This is a translation I made some 18 years ago of Lao Tzu’s immortal collection of poems. I’m bringing it up to date on the fly and adding some commentary as seems appropriate. I’ve decided on a prose-poem presentation for this time around with the Tao, because it feels better. Now I could explain that to you in more detail, but we’d need to be together, preferably in a comfortable place over some bottles of wine. For now, it makes more sense to merely focus, as well as we can, on the philosopher-poet’s voice.
Part One: Tao
The Tao described is not quite the timeless Origin; the name you give It doesn’t grasp the Essence.
Go past the division of heaven and earth, and there’s the Nameless. The living ground of being.
The Nameless embraces the Essence; names reveal the functions of all the numberless compressions of being born of the vast and silent Mother.
Release your attachment to appearances, and there is your Tao. The manifest and the invisible are of the same Origin, that same living, teeming Dark. Eternal, shimmering Dark, reflecting itself in transformation, beyond all forms and names — through the gateway of your heart.
This “gateway” poem is often considered to be the very heart of any genuine understanding of Tao. Several general points are worth noting:
- Words are obviously not anathema to the poet; they are, after all, his only means of expression. They are his sole instrument. Yet they must also be regarded in terms of the old Zen metaphor of the “finger pointing at the moon.” To the extent the finger is helping us to discern the moon, all good; but if the finger becomes so self-absorbed and pedantic as to obscure our view, then its purpose is defeated. Lao Tzu goes one better and says, take these words not as a finger pointing but as a glance directing, simultaneously inward and outward.
- Thus, one of the common corruptions of verbalization — classification and division — is exposed in this poem. Now see here: he is not saying that division and classification have no purpose in life (this website and most like it would not exist without “div” and “class” coding); he is merely pointing out that if you’d like to feel the presence — psychologically, physically, spiritually — of Tao, then you must spend some time and energy beyond the realm of division. This is his first statement of a simple principle, that the life of spirit and of nature is not a political or hierarchically-driven order of ruler and subject. This is a theme that Lao Tzu will be returning to again and again throughout the collection that follows.
- The eternal feminine: another recurring theme in Lao Tzu, and throughout Taoist writing and art. In Hinduism, we find the spirit of Shakti, the feminine creative energy of the universe; in Christianity we have Mary; the feminine can even be found in Judaism (Leonard Nimoy said that he first saw what eventually became the Vulcan “live long and prosper” salute from Star Trek when he witnessed a rabbi make it as a symbol for the feminine aspect of Yahweh). Honor and sometimes worship of the Eternal Feminine goes across all cultures, ages, and nations; and almost certainly predates all patriarchal religious systems.
- The dark: Alan Watts used to love telling the (probably apocryphal) story of the astronaut who came back from space and was asked if he had seen God out there. The astronaut had replied, “Yes, I have, and She is black.” Well, you can still hear where Watts took this. But for Lao Tzu, this meant the original ground of being — the Big before there was ever a Bang. And everything is, and is in connection with, that origin. It is accessible to you now, in this moment. Because, to again quote Watts, “You’re It!”
Ego is mud thrown into Nature’s water: it lusts for beauty and thus invents ugliness. It projects a stain that was never there. Grasping after the Good, it only affirms Evil.
Yet in the eye of the universe, the formed and the formless create and support each other. The light and the dark dance and mingle like the breath of lovers.
Erase division: act but don’t strive. Teach but do not peddle pedantry. The Sage guides without a lot of talk. She works with our original innocence — free of demand or expectation. Thus, the results are great, enduring.
If you create the great, and elevate it, you will lose your self. Become attached to your belongings, and you open your inner door to thieves.
Let the Sage guide you: Clear out your inner space, and your own truth will arise. Wear down attachment and division, and you strengthen your will. Be led to shed the crust of knowledge; cut through the cycle of want; and reject all that you have been told to know.
Follow the path of inner action: The way of unburdening is the way of healing.
Empty, like a well, is the Cosmic Whole: Empty, and forever inexhaustible. Endless as the limitless Forms of creation, drawn through TimeBefore its birth, beyond its reach—
Softening the jagged edges, Untangling complexity, Dimming the garishness of excess With the soil of its simplicity.
So dark, so empty—who could have made it? It is the child of nothing, The parent of us all.
- 18 – 5
Equality is the Cosmic Way:
Good and evil are born of fantasy.
The Sage is neither partisan nor punishing: No one is special, no one excluded.
Consciousness breathes, Expands and contracts.
It never varies, and each moment is unique.
Work with this and understand; Talk about it, and you lose your center.
The valley is ever open and alive; It is the mother of consciousness.
In night-flower darkness The bounty of Nature is concealed Until, looking within, we see The mystery extinguished, the curtain drawn From the heart of the Mother of the Cosmos.
Consciousness is eternal—but why? Because time does not adhere to its nature. Time and desire, abstraction and attachment Cannot touch it.
It transforms, completes, and teaches All of its aspects, Within life and beyond death.
The Sage remains behind And thus it stays ahead. The student drops his ego And thus his true self arises.
Separation and division of being are overcome, Each need is fulfilled As each excess is abandoned.
- 19 – 8
Like water is the Cosmic Consciousness:
It nourishes the depths of everything that lives. It flows, it settles, it abides in low places.
Keep your home close to the earth, Keep your thoughts direct and simple, Keep judgment fair, and fluid in conflict, Keep your government free of power, And your personal affairs in harmony With the life of Nature.
Drop the struggle, silence the demons, And your natural self will be free.
Overstuff your life with thought, And it will stiffen and suffer.
Keep an eye out for trouble, And you invite it in.
Make wealth your sole objective And your heart will grow rigid as ice. Let fame define you And you become a stranger to yourself.
Stop the treadmill and renounce expectation: This is entering the Cosmic rhythm.
- 20 – 10
Nourish every sense, Embrace your undivided nature.
Let your chi course fresh and fluid With the iridescence of a newborn body. Cleanse guilt and shame—the mud of cultureFrom all your being, And feel your natural form.
Let yourself be led by the fearless love Of a caring Cosmos.
Close the gates of Heaven, Abandon manipulation, Open yourself to the perfect nature That has always been there. Release the Sage within you And let your clarity extend To every corner of the universe.
Then may your words and actions Nourish, develop, and sustain Others as well as yourself.
When you realize that there is nothing to claim, Nothing to assert, Nothing to control, Nothing to dominate; This is called the actualization of Modesty.
- 21 – 11
Thirty spokes unite around a single hub: Thus a wheel is made.
Yet it is the formless core That makes the wagon roll.
Clay is formed and baked: Thus a cup is made.
Yet it is the invisible interior From which we drink.
Framed walls and brick are joined To make a house.
Yet it is the open space within That makes it livable, That gives doors and windows Their unique functions.
Therefore, make being your element, But non-being, your life.
Rampant color impairs vision; A profusion of sound obstructs the ear; Gluttonous tastes poison the mouth; Attachment to belief warps the self; Predatory impulse reviles the treasure.
The Sage uses the outer to point to the inner; By exposing the image, it shows us ourselves.
- 22 – 13
Great renown is more deadly than disgrace; To impugn your bodily nature is self-loathing. Fear is the blood of fame; Your own imbalance is the fuel Of favor-seeking and the lust for praise.
The only real misfortune Is to look at Nature and see affliction. When the treasure is split from its source, Body and nature become a well of sorrow.
Cherish your bodily being; Reconnect with the Source.
Creating and dissolving are one in the Cosmos: Honor the life of the body, and your care will extend To the formless Essence.
Look for it—it is invisible; Listen for it—it is silent; Try to grasp it—it is not solid.
Its nature is bodiless, Yet it is the essence of body.
Its darkness is the source of light, Its infinitude, the ground of time. It is the Formless One From which all forms arise.
Pursue, and it eludes you; Follow, and it vanishes. Thought cannot hold it, But you can’t think without it.
It is the thread of all being, The origin, the pulse of time.
It is the wave upon the strand of life: Pervading, defining, nourishing.
- 23 – 15
The one who wrote these bone-old words Set out to draw the veil of Mystery From the truth of his moment.
It was impenetrable to logic, But the subtle dance of verse Could pierce the appearance, And neutralize the profundity.
He was cautiously humble, As if walking on ice.
Ever conscious of danger, He approached his undertaking With watchful reserve, Like a visitor to far-off shores:
Pliant, like ice in the spring, Malleable, like fresh yew, Open, like a mountain valley.
In utter stillness, he watched himself As if he were a murky pool of water; Until his mud had settled And clarity had been restored.
He learned to shed excess, and to seek fulfillment Solely through diminishment.
In renouncing want, he received abundance in his old age, In surrendering advantage, he shredded the wisdom of his era And thus transformed it.
- 24 – 16
While sitting in stillness, Connect with the Cosmic Harmony.
By clearing the space within, In steadfast quietude, Let your true self observe The numberless compressions of consciousness: How they arise and recede, Coming into being and blooming; Retreating at last toward the Cosmic Origin.
Return to the root, to the primal nature, Is the way of all beings.
Let your awareness contemplate The eternal cycle of return, And your insight will deepen in this.
The understanding that is nurtured On the dispersion of ignorance Perpetually broadens its perspective.
To embrace the way of return, To feel the immutable equality of being, Nurtures equanimity and justice.
To live in the Tao means abiding in the eternalPerceiving completely, with all one’s being:
Life is never exhausted; It is only delusion that dies.
- 25 – 17
The truly developed self Is ever aware of the Cosmic Presence. Another may abide In love and praise of it; Still another might fear it; And finally there are those Who hold it in contempt.
Trust is not built on faith; It is nurtured on experience.
One following the Sage uses words sparingly, And lets his natural action speak; His work is not enslaved to a goalIts accomplishment is his statement.
Then progress happens As if no one had tried.
Wherever the cosmic order is neglected, Goodness and morality are born.
When the heart’s awareness is repressed, The intellect is led into hypocrisy.
When the family loses its natural harmony, The rules of duty and honor are enforced.
When the natural society is disrupted, The dragon of state arises, And powerful leaders take over.
- 26 – 19
Separate from spirituality; Extinguish wisdom, And there will be benefit for all.
Discard all pretence To piety and benevolence, And the people will help one another.
Close the academies; Extirpate the feudal rites, And sorrow will be annihilated.
Banish investment vehicles, Impoverish the profit-takers, And there will be neither thieves nor frauds.
These are the ornaments of my teaching, But hardly the essence, which is this:
Rely upon your inner discernment; Return to your original purity; Wear down your ego; Break out of the circle of desire.
- 27 – 20
Shut down your intellect, and answer: Between yes and no, spoken from within, How little a difference is there, Compared to that between success and failure?
Why would I fear what others do? Why must I give my inner consent To the values of the collective?
Oh! How the desolation around me Has reached its utmost sunken limit!
The lusty mob is buried in busyness, As if gathered for a sacrificial feast (Yet who or what is being sacrificed?) But I alone—as if from an outpost of vigilanceAm apart: blank and unmoved, Like an infant who hasn’t yet learned to smile. Isolated and withdrawn, I am like a homeless man.
Others are absorbed in getting and spending; While I appear broken and bare of influence.
Others shine with the luminous glow Of progress, brilliance, and daring; But I am like a simpleton, vapid and raving.
The world around me teems with cleverness; I alone retreat into dullness.
With what fathomless depth, Like a sea-born whirlpool of sound and storm, Do they ponder and debateCeaseless, directionless, and adamantBut I alone am obtuse, disturbed, thickheaded, Like some coarse cloth, unrefinable And therefore worthless.
Yes, I am different, as are my values:
For I drink from the breast of the Sublime Mother.
- 28 – 21
The greatness of modesty is fulfilled In harmony with the Cosmic Source.
Its nature seems elusive, ephemeral; It is evanescent, indefinable; But only because its action is unforced.
It is the very center of the self, Yet we don’t know where it is.
It is the active voice of being: Formless, and impenetrable to thought, Yet manifest in every natural act Through the furthest memory of Time.
It never arrives, never departs; Its expression fulfills Nature. It is the child of discernment, The parent of action.
By what do I know this Essence? From the formless truth within me.
- 29 – 22
Yield to the outer, and you remain Firm and complete within.
Appear crooked to others, But be straight and true within. Empty yourself, and be made full; Strip yourself of excess And you will know true rejuvenation.
Thus does diminishment attract abundance, While accumulation nurtures conflict.
Therefore the student of the Sage Holds humility in his arms; It protects and supports him.
In refusing to display his insight, He validates his true nature.
He takes no credit, and makes no claim; His dignity is his only luster. Therefore, he neither boasts nor flatters.
He seeks no merit, Pursues no goal, Accepts no praise; And thus he enduringly succeeds. He contends not with man or nature, And so no one can defeat him.
Thus the ancient teaching lives Within this very moment:
“Drop your burden, abandon the superficial, And you will find your perfect center.”
This was not a shallow teaching.
Release your true nature; Express your inner being; Return to the Source. This is all I have to teach.
- 30 – 23
Be sparing in your speech, And then return to silence.
Be truly a part of Nature:
Its storm-brought winds do not outlast the dawn; Its rain drums and sings upon the thirsty earth, And then the clouds recede before the sun.
What made this dance of sound and silence?
If the Cosmic Consciousness thus ebbs and flows, Why not we, the word-drunk wanderers of this world?
Therefore, the student of the Sage Steps mindfully through his life: He allows the Cosmic Voice To speak through his actions, And so he need not talk himself.
Modesty is the golden thread of the Cosmic tapestry. It is the active mode of Nature:
The breath of bliss in life.
Modesty acts through renunciation:
It abandons identification.
In exploding the image, It liberates the self.
In dropping comparison, It inaugurates autonomy and lets loose joy.
As you learn, ask yourself:
“Is my life founded on mere faith, Or rooted in the natural experience Of my inner being?”
- 31 – 24
Standing on tiptoe, You are easily knocked off balance. Striding forth in grim pursuit, You make little progress.
To affect luminosity Is to dull your natural light. Dig in your heels, And you will never endure. Display yourself, And you accomplish nothing.
For the mildest conceit reveals the egoThe parasite of true nature, A consumptive, gnawing burdenIt is disdained by the Sage.
Rejecting the ego, the Sage reveals The quiet autonomy of true being.
- 32 – 25
There is something whole and formless, That existed before any universe was born. It makes no sound, Has no substance, Can’t be fixed in time or spaceIt is inexhaustible, unchanging, perduring: It is the uterus of being, And I call it Tao, Just so it has a home in my mind.
It may also be called the great, Since all beings arise from it, And it is the home to which they return.
Nature is great; The sky is great; The earth is great; Even humans can be great.
These four great presences Are not to be separatedThey work correctly only as One.
Humans: honor the earth!
As the earth loves its sky, As the sky reflects its Tao, And as the Tao moves in harmony With its own eternal Consciousness.
- 33 – 26
True darkness seems to be light; Indeed, it is the origin of light. The enduring tranquility May appear to be agitated:
For it is the apogee of agitation.
Thus wandering all the livelong day, The student of the Sage Stays as still as can beUnmoved by the attraction of glory, Or the titillation of diversion.
Even stopping amid the feast, His independence is unshakeable. Could this be said of the political insider, Who so lightly drops his dignity For every passing pleasure?
Airy lightness lacks foundation; Fitful action loses the center.
- 34 – 27
Treading correctly, we leave no trace. Correct speech is brief and true. Correct assessment is ever openCalculation does not further it.
The true-fitting door is shut fast Without need of bar or latchYet none can break its seal, Or cross its threshold.
The best knots tie firmly, Yet without binding: such connections Can never be broken from outside.
Thus the eternal Sage Acts with abiding care for all. Because of this, it abandons no one: Its regenerative Presence flows Through every particle of being.
This is called the penetrating awareness.
Thus the Sage approaches those who lack fulfillment:
For those who lack fulfillment sustain the Cosmic teachings: The Teacher and student unite in what is learned.
Accept this fully!for if you fail! Success will forever elude you, However great your erudition.
This is why I call this The heart of my teaching.
- 35 – 28
Acknowledge the masculine And be one with the feminine: Let the river of your being flow Into the valley of eternal Nature.
The path of Modesty is true and complete: Ever returning to the origin, As a child returns to its mother.
Acknowledge the white, But trust in the black:
Let Nature be the mold Into which you pour The liquid energy of your being.
Let Modesty guide you; Perseveringly return to the Source Of limitless serenity.
Be aware of your influence, Yet act from humility:
Let your action be drawn from The valley’s fertile depths, And Modesty will be furthered.
Returning to your perfect nature, You may be shaped and arrayed! Honed to a sparse and simple beauty.
Thus do the Sage and the Cosmic Helpers Create completion and fulfillment!
Not through division and reduction! But through transformation.
- 36 – 29
To those who would alter Nature, Or spread reform upon the earth, I say this: though your efforts be endless, You will not succeed.
Alteration, control, improvement: They are repugnant to Nature, For perfection requires no refinement.
The impulse to control Only deforms what you wish to manage. Thus, it is lost to you.
This is a principle that all can use:
Sometimes it leads and sometimes follows; Sometimes it breathes in and sometimes out; Sometimes it is growing, sometimes diminishing; Sometimes it builds up, sometimes it collapses. This is the way things are.
Thus the Sage withdraws from excess, And retreats from display.
Where arrogance boasts, Where pride struts, The Sage will never be found.
- 37 – 30
Leaders, rulers, governors of the people: The Cosmos offers you helping Presences, Whose essence dwells in harmony, And not in the use of force or weaponry.
Natural law decrees that violence backfires Upon all who resort to its means.
Armed forces camp and crawl Amid thorns and brambles, Which grow like cancer and close like traps.
Wherever group violence is done, Desolation walks in its wake.
Truly, the harvest of violence is misery.
The best leader is himself led!
He builds consensus, achieves his aim, And then departs.
Force and intimidation Are neither his means nor his end.
He is inwardly firm, without display. He is inwardly firm, without arrogance. He is inwardly firm, without contempt. He is inwardly firm, without demand. He is inwardly firm, without violence.
Aggrandize yourself or your group, And you have chosen the path of decadence. This is called separation from the Source.
To separate from the Source Is the way of swift and certain death.
- 38 – 31
Of all the instruments of human ego, Weapons of war are the most horrible. The teaching Heart of the Cosmos Turns away in revulsion from these, And from those that use them.
The student of the Sage Embraces the supple form of truth.
The student of war Hides beneath the stiff shield of delusion. The former walks in blessing, The latter strides toward Fate.
When the infantile lord descends To playing with his toys of war, He must be resolutely answered With a calm and firm rejection.
And should he kill and conquer, Let him not revel in his hideous slaughter; Let him not exult in extermination.
For he who delights in destruction Shall never live in the Way of Nature.
Celebrate the living body of truth, Mourn the madness that is power:
The latter is the seat of appearances, Where the dead figurehead resides.
Let a dirge of sorrow be sung For the victorious commander-in-chief.
Lament as well the grievous slaughter he has wrought.
Though we may weep for all his seeming victims, It is the patriot!that power-drunk demon!
For whom the funeral rites must be observed.
- 39 – 32
The Cosmic Whole, in all its breadth, Surpasses its name.
Its crystalline simplicity Is so inexpressibly minute That no human mind can grasp it.
If only political leaders and corporate barons Could apprehend its nature, Then the complementarity of limitless beings Would effortlessly arise and endure.
In such loving attraction live earth and sky: As when blessed rain falls soft upon the earth, Mankind and Nature could unite like lovers! Free of law, free of command, People would finally be at peace.
Through names are things distinguished, And through names can they be exhausted. The outcome depends on balance:
Feeling where the word is true, And when it has reached its limit.
Correct approach comes from the center.
In balance, too, is Tao expressed In the life of our world:
The stream extends to the river, The river extends to the sea, The sea extends to the ocean, The ocean extends to the world. And the world extends to the Tao.
- 40 – 33
Study mankind, for this is wisdom.
But first examine yourself, for this is penetration.
To subjugate others, it takes power.
But defeating your own ego Needs the gentle strength of perseverance.
Acknowledge the wealth within you, And you won’t need to strive for more. But grasp after the brass ring, And you become a conformist In a society of willful pursuit.
The one who can remain in the center Will endure beyond the reach of time. For though he may die to the visible, His life continues in immanence. Thus, he is immortal.
- 41 – 34
Sublime, the Cosmic Breath That limitlessly pervades and imbues Time and space, form and non-form.
It diffuses in every direction, It flows through all being, It creates and furthers all, But makes no claim and takes no credit.
It is the body of transformation, And we do not even know its name!
It loves and nourishes The infinite family of forms, But seeks not allegiance or submission.
Eternally free of abstraction, Its name may be sought Within the realm of the infinitesimal, Though it is the origin and destiny Of the vastest expressions of Nature. It rejects aggrandizement, And thus may be called great.
Just so, the student of the Sage:
He divorces his ego, repudiates elevation, And rejects recognition:
Thus imbued, his achievement endures, And his work is made great.
- 42 – 35
Take to your heart The hand of the great Cosmic Teacher, And your deepest true nature Will arise in a peace beyond harmJoyfully harmonizing with the eternal abundance.
The wanderer tarries at the lilt of a song Or the smell of good cooking; But the lyric from the Cosmic Breath Falls flat upon the ear, As its words are flavorless to the tongue.
The eye can scarce perceive it, The ear discerns only the echo! For it lies deep within, And you never get tired of using it.
Would you like to reduce it?
Then first see it inflated.
Would you like it to be weakened? Then first see it as powerful. Would you like to destroy it? Then first see it enshrined.
Would you like to drain it?
Then first see it overflow.
This is called the subtle discernment: Gently penetrating flexibility Undermines the rigidity of power.
A fish can’t swim When it’s out of its depth; A nation can’t survive When it shows off its weaponry.
- 43 – 37
Unforced action, constant and eternal: Tao ceaselessly moves, But appears to be still.
When the hearts of the president And the power-broker perceive And accept this truth, It will be the dawn of an era Of transformation.
Throughout this evolution, If the old impish projections Of manipulative action appear, They could be firmly dispersed With the aid of the Primal Presence! The nameless, formless One!
The teaching Heart of liberation From attachment.
Could these magnates just renounce, Once and for all, Their old habitual attachments, Then like a clear and cleansing rain, Peace would fall on man and Nature.
- 44 – Part Two: Te
Great Modesty is unstudied!
It is not even conscious of being modest. Thus, Modesty is its true nature.
But the modesty of the collective Is self-centered in its self-effacement. Thus, it abandons true Modesty.
Correct Modesty is unforced action, Which lacks intent or deliberation. Commonplace modesty is the calculated art Of the private agenda.
Natural kindness acts for the good of the whole Without ever being aware of it.
Perfect justice lacks a plan but meets its goals Without passing judgment.
Conduct drawn from inner clarity Is free, exact, and appropriate, Without expectation.
It just rolls up its sleeves And does its work.
When we separate from the Tao, We resort to cultivated modesty. Failing that, we revert to philanthropy, And thence to self-righteousness.
And on this we erect The mandate of propriety.
Propriety and ritual are built On the empty shell of faith.
The superficial is thus the seed of discord, And separates from the natural loyalty Of inner truth.
- 45 – Immature and cursory knowledge of Tao Is the origin and the ornament of delusion.
For this reason, the Sage abides in substance, And withdraws from appearances.
It dwells in the immanent, And not in the manifest.
Thus, it comes not from without, But receives you within.
Immature and cursory knowledge of Tao Is the origin and the ornament of delusion.
For this reason, the Sage abides in substance, And withdraws from appearances.
It dwells in the immanent, And not in the manifest.
Thus, it comes not from without, But receives you within.
- 46 – 39
From before Time as we know it was born, The experience of Oneness with Tao has been.
To receive the gift of Oneness Is the way of Nature, Manifest in all its forms:
The open sky and stable earth, The presence and energy of mind.
Through the One the valley fills With the life of innumerable beings. Sometimes, kings and lords receive it, And are helped in their paths of leadership.
Were sky divorced from clarity, Then I fear it might collapse in darkness, Robbed of the union with Nature.
Should earth divorce its elastic firmness, It would be crushed beneath its lifeless weight.
Were mind divorced from consciousness, It would wither toward insanity and death.
Should the valley ever divorce abundance, Then every form of being would perish. These, indeed, are my greatest fears.
And if dukes and diplomats renounced Their inner treasure to exalt superiority, They would fall amid their own corruption.
Soft and small, the deepest roots By which the greatest tree is nourished: Humility within completes greatness without. Indeed, there is nothing between them.
Thus did kings of old proclaim themselves The small, the solitary, the impoverished: For how can you fight against Such an outspoken humility?
Could a carriage ever realize its design
- 47 – If it were loaded down with fame and praise?
Do not presume to gleam like jade When you live among the humble stones.
- 48 – 40
Tao in motion is returning.
Tao in action is accepting.
The vast array of Nature’s forms Evolves within the realm of body, And the bodily arises from the Formless.
The sincere student hears of Tao, Then sees if he can steadfastly follow it. A casual student hears of Tao And follows it sporadically!
Trusting here, and skeptical there. When the self-centered hear of Tao Their laughter fills the air:
How could it be Tao If it didn’t make them laugh?
Therefore is it said:
The one with the lantern shines the least. The one making progress seems behind. The easiest path seems tortuous.
Natural strength appears weak and hollow. And the greatest virtue seems too small.
Beneficence seems to lack foundation. The most enduring truths are mutable. Perfect squares have no sharp corners. The most useful tool seems inefficient. The loveliest music is hardly heard.
The Subliminal Form cannot be touched.
The One is silent and concealed! This indeed is its practical virtue: Thus it freely gives its help To all who would experience Their original perfection.
- 49 – 42
From out of the Cosmic Consciousness Arose the One.
Then from the One came Two.
And from Two came Three.
From the great Three came The endless compressions of Being. Each compressed form bears yin behind And holds yang before it.
At the still point in the center These complementary energies merge, And harmony is thus realized.
Why does hatred fill the hearts of men At the sight of poverty and solitude, When the greatest leaders make these their name? Perhaps increase and loss Are not always what they seem.
Perhaps life and death Are not truly opposed.
Here is a teaching that others before me have known: To conceive death as against Nature!
As a cold termination of Life!
Is the distorted perspective Of a violent inner tyranny.
A correct knowledge of death Is itself the father of all understanding. This is all I have to teach.
- 50 – 43
Within the realm of Nature, The gentle horse runs free, While more intransigent forms stay fixed.
Non-being is able to infiltrate Where there isn’t any room.
Thus I see that unforced action Is the only path to success, And that the greatest eloquence is silence.
Action free of noise and expectation: This is Nature’s teaching, Which but few have truly learned. Listen to your own true nature, And learn.
A great name or self-knowledge:
To which of these does your heart respond? Material goods or your natural virtues: Which do you treasure more?
Profit or loss: which is more apt To lead you toward destruction?
The love of excess lays Nature waste: It spends the self and buys remorse. Accumulation is the greatest loss.
Meet your needs and go no further, And you will be a stranger to disgrace. Recognize the limits of every situation, And you’ll be free from danger.
Thus can you fulfill the enduring harmony.
- 51 – 45
The greatest accomplishment seems lacking, Yet has all it needs to endure.
The most teeming abundance appears shallow, But its depth and breadth cannot be measured.
Lasting justice seems inconsequential; The purest art looks simple and meager; True eloquence sounds awkward and hollow.
Life stirs when it’s cold, And is tranquilly still amid heat.
Moving outward from the center, In the dance of the primordial stillness, The Cosmic Whole continually replenishes The natural order of the Harmonic Essence.
When the Tao suffuses man and Nature, Swift horses nourish the fields with their dung. When people abandon the Tao, The horses are bred for battle, And Nature is defiled.
The greatest disaster is to lack contentment.
The greatest curse is wanting more than you need.
Therefore the student of the Sage Feels exactly when he has enough, And thus receives eternal contentment.
- 52 – 47
Without leaving home, You can learn the Way of Nature. Without opening your eyes, You can walk the path of truth.
The farther you wander without, The more you separate from realization.
Thus the student of the Sage:
He never starts an outward journey Before there is clarity within.
He analyzes nothing, Yet finds words for everything.
He does not strive, Yet his work is brought to completion.
Pursuing knowledge: daily accumulation. Following Tao: daily unburdening.
Decrease, diminish, deprogram: Continue in this till power is dead.
For when action lacks force, Nothing is left unaccomplished.
Rely upon your true eternal nature, And you will never have to strive again.
But let your life become A game of inner commerce, And you will never cease with making deals; You will never feel fulfilled!
In this or any other world.
- 53 – 49
The Sage is free of the law of fixed belief; It reflects the heart of every seeker.
Where sincerity is revealed, The Sage responds in kind. Where one’s true self is repressed, The Sage remains sincere.
Loyally approach the Sage, And your loyalty will be returned. Doubtfully approach the Sage, And your doubt will be returned In truthful Modesty.
The nature of the Sage dwells in humility; In humility may it be experienced. Humility is the breath of the Cosmos.
Thus do people in their deepest hearts Call out, as children of the earth, To their Cosmic Mother.
- 54 – 50
Into life they arise, Through death they return.
A third of them seem bound up with their lives; A third of them seem attached to death; Another third appear ambivalent!
Passively shifting their allegiance From each to each.
Why is this so?
Perhaps from an obsessive attachment To life’s mere appearance?
But I have heard of people Who could live long and travel far! Ever free of harm or mortal wound From wild beasts or deadly weapons.
A rhinoceros would find no place to pierce them; There would be no meat for a tiger’s claws, And no place where a sword could enter.
And why is this so?
Because they have shed the illusion That marks off life From the realm of death.
- 55 – 51
Life: the gift of Tao.
Growth: the gift of Te.
Form and matter merge; Beings are brought to maturity, Each in its unique nature.
Everything within Nature Lives for Tao and loves Te.
It is a love of attraction, And not of constraint.
Love forever free of expectation Is the love that has always been.
For life is the gift of Tao, And growth, the gift of Te.
As One, they nourish and nurture; They bring maturity and completion; They protect, provide, and teach The numberless forms of Being, And then bring them back to the Source.
To give life without claiming possession; To help without demanding tribute; To teach without power or pedantry: This is called the deepest Te.
- 56 – 52
The world as we know it has an origin, Which may be called Mother Formless. Hold the Mother to your deepest heart, And you will understand the Cosmic Family. Hold her children to your intuition, And the Mother will embrace you, too.
Thus will your life flow freely Through all of your days.
Guard the openings of speech and outer sensation, And your life will be serene.
But if your life is spent In expansive oration And the compulsion to intervene, Your heart will be in torment Unto your very last breath.
Microscopic discernment within Is the path of clarity.
The tenderest embrace is the strongest.
Let your own true radiance guide you, For inner clarity is return to the Origin, Where one’s true self finds protection.
This is called, entering the eternal.
- 57 – 53
If ego had a scrap of wisdom, It would seek to walk the path of Tao.
But the problem is that ego tends to wander.
The Cosmic Way is straight and easy, But people seem compelled By distraction and complexity.
The palace in the capital Is bathed in opulence, While the fields without lie barren, And the granary is left untended.
They array themselves in lustrous gowns And gleaming weapons at their sides.
They eat, but are not nourished; They drink, yet thirst consumes them.
Their lives are bloated with the stuff of wealth.
Extravagance is a thief, The true self is its victim: Is this the way of Tao?
I doubt it.
- 58 – 54
With a firm inner foundation, You cannot be toppled.
An embrace is all the grasp you need To be safe within.
An offering of simple honor, From the children of the past To the children of the present Supports the children of the future.
Why do you cultivate your image When your natural being is already full? Why aggrandize your family pride When the perfection of family is complete? Why meddle with your community When its natural form is imperishable?
Why do you fight to enrich your nation When its simple order is abundance?
Why divide and oppose earth and heaven When the purity of their union is unalterable?
Therefore, examine yourself To become your Self. Examine your home To become a family. Examine your village To become a community. Examine the state To become a nation. Examine the world To become one with Being.
How do I know That this is the way of Nature? Because I asked It, From within my deepest self.
- 59 – 55
One whose inner strength is full and clear Seems like one who’s just arrived From another world.
To him, the bee has no sting, The serpent, no venom.
To him, the wild beasts Have no teeth or claws.
To him, predatory birds Present no menace.
His skeleton seems weak, His muscles tender, Yet he’s got a grip like a vise.
He appears to lack experience In the dance of sexual relations! Yet his genitals are fully formed, And he knows how to use them.
People yell every day, Never seeming to get hoarse.
But his peace is unshakeable!
Its source is the Enduring Harmony. Knowing the eternal is called The subtle illumination.
Thus is his body’s life The only blessing he needs.
So how could we speak Of controlling the mind, Or directing chi to further violence?
The pursuit of power soon exhausts itself: Such strength is not from Tao.
Whatever is not from Tao Is already dead.
- 60 – 56
Understanding doesn’t talk a lot; A lot of talk lacks understanding.
Can you be guided by silence?
Can you shut down your outer senses?
Can you blunt your jagged edges?
Can you let the inner knots unravel?
Can you let your brilliance be dimmed? Can you merge with the dust of the earth?
This is called “harmonizing light and dark.” In this, you possess no one, But are loved by many.
You are equally immune To attraction and revulsion.
You are equally receptive To profit and to loss.
You are unmoved by fame, And yet you attract honor. Because you make no claim, You can be free of disgrace.
Thus are you lovingly received Into the Heart of Nature, Forever.
- 61 – 57
In government, objectives are clarified.
In warfare, objectives are concealed.
In following the Tao, objectives are discarded.
How do I know that this is so? By feeling it from within.
With every commandment thrust upon the people, They become more impoverished and alienated.
As the weapons of the state grow ever more destructive, The more contagious is the fear that desolates the nation.
The further science spreads its hegemony of the intellect, The more demonic are the products that roll off the assembly line.
As the precedents of litigation grow, and the statutory codes accumulate, The politicians and criminals will proliferate and flourish.
The counsel of the Sage is different:
Let your action lack force, And there will be spontaneous transformation. Let meditation guide you, And the natural order will arise.
Lead only by example and consensus, And there will be abundance in the land. Defeat desire, let innocence be your law, And your nation will return To its deepest, simple nature.
- 62 – 58
When the government lacks power and brilliance, Organic simplicity suffuses the people.
When the government is intrusive and vigilant, Deceit and resentment are the coin of the realm.
Misfortune enters the life That is propped up on success, And misery lurks beneath The lustrous show of affluence.
Life that lacks limits lacks duration. If it is elevated today, It will be tomorrow maligned. When everything is changing, Nothing is transformed.
Insight is caked with the ink of the prophets. Will there be no end to this delusion?
Thus, the counsel of the Sage:
If you are sharp within, You needn’t cut without.
You can be pointed in your depths, But carry neither slings nor arrows. Straighten out your inner edges Without defining outer boundaries.
If you can glow like a lantern, You won’t have to shine.
- 63 – 59
In helping others, be like the sky: Without the slightest sense of sacrifice, It readily yields the elements That make the harvest possible.
Reflecting nurturance is called Continual nourishment of the harvest. Continual nourishment arises from Modesty, Which is the most bountiful harvest of all.
Modesty in abundance is indomitable! It is indomitable, so who could know The limits of its capacity?
And if its limits cannot be known, Couldn’t it nurture an entire nation? Couldn’t it become the natural Mother Of its own enduring consciousness?
From a firm inner foundation, The natural structure flourishes. When the Cosmic insight guides, Life is endlessly allowed to endure, Through the fullness of Form And its vibrant potential.
- 64 – 60
In leading others, use care and restraint, As if you were frying a small fish.
Let the Tao be your guide, And the demons of power will return To their original nature.
For their power is a delusion!
An empty, noisy abstraction.
All power is harmless To one whose true self leads.
Such a leader can protect the people, For he is protected by the Sage, And the Sage is protected by the Tao.
When a follower of Modesty leads, Then all are made safe!
The leader, the people, the nation! These unite with the Sage In a continual return To a deeper understanding.
- 65 – 61
How does a great nation know its neighbors?
As a river modestly accepts its feeding streams; As a woman blissfully receives the man she loves.
The way of Nature is attraction:
Pure strength rests below, And thus absorbs what lies above. Genuine love receives its complement; The greatest nation yields.
Small and great are mutually fulfilling:
Set them into opposition, And you have made your first and final error.
Therefore, let your nation follow Nature’s way: If it is big, let its actions be small.
If it is small, it is already complete, So it need not strive for greatness.
In the service of the Cosmic Teacher, Borders and boundaries, fences and flags Have no meaning.
In this there is benefit for all.
Thus among both hearts and nations: If you would discover the great, You must look first below.
- 66 – 62
Tao is the treasure of all being. Those who accord with it Are embraced by it.
And for those who wander, Its arms remain open.
Eloquence may fetch its price, Heroic deeds may garner glory, But only at the brutal cost Of a person’s deepest self.
Is fame worth such a sacrifice?
What if you were called to command At the coronation of a king!
If the three imperial generals Marched in state before you, Leading out majestic stallions, To confer on you the jade emblem Of the highest office?
Could such opulence ever equal The inner gift of simply sitting Where the Tao resides?
Does this perhaps explain the truth Of what the ancients have told me?
That when the Tao is your treasure, You will always receive what is truly yours, That every error can be corrected, And that the treasure of Nature Is already within you.
- 67 – 63
Act without effort, Work but don’t grind, Savor the tasteless, See greatness in smallness, And the multitude in the few.
Answer evil with the firmest Modesty, Resolve difficulty at the very beginning! Before it becomes difficult.
For enduring greatness is achieved In attending to incipient detail.
Nature transforms complexity: Its greatness depends On its infinitesimal precision.
Just so, the Cosmic Sage:
It never strives toward greatness, It simply accomplishes it.
It is not bound by promises, Nor moved by faith.
In the easy is the difficult surpassed. The Sage treats the illness Before the symptoms arise.
Thus is struggle prevented, And heroes made extinct.
- 68 – 64
Affairs in balance are easily arranged. Trouble that’s but faintly manifest Is resolved through preparation. Fragile matter is quickly broken; Small force is easily scattered.
Manage trouble before others see it!
That is, before it becomes troublesome.
The problem that you can barely get your arms around Grew like a tree from the tenderest sprout.
A tower of trouble rises from a mere hole in the ground. That march of agony, a thousand miles long, Began where your feet touch the Earth.
Live by force and you will be destroyed by it. Take things in your grasp, and they will slip away.
The sage relies on unforced action, And this upholds the dignity of his effort.
He doesn’t clutch at success, Therefore, he never fails.
Others seem to collapse in failure At the very threshold of success; Yet he is humble and cautious Both at the end and the beginning:
Thus are his affairs brought safely to completion.
Therefore, the sage monitors desire, Retreats from attachment, And abandons the accumulation of learning. Through dropping his excess, He returns to his essence.
And then, insensibly and effortlessly, He helps others to do the same.
He does it without a breath of bluster, For he never presumes upon The living truth of Nature.
- 69 – 65
There were those of old who knew the Way, And loved it in their daily lives.
They did not preach enlightenment, Or practice deceit among the people.
They lived well because they lived simply.
Now with trickery and brilliance Are the people governed, And yet with the utmost difficulty!
A country ruled with cleverness Is a country gone to waste.
Govern your country in simple innocence, And it will be blessed among nations.
Remaining aware of the alternatives, Our conduct may be correctly guided. Holding fast to this guiding awareness Is the action of natural virtue.
Natural virtue comes from clarity!
The resonant clarity of the Cosmic Source.
It draws us back within, to the Original Essence! The great Harmonic, which may be touched Every day in loving gratitude.
- 70 – 66
Breadth of river, depth of seaHow is it that they seem to rule the world? Because they can infiltrate a kingdom, Or plumb the depths of a ravine, And give life to the hundred fertile valleys.
In leading others, learn first to follow.
In speech, let your words find their own level.
To lead the people, learn to nourish them. Let the Sage be your model:
It dwells in leadership Without the oppression of superiority.
It dwells in leadership, Yet the Sage offends no one.
Thus is it honored by all who approach it, For it never exhausts them.
It is sublime, benevolent:
And therefore no one competes with it.
- 71 – 67
People think the Tao extraordinary, And tell me, “what a wonder you have made!” Perhaps the only wonder is That we should think it extraordinary at all. For if it were truly a mere Treasure of the imagination, Then it would be as good as worthless.
I have but three pearls That I keep and cherish:
The first is love, The second is avoiding excess, The third is modesty.
When these three lead, the true self follows. Love can thereby be fearless, Excess negated can thus be generous, Modesty can therefore lead the world, And help its life force to endure.
But today the ego has renounced pure love, And elevated empty chivalry; It has wasted moderation By exalting lavishness; It has abandoned modesty For the sake of renown.
This is to walk the path of death.
Enter a conflict with love still alive, For its defense is stronger Than the highest wall can ever provide.
- 72 – 68
The natural fighter spurns aggression, For a war cannot be won in vengeance.
He defeats his enemy by discarding enmity.
A skillful manager directs the work By humbly serving those who do it.
This is called natural Modesty:
It gets things done without striving, And lets each individual achieve his destiny.
Though the world may call it great, It is simply the surpassing of greatness.
The generals have a saying Which they apply to war, And I teach it too:
Better to be aggression’s guest, Than its partisan host.
Better to draw back a mile Than press forward an inch.
This is called marching Without moving your feet; Capturing without an assault; Defeating without an enemy.
For there is no greater error Than looking outward for enemies. To look outward for enemies Is to estrange your only true self.
This is why two sides opposed Will fight to a bloody draw, Where sorrow is the only victor.
- 73 – 70
My words can transform understanding, And are very easy to live with:
So why doesn’t the world understand them? And why doesn’t it live by them?
My words have a primal Origin; My action also has its natural Guide. If you don’t know these, Then you can’t know me.
Thus, there are but few Who can understand my words. To these, the words point the way To their own inner treasure.
Such awareness is often couched In coarse appearance, Nurturing the jewel within.
Awareness of the poverty of knowledge Is all the knowledge you need. Repression of the awareness Is the seed of disease.
You can remove the disease By watching the symptoms, And sickening their origin.
Thus the follower of the Sage: He guards his health By being aware of disease. Thus he never seems sickened, Since he feels his own pain.
- 74 – 72
Let the fear of God die among the people, And they will find their own true guide within.
Do not constrict them in their homes, Or oppress them at their work, For if the people lack a sense of burden, Then they will not feel oppressed.
Thus, the teaching heart of the Cosmos: It is a living, dynamic consciousnessIt draws close to sincerity, And retreats from exaltation.
The former it receives, The latter it discards.
The wooden impetuosity of the hero Is the path of inner death.
Courage that retreats from daring Is the path of inner life.
Yet one who walks on either road Will sometimes suffer, sometimes prosperAs if God indeed played dice, While humans fought to find His Reason.
The Cosmic Consciousness does not compete, And thus it simply finds its way.
It doesn’t have to talk or make its point, And thus it can communicate.
It does not send an invitation, It so naturally attracts all being.
It does not micromanage, And all its parts harmonize.
The Cosmic Whole is like a netSo perfectly cast, its open meshes are capable Of catching everything.
- 75 – 74
People don’t truly fear death, But they do fear being threatened with it. When people’s fears are thus enlivened, It is a crime of intimidation—inner murder. But it is the criminal thought, and not the man, Who must be caught and killed.
There may always be those who use death to further power, But they are not to be opposed.
For they would usurp the place of the Cosmic Artisan, And try to do the work of Nature Without the ability to use its tools.
Thus, the pretenders will but seldom fail To shed the blood of their own incompetence.
People go hungry because taxes eat their food. Therefore, the people go hungry.
People are hard to manage because they are oppressed. Therefore, they are hard to manage.
People laugh at death because their lives are cheapened With the weight of expectation.
This is why they laugh at death.
Who could value life When food is scarce, and freedom repressed?
- 76 – 76
When we are born, We are soft and tender. After we die, We become rigid and brittle.
A living tree can sway, A living blade of grass can bend, For suppleness is the strength of life. Only in death is flexibility stilled.
Tough and taut is the body of death; Gently moving is the way of life.
Powerful forces crush themselves Because they cannot move or yield.
A stiff and heavy tree will soon be broken By wind or by axe.
Thus does rigid power always crumble, While the supple and the humble Gently endure.
- 77 – 77
The Tao of life is like the drawing of a bow, Yet without the arrow:
Higher and lower are mutually attracted, Until they seem to change places.
The long and the short complement And support the function of the whole.
The Tao of life draws off excess, And provides for what is depleted.
The way of man departs from this:
It devours the dwindling resources To serve contrived, compulsive needs.
How can we learn to use the gifts of Nature, Amid this grasping world?
Let the Tao guide you:
Your true self gives, and claims no credit.
Its work furthers all, without attaching to the results. It conceals its worth, Which is therefore felt by all.
This is the way of complementarity.
- 78 – 78
Is there anything in all of Nature As adaptable and as shapeless as water?
But for wearing down what’s fixed and rigid, No power on earth can match it.
Thus, it is unique.
When an amorphous presence Meets adamantine resistance, The amorphous prevails.
When the supple meets the obdurate, Suppleness prevails.
There are none who can deny this, But no one seems able to live by it.
Thus the Sage teaches that The humiliation of one’s country Is not to be taken upon one’s self, Nor are environmental disasters To be conquered as enemies.
But we can, with subtle understanding, Communicate with them.
A great conflict, even when resolved, Leaves behind a bitter taste.
How can the residue of enmity be cleansed?
The teaching of the Sage is this:
Hold not to your claim, but to your contract. Abandon entitlement and accept obligation. Trust in the virtues of the Cosmic Way: Disperse guilt and depart from blame.
The Tao plays no favorites, But calls upon the inner truth of all.
- 79 – 80
Diminish the size of your inner nation; Let it become as small as is needed.
Let its talents be manifold and diverse, But never used or displayed.
Naturally treasure the life of your humanity, But do not let death pursue you.
You have boats for sailing, Wagons for loading, But no need to guide them.
You have weapons to attack and defend, Yet no need to bear them before others.
In communicating with people, Return to the simplest means.
Eat well, and enjoy it; Dress both for comfort and beauty. Nurture harmony in your dwelling space. Know the daily joy of simplicity.
You will see and be seen by others:
There may be crowing and barking among you, As between roosters and dogs.
But you need not be trapped in this commerce, For to the end of your days, You will be completely sufficient unto yourself.
- 80 – 81
Words that resonate may not be eloquent, But eloquence may never resonate.
Pure being does not argue; Those who argue pervert pure being.
Understanding is not scholarly; A scholar’s way lacks understanding.
The Sage does not hoard its teaching: The more it gives us, The more it is fulfilled.
For giving is the way of true increase.
The way of Tao is benevolent:
It does not harm or punish.
The Tao brings all things to completion, In the endless dance of its Harmony.