E5314BE4-BD95-442B-8663-B4A06A629B4A‘Lao-tzu Riding an Ox’ (Part) – Chen Hongshou – Wikimedia

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道德經

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The Sage attends to the inner 
and not to the outer; 
he puts away the objective 
and holds to the subjective
.”
~ Tao Te King (trans. Lionel Giles)

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The Tao Te Ching is an ancient treatise and one of the most widely translated work in world literature. Its philosophical influence was major in the civilisation of China, colouring other religious currents like Buddhism, and becoming a guiding light for millions of people, including countless thinkers, artists, and poets — even political movements. It was allegedly composed between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, and has been traditionally ascribed to the sage Lao Tzu, which literally means ‘Old Master’. There is doubt among scholars that Lao Tzu is a historical figure, and not a semi-legendary one, but he is nevertheless a key figure in Chinese culture and history, being both the founder of Taoism and one of its deities. 

The Tao Te Ching is a fairly short text of 5000 chinese characters, divided in 81 chapters. Written in Classical Chinese, it is linguistically complex and is a challenge for translators. Tao is a central word and concept in East Asian philosophy, which means ‘way’ or ‘path’. It is understood as being a principle that is eternally present and is described as being the natural order of the universe, empty and hidden, ‘nameless and unchanging’, yet the ‘source of all things’ and the giver of excellence and virtue.

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Tao is like an empty container:
it can never be emptied and can never be filled.
Infinitely deep, it is the source of all things.
[…]
It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than the concept of God
.”
~ Tao Te Ching (trans. J. H. McDonald)

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Tao Te Ching’ could be translated as ‘The Book of the Way and of Virtue, ‘Ching’ being ‘canon’ or ‘great book’, and ‘Te’ being ‘virtue’ or ‘inner strength’. So the text really comes down to being an explanation of how to acquire virtue. The Tao Te Ching is really just a book of prescriptions. Prescriptions for the wise disciple, the wise teacher, the wise ruler, or simply the wise man or woman who has to preside over his or her life and destiny. But above all, these are also descriptions of the ultimate reality. The prescriptions are not things to do, ways to be, but a description of how things truly are behind the winds of confusion and loss, and how the true nature of being is present and shining in spite of all apparently unfavourable conditions. 

Unless otherwise stated, the translation that I have most often used here is by J. H. McDonald (1996). I have also used the one by James Legge in the ‘Sacred Books of the East’ (1891), and very occasionally the ones by Lionel Giles and Stephen Mitchell. Classical Chinese, as scholar Holmes Welch notes, “has no active or passive, no singular or plural, no case, no person, no tense, no mood.” and no punctuation marks either. “It is a famous puzzle which everyone would like to feel he had solved.” As a result, it has been translated over 250 times into Western languages, with the help of the commentaries that always accompanied the ancient versions found on bamboo, silk, or paper manuscripts, all dating back to two millennia. The meaning is imparted with exquisite poetry and imagery, with powerful analogies, subtle repetitions. Chapters are like poems, never emphasising their meaning, but rather suggesting it softly, sweetly, hushing it like in a breath. 

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The Master observes the world 
but trusts his inner vision. 
He allows things to come and go. 
His heart is open as the sky
.”
~ Tao Te Ching (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

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The text describes the essence of the Tao, along with its nature and qualities. It also refers to the power contained in non-action or ‘wu wei’, the stillness that allows for creation, effortlessness, and true spontaneity. It is hammering how this presence, although humble and concealed, is shining as pure naturalness and harmony. It is the living essence or the mother of true virtue or right action. 

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All things under Heaven derive their being 
from Tao in the form of Existence; 
Tao in the form of Existence sprang from 
Tao in the form of Non-Existence
.”
~ Tao Te Ching (trans. Lionel Giles)

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The text also stresses the cleansing and nourishing qualities of Tao. It repeatedly equates it with emptiness and intangibility, which do not prevent its powerful presence and vitality. Its all-pervasiveness is also described, for the Tao is one with every thing and every being. The Tao Te Ching points to the importance of allowing all that is dark and broken in our lives, for the rejection of any part of ourself will prevent the embrace with the Tao, which is whole. 

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Love the whole world as if it were your self; 
then you will truly care for all things
.”
~ Tao Te Ching (trans. J. H. McDonald)

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The text makes frequent allusions to the Master, the Mother, or Heaven, when speaking of the Tao. It stresses the importance of staying rooted in presence and not being distracted by the objective content of our experience, which will unfailingly deliver the pain of suffering.

I have chosen here some of the most significant chapters and excerpts. Let yourself be drawn by the gentle and effective power of these poems…

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98D5D2B2-02D7-4EC5-A1AC-E5154D890A9F‘T’ao Ch’ien’ – Chen Hongshou – WikiArt

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道可道
非常道
名可名
非常名

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1.

The Tao that can be trodden 
is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. 
The name that can be named 
is not the enduring and unchanging name.

(Conceived of as) having no name, 
it is the Originator of heaven and earth; 
(conceived of as) having a name, 
it is the Mother of all things.

Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be,
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.

Under these two aspects, 
it is really the same; 
but as development takes place, 
it receives the different names. 

Together we call them the Mystery. 
Where the Mystery is the deepest
is the gate of all that is 
subtle and wonderful
.

~ Trans. J. Legge

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2.

[…]
Therefore the Master
can act without doing anything
and teach without saying a word.
Things come her way 
and she does not stop them;
things leave and she lets them go.
She has without possessing,
and acts without any expectations.
When her work is done, she takes no credit.
That is why it will last forever.

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4.

Tao is like an empty container:
it can never be emptied and can never be filled. 
Infinitely deep, it is the source of all things.
[…]
It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it . 
It is older than the concept of God.

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6.

The spirit of emptiness is immortal. 
It is called the Great Mother 
because it gives birth to Heaven and Earth.

It is like a vapor,
barely seen but always present.
Use it effortlessly
.

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7.

[…]
The Master stays behind; 
that is why she is ahead. 
She is detached from all things; 
that is why she is one with them. 
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.

~ Trans. Stephen Mitchell

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8.

The highest excellence is like (that of) water. 
The excellence of water appears 
in its benefiting all things, 
and in its occupying, without striving, 
the low place which all men dislike. 
Hence (its way) is near to (that of) the Tao.
[…]

~ Trans. J. Legge

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10.

Nurture the darkness of your soul
until you become whole.
Can you do this and not fail?
Can you focus your life-breath until you become 
supple as a newborn child?
While you cleanse your inner vision,
will you be found without fault?
Can you love people and lead them 
without forcing your will on them?
When Heaven gives and takes
can you be content with the outcome? 
When you understand all things
can you step back from your own understanding?

Giving birth and nourishing, 
making without possessing, 
expecting nothing in return.
To grow, yet not to control: 
This is the mysterious virtue
.

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11.

Thirty spokes are joined together in a wheel, 
but it is the center hole
that allows the wheel to function.

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

We fashion wood for a house, 
but it is the emptiness inside 
that makes it livable.

We work with the substantial, 
but the emptiness is what we use.

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14.

We look at it, and we do not see it, 
and we name it ‘the Equable.’ 
We listen to it, and we do not hear it, 
and we name it ‘the Inaudible.’ 
We try to grasp it, and do not get hold of it, 
and we name it ‘the Subtle.’ 
With these three qualities, it cannot be made 
the subject of description; and hence
we blend them together and obtain The One.

Its upper part is not bright, and its lower part is not obscure.
Ceaseless in its action, it yet cannot be named, 
and then it again returns and becomes nothing.
This is called the Form of the Formless, 
and the Semblance of the Invisible; 
this is called the Fleeting and Indeterminable.

We meet it and do not see its Front; 
we follow it, and do not see its Back.
When we can lay hold of the Tao of old 
to direct the things of the present day, 
and are able to know it as it was of old in the beginning, 
this is called (unwinding) the clue of Tao.

~ Trans. J. Legge

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5A967F36-7A61-493B-988D-2F1CB86F94F4‘Portrait of Tao Yuanming’ – Chen Hongshou – WikiArt

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15.

[…]
Who can be still
until their mud settles
and the water is cleared by itself?
Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?
[…]

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16.

If you can empty your mind of all thoughts
your heart will embrace the tranquility of peace.
Watch the workings of all of creation, 
but contemplate their return to the source.

All creatures in the universe
return to the point where they began.
Returning to the source is tranquility
because we submit to Heavens mandate.

Returning to Heavens mandate is called being constant.
Knowing the constant is called ‘enlightenment’.
Not knowing the constant is the source of evil deeds
because we have no roots.
By knowing the constant we can accept things as they are.
By accepting things as they are, we become impartial.
By being impartial, we become one with Heaven.
By being one with Heaven, we become one with Tao.
Being one with Tao, we are no longer concerned about
losing our life because we know the Tao is constant
and we are one with Tao.

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21.

The greatest virtue you can have
comes from following only the Tao;
which takes a form that is intangible and evasive.

Even though the Tao is intangible and evasive, 
we are able to know it exists.
Intangible and evasive, yet it has a manifestation. 
Secluded and dark, yet there is a vitality within it. 
Its vitality is very genuine.
Within it we can find order.

Since the beginning of time, the Tao has always existed. 
It is beyond existing and not existing.
How do I know where creation comes from?
I look inside myself and see it.

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22.

If you want to become whole,
first let yourself become broken. 
If you want to become straight, 
first let yourself become twisted. 
If you want to become full,
first let yourself become empty. 
If you want to become new,
first let yourself become old.
Those whose desires are few gets them, 
those whose desires are great go astray.

For this reason the Master embraces the Tao, 
as an example for the world to follow. 
Because she isn’t self centered,
people can see the light in her.
Because she does not boast of herself,
she becomes a shining example.
Because she does not glorify herself, 
she becomes a person of merit.
Because she wants nothing from the world, 
the world cannot overcome her.

When the ancient Masters said,
“If you want to become whole,
then first let yourself be broken,”
they weren’t using empty words.
All who do this will be made complete.

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25.

There was something undefined and complete, 
coming into existence before Heaven and Earth. 
How still it was and formless, 
standing alone, and undergoing no change, 
reaching everywhere and in no danger (of being exhausted)! 
It may be regarded as the Mother of all things.
[…]

~ Trans. J. Legge

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[…]
Humanity follows the earth. 
Earth follows Heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
The Tao follows only itself.

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26.

Heaviness is the basis of lightness.
Stillness is the standard of activity.

Thus the Master travels all day 
without ever leaving her wagon.
Even though she has much to see, 
is she at peace in her indifference.

Why should the lord of a thousand chariots 
be amused at the foolishness of the world? 
If you abandon yourself to foolishness, 
you lose touch with your beginnings.
If you let yourself become distracted, 
you will lose the basis of your power.

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32.

The Tao is nameless and unchanging. 
Although it appears insignificant, 
nothing in the world can contain it.
[…]
All things end in the Tao
just as the small streams and the largest rivers 
flow through valleys to the sea.

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34.

All-pervading is the Great Tao!
[…]
When its work is accomplished, 
it does not claim the name of having done it. 
It clothes all things as with a garment,
and makes no assumption of being their lord;
— it may be named in the smallest things. 
All things return (to their root and disappear), 
and do not know that it is it which presides over their doing so;
— it may be named in the greatest things.

Hence the sage is able (in the same way) 
to accomplish his great achievements. 
It is through his not making himself great 
that he can accomplish them.

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89DB012B-75FA-458B-87A3-9F7DDB592A4D‘Returning Home’ – Chen Hongshou, 1650 – Wikimedia

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35.

[…]
Though the Tao as it comes from the mouth, 
seems insipid and has no flavour, 
though it seems not worth being looked at or listened to, 
the use of it is inexhaustible.

.

38.

[…]
Thus it is that the Great man 
abides by what is solid, 
and eschews what is flimsy;
dwells with the fruit 
and not with the flower. 
It is thus that he puts away the one 
and makes choice of the other.

~ Trans. J. Legge

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40.

All movement returns to the Tao. 
Weakness is how the Tao works.

All of creation is born from substance. 
Substance is born of nothing-ness.

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41.

[…]
The Tao, when brightest seen, seems light to lack;
Who progress in it makes, seems drawing back;
[…]
Loud is its sound, but never word it said;
A semblance great, the shadow of a shade.

The Tao is hidden, and has no name; 
but it is the Tao which is skilful at imparting 
(to all things what they need) 
and making them complete.

~ Trans. J. Legge

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47.

Without going outside his door,
one understands (all that takes place) under the sky;
without looking out from his window, 
one sees the Tao of Heaven.
The farther that one goes out (from himself),
the less he knows.

Therefore the sages got their knowledge without travelling; 
gave their (right) names to things without seeing them; 
and accomplished their ends without any purpose of doing so.

~ Trans. J. Legge

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56.

He who knows (the Tao) 
does not (care to) speak (about it); 
he who is (ever ready to) speak about it 
does not know it.
[…]

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71.

To know 
and yet (think) 
we do not know 
is the highest (attainment); 
not to know 
(and yet think) 
we do know 
is a disease.

It is simply by being pained 
at (the thought of) having this disease 
that we are preserved from it. 
The sage has not the disease. 
He knows the pain that would be inseparable from it, 
and therefore he does not have it.

~ Trans. J. Legge

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73.

[…]
It is the way of Heaven not to strive, 
and yet it skilfully overcomes; 
not to speak, 
and yet it is skilful in obtaining a reply; 
does not call, 
and yet men come to it of themselves. 
Its demonstrations are quiet, 
and yet its plans are skilful and effective. 
The meshes of the net of Heaven are large; 
far apart, but letting nothing escape.

~ Trans. J. Legge

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78.

Water is the softest and most yielding substance. 
Yet nothing is better than water,
for overcoming the hard and rigid,
because nothing can compete with it.

Everyone knows that the soft and yielding 
overcomes the rigid and hard,
but few can put this knowledge into practice.

Therefore the Master says:
“Only he who is the lowest servant of the kingdom, 
is worthy to become its ruler. 
He who is willing tackle the most unpleasant tasks, 
is the best ruler in the world.”

True sayings seem contradictory.

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81.

[…]
With all the sharpness of the Way of Heaven, 
it injures not;
with all the doing in the way of the sage 
he does not strive.

~ Trans. J. Legge

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16B6B5A2-C030-427C-A355-4FD2C1E3EA47Chen Hongshou – Wikimedia

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Excerpts and poems by Lao Tzu (6th Century BC)

Paintings by Chen Hongshou (1598-1652)

Accompanying text by Alain Joly

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The two main translations used here are by James Legge and J. H. McDonald. Check this website that proposes ‘three translations at a glance’…

Bibliography:
– ‘Tao Te Ching, A New English Version’ – by Stephen Mitchell – (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
– ‘Taoism: The Parting of the Way’ – by Holmes Welch – (Beacon Press)

Websites:
Tao Te Ching (Wikipedia) 
Lao Tzu (Wikipedia)
Chen Hongshou (Wikipedia)
Tao (Wikipedia) 

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