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Excerpts from the Tao-Te Ching

The following are excerpts from the Tao-Te Ching, the poetic treatise that is the basis of Taoist philosophy. The paradox is that talking about the Tao, and attempting to define the Tao, ensures that the speaker does not actually grasp it. At its heart, the Tao is extra-verbal in its nature, it is a matter of experience rather than definition. The imagery used to describe it is one of emptiness and fullness, liquidity, fluid change. The first stanza brings up this point directly, claiming that if individuals think they can put the Tao into words, they do not really understand the Tao. The heart of Taoism lies in opposites, as stanza two suggests. The truth isn't a matter of Yin and Yang being opposites, in Taoist philosophy. It is a matter of what appears to be two opposites actually composing a single unified whole. Only human experience, as modified by language, artificially divides the world into false dichotomies. Stanza three links sociological problems to human desires.

I. The Way that can be spoken of

Is not the constant Way;

The name that can be named

Is not the constant name.

The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;

The named was the mother of the Ten Thousand Things. 1

Hence, always rid yourself of desires in order to observe

The secrets of the Way.

But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.

These two are the same

But diverge in name as they issue forth.

Being the same they are called mysteries,

Mystery upon mystery--

The gateway of the manifold secrets.

II. The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful,

yet this is only the ugly;

the whole world recognizes the good as the good,

yet this is only the bad.

Thus Something and Nothing produce each other.

The difficult and the easy complement each other;

The long and the short offset each other;

The high and the low incline toward each other;

Note and sound harmonize with each other;

Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action

And practices the teaching that uses no words.

The Ten Thousand Things rise from it yet it claims no authority.

It gives them life yet claims no possession;

it benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;

It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.

It is because it lays claim to no merit

That its merit never deserts it.

III. Not to honor men of worth will keep the people from squabbling; not to value rare goods will keep them from stealing; not to display that which is desirable will keep them from being frustrated.

Therefore in governing the people, the sage empties their minds but fills their bellies, weakens their wills but strengthens their bones. He always keeps them innocent of knowledge and free from desire, and ensures that the clever never dare to act.

Take action by not taking action, and order will prevail. 2

IV. The way is empty, yet use will not drain it. 3

Deep, it is like the ancestor of the Ten Thousand Things.

Blunt the sharp edges;

Untangle the knots;

Soften the glare;

Let your wheels move only along old ruts.

Darkly visible, it only seems as if it were there.

I know not whose son it is.

It images the forefather of God.

V. Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the Ten Thousand Things as straw dogs; the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs. 4

Is not the space between heaven and earth like a bellows?

It is empty without being exhausted:

The more it is squeezed the more comes out.

Excessive speech leads inevitably to silence.

Better to hold fast to the void.

1 Sometimes this phrase is translated as "the myriad creatures," it refers to the phenomenological universe--everything that can be seen, touched, felt, or experienced. It is the sum of creation.

2 These section of the Tao-te Ching appears as prose, rather than poetry.

3 In the original text, the word which means "full" has been emended to one meaning "empty." See D. C. Lau's translation in Lao Tzu: The Tao Te Ching (Penguin Classics, 1963) page 8, note 6.

4 Chuang-tzu notes in the T'ien yün chapter of his writings that in Chinese religious practice, dogs would be shaped out of straw for ritual offerings to the spirits. These straw dogs would be treated with deference and exaggerated respect prior to their ceremonial use. However, once they had served their purpose as an offering, the priests would discard them and ritually trample them into the dust.




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