Daodejing 道 德 經: Making Life Significant

The Dao De Jīng
道 德 經

Dao 道

(movement ahead – road, path, way)

De 德

(virtue, power, charisma, potency or efficacy within a field of eperience)

Jīng 經

(a classic, a text, threads following course – warp, experience, scriptures)



Arthur Hummel, former Library of Congress Director, had this to say about the Daodejing:

The Daoedejing was written in the morning of the human race, and still bears the freshness of the morning upon it. It exhibits a rush of lanugage, a boldness and exuberance of expresion for which paradox is the only adequate form....

For the Daoists, Reality was beyond measurement, but not beyond apprehension by a mind that is still.

The book's greatest gift, in my view, is its mind-stretching quality; it challenges us at every turn to expand our view of life's possibilities.

From the Foreword to Lao Tsu/Tao Teh Ching (St. John's University Press, 1961)


1. What do you think the phrase "written in the morning of the human race, and still bears the freshness of the morning upon it" means?









2. What do you think is the "mind-stretching quality" of this text? And what do you think of the idea that "paradox" is the only adequate form of expression in the Daodejing? 









We tend to think of the Daodejing as paradoxical because it is always offering us contrasting opposites: What is gathered in, must be stretched out; whatever is weakened must be made strong; when beauty appears, there must be ugliness, too; when good strives to be good, it is no good; "having" and "lacking" give rise to each other; what is abandoned, must be joined; whatever is taken away must first be given; what is subtle is within what is evident is without.

A couple of years ago, we had a Convo speaker, U.C. Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, who studies the nature of "Happiness." He made reference to Consfucius in his remarks pointing out that in elevating the term Ren (仁), Confucius understood that humans want to be Good, to practice Benevolence, because this is how they can act "Authoritatively" and "Appropriately." And Keltner was impressed by the term "Mindfulness" for which he offered a simple definition: "Non-judgmental observation" of the processes of the mind. This could be exactly what Confucianism and Daoism are pointing us to: we need to be able to look at ourselves, our conduct, and assess its nature, what it is, what it means, and how we can make ourselves and our lives more "Authoritative," genuine and meaningful.

If we look carefully at our inner processes, we will observe that our "mind," our thinking and our emotions, will flow and chatter on endelssly; it is difficult to quiet it and make it still. But if we let all the thoughts and images just drift by, and do not attach to them, do not follow all our "desires" that might arise from them, then we can suspend our judgment on both real or imagined objects in the world and "detach" from them and change the way that our minds relate to them, and just try to observe and be aware of the process as it unfolds naturally (自然). This term, "ziran" in Chinese, is often rendered as "just so," or "as it is," hence, "naturally."


NOTE: Doesn't this apply to what we do in the classroom as well?


The optimal classroom learning experience is to create space for students to grow and realize their distinctiveness without being overwhelmed by the assumptions and precedents which are not their own--in other words, they are not overwhelmed by all the inherited readings, interpretations, and "knowledge" that are part of any discourse or field of study.


So, the learning process is at its best when it is free of coercion and restraint.  Let students make discoveries and further their own individual understanding–which may distance a student from others in the class—but by becoming a model and a resource for other students, they can also enhance the overall learning of the class. Right?

Right! (See Ames and Hall, Commentary on Ch. 65, DDJ, p. 180)

This year's (the 2016) Convo speaker Robert Krulwich, talked about the mysteries and the sense of wonder that humans can experience when they realize that even things as different as wasps, fox puppies, deer, birds, and hawks are really more like us than they are different...and yet we cannot know what it is like to be a fox or a hawk or a wasp. But we can think, imagine and wonder about it!! That's one of the great joys of learning.






3. What does Hans-Georg Moeller say about the Laozi or the text we call the Daodejing, and how we should read it?











Three important things:


a. It has no identifiable author;


b. It has no specific topic that is systematically addressed; it contains no dialogues between master and students like the Analects does;


c. It was not designed to be read in any particular order. It has no beginning, middle or end, really. Rather, it is "An endless chain of rhetorical connections," kind of like hypertexts on the Internet today, Moeller says.


So, how are we to read it? Is it OK to just open it up to some random verse and dive in? Yes, it is. We find it at times to be "proverb-like wisdom literature," saying that are easy to remember and repeat. And they appeal to the common sense of ordinary people. But if you read it carefully, all the way through, time and time again, you will start to see recurrent themes and patterns. Characters repeat, metaphors recur,"themes" or ideas resurface in an effort to awaken the reader to "an expanding web of semantic and phonetic associations." So there is a greater coherence to the DDJ than a first reading might suggest. (8)


4. Let us look at the opening lines of Ch. 1:

Paying attention to the original Chinese language, we see that the DDJ is very rhythmic and terse. For example, the opening lines are simply,



So, the character for Dao (道) appears 3 out of the first 6 characters. So, literally it is saying:

Dao Can Dao, Non-Constant Dao 


And then the pattern repeats in the 2nd line with "Name" as the repeated term:



Name Can Name, Not Constant Name

So now "name" 名 is repeating 3 times out of the next 6 characters, just as "Dao" (道) did in line #1.


How does this make the text seem to you?




Very open? Perhaps allowing rooms for paradox?



It does seem to suggest a juxtaposition of two processes: "Dao-ing" and "Naming."


--"Naming" (名) wants us to believe that everything can be reduced to simple concepts and "fixed" in reality. But the DDJ tells us to be wary: this "naming" is not "Real," it cannot assign permanence to something that is fluid. But the danger is that thinking that the names "really" do mean something can generate an overly static vision of the world at the expense of apprehending the free flow of reality or experience.

That is why Ames and Hall render the opening lines of the DDJ, which are usually/often rendered as something like:

The Dao can be followed, but it is not the Constant [Eternal] or the Real Dao.

Names can be named but they are not the Constant [Eternal] name.


Way-making (dao) that can be put into words is not really way-making.

And naming (ming) that can assign fixed reference to things is not really naming.


--"Naming," then, seems to be at one end of a continuum, a spectrum: it is about fixing things, making them into norms, but in doing so, it may strip an idea or a phenomenon of its dynamism, of the energy, what gives it its Life and makes it Real.

Therefore, "Naming" is trying to force or Impose some norm or some idea on people when really their minds should remain open to directly capture experience or reality "as it happens," in as natural a manner as possible. This "natural manner" is captured by the phrase "self-so" or ziran (自然).


--"Dao-ing" (道) on the other hand, wants to do something different. It wants to help us "move forward," move through life without falling into so many of its traps. To Dao 道 is to "Make our Way" successfully.


5. Roger Ames and David Hall discuss their approach to translating the Daodejing (see pp. 57-59) and they note how the term Dao (道) itself is constructed of two elements: a component related to "foot" (疋) which also relates to "go through," or "go over," and the component for head (首) which they say carries the suggestion of "lead."

It is also related to another character, 導, which means to lead forth, so they argue that "the character (for Dao) is primarily gerundive, processional, and dynamic: 'a leading forth'. The earliest appearance of this dao, 導, is in the Book of Documents in the context of cutting a channel and 'leading' a river to prevent the overflowing of its banks." (57)

All of this leads Ames and Hall to conclude that among the many possible meanings associated with this character, such as "road, path, way, method, to put into words, to explain, teachings, doctrines, arts," etc. it takes on the feeling of an "active project of moving ahead in the world,' of 'forging a way forward,' of 'road building'....By extension, dao comes to connote a pathway that has been made and hence can be traveled. It is because of this connection that dao is often, somewhat problematically, nominalized by translating it 'the Way'." (57-58)


Why is this problematic? Because if it is just used as a Noun, denoting "the Way," then it misses out on the dynamic movement aspect, the "momentum," and the "proactive role in making our way in the world" that they see as central to the DDJ. To "nominalize and conceptualize dao," they argue, "betrays its fluidity and reflexivity, and to give priority to that use is the first step in overwriting a processs sensibility with substance ontology."(58-59) That is why, instead of calling the Dao the "Way" as though it were a noun, Ames and Hall favor referring to it as "way-making."


What does this say to you?

















5. We might ask, though, when did the Daodejing come into existence and begin to circulate?


Difficult question but for sure by 300 BCE maybe some time in the 400s BCE. Not far off from the time that the three great Greek philosophers, Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.), Plato (429–347 B.C.E.), and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E), were making their efforts to comprehend and explicate reality and truth. Therefore, some call this an "Axial Age" because since we should throw the Buddha in there, too--for he appeared maybe a century earlier in India--people all around the globe were trying to work out their sense of what the world is, what reality and experience mean, and how we should correctly perceive and understand all these things going on around us. Indeed, what is the world all about? Why are we here? What are we supposed to do with our lives? What is the best way to spend our time and energies while we are on this earth? These would be handy to know, right?


Do you ever think about these things? Should college students spend their time thinking about these kinds of things?


Origin Stories of the text we call the Daodejing:

Philosophical Daoism traces its origins to Laozi (老子), an extraordinary thinker who flourished during the sixth century B.C.E., according to Chinese tradition. One story is that he was a teacher of Confucius but he despaired of the war and chaos and wanted to escape the walled cities and go live in nature. On his way out of the city, he was asked by the Gatekeeper if he couldn't leave behind a token of his wisdom. He complied by dashing off the 5,000 characters the make up the Laozi. According to most modern scholars, however, this story is apocryphal and Laozi is an entirely legendary figure; there was never an historical Laozi.

The name “Laozi” is best taken to mean “Old (老 lao) Master (子 zi),” and Laozi the ancient philosopher is said to have written a short book, which has come to be called simply the Laozi, after its putative author, a common practice in early China. When the Laozi was recognized as a “classic” ( jing)—that is, accorded canonical status in the classification of Chinese literature on account of its profound insight and significance, it became a text with which most educated and many semi-literate people were familiar. Why/How could less than highly literate people be familair with this text? Because the chapters or "verses" are composed of rhythmically arranged short utterances that could be memorized, repeated and transmitted orally.


Archaeology and the Daodejing

Recent tomb fundings at Guodian and Mawangdui include early versions of the text written on bamboo strips. The discovery of two Laozi silk manuscripts at Mawangdui, near Changsha, Hunan province in 1973 marks an important milestone in modern Laozi research.


The extant version has 464 lines and more than 13,000 Chinese characters. The book bears no chapter divisions, but, interestingly, “The Book of De” precedes “The Book of Dao,”which is the reverse of the orer that we have come to accept today as "standard."

Until 1993, the Mawangdui manuscripts held the pride of place as the oldest extant manuscripts of the Laozi. But in late 1993, the excavation of another tomb in Guodian, Jingmen city, Hubei province, has yielded, among other things, some 800 bamboo slips, of which 730 are inscribed, containing over 13,000 Chinese characters.


Some of these, amounting to about 2,000 characters, match the Laozi. The order of the "verses" or chapters was actually the reverse of the current versions--so we could have been talking about the De-dao-jing--but it is clealy the same text.

Most scholars believe today that initially, this text was transmitted orally. Michael LaFargue figures that the DDJ is made up of two kinds of sayings:

--some that are like proverbs, offering advice and wisdom;

--others that are thought to be aids to self-cultivation and point to regimens of breath control, meditation techniques, etc.


Ways of Reading the Daodejing:

This is why reading the Loazi or the DDJ is not like reading lots of other texts. It is a text that keeps referring back to itself, and while not necessarily "systematic" in its explication, it does emphasize certain "themes" such as the value of acting

--wuwei or "non-coercively" (無為); or

--naturally (ziran, 自然), or in harmony, without either striving or contentiousness, wuzheng(無争).

The goal is simply to keep returning to the great flow of experience as much as possible.

A reason to value the 2003 "Philosophical Translation" by Roger Ames and David Hall is that it offers many very valuable insights into this text and how to best read and think about it.



Their subtitle is great: Making This Life Significant. That kind of says it all. Three Key Words:

Making Life Significant.

That is what this text is all about: it contains advice for how we all might do a better job of making our lives meaningful, infusing them with meaning or significance.

"Meaning" is not an easy thing, however. Especially since whether we are aware of it or not, we bring our own biases and baggage to how we view and understand reality.

It may be fair to say that the ancient Chinese held a more “processual” (Ames and Hall's term) understanding of experience than was common in western (Greek) philosophy--which saw things in the world as being more fixed in their formal aspect--or than we might find in the Judeo-Christian worldview in which an all-powerful God determines things and makes things, something Daoists tend to resist, or to be wary of.  This is what they have against "naming"--because that is a way of assigning fixed meanings and attributes to things.

Hence the text works a lot with the wu (無) forms or expressions like

--non-striving or non-coercive action (wuwei 無為), so often incorrectly rendered as "non-action" or "non-ado." But it goes along with

--wuming 無名, not so much non-naming as it is "naming without fixed reference."

In other words, it is important to understand that the process of naming entails trying to "fix" things that are fluid and changing into static forms or norms. Hence the opening line telling us that trying to "name" is really futile: you cannot capture the true essence of things that way. In fact, naming acts as kind of a negative or coercive force in the world.

--Then we have 無事 wushi or to go about one's business without interfering with others, so we can day to act "unknowingly" in the sense that we are acting freely, without needless (mental) restrictions or encumbrances.

--And there is also wuxin 無心 which means literally to be of "no heart-and-mind" but which means to act with "unmediated thinking and feeling" because 心 means both heart and mind. "Sages realy think and feel immediately (wuxin 無心)." They do not need to process everthing endlessly.

--Wuyu 無欲 would mean literally "without desires" which would be great but we cannot really control that but we can let our desires be "objectless" when we do not attach to them, so this is called "objectless desire."

We tend to think that the "Objective World" is made up exclusively of objects--concrete, unchangeable things. But for Daoists, the "objective world," or reality, cannot really be a fixed object like this because it is "processual," something that is always unfolding, always tranforming. Reality is much more like "a flow of events or proceeses that would belie all the discrimnations that would permit a final inventory of the furniture of the world." (43) The DDJ would promote a kind of "acting, knowing, and desiring that does not depend on objects." The best plan? Allow these processes to unfold spontaneously, on their own terms, while at the same time participating fully in this process. (44)

--Wuzheng 無争 means "striving without contentiousness." Everything is not a competition. It is not always about being No. 1. It is not even always about us. There are other forces in the mix, too. The DDJ does not advocate "human exceptionalism." That is why "Because the Sages do not strive with contentiousness, no one in the world can really contend with them." (48) Ironically, they are not trying, not striving, yet they are the ones becoming the best that they can be.

--Finally, there is wuzhi, 無知 or "unfettered or 'unprincipled' knowing," or free from knowledge that is dependent upon ontological presence, i.e., the assumption that there is some unchanging reality behind appearance. "Unprincipled knowing" is knowledge that "does not appeal to rules or principles that determine the existence, meaning or activity of a phenomenon."(40) Instead, the mind should be free to simply "mirror" the world which they see as an active, synergystic response to the world, one that respects the idea that "all of the elements are in the stream and constitute a fluid interdependent continuity." (41)


These days, contemporary Americans love to say “Everything Happens for a Reason”; but doesn’t that suggest that everything is already pre-determined, already set up with nothing to be added or subtracted? So, if we were raised and educated in any version of this western narrative about the world, we have probably absorbed some version of this way of thinking about reality, about life. That is why Ames and Hall want us to appreciate how Daoist thinking is more "processual" because it thinks of REALITY or EXPERIENCE as something eternally flowing or unfolding; it sees every phenomenon in the universe as having its own unique current or impulse within a broad, constantly unfolding temporal flow, much like the Yijing or Book of Changes does. 

These processual events that constitute life are porous, flowing into each other in the ongoing transformation that we call experience.  Formation and function are interdependent—that is why “things” in Chinese resist definition or “naming” as they like to say—for naming is a practice that delineates some ostensibly discrete boundary around things.

As we saw above, Ames and Hall see the Dao (道) as not only a noun meaning the Way or Path; it is also a verb that talks about "making our way through life," "moving ahead in the world," "forging a way forward," or "road bulding." So they prefer the active term, "way-making" as their translation for the word Dao because they see the Dao as an open, interactive process that is always contrasted with the more static and coercive act of "Naming (名)" things.

That is why they render the opening lines of the DDJ, which are often rendered as:

A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way.

A name that can be named is not a constant name.


Way-making (dao) that can be put into words is not really way-making.

And naming (ming) that can assign fixed reference to things is not really naming.

It is as though these opening lines are saying watch out for pitfalls: the "Way" that people may talk about is not the real Way--but it cannot be because the real way is beyond the power of language to capture and "fix" as a norm.

People can and will assign "Names" (名) to everything but that doesn't mean that they are getting at the REAL object which is always shifting as it unfolds in space and time. Real objects, indeed, Reality is more fluid and contingent than that.

As Ames and Hall point out, "The wu-forms that we find throughout the text all advocate a personal disposition that seeks to optimize relationships through collaborative actions that, in the absence of coercion, enable one to make the most of any situation." (48) That would be the bottom line, how we can "Make This Life Significant."

Language, then, is something we have to be very conscious of; it has this power to name (名) and to command (命) both of which have the pronunciation in Chinese of ming. But fixed principles, closed systems, the pretense of absolutes--these are all intellectually and practically suffocating. 

Dogma, artificiality, and finality close off the openness and the fresh air of new directions that occur in thought and action. That is why Daoists find premeditated (Confucian) morality to be a sham. Technical morality, imposed from without, is more destructive than helpful (See Ames and Hall,134-35, and DDJ Ch. 37).

The Daodejing is not above taking swipes at Confucianism. For example, in Chapter 18, the DDJ suggests that

It is when grand way-making is abandoned

That authoritative conduct (仁, ren) and appropriateness (義, yi) appear. (103)

In other words, we only need to follow Confucius' key precepts BECAUSE no one is following the real Way or practicing "way-making" in the correct manner. So, Confucius' teachings becomere our fall back position, our Plan B.

Likewise, only after the concept of "Knowledge," Zhi arises that we have duplicity or falseness;

and the concept of filial piety (孝, xiao) arises only AFTER the family has fallen into "disharmony."

Ouch, so all these key Confucian terms like Ren 仁, Li, Yi 義, Zhi 智, and Xiao that are supposed to make us better persons would not be necessary if humans hadn't fallen off the True "Way," in the first place. So there are just conventions, concepts to help people who have already lost their way. In the end, they won't help us get back on the path!

That is exactly why in the next verse, Ch. 19, the DDJ is kind of "ranting" in a toungue-in-cheek fashion, about

Cut off sagacity, get rid of wisdom (Zhi)...

Cut off Ren (Ren),

Get rid of Appropriateness (義,Yi)

and the common people will return to filial piety (Xiao ) naturally, all on their own!!

So, there is no need to employ all these coercive measures, all the prescriptions for correct behavior or conduct that the Confucians advocate. We see much the same language in Ch. 38 where it has the

Ren person, the people who are the most "appropriate" (義,Yi), who are exemplars at Ritual and Rites (Li) as doing things "coercively"...

We only have to worry about this category of "excellence" (De, 徳) because we have lost the real Way. In this verse, Rites (Li) are "the thinnest veneer of doing one's best (忠)and making good on one's word (xin, 信), And it is the first sign of trouble!"


Again, ouch! These Confucian practices are nothing but a "thin veneer," a superficial approach of getting to the real problem at hand.


So, "persons of consequence, Ch. 38 tells us

Set more by the substance rather than the veneer

And by the fruit rather than the flower.

Hence, eschewing one they take the other. (136)

That is they go for the substance, the fruit, the real deal, rather than accepting short-cuts, or stop-gap measures.


For the Daoists, everything that we “know” and “experience,” then, is something that is in the process of becoming whole in its own co-creative relationships with other things. In the Chinese view, reality is always highly inter-related and inter-dependent.  We cannot step outside of this flow, of this Dao, which is life; nor can we arrest its always changing configuration. Actually, perhaps Sages can "step out," very briefly, as they "freeze" a certain scene or situation for a few seconds so that they can see all its permutations. But that is their special gift, their insight, and the source of their power.

What they offer us, and what we can do, is to be aware of the way in which reality flows all around and through us, and be aware of these currents and impulses. We need to be able to dodge the ones that we need to, and somehow come through all our daily encounters still standing, still functioning, and, of course, still looking cool. Or, better yet, come through life having made something significant out of it.  Yep, Make This Life Significant.

In this flow, this evolving order, then, there is at once a familiar rhythm to life and the newness of each moment. This guarantees the uniqueness of each emerging event, and preempts notions such as strict, linear causality, absolute predictability, and reversibility.  The self in a processive world is always communal, creativity is contextual, transactional, and multidimensional.  That is why we have to participate and to pay attention. It is important to prevent the inner focus of vital energy from being overwhelmed by outer distractions. 

In a world in which things are constituted by their relationships, these relations must be properly managed.  We need to coordinate human activities with the workings of the natural environment and the propensity of circumstances.  The greatest obstacle to optimizing relationships is coercion. 

Next, we have to worry about external diversions, like desires and greed, which can become a real source of agitation; they unsettle and distract us.  As soon as we get what we wanted, we move on to the next object that comes within our field of vision. The human need to own, to get, to possess, throws the natural rhythms of life into convulsions.  With each iteration of the cycle of wanting and getting, the wanting gets deeper.

Nature, though, does not participate in this "human exceptionalism" in which the human being is singled out for special treatment.  Nature treats all things, human and otherwise, with the same degree of care.

But we human beings can have--should have, need to have--a proactive role in making our way in the world, and we do this by interacting with these currents and impulses as we encounter them. 

At its best, then, the DDJ contains a vision for the human community--a peaceful, calm, fair, equitable, and inclusive community--and it seems to posit a world in which humans can operate with compassion, where they can feel what others feel, and these communities are places where people learn to live with what they have and understand that enough is enough. Acquisitiveness only sets in motion a vicious and endless cycle of desiring, wanting, acquiring, then wanting more. That is why Sages

Know themselves, but do not show off.

They love themselves but are not precious.

Hence, eschewing one they take the other. (DDJ, Ch. 72; also, the phrase "eschewing one they take the other" shows up in Ch. 12, too; see above)

Let's look at The Dao (道) De (德) Jing (經).

Three little words, the last of which is often attached as a suffix to key texts in ancient China and sigifies a "classic" or a serious literary artifact.

The other two words are anything but simple: Dao (道) signifies the "Way" or the Way Forward, while De (徳) signifies something like Virtue, the ability to exert Power over others, Charisma, and therefore Efficacy or Potency.

Consider Chapter 51 which uses the character which means dark, mysterious, even black. It is used along with the character 謂+玄+徳 to yield something like "Profound Efficacy." It is something Deep, something Powerful, something Mysterious.

Way-mkaing gives things life,

Yet does not manage them.

It assists them

Yet makes no claim upon them.

It rears them

Yet does not lord it over them.

It is this that is called "profound efficacy."

(謂玄 徳).


So, here is this language about Way-making: it gives things life, nurtures them, rears them, but never attempts to control or manage things; it does not make claims or lord it over things. It accepts things as they are and helps them to be the best that they can be.


We call this text the Daodejing because it is divided into two parts: the first part (chs 1-37) is "about" the Dao (道)while the second (38-81) is about the De (徳).  Early translations like Arthur Waley's offered the title:

"The Way and Its Power."

OK. That works. It captures a certain "sly" or pragmatic quality to the text, seeing it as a manual about how to survive, or how to acquire power, exercise it smoothly, effectively, effortlessly, and hold on to it. This "power" need not be social or political power, but could be one's spiritual power, those reserves of energy which are necessary to carry out the tasks of inner, spiritual growth and development. In fact, many feel that the DDJ can best be read as a guide to breathing exercises that accompany Daoist meditation practices; in other words, one of the important components of spiritual work.

In that regard, Ch. 10 of the DDJ talks about "concentrating your qi (気)" and making it "pliant," so that you can "become the newborn babe," one who is already at one with everything.


The DDJ tells us that

Sages abide in the business of wuwei (無為) = nonaction or "non-coervice action that is in accordance with the De (徳) of things..." (Ch. 3)

It is not that the Sages don't DO things; they do indeed ACT, and have AGENCY. But they do not "attach to" or identify with what they do. Therefore, they achieve and accomplish things without having to try. Their action are efficacious, effective, but always "Non-coercive."

What is a Sage, then?

The term "sage" or Sheng is represented by the character 聖人 which combines the graphic elements for “king”(王 wang) beneath “ear” (er 耳) and “mouth” (kou 口), suggesting that a Sheng is one who masters both listening and speech. They practice wuwei (無為), or non-coercive action, and wuxin (無心)--unmediated thinking and feeling, or letting the mind respond to its surroundings with immediacy--they establish patterns of deference that implicate all the people within their fields of activity.

Actually, there are numerous other "Wu" (無) terms or forms that recur in the DDJ, such as:

--Wuzhi (無知), not "no-knowledge," but knowledge that is not dependent on ontological presence, or the idea of an unchanging reality underlying appearance. So it is an "unprincipled knowing," i.e., a knowledge that is free from rigid, fixed meanings.

--By the same token, wuyu (無欲) doesn't mean "no desires," but desires without specific objects attached to them, so "objectless desire." Something can be desired and appreciated without feeling the need to own, possess, consume and control it. One can just "let things go" and not become attached to them. Ames and Hall also call this "deferential desire" because one defers doing anything about the feelings that may arise, so these desires remain unacted upon.

--Wushi (無事) means to be "non-interfering" when going about one's business. Daoists seek to optimize relations through collaboration--keeping coercion out of the mix---so they can make the most out of any situation.

--Wuqing (無情) stands for "unmediated feeling" i.e., feelings 情 that are free and unencumbered. Consider Ch. 38--which is also the first chapter in the second or De, 徳 section of the DDJ-- which starts out, once again, with something very simple, 4 characters:



Literally, this could be rendered as

"Highest Excellence = No Excellence" or as Ames and Hall call it,


It is because the most excellent [or De 上徳] do not strive to Excel [De 徳 again]

That they are of the highest Efficacy [De 徳 again].

And it is because the least excellent (下徳) do not leave off striving to excel

That they have no efficacy [無徳].

Persons of the Highest Efficacy neither do things coercively (wuwei, 無為)

Nor would they have any motivation for doing so.

Persons who are the most authoritative

(上 仁) do things coercively ()

And yet are not motivated in doing so. (135-136)

As we saw above, the DDJ takes a slap at Confucianism here where the ideal of being a ren person (人) is shown to be less effective then we might hope because the person has to try so hard to be good or "authoritative" that they undo themselves. If you have to try, isn't the battle already lost?

This is an example how the DDJ may sound paradoxical to our ears at times, because the Sage who does not strive, who does not try to achive things, winds up with everything that s/he needs and is satisfied. Those who are always trying so hard, striving, competing, following a winner-take-all strategy, they are the ones who wind up losing it all.

Ch. 38 resumes by talking about the person who strives to be "appropriate" (義) or to "practice li" (禮, Rites, Ritual) but as hard as they may be trying, they do not necessarily get the results.


Or, as Ch. 64 puts it,

Those who would do things ruin them;

Those who would control things lose them.

Hence because the Sages do things noncoercively (wuwei,無為)

They do not ruin them,

And because they do not try to control things,

They do not lose them. (Ames and Hall, 178).

Again, thinking about Ch. 51:

Way-making (dao,道) gives things their life;

And their particular efficacy (徳) is what nurtures them.

Events shape them,

And having a function consummates them.

It is for this reason that all things honor way-making

And esteem efficacy 徳.

As for the honor directed at way-making

And the esteem directed at efficacy,

It is reallly something that just happens spontaneously (ziran, 自然)...

Way making gives things life

Yet it does not manage them.

It assists them

Yet makes no claim upon them.

It rears them

Yet does not lord it over them.

It is this that is called profound efficacy (玄徳). (156-57)

The profound efficacy (玄徳) here uses a character for deep and mysterious to modify De 徳. This is wisdom, "deep stuff," the very essence of human existence, what it might be/could be all about!


The Dao () and the De (徳)

We should not forget that the DDJ is divided into two parts: The Dao () and the De (徳). In earlier translations, this was rendered as "The Way and Its Power," because the character 徳 usually includes along with the idea of "Power,"some notion of "Charisma," that unique human capacity to radiate a certain energy so that people around such a person respond by wanting to follow them, emulate them, and do the right thing because they radiate this special quality.

"The Dao gives things their life," says Ch. 51, "and their particular De is what nurtures them."

Events shape them,

And having a function consummates them.

It is for this reason that all things honor the Dao and Esteem the De.

As for the honor directed at the Dao and the Esteem directed at De,

It is really something that just happens spontaneously (ziran, 自然)

Without anyone having ennobled them.

(Ames and Hall, 156)

Having things happen "naturally" or spontaneously, letting things come about "just so," (i.e., ziran, 自然), that is the aim of Daoists. That is why in the DDJ, all things that attempt to control, coerce, strive, restrain, force or obstruct the positive flow of energy will wind up backfiring.

--Another Wu (無) term is wuzheng 無 or "striving without contentiousness." For example,

It is because Sages operate without contentiousness (争) that no one in the world is able to contend with them. 

(See Chs. 22 and 66)

Even as early as Ch. 10, the DDJ talks about how the Dao gives life to things,

Giving life without managing them,

And raising them without lording it over them--this is called the profoundest efficacy, 玄徳.

(Ames and Hall, p. 90)

This language is so close to what we see in Ch. 51 as well.

Below, where you will find some key verses from the DDJ, I have included more of the interpretative language that Ames and Hall offer.


For online versions and discussions, see also:






http://www.taoism.net/ttc/complete.htm http://www.myrkothum.com/top-10-most-inspiring-quotes-of-lao-tzu/



Some useful quotes from the text:

Chapter 1: 道可道,非恒道, 名可名,非恒名。


“The Dao that can be the Dao, is not the eternal Dao.
The Name that is the Name, is not the eternal Name.”


"The Dao that can be spoken of is not he real Dao.

The name that can be named, is not the real/consistent name."

But, alternatively, Ames and Hall see the Dao not just as a noun meaning "The Way," but also as a dynamic terms denoting "the active project of 'moving ahead in the world,' of 'forging a way forward,' of 'road bulding." So they prefer the active term, "way-making":

Way-making (dao) that can be put into words, is not really way-making.

And naming (名 ming) that can assign fixed reference to things is not real naming.

Roger Ames and David Hall, Daodejing, “Making This Life Significant”: A Philosophical Translation, translated with commentary by Roger Ames and David Hall (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003), p. 77. See also pp., 57-8.

Either way we approach it, this text starts us out by pointing to the limitations of language when it comes to trying to capture the essence of the Dao.

Chapter 2: 天下皆知美之為美,斯惡已。皆知善之為善,斯不善已 皆知善之為善,斯不善已。故有無相生,難易相成,長短相,高下相傾,音聲相和,前後相隨。是以聖人處無為之事,行不言之教;萬物作焉而不辭,生而不有。為而不恃,功成而弗居。夫唯弗居,是以不去.

As soon as everyone in the world knows that the beautiful are beautiful, there is already ugliness.

As soon as veryone knows the able, ther is ineptness. (80)

This is why people think of the DDJ as paradoxical but it is really very consistent in its messaging. We human beings operate in a universe, in a world, and we we need to focus on those specific things and events that constitute our field of experience. But we also live in a broader context, a Cosmos, so everything exists simultaneously in two fields: a local, particular one, and a broader cosmic or universal one. Our job is to perceive this if we can. In order to survive in our local particualr world, we may have to follow rules and obey laws; but watch out, because every inch of motion in that direction takes something away from being a free spiirt who can merge and become one with the unvierse.

The laws of society often disrupt or interfere with our natural inclination to be be creative and free. Thinking, naming, regulating, controlling all produce their opposites. As Ch. 18 suggests, "It is when grand way-making is abadoned, that auhtoritative conduct (ren, 仁) and "appropriateness" (yi, 義) appear." In other words, if people had just stayed with the Great Way of Nature, the Dao, then we would not need all these artificial concepts and regulatory devices. People would just do the right thing spontsaneously, or naturally (ziran, 自然). There is the suggestion that this is how things were in earlier, in more primitive human communities, before the rise of private property, before social classes, and hierarchy appeared. But since today, humans have drifted, life has become busy, intense and complex, and people are no longer in touch with the Dao; that is when the need for regulatory proactices comes about. Once people evolved form their more natural state into more organized and structured civil society, people like Confucius and the Legalists taught that we had better regulate human conduct. Hence the moral principles of Confucianism and the legal codes of the emerging states in the Warring States Era with their system of rewards and punishments.

In other words, "Distinctions produce their opposites." All these evaluative terms are relative. If you create the category of "Good" then you automatically create the idea of "Bad."


無名 = "nameless" (wuming) = the beginning of everything (Heaven and Earth) that happens

無欲 = That is why to be "without desires" (wuyu) or "objectlessness in one's desires" = is how we can SEE the great mystery (妙) of all things.

無為 = wuwei is another of the "wu" or "non-" utterances in the Daodejing. Often translated as "nonaction" or "non-coercive action," i.e., free, uncompelled, undriven action. It used to be translated as "non-doing" or "doing nothing" but this really misleads English readers. We are going to act; we have to act. What we need to do is act responsibly and not with regard ONLY to ourselves, focusing on our small, selfish or "petty" interests.

So Ch. 2 continues:

Determinacy (you,有) and indetermiacy (wu, 相) giver rise to each other.

Difficult and easy complement each other.

Long and short set each other off.

High and low complete each other.

Refined notes and raw sounds harmonize (he, 和) with each other.

That is really how it all works.

It is for this reason that Sages keep to service that does not entail coercion (無為)

And disseminatge teachings that go beyonf what can be said (不言) .

In all that happens (wanwu, 萬物),

The Sages develop things but do not initiate them,

They act on behalf of things, but do not lay any claim to them,

They se things through to fruition but do not take credit for them

It is only because they do not take credit for them that things do not take their leave. (80)


We see here the relativity, the Dualisms, that linguistic terms impose on us: Beauty v. Ugliness, Having v. Lacking, Difficult v. Easy, Long v. Short, High v. Low, Melody v. Rhythm, Before v. After. These are all relative terms and we easily get caught up in the distinctions they insist upon. Post-structuralist scholars write of the "prison house of language." Well, the Daoists knew all about that two thousand years before them!

As Ames and Hall comment on how language forces us to divide and name things: "Not only do you not get one without the other but, simply put, every constituent is necessary for every other constituent to be what it is. The job of the sage, then, is to enable each participant in the drama to contribute itself fully to the performance." (81) They would also say that life is most meaningful when we can see reality in both its determinate and indeterminate aspects. It is as though a "gateway" swings open and shut: our new thoughts shape how we think and act; and how we think and act shapes how our new thoughts emerge and evolve. Reality is ongoing or "processual." It is not fixed. That is what language, what "naming," or creating all these categories and disciminating among them, does.

Chapter 3: 不尚賢,使民不爭;不貴難得之貨,使民不為盜;不見可欲,使心不亂

Not promoting those of superior character.

Will save the common people from being contentious (不爭).

Not prizing property that is hard to come by

Will save them from being thieves. (81)


Our wisdom today preaches the exact opposite, but the DDJ thinks that "promoting one particular value judgment over another is divisive and self-defeating. Such conduct in favoring one thing over another encourages a contentiousnes among the people that undermines rather than fosters community. Better to be broadly inclusive of different talents and contributions, and to strive to appreciate each thing on its own terms, with the single proviso that coercion in any form is impoverishing...Rather than foisting an agenda on the community, effective administrators make sure that basic needs such as food and health are provided for, and then sit back to allow the character of the community to emerge synergistically out of the associated living of the people. The people. encouraged to be free from assumptions and inclusive of alternatives, develop a tolerance and accommodation that immunizes them from purveyors of malignant prejudices. It is only empathy and openness that can inspiure the community to go beyond the mediocrity of unilaterally legislated values." (82)

Chapter 4: 道沖而用之或不盈。淵兮似萬物之宗。挫其銳,解其紛,和其光,同其塵。湛兮似或存。吾不知誰之子,象帝之先

Way-making being empty,

You make use of it

But you do not fill it up.

So abysmaly deep--it seems to be the predecessor of everything that is happening (wanwu, 萬物).

It blunts the sharp edges

And untangles the knots;

It softens the glares

And brings things together on the same track.

So cavernously deep--

It only seems to persist. 

I do not know whose progeny it is;

It prefigures the ancestral gods. (83)


Being very deep, the Dao “prefigures” all things and, “Within the rhythms of life, the swinging gateway opens and novelty emerges spontaneously to revitalize the world." It is the underdetermined nature of the Dao--of Way-making--that makes it, like an "empty vessel" that is inexhaustible--it cannot be emptied or used up. "The processive and fluid character of experience precludes the possibility of either initial beginning or final closure by providing within it an ongoing space for self-renewal." (Ames and Hall, p. 83)

Chapter 5: 天地不仁,以萬物為芻狗;聖人不仁,以百姓為芻狗。


The heavens and the earth are not partial to instiotutionalized morality.

They take things (wanwu, 萬物) and treat them all as straw dogs.

Sages are not partial to institutionalized morality

They treat the common people as straw dogs.(84)

Of course a very famous line which seems to suggest that Sages are amoral and don't care about the commion people. But what exactly are straw dogs? They are ceremonaial objects used in sacrifices--so they need not be esteemed or valued. Why is this the view of heaven (tian, 天)? Does it not esteem human life? Does it not alue us as human beings? Why do Sages think like this? Don't sages care about us?

Some say that Daoist Sages are kind of neutral, perhaps even amoral; that is, they operate above the fray: they recognize human characteristics, but they remain “untouched” by them.  Really, they are unattached, unaffected by human activities because they KNOW that if humans do not perceive reality (the Dao) the way it is, then all their posturing is meaningless. Is this harsh and negative? Is it amoral? Maybe, maybe not.

Is it somehow "uncaring"? The opposite argument can be made: Sages remain “truly and universally affirmative” “…by not siding with any specific affirmation at the expense of others.”  That is how they can “affirm everything”…which means that Daoists are not especially “humane…and not particularly concerned with human beings.”  But that does not mean that they are not compassionate--because compassion and genuine feelings are an important part of the Daoist understanding of the human experience; they believe that everything starts from the viewpoint that we are all made up of the same inner stuff, so why should some be better or more heralded than others? However, Sages understand and accept the limits of what human beings can do, especially if they are operating in the dark, i.e., unaware of the true nature of the Dao and of humanity. See Hans-Georg Moeller, The Philosophy of the Daodejing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), pp. 134-136. 

Chapter 6: 谷神不死,是謂玄牝。玄牝之門,是謂天地根。綿綿若存,用之不勤

The life-force of the valley never dies--
This is called the "Dark Female."
The gateway of the Dark Female is called the Root of the world.
Wispy and delicate, it only seems to be there.

Yet it's productivity is bottomless. (85)

The image of the Female is used here to stand for fertility, fecundity, for productivity. Even though female anatomy is ostensibly "empty," like a bellows, it is inexhaustible.

Chapter 7: 天長地久。天地所以能長且久者,以其不自生,故能長生。


The Heaven are lasting and the Earth enduring.

The reason the world is able to to be lasting and enduring

Is because it does not live for itself.

It is on this model that the sages withdraw their persons from contention yet find themselves out in front,

Put thier persons out of mind yet find themselves taken care of.

Isn't it simply because they are unselfish that they can satisfy their own needs? (86)



Here again, we see this notion of the Sages as impartial; they emulate or reflect nature, they go with natural processes--they emerge out of the myriad foci of reality, and operate within the framework or the limitations of what they experience. To use a sports metaphor, they understand how to take what the defense gives them or allows them. But they remain within their game plan, within the rules of the game. The Sages take "nature as their mentor," so "that their persons are perserved and all of their needs are satisfied." (Ames and Hall, 87). This sounds like advice on how to live your life efficiently and effectively.

Chapter 8: 上善若水。水善利萬物而不爭,處衆人之所惡,故幾於道。居善地,心善淵,與善仁,言善信,正善治,事善能,動善時。夫唯不爭,故無尤

The highest efficacy is like water.

It is because water benefits everything (wanwu, 萬物),

Yet views to dwell in places loathed by the crowd

That it comes nearest to proper way-making. (87)

Water is a nice metaphor here: "it gives the gift of life without discrimination, and flows everywhere, disdaining nothing."

Ames and Hall: "In the human experience, we are radically contextualized, constituted by those roles and relationships that locate us within our social, natural, and cultural environments. 'Proper way-making' is getting the most out of these relationships as we make our way in the world: It is making life significant. And getting the most out of our experience depends upon achieving and sustaining optimally productive harmony and balance in our lives. "Such efficacy depends upon always knowing where to be, committing ourselves utterly in our relationships, being generous in our transactions, making good on what we say, being successful both in service and in governance, and seizing the moment." (88)

Can there be any better adivce for how to live our lives?

Chapter 9: 持而盈之,不如其已;揣而銳之,不可長保。金玉滿堂,莫之能守;富貴而驕,自遺其咎。功遂身退天之道

It is better to desist

Than to try to hold it upright and fill it to the brim.

Pounded out to a point

It's sharpness cannot be long maintained.


When treasure fills the hall,

No one is able to keep it safe.

Those who are arrogant because of station and wealth

Bring clamaity upon themselves.

To retire when the deed

Is the way (dao) that Tian works. (88)


"The human experience can be maximized only by coordinating its activities with the workings of the natural environment and the propensity of circumstances." Each of us has a Self and that self is situated in its particular context or Circumstances. Daoists would say that we should model human activities on the cyclical patterns found in nature....but experience is also directly affected and shaped by the circumstances in which we live so we have to navigate both sides: the universal or natural, the cosmic v. the particular, the local, the artificial, the institutionalized practices that make up our lives. (Ames and Hall p. 89)

Reality comes at us in two different ways. No one said that living our lives correctly would be easy!

Chapter 10: 載營魄抱一,能無離乎?專氣致柔,能嬰兒乎?滌除玄覽,能無疵乎?愛民治國,能無知乎?天門開闔,能為雌乎?明白四達,能無知乎?生之、畜之,生而不有,為而不恃,長而不宰,是謂玄德.

In carrying about your more spiritual and more physical aspercts and embracing their oneness,

Are you able to keep them from from separating?

In concentrating on your qi (氣), and making it pliant,

Are you able to become the newborn babe?(90)


The verse continues talking about scrubbing and cleaning one's "mirror," and being able to operate with "unfettered knowledge" (wuzhi, 無知), amd ends up proclaiming that "Giving life without managing them, And traising them without lording over them--This is called the profoundest efficacy (玄德)." Notice how the last character in this verse is , the de of the Daodejing, translated here as "Efficacy," though it was previosuly rendered as "Virtue" or sometimes "Power." It is the "focus" to the Dao's "field" = two mutually reinforcing levels of awareness. This is the first time we have seen De in the text. It is usually thought to have something to do with "charisma" or the ability to sway or move other people. As Ames and Hall say, "It is the process of focusing de that, for the human being, generates cognitive, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual meaning." (60) Ames and Hall also make the point that a meditative regimen was at the heart of the Daoist sense of cultivating oneself or following the Way. "In fact," they say, "much of the Daodejing can be read as a metaphor for breathing exercises." (90) In other words, maybe we need to be reading this whole text as a guide to meditation, short verses that we can use to concentrate or focus our mind as we regulate our breathing and center ourselves. The ancient Indian book of wisdom, the Bhagavad Gita comes to mind with its emphasis on the reality that—“to become centered and to still the mind is to unite individual consciousness with the ultimate self, the Absolute.” Is this what the early Daoists were going for?

Chapter 11: 三十辐共一毂,当其无,有车之用。 埏埴以為器,當其無,有器之用。鑿戶牖以為室,當其無,有室之用。故有之以為利,無之以為用.

Thirty spokes converge at one hub,

But the utlity of the cart is a fuction of the nothingness (wu, ) inside the hub....

Thus, it might be something (you, ) that provides the value,

But it is nothing (wu,) that provides the uitlity. (91)

Ames and Hall point out that in Chinese "having" and "not having" are not quite the ontological categories they are in the west; rather, (you) and (wu) are more interdependent ways of thinking about presence and absence. means to have but also "to be present," "to be around," while means not to be present, or not to be around. So it is about whether something is present, not about whether it exists or not. (Ames and Hall, p. 91)

Chapter 12: 五色令人目盲,五音令人耳聋,五味令人口爽。 馳騁田獵,令人心發狂;難得之貨,令人行妨。是以聖人為腹不為,故去彼取此.

The five colors blind the eye,
The hard riding of the hunt addles both heart and mind,

Property hard to come by subverts proper conduct,

The five flavors destroy the palate,

And the five notes impair the ear.

It is for this reason that in the proper governing by the sages:

The exert their efforts on behalf of the abdomen rather than the eye.

Thus, eschewing one they take the other. (92)


The abdomen, is the center of our body, the source of our equilibrium--meditation has to be centered on this. The eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue--they can all bring distractions and stir our desires. We want to avoid this!


Chapter 13: 寵辱若驚,貴大患若身。何謂寵辱若驚?寵為下,得之若驚,失之若驚,是謂寵辱若驚。何謂貴大患若身?吾所以有大患者,為吾有身,及吾無身,吾有何患?故貴以身為天下,若可寄天下;愛以身為天下,若可託天下.

This verse asks the question "What does it mean in saying "Favor and disgrace are causs for alarm?"


Why should we welcome humiliation or misfortune if it befalls us?  The answer given by the DDJ is:

The reason we have grave anxieties is because we aew embodied persons.  
If we have no self--if we are not attached to our bodies--what anxieties would we have? (93)

If the self becomes unencumbered by attachments, if we can rid ourselves of distinctions, then we will not have to worry about misfortune befalling us. The reality is that according to the DDJ, the desire for fame or wealth is mentally agitating and so it is ‘damaging’ to our being. One of the themes of the DDJ is to become 無欲 or wuyu which is to say to be without desires...but of course, we can probably never be without desires; but we can learn to curb our appetites so that we can "detach" from our desires, from the stirrings in the mind that distract us from our taks of meditating, becoming centered, and therby becoming free, not-attached to the things of this world. So, we can have "objectless desires," that is, desirs that do not attach to specific objects.


Chapter 14: 視之不見,名曰夷;聽之不聞,名曰希;搏之不得,名曰微。此三者不可致詰,故混而為一。其上不皦,其下不昧。繩繩不可名,復歸於無物。是謂無狀之狀,無物之象,是謂惚恍。迎之不見其首,隨之不見其後。執古之道,以御今之有。能知古,是謂道紀.

This verse talks about the Dao being "elusive," "inaudible,""intangible" "Because in sight, sound and touch it is beyond determination."

It defies discrimination

And reverts again to indeterminaqcy.


Hold tightly on to way-making in the present

To manage what is happrening right now

And to understand where it began in the distant past.

This is what is called the drawstring () of way-making.


I guess this is why we need to know our history, our origins, our beginnings. When Jesus was asked to tell his disciples about "the End" that awaited them he replied: "Have you discovered the beginning, then, that you now seek the end?  For where the beginning is, there the end will be. Blessed are those who will stand at the beginning, and they will come to know the end and will not taste death." (Gospel According to Thomas, Saying 18)

When the DDJ says that we need to hold onto the Dao so we can make sense of what is going on around us today, in the present, I say right on! What we see around us, what we can apprehend by our senses, is NOT all there is, it is not all that is going on in the universe. It is better to be Jedi knight and to know about the Force. But just like Luke did when had to learn (from Master Yoda) how to do this, you have to abandon your ordinary way of perceiving, and your existing categories of knowledge in order to perceive the deeper, truer reality of the human experience.

Chapter 15: 古之善為士者,微妙玄通,深不可識。夫唯不可識,故強為之容。豫兮若冬涉川;猶兮若畏四鄰;儼兮其若容;渙兮若冰之將釋;敦兮其若樸;曠兮其若谷;混兮其若濁;孰能濁以靜之徐清?孰能安以久動之徐生?保此道者,不欲盈。夫唯不盈,故能蔽不新成

"Those of old who were good at forging their way (dao) in the world:

...Their profundity was beyond comprehension."

The scholars of old, the ancients, "got" something about the human experience that was subtle, mysterious, enigmatic and far-reaching. It was deep. "Their profundity was beyond understanding." That is why it is so difficult to explain or recapitulate what they learned. All we can do is say that they were "Poised, Reluctant, Vigilant, Reserved, but Open, murky like muddy water; vast and vacant like a mountain gorge."

"Those who prize way-making do not seek fullness.

It is only because thy do not want to be full

That they are able to remqin hidden and unfinished." (98)

We don't need to try so hard to "get" everything; we just need to be still, to immerse in the process of experience, and to be without desires 不欲, or without attachments to the objects of our desires, and therefore to not NEED so much. Take what comes to you. Naturally. (ziran, 自然) That is why we might appear to some as hidden and unfinished but they cannot see what is really there, something that is in the process of becoming realized.

Chapter 16: 致虛極,守靜篤。萬物並作,吾以觀復。夫物芸芸,各復歸其根。歸根曰靜,是謂復命。復命曰常,知常曰明。不知常,妄作凶。知常容,容乃公,公乃王,王乃天,天乃道,道乃久,沒身不殆

The teeming multitude of things return to their roots, their origins; this is called equilibrium or stillness. Returning to one's destiny is called called constancy, and knowing constancy is thought of as Enlightenment.

To know constancy is to be accommodating; to be accommodating is to work for the good of all. To work for the good of all is to be a true King .

"Accommodation," Ames and Hall suggest, "far from being passive or weak, is the source of the fullness of strength and influence, timeliness and efficacy. Indeed, accommodation is inclusionary, enabling one to extend oneself through patterns of deference....[These] are the most effective means of acheiving a stable and enduring social, political, and cosmic order. This then is how the kingly and the numinous way is extended and maintained." (101)

Going against many assumptions, to be "Kingly," to rule effectively, need not always involve severity or harshness. One can be accommodating, compassionate, generous, and it should involve working for the benefit of all.

Chapter 17: 太上,下知有之;其次,親而譽之;其次,畏之;其次,侮之。信不足,焉有不信焉。悠兮,其貴言。功成事遂,百姓皆謂我自然

With the most excellent ruler, their subjects only know that they are there

The next best are the rulers they love and praise,

Next are the rulers they hold in awe,

And the worst are the rulers they disparage.

Where there is a lack of credibilit

There is a lack of trust.

Vigilant, they are careful in what they say.

With all things accomplished and the work complete

The commonir people say, 'We are spontaneously like this'. (我自然). (102)


The people may be well-governed but they don't realize that someone "did" anything to them to make things that way; they believe they just did it themselves spontaneously. (Our old friend, ziran, 自然 or doing it "self-so" naturally, without force or coercion).

Ch. 18 大道廢,有仁義;智慧出,有大偽;六親不和,有孝慈;國家昏亂,有忠臣

It is when the Grand way-making is abandoned,

That authoritative conduct (ren, 仁) and appropriateness (yi, ) appear.

It is when wisdom (zhi, ) and erudition arise

That great duplicity appears. (103)

The verse goes on to talk about about how all these concepts like family relationships, filial piety, propriety, duty, obligation, performance of ritual, etc. (all Confucian terms!) ONLY come about because we forgot how to live naturally and in harmony.

The lines 智慧出,有大偽 say that "When wisdom and erudition emerge, That great duplcity (deceit? hypocrisy?) apears."  OR, anither way of translating it,

"When wisdom and intelligence are born, 

The great pretense begins." 

So, it is this that narrow kind of knowledge that limits individuals, pushing us toward being shallow and coercive? It seems to be in this contexthwere we find:

故 以 智 治 國,  國 之 賊

if one was using crafty cleverness to rule a country,

He would be considered as a bandit of the country.

Here, then, clearly is a pejorative; someone who rules through this kind of cleverness is equated to a bandit.


Ch. 19: 絕聖棄智,民利百倍;絕仁棄義,民復孝慈;絕巧棄利,盜賊無有。此三者以為文不足。故令有所屬:見素抱樸,少私寡欲

Cut off sagacity, and get rid of wisdom,

And the benefit to the common people will be a hundredfold.

Cut off authoritative conduct and get rid of appropriateness

And the common people will return to filial piety and parental affection.

Cut off cleverness and get rid of personal profit

And there will be no mofe brigands and thieves.


...Embrace a simplicity like unowrked wood,

Lessen your concern for yoursel, and reduce your desires. (104)


Of course the irony here is that we have to get rid of all these artificial ways of conceptualizing about and directing how we should behave, and then people will just come back to behaving properly because it is the right thing to do, especially if we embrace a plain, sustainable, unselfish lifestyle that does not place our private, individual human desires at the center of everythign we do.

Chapter 20: 絕學無憂,唯之與阿,相去幾何?善之與惡,相去若何?人之所畏,不可不畏。荒兮其未央哉!衆人熙熙,如享太,如春登臺。我獨怕兮其未兆;如嬰兒之未孩; 儽儽兮若無所歸。衆人皆有餘,而我獨若遺。我愚人之心也哉!沌沌兮,俗人昭昭,我獨若昏。俗人察察,我獨悶悶。澹兮其若海,飂兮若無止,衆人皆有以,而我 獨頑似鄙。我獨異於人,而貴食母.

Cut off learning and there will be nothing more to worry about.

Of course, all these slanderous statements about getting rid of all the "crap" that the Confucians throw at us is done in a humorous spirit, to be sure, but it would have been jarring to the reader. All readers of the DDJ were readers of Confucian texts as well, and they took its admonitions very seriously. But here we find a joyous spirit: Free people up to be "bright and merry." Enjoy the immediate experiences and the unmediated feelings that experience brings to us. Don't worry, be happy.

Chapter 21: 孔德之容,唯道是從。道之為物,唯恍唯惚。忽兮恍兮,其中有象;恍兮忽兮,其中有物。窈兮冥兮,其中有精;其精甚真,其中有信。自古及今,其名不去,以閱衆甫。吾何以知衆甫之狀哉?以此

Those of magnificent character (孔德)

Are committed to way-making alone.

It is ever so indefinite and vague.

Though vague and indefinite

There are images within it.

Though indefinite and vague,

There are events within it.

Though nebulous and dark,

There are seminal concentrations of qi within it.

These concentrations of qi are authentic,

And have within them, true credibility. (107)

The Way is vague and illusive--it has to be because we participate in making it, in constructing reality. "While fluid and processual," the Dao "contains within it the eventful phenomena we identify as those 'things' and 'images' that make up our lives, including of course, our selves. This emerging field of experience is autogenerative--it contains with in it a seminal truth or spirit ()--an essence which is "genuine and authentic." It is true so we can believe and trust in it.

Why wouldn't we believe in it and trust it if we experience it directly for ourselves and do not rely on what other people may tell us about it?

Chapter 22: 曲則全,枉則直,窪則盈,弊則新,少則得,多則惑。是以聖人抱一為天下式。不自見,故明;不自是,故彰;不自伐,故有功;不自矜,故長。夫唯不爭,故天下莫能與之爭。古之所謂曲則全者,豈虛言哉!誠全而歸之

The Sages grasp oneness to be shepherds to the world, but they never show off or promite themselves or their accomplishments."They do not makea display of themselves and so are illsutrious...They do not brag about themselves and so are accorded merit." "Sages embrace the One ad serve as models for the whole world."

"It is only because they do not contend (不爭)

That none are able to contend with them." (110)

The english translations of the following chapters are from the online site: http://taoism.net/ttc/complete.htm


Chapter 23: 希言自然,故飄風不終朝,驟雨不終日。孰為此者?天地。天地尚不能久,而況於人乎?故從事於道者,道者,同於道;德者,同於德;失者,同於失。同於道者,道亦樂得之;同於德者,德亦樂得之;同於失者,失亦樂得之。信不足,焉有不信焉

Sparse speech is natural
Thus strong wind does not last all morning
Sudden rain does not last all day
What makes this so? Heaven and Earth
Even Heaven and Earth cannot make it last
How can humans?

Thus those who follow the Dao are with the Dao
Those who follow virtue are with virtue
Those who follow loss are with loss
Those who are with the Dao, the Dao is also pleased to have them
Those who are with virtue, virtue is also pleased to have them
Those who are with loss, loss is also please to have them
Those who do not trust sufficiently, others have no trust in them 

Chapter 24: 企者不立;跨者不行;自見者不明;自是者不彰;自伐者無功;自矜者不長。其在道也,曰:餘食贅行。物或惡之,故有道者不處

Those who are on tiptoes cannot stand
Those who straddle cannot walk
Those who flaunt themselves are not clear
Those who presume themselves are not distinguished
Those who praise themselves have no merit
Those who boast about themselves do not last

Those with the Dao call such things leftover food or tumors
They despise them
Thus, those who possesses the Tao do not engage in them

Chapter 25: 有物混成,先天地生。寂兮寥兮,獨立不改,周行而不殆,可以為天下母。吾不知其名,字之曰道,強為之名曰大。大曰逝,逝曰遠,遠曰反。故道大,天大,地大,王亦大。域中有四大,而王居其一焉。人法地,地法天,天法道,道法自然

There is something formlessly created
Born before Heaven and Earth
So silent! So ethereal!
Independent and changeless
Circulating and ceaseless
It can be regarded as the mother of the world

I do not know its name
Identifying it, I call it "Dao"
Forced to describe it, I call it great
Great means passing
Passing means receding
Receding means returning
Therefore the Tao is great
Heaven is great
Earth is great
The sovereign is also great
There are four greats in the universe
And the sovereign occupies one of them
Humans follow the laws of Earth
Earth follows the laws of Heaven
Heaven follows the laws of Dao
Dao follows the laws of nature

Chapter 26:重為輕根,靜為躁君。是以聖人終日行不離輜重。雖有榮觀,燕處超然。奈何萬乘之主,而以身輕天下?輕則失本,躁則失君

Heaviness is the root of lightness
Quietness is the master of restlessness

Therefore the sages travel an entire day
Without leaving the heavy supplies
Even though there are luxurious sights
They are composed and transcend beyond

How can the lords of ten thousand chariots
Apply themselves lightly to the world?
To be light is to lose one's root
To be restless is to lose one's mastery

Chapter 27:善行無轍迹,善言無瑕讁;善數不用籌策;善閉無關楗而不可開,善結無繩約而不可解。是以聖人常善救人,故無棄人;常善救物,故無棄物。是謂襲明。故善人者,不善人之師;不善人者,善人之資。不貴其師,不愛其資,雖智大迷,是謂要妙

Good traveling does not leave tracks
Good speech does not seek faults
Good reckoning does not use counters
Good closure needs no bar and yet cannot be opened
Good knot needs no rope and yet cannot be untied

Therefore sages often save others
And so do not abandon anyone
They often save things
And so do not abandon anything
This is called following enlightenment

Therefore the good person is the teacher of the bad person
The bad person is the resource of the good person
Those who do not value their teachers
And do not love their resources
Although intelligent, they are greatly confused
This is called the essential wonder

Chapter 28: 知其雄,守其雌,為天下谿。為天下谿,常德不離,復歸於嬰兒。知其白,守其黑,為天下式。為天下式,常德不,復歸於無極。知其榮,守其辱,為天下谷。為天下谷,常德乃足,復歸於樸。樸散則為器,聖人用之,則為官長,故大制不割

Know the masculine, hold to the feminine
Be the watercourse of the world
Being the watercourse of the world
The eternal virtue (常德) does not depart
Return to the state of the infant
Know the white, hold to the black
Be the standard of the world
Being the standard of the world
The eternal virtue (常德) does not deviate
Return to the state of the boundless
Know the honor, hold to the humility
Be the valley of the world
Being the valley of the world
The eternal virtue (常德) shall be sufficient
Return to the state of plain wood
Plain wood splits, then becomes tools
The sages utilize them
And then become leaders
Thus the greater whole is undivided

Chapter 29: 將欲取天下而為之,吾見其不得已。天下神器,不可為也,為者敗之,執者失之。故物或行或隨;或歔或吹;或強或羸;或挫或隳。是以聖人去甚,去奢,去泰

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose

Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force

Therefore the sage:
Eliminates extremes
Eliminates excess
Eliminates arrogance

Chapter 30:以道佐人主者,不以兵強天下。其事好還。師之所處,荊棘生焉。大軍之後,必有凶年。善有果而已,不敢以取強。果而勿矜,果而勿伐,果而勿驕。果而不得已,果而勿強。物壯則老,是謂不道,不道早已

The one who uses the Dao to advise the ruler
Does not dominate the world with soldiers
Such methods tend to be returned

The place where the troops camp
Thistles and thorns grow
Following the great army
There must be an inauspicious year

A good commander achieves result, then stops
And does not dare to reach for domination
Achieves result but does not brag
Achieves result but does not flaunt
Achieves result but is not arrogant
Achieves result but only out of necessity
Achieves result but does not dominate

Things become strong and then get old
This is called contrary to the Dao
That which is contrary to the Dao soon ends

Chapter 31: 夫佳兵者,不祥之器,物或惡之,故有道者不處。君子居則貴左,用兵則貴右。兵者不祥之器,非君子之器,不得已而用之,恬淡為上。勝而不美,而美之者,是樂 殺人。夫樂殺人者,則不可以得志於天下矣。吉事尚左,凶事尚右。偏將軍居左,上將軍居右,言以喪禮處之。殺人之衆,以哀悲泣之,戰勝以喪禮處之

A strong military, a tool of misfortune
All things detest it
Therefore, those who possess the Dao avoid it
Honorable gentlemen, while at home, value the left
When deploying the military, value the right

The military is a tool of misfortune
Not the tool of honorable gentlemen
When using it out of necessity
Calm detachment should be above all
Victorious but without glory
Those who glorify
Are delighting in the killing
Those who delight in killing
Cannot achieve their ambitions upon the world

Auspicious events favor the left
Inauspicious events favor the right
The lieutenant general is positioned to the left
The major general is positioned to the right
We say that they are treated as if in a funeral
Those who have been killed
Should be mourned with sadness
Victory in war should be treated as a funeral

Chapter 32: 樸雖小,1天下莫能臣也。侯王若能守之,萬物將自賓。天地相合,以降甘露,民莫之令而自均。始制有名,名亦既有,夫亦將知止,知止所以不殆。譬道之在天下,猶川谷之與江海 。

The Dao, eternally nameless
Its simplicity, although imperceptible
Cannot be treated by the world as subservient

If the sovereign can hold on to it
All will follow by themselves
Heaven and Earth, together in harmony
Will rain sweet dew
People will not need to force it; it will adjust by itself

In the beginning, there were names
Names came to exist everywhere
One should know when to stop
Knowing when to stop, thus avoiding danger

The existence of the Dao in the world
Is like streams in the valley into rivers and the ocean

Chapter 33: 知人者智,自知者明。勝人者有力,自勝者強。知足者富。強行者有志。不失其所者久。死而不亡者壽。

Those who understand others are intelligent
Those who understand themselves are enlightened

Those who overcome others have strength
Those who overcome themselves are powerful

Those who know contentment are wealthy
Those who proceed vigorously have willpower

Those who do not lose their base endure
Those who die but do not perish have longevity

Or, perhaps better:

To know others is wisdom;

To know onself is actuity (ming).

To conquer others is power,

To conquer oneself is strength. (Ames and Hall, p. 128)

Chapter 34:大道汎兮,其可左右。萬物恃之而生而不辭,功成不名有。衣養萬物而不為主,常無欲,可名於小;萬物歸焉,而不為主,可名為大。以其終不自為大,故能成其大

The great Dao is like a flood
It can flow to the left or to the right

The myriad things depend on it for life, but it never stops
It achieves its work, but does not take credit
It clothes and feeds myriad things, but does not rule over them

Ever desiring nothing
It can be named insignificant
Myriad things return to it but it does not rule over them
It can be named great

Even in the end, it does not regard itself as great
That is how it can achieve its greatness

Chapter 35:執大象,天下往。往而不害,安平大。樂與餌,過客止。道之出口,淡乎其無味,視之不足見,聽之不足,用之不足既

Hold the great image
All under heaven will come
They come without harm, in harmonious peace

Music and food, passing travelers stop
The Dao that is spoken out of the mouth
Is bland and without flavor

Look at it, it cannot be seen
Listen to it, it cannot be heard
Use it, it cannot be exhausted

Chapter 36: 將欲歙之,必固張之;將欲弱之,必固強之;將欲廢之,必固興之;將欲奪之,必固與之。是謂微明。柔弱勝剛強。魚不可脫於淵,國之利器不可以示人

If one wishes to shrink it
One must first expand it
If one wishes to weaken it
One must first strengthen it
If one wishes to discard it
One must first promote it
If one wishes to seize it
One must first give it
This is called subtle clarity

The soft and weak overcomes the tough and strong
Fish cannot leave the depths
The sharp instruments of the state
Cannot be shown to the people

Chapter 37:道常無為而無不為。侯王若能守之,萬物將自化。化而欲作,吾將鎮之以無名之樸。無名之樸,夫亦將無。不欲以靜,天下將自定

The Dao is constant in non-action = 道常無為 or "non-coercive action"
Yet there is nothing it does not do

If the sovereign can hold on to this
All things shall transform themselves
Transformed, yet wishing to achieve
I shall restrain them with the simplicity of the nameless
The simplicity of the nameless
They shall be without desire
Without desire, using stillness
The world shall steady itself

Part Two

The Book of De () or "Virtue" (or Efficacy) - Chapters 38 to 81

Chapter 38: 上德不德,是以有德;下德不失德,是以無德。上德無為而無以為;下德為之而有以為。上仁為之而無以;上義為之而有以為。上禮為之而莫之應,則攘臂而扔 之。故失道而後德,失德而後仁,失仁而後義,失義而後禮。夫禮者,忠信之薄,而亂之首。前識者,道之華,而愚之始。是以大丈夫處其厚,不居其薄;處其實, 不居其華。故去彼取此

High virtue is not virtuous
Therefore it has virtue
Low virtue never loses virtue
Therefore it has no virtue
High virtue takes no contrived action (無為)
And acts without agenda
Low virtue takes contrived action (有以為)
And acts with agenda
High benevolence () takes contrived action
And acts without agenda
High righteousness () takes contrived action
And acts with agenda
High etiquette () takes contrived action
And upon encountering no response
Uses arms to pull others

Therefore, the Dao is lost, and then virtue
Virtue is lost, and then benevolence ()
Benevolence is lost, and then righteousness ()
Righteousness is lost, and then etiquette ()
Those who have etiquette
are a thin shell of loyalty () and sincerity ()
And the beginning of chaos

Those with foreknowledge
Are the flowers of the Dao
And the beginning of ignorance
Therefore the great person:
Abides in substance, and does not dwell on the thin shell
Abides in the real, and does not dwell on the flower
Thus they discard that and take this

Benevolence, Righteousness, Li or "etiquette," Loyalty and Sincerity are among the Virtues that Confuciansm talks about alot. All the time, fact. Here, the DDJ seems to be poking some fun at them, suggesting that as long as they harbor "contrived actions (有為 = having 'artifice' as opposed to 無為 wuwei, ')" and have agendas, they will not be what they purport to be; they will not be able to deliver what they promise.


Some other chapters:

Chapter 42: 道生一, 一生二, 二生三, 三生万物。
“The Dao gives birth to one,
The one gives birth to two,
The two gives birth to three,
The three gives birth to the myriad of creatures.”

Chapter 51: uses the character = dark, mysterious, black. It is used along with 謂 + 玄 + 徳 to yield something like "Profound Efficacy,"Something that is Deep, Powerful, and Mysterious. Part of this verse reads:

Way-mkaing gives things life,

Yet does not manage them.

It assists them

Yet makes no claim upon them.

It rears them

Yet does not lord it over them.

It is this that is called "profound efficacy. (謂玄 徳)

So, here is this language about Way-making: it gives things life, nurtures them, rears them, but never attempts to control or manage things; it does not make claims or lord it over things. It accepts things as they are and helps them to be the best that they can be.

Chapter 56: 知人不言,言者不知。
“Those who know don’t talk.
Those who talk don’t know.”

Chapter 71: 知不知, 尚矣,不知知,病也。
“To know that one does not know is best.
Not to know that one does not know is an illness.”

Chapter 78: 天下莫柔弱于水,而攻坚强者莫之能胜。
“Nothing under heaven is softer and weaker than water.
But against the solid and strong nothing is stronger.”

Chapter 81: 信言不美,美言不信。
“Beautiful words are not true,
True words are not beautiful.”

from: http://www.weituoacademy.com/philosophy/daodejing/quotes.aspx


See also:

“The Dao that can be told
is not the eternal Dao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”

-  Laozi Daodejing, Chapter 1

“Can you focus your breath
as supple as a newborn child?

Can you cleanse your vision
till there is no blemish?”

Laozi Daodejing quotes – Verse 10

We mold clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that makes the vessel useful.

— Laozi Daodejing Verse 11

The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors stale the palate.
The chase for preys deranges the mind,
too much treasure impedes one’s growth.
The Master acts on what he feels not what he sees,
so allows things to come and go.

– Laozi Daodejing Verse 12

“Be totally empty,
embrace the tranquility of peace.
Watch the workings of all creation,
observe how endings become beginnings.”

All creatures in the universe
return to the point where they began.
Returning to the source is tranquility
meaning submitting to what is and what is to be.”

Laozi Daodejing Verse 16

“Knowing the constant, we accept things as they are.
By accepting things as they are, we are impartial.
By being impartial, we are part of the Nature.
By being a part of the Nature, we are one with Tao.
Tao is eternal, and we survive physical death.”

Laozi Daodejing Verse 16

“The best leaders are those their people hardly know exist.
The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.
Next comes the one who is feared.
The worst one is the leader that is despised …

The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.
When they have accomplished their task,
the people say, “Amazing!
We did it, all by ourselves!”

Laozi Daodejing (17)

Dao is great.
Heaven is great.
Earth is great.
Humanity is great.
Within the universe, these are the four great things.

Humanity follows the earth.
Earth follows Heaven.
Heaven follows the Dao.
The Dao follows the Nature.

– Laozi Daodejing, Verse 25

The heavy is the root of the light.
The still is the master of impatience.

The Master therefore does not leave the gravity,
Despite the opulence, he is light and free.”

- Laozi Daodejing Chapter 26

“He who knows others is clever;
he who knows himself is wise.
He who masters others is strong;
he who masters himself is powerful.”

– Laozi Daodejing Verse 33

“Tao engenders One;
One engenders Two;
Two engenders Three;
Three engenders all things.
All things carry the yin (femininity)
while embrace the yang (masculinity).
Neutralising energy brings them into harmony.”

– Laozi Daodejing, Verse 42

“There is no greater misfortune
than not knowing what is enough.
There is no greater flaw
than wanting more and more.

Whoever knows contentment
is blissful at all times.”

Laozi Daodejing Verse 46

Without going out the door,
Know the world.
Without looking out the window,
See the Way of Heaven.

Laozi Daodejing Verse 47

“If one doe things noncoervicely (wuwei, 無為), Nothing goes undone.

Mastery of the world is achieved
by letting things take their natural course.
If you interfere with the way of Nature,
you can never master the world.”

Laozi Daodejing Verse 48

“Disaster, has its roots in happiness,
and happiness, lurks in disaster.
Who knows when this cycle will end?”

– Laozi Daodejing Verse 58