Commentary

62: The Greatest Gift


The Way is the source of all things,
Good people's treasure and bad people's refuge.
Fine words are traded.
Noble deeds gain respect.
But people who are not good,
Why abandon them?
So, when the emperor is crowned
Or the three dukes are appointed,
Rather than sending a gift of jade
Carried by four horses,
Remain still and offer the Way.
Why did the ancients praise the Way?
Did they not say it was because you find what you seek
And are saved from your wrongdoings?
That is why the world praises it.

The Greatest Gift

This chapter is partly rather confusing. The division of people into good and bad is not as convincingly Taoist as, say, comparing their distance to Tao, the Way. But they might refer to the same thing...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 62 Translation and Commentary

61: Conquer by Yielding


A great country is like the lower outlet of a river.
It is the world's meeting ground, the world's female.
The female always surpasses the male with stillness.
In her stillness she is yielding.
If a great country yields to a small country,
It will conquer the small country.
If a small country yields to a great country,
It will be conquered by the great country.
So, some who yield become conquerors,
And some who yield get conquered.
A great country needs more people to serve it.
A small country needs more people to serve.
So, if both shall get what they need,
The great country ought to yield.

Conquer by Yielding

Water flows to the river's outlet, because it's low, because it's the point that yields the most. To Lao Tzu, yielding is foremost a female quality, alike the mother of all, which is Tao. What yields the most attracts the rest of the world...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 61 Translation and Commentary

60: The Ghosts Approve


Ruling a great country is like cooking a small fish.
When the world is ruled according to the Way,
The ghosts lose their power.
The ghosts do not really lose their power,
But it is not used to harm people.
Not only will their power not harm people,
Nor will the sage harm people.
Since neither of them causes harm,
Unified virtue is restored.

The Ghosts Approve

The ghosts, kuei, were the restless spirits of deceased ancestors, according to beliefs at the time of Lao Tzu. That's quite the same as what we mean by ghosts. And just like this chapter says, we foster the idea that the ghosts are only harmful if they are displeased. If the country is ruled wisely, in accordance with the Way, the ghosts will not be upset...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 60 Translation and Commentary

59: Rule with Moderation


When leading people and serving Heaven,
Nothing exceeds moderation.
Truly, moderation means prevention.
Prevention means achieving much virtue.
When much virtue is achieved,
Nothing is not overcome.
Nothing not overcome means
Nobody knows the limits.
When nobody knows the limits,
One can rule the country.
The one who rules like the mother lasts long.
This is called deep roots and a solid base,
the Way to long life and clarity.

Rule with Moderation

A leader serving Heaven tries to rule in accordance with nature, following Tao, the Way. Moderation is the key. One should not interfere more than necessary, not act if not sure of how, and not overdo things. There is no feat so great that its good exceeds the benefit of reluctance to perform great feats...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 59 Translation and Commentary

58: What to Trust?


When the government is quite unobtrusive,
People are indeed pure.
When the government is quite prying,
People are indeed conniving.
Misery is what happiness rests upon.
Happiness is what misery lurks beneath.
Who knows where it ends?
Is there nothing correct?
Correct becomes defect.
Good becomes ominous.
People's delusions have certainly lasted long.
Therefore the sage is sharp but does not cut,
Pointed but does not pierce,
Forthright but does not offend,
Bright but does not dazzle.

What to Trust?

We are never closer to misery than when we are happy. The one so easily turns into the other. They are strongly linked, and mutually dependent. Were it not for happiness, misery would not exist, and the other way around. So, it's not always evident which is which...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 58 Translation and Commentary

57: People Can Govern Themselves


Use justice to rule a country.
Use surprise to wage war.
Use non-action to govern the world.
How do I know it is so?
As for the world,
The more restrictions and prohibitions there are,
The poorer the people will be.
The more sharp weapons people have in a country,
The bigger the disorder will be.
The more clever and cunning people are,
The stranger the events will be.
The more laws and commands there are,
The more thieves and robbers there will be.
Therefore the sage says:
I do not act,
And people become reformed by themselves.
I am at peace,
And people become fair by themselves.
I do not interfere,
And people become rich by themselves.
I have no desire to desire,
And people become like the uncarved wood by themselves.

People Can Govern Themselves

Some translators of the Tao Te Ching presume that the first three lines of this chapter say what not to do and what to do. Justice and surprise are inferior, and only non-action, wu-wei, is in accordance with Tao. I think that's too harsh a judgment...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 57 Translation and Commentary

56: Integrity


Those who know it do not speak about it.
Those who speak about it do not know it.
Seal the openings.
Shut the doors.
Dull the sharpness.
Untie the knots.
Dim the light.
Become one with the dust.
This is called the profound union.
Those who obtain it
Can neither be seduced nor abandoned.
Those who obtain it
Can neither be favored nor neglected.
Those who obtain it
Can neither be honored nor humiliated.
Therefore, they are the most esteemed in the world.


This chapter connects to two others. Sealing the openings and shutting the doors is also mentioned in chapter 52, as how to avoid exhausting yourself in life...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 56 Translation and Commentary

55: The Virtue of the Infant


The one who is filled by virtue is like a newborn baby.
Wasps, scorpions, and serpents will not sting him.
Birds of prey and wild beasts will not strike him.
His bones are soft, his muscles weak,
But his grasp is firm.
He has not experienced the union of man and woman,
Still his penis rises.
His manhood is at its very height.
He can shout all day without getting hoarse.
His harmony is at its very height.
Harmony is called the eternal.
Knowing the eternal is called clarity.
Filling life exceedingly is called ominous.
Letting the mind control the vital breath is called force.
Things exalted then decay.
This is going against the Way.
What goes against the Way meets an early end.

The Virtue of the Infant

The first part of this chapter compares the sage to a newborn baby. Infants are soft and weak, yet their tiny hands grab with surprising firmness. Although they are many years away from puberty and sexual encounters, they get erections. They can scream forever, without getting hoarse, and with a shocking loudness at that...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 55 Translation and Commentary

54: Cultivate Virtue


What is well planted will not be uprooted.
What is well held will not escape.
Children and grandchildren will not cease to praise it.
Cultivate virtue in yourself,
And it will be true.
Cultivate virtue in the family,
And it will be overflowing.
Cultivate virtue in the town,
And it will be lasting.
Cultivate virtue in the country,
And it will be abundant.
Cultivate virtue in the world,
And it will be universal.
See others as yourself.
See families as your family.
See towns as your town.
See countries as your country.
See worlds as your world.
How do I know that the world is such?
By this.

Cultivate Virtue

The last line of this chapter is almost a riddle: "By this." The two words are not very explanatory. By what? The scholars have different ideas about it. The most likely answer is that Lao Tzu simply refers to what he has stated in the preceding lines of the chapter...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 54 Translation and Commentary

53: Robbery


If I have just an ounce of sense,
I follow the great Way,
And fear only to stray from it.
The great Way is very straight,
But people prefer to deviate.
When the palace is magnificent,
The fields are filled with weeds,
And the granaries are empty.
Some have lavish garments,
Carry sharp swords,
And feast on food and drink.
They possess more than they can spend.
This is called the vanity of robbers.
It is certainly not the Way.


Lao Tzu ends this chapter with what is also a joke. Robber, tao, is pronounced the same as Tao, the Way. But indeed, they are not the same...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 53 Translation and Commentary

52: Return to Clarity


The world's beginning is its mother.
To have found the mother
Is also to know the children.
Although you know the children,
Cling to the mother.
Until your last day you will not be harmed.
Seal the openings, shut the doors,
And until your last day you will not be exhausted.
Widen the openings, interfere,
And until your last day you will not be safe.
Seeing the small is called clarity.
Holding on to the weak is called strength.
Use the light to return to clarity.
Then you will not cause yourself misery.
This is called following the eternal.

Return to Clarity

The small and the seemingly weak are what truly rule the universe. This we know quite well from modern science. The characteristics and behavior of matter is decided by its smallest components, found in quantum physics...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 52 Translation and Commentary

51: All Things Are Nurtured


The Way gives birth to them.
Virtue gives them nourishment.
Matter gives them shape.
Conditions make them whole.
Of all things,
None does not revere the Way and honor virtue.
Reverence of the Way and honoring virtue
Were not demanded of them,
But it is in their nature.
So, the Way gives birth to them,
Nourishes them,
Raises them,
Nurtures them,
Protects them,
Matures them,
Takes care of them.
It gives birth without seizing,
Helps without claim,
Fosters without ruling.
This is called the profound virtue.

All Things Are Nurtured

Tao as a source, out of which all things have come into existence, is mentioned several times in the Tao Te Ching. But virtue, te, giving them nourishment, is a somewhat confusing perspective. Human beings need virtue as nourishment for their character and perspectives on life. Perhaps the same thing can be said for the animals – but how can it be expected of plants and dead things...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 51 Translation and Commentary

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

50: How to Survive


We go from birth to death.
Three out of ten follow life.
Three out of ten follow death.
People who rush from birth to death
Are also three out of ten.
Why is that so?
Because they want to make too much of life.
I have heard that the one who knows how to live
Can wander through the land
Without encountering the rhinoceros or the tiger.
He passes the battlefield
Without being struck by weapons.
In him, the rhinoceros finds no opening for its horn.
The tiger finds no opening for its claws.
The soldiers find no opening for their blades.
Why is that so?
Death has no place in him.

How to Survive

How to live one's life is a complicated matter, occupying most of the Tao Te Ching. But also, merely to stay alive is difficult, and was even more so in the time of Lao Tzu. This chapter talks about how to survive at all...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 50 Translation and Commentary

49: The Concern of the Sage


The sage has no concern for himself,
But makes the concerns of others his own.
He is good to those who are good.
He is also good to those who are not good.
That is the virtue of good.
He is faithful to people who are faithful.
He is also faithful to people who are not faithful.
That is the virtue of faithfulness.
The sage is one with the world,
And lives in harmony with it.
People turn their eyes and ears to him,
And the sage cares for them like his own children.

The Concern of the Sage

Tao Te Ching has great similarities with at least two other ideals – that of Zen and that of Christianity as expressed by Jesus in the Gospels. This chapter is a clear example of the latter...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 49 Translation and Commentary

48: Let Go


Those who seek knowledge,
Collect something every day.
Those who seek the Way,
Let go of something every day.
They let go and let go,
Until reaching no action.
When nothing is done,
Nothing is left undone.
Never take over the world to tamper with it.
Those who want to tamper with it
Are not fit to take over the world.

Let Go

Letting go is a recurring theme in the Tao Te Ching. It's brought up in several chapters, for example the 19th, where I mention the similarity to Zen in this respect. In Zen, you let go to reach empty mind, a mental state of clarity, where nothing disturbs you or pulls you way from the soundness of the simple thought. There are many similarities between Zen and what Lao Tzu argues for...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 48 Translation and Commentary

47: Understanding without Exploring


Without stepping out the door,
You can know the world.
Without looking through the window,
You can see Heaven's Way.
The longer you travel, the less you know.
The sage knows without traveling,
Perceives without looking,
Completes without acting.

Understanding without Exploring

Immanuel Kant, who lived in the 18th century, was one of the foremost of Western philosophers. He was born in the town Königsberg, and stayed there all his life. He had profound thoughts on god, life, peace, and just about everything else. As his philosophy got known around the world, everyone was amazed that so much could come out of a man who never in his life traveled more than ten miles from his home town...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 47 Translation and Commentary

46: Enough Is Enough


When the Way governs the world,
The proud stallions drag dung carriages.
When the Way is lost to the world,
War horses are bred outside the city.
There is no greater crime than desire.
There is no greater disaster than discontent.
There is no greater misfortune than greed.
To have enough of enough is always enough.

Enough Is Enough

We learned in the previous chapter that peace should govern the world. That's what Tao, the Way, leads to when followed. When we deviate from the Way, war is imminent. By preparing for it, we guarantee that it will arrive. It would be nice with a world where war is not expected...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 46 Translation and Commentary

45: Appearances


The most complete seems lacking.
Yet in use it is not exhausted.
The most abundant seems empty.
Yet in use it is not drained.
The most straight seems curved.
The most able seems clumsy.
The most eloquent seems to stutter.
Movement overcomes cold.
Stillness overcomes heat.
Peace and quiet govern the world.


Things aren't what they seem. We should not trust our perception, because it's rooted in our own mind's preconceptions. We often only see what we want to see, or what we expect to see. That may make life seem more agreeable to us, but it certainly flaws our judgment...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 45 Translation and Commentary

44: Life Is the Treasure


Your name or your body,
What is dearer?
Your body or your wealth,
What is worthier?
Gain or loss,
What is worse?
Greed is costly.
Assembled fortunes are lost.
Those who are content suffer no disgrace.
Those who know when to halt are unharmed.
They last long.

Life Is the Treasure

What we know of is this life we are born into. Everything else is uncertain. So, why do we risk it by filling it with things that we don't really need? The only real treasure is life itself...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 44 Translation and Commentary

43: Non-Action


The softest in the world
Surpasses the hardest in the world.
What has no substance
Can penetrate what has no opening.
Thereby I know the value of non-action.
The value of teaching without words
And accomplishing without action
Is understood by few in the world.


The principle of non-action, wu-wei, is frequently propagated in the Tao Te Ching. Often, the best solution is not to act at all, and when action is needed, to do as little as possible. Most things in the world correct themselves, given time...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 43 Translation and Commentary

42: Violence Meets a Violent End


The Way gave birth to one.
One gave birth to two.
Two gave birth to three.
Three gave birth to all things.
All things carry yin and embrace yang.
They reach harmony by blending with the vital breath.
What people loathe the most
Is to be orphaned, desolate, unworthy.
But this is what princes and kings call themselves.
Sometimes gain comes from losing,
And sometimes loss comes from gaining.
What others have taught, I also teach:
The forceful and violent will not die from natural causes.
This will be my chief doctrine.

Violence Meets a Violent End

This chapter consists of two parts, which have so little to do with one another that they were surely not originally intended to be combined...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 42 Translation and Commentary

41: Laughing Out Loud


The superior student listens to the Way
And follows it closely.
The average student listens to the Way
And follows some and some not.
The lesser student listens to the Way
And laughs out loud.
If there were no laughter it would not be the Way.
So, it has been said:
The light of the Way seems dim.
The progress of the Way seems retreating.
The straightness of the Way seems curved.
The highest virtue seems as low as a valley.
The purest white seems stained.
The grandest virtue seems deficient.
The sturdiest virtue seems fragile.
The most fundamental seems fickle.
The perfect square lacks corners.
The greatest vessel takes long to complete.
The highest tone is hard to hear.
The great image lacks shape.
The Way is hidden and nameless.
Still only the Way nourishes and completes.

Laughing Out Loud

What Lao Tzu says about students is true for all mankind. Some listen and learn, others do it sporadically, and those with the least respect just laugh and call it absurd. If there were no people reacting like that, it would probably not be Tao, the Way. Tao is absurd to the thoughtless mind...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 41 Translation and Commentary

40: A Cyclic Universe


Returning is the movement of the Way.
Yielding is the manner of the Way.
All things in the world are born out of being.
Being is born out of non-being.

A Cyclic Universe

The returning movement of Tao, the Way, is cyclic. Tao brings everything forward, and then back to its origin, to be brought forward yet again. This is the view on nature shared by most cultures, and for obvious reasons...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 40 Translation and Commentary

39: Unity with the One


These things of old obtained unity with the one.
Heaven obtained unity and became clear.
Earth obtained unity and became firm.
The spirits obtained unity and became deities.
The valleys obtained unity and became abundant.
All things obtained unity and became animate.
Princes and kings obtained unity and became rulers of the world.
They all obtained unity with the one.
If Heaven were not clear it might rend.
If Earth were not firm it might crumble.
If the spirits were not deities they might wither.
If the valleys were not abundant they might dry up.
If all things were not animate they might perish.
If princes and kings were not exalted they might be overthrown.
The noble must make humility his root.
The high must make the low its base.
That is why princes and kings call themselves orphaned, desolate, unworthy.
Is that not to make humility their root?
The separate parts make no carriage.
So, do not strive for the shine of jade,
But clatter like stone.

Unity with the One

The one is surely Tao, the Way. By conforming to Tao so much that it became unity, the powers of the world were established. Without that unity, they would lose their roots, and their substance would dissolve. This is no greater mystery to Lao Tzu, than it is to us that neither galaxies nor their stars and planets would have appeared without gravity to pull them together...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 39 Translation and Commentary

38: The Highest Virtue


The highest virtue is not virtuous.
Therefore it has virtue.
The lowest virtue holds on to virtue.
Therefore it has no virtue.
The highest virtue does nothing.
Yet, nothing needs to be done.
The lowest virtue does everything.
Yet, much remains to be done.
The highest benevolence acts without purpose.
The highest righteousness acts with purpose.
The highest ritual acts, but since no one cares,
It raises its arms and uses force.
Therefore, when the Way is lost there is virtue.
When virtue is lost there is benevolence.
When benevolence is lost there is righteousness.
When righteousness is lost there are rituals.
Rituals are the end of fidelity and honesty,
And the beginning of confusion.
Knowing the future is the flower of the Way,
And the beginning of folly.
The truly great ones rely on substance,
And not on surface,
Hold on to the fruit,
And not to the flower.
They reject the latter and receive the former.

The Highest Virtue

Here the focus is not on Tao, the Way, but on the second best: Te, virtue. Lao Tzu makes it very clear that virtue, although seemingly splendid, is what to follow in the absence of contact with Tao. This is true even for the very highest virtue. It's a symptom of deviation from the Way...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 38 Translation and Commentary

37: Nameless Simplicity


The Way is ever without action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If princes and kings can abide by this,
All things will form themselves.
If they form themselves and desires arise,
I subdue them with nameless simplicity.
Nameless simplicity will indeed free them from desires.
Without desire there is stillness,
And the world settles by itself.

Nameless Simplicity

Tao Te Ching is traditionally divided into two parts. One is called Tao, the Way, simply because its first chapter begins with that word, and the other is called Te, virtue, because that's the word its first chapter begins with. This, the 37th chapter of the book, is the last of the first part...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 37 Translation and Commentary

36: One Postulates the Other


What should be shrunken must first be stretched.
What should be weakened must first be strengthened.
What should be abolished must first be cherished.
What should be deprived must first be enriched.
This is called understanding the hidden.
The soft and weak overcome the hard and strong.
The fish cannot leave the deep waters.
The state's weaponry should not be displayed.

One Postulates the Other

Ancient Chinese thought is often done in polarities, like yin and yang. They are not alone in that. In many traditions around the world, existence is seen as the dynamics between two opposites...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 36 Translation and Commentary

35: Elusive, But Never Exhausted


Hold on to the great image,
And the whole world follows,
Follows unharmed,
Content and completely at peace.
Music and food make the traveler halt.
But words spoken about the Way have no taste.
When looked at, there's not enough to see.
When listened to, there's not enough to hear.
When used, it is never exhausted.

Elusive, But Never Exhausted

The image that Lao Tzu refers to is Tao, the Way. The word he uses also means appearance, similarity, and likeness. One might call it an impression or a symbol. He wants to make clear that the elusive Tao is more than its image...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 35 Translation and Commentary

34: It's Great to Be Small


The great Way is all-pervading.
It reaches to the left and to the right.
All things depend on it with their existence.
Still it demands no obedience.
It demands no honor for what it accomplishes.
It clothes and feeds all things without ruling them.
It is eternally without desire.
So, it can be called small.
All things return to it,
Although it does not make itself their ruler.
So, it can be called great.
Therefore, the sage does not strive to be great.
Thereby he can accomplish the great.

It's Great to Be Small

Lao Tzu again describes the humble nature of Tao, the Way. Its greatness lies exactly in its modesty. It has made the world appear and keeps it from disappearing. Every creature exists because of it. Yet, it's discreet with its presence, as if hiding, and it allows us to follow it or not, as if we had a choice to alter the very laws of existence...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 34 Translation and Commentary

33: Longevity


Those who understand others are clever,
Those who understand themselves are wise.
Those who defeat others are strong,
Those who defeat themselves are mighty.
Those who know when they have enough are rich.
Those who are unswerving have resolve.
Those who stay where they are will endure.
Those who die without being forgotten get longevity.


The last line of this chapter has usually been understood as a hint to actual longevity, the possibility to escape death. It was interpreted as saying: "Those who die without perishing get longevity." This was also the Chinese understanding of the line...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 33 Translation and Commentary

32: All Follow Those Who Follow Tao


The Way is ever nameless.
Though simple and subtle,
The world cannot lead it.
If princes and kings could follow it,
All things would by themselves abide,
Heaven and Earth would unite
And sweet dew would fall.
People would by themselves find harmony,
Without being commanded.
As soon as rules were made, names were given.
There are already many names.
One must know when it is enough.
Those who know when it is enough will not perish.
What the Way is to the world,
The stream is to the river and the sea.

All Follow Those Who Follow Tao

This chapter starts with a reminder of what was stated in the very first chapter of the Tao Te Ching: no name does justice to Tao, the Way. Lao Tzu has chosen the term Tao for the great mystery he discusses, but he hurries to add that a name is just a name, and not the thing named – not even an adequate description of it...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 32 Translation and Commentary