The Daodejing (Laozi?)

Prof's Notes:

A few odds and ends to be aware of as you read this text.
1. The most basic translation of tao is "way" or "the Way."
2. The Daodejing is both one of the most translated texts from ancient China and one of the most notoriously difficult texts to translate. (175+ translations of section 1 can be read here if you'd like to see some comparisons.) As usual, we'll work with what we have, acknowledging that we may be missing some things in translation.
3. The spellings differ (Daodejing vs Tao te ching) due to fairly recent changes in the transliteration of Chinese to English (from Wade-Giles system to Pinyin).
4. The choice to refer to the Master by both female and male pronouns is the editor’s choice and it’s a slightly uncommon one.
5. This is one of the most difficult texts you will read this semester because there are such a wide variety of interpretations of this somewhat mystical, obscure text. Glean what you can and we’ll work through more in class. If you have forty minutes and a little patience for listening, Dr. Michael Puett’s thoughts on Laozi and the Daodejing are enlightening.


Tao te ching

by Laozi (5th c. BCE)

  1. The tao that can be told
    is not the eternal Tao
    The name that can be named
    is not the eternal Name.

    The unnamable is the eternally real.
    Naming is the origin
    of all particular things.

    Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
    Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

    Yet mystery and manifestations
    arise from the same source.
    This source is called darkness.

    Darkness within darkness.
    The gateway to all understanding.

  2. When people see some things as beautiful,
    other things become ugly.
    When people see some things as good,
    other things become bad.
    Being and non-being create each other.
    Difficult and easy support each other.
    Long and short define each other.
    High and low depend on each other.
    Before and after follow each other.
    Therefore the Master
    acts without doing anything
    and teaches without saying anything.
    Things arise and she lets them come;
    things disappear and she lets them go.
    She has but doesn't possess,
    acts but doesn't expect.
    When her work is done, she forgets it.
    That is why it lasts forever.


  3. If you overesteem great men,
    people become powerless.
    If you overvalue possessions,
    people begin to steal.
    The Master leads
    by emptying people's minds
    and filling their cores,
    by weakening their ambition
    and toughening their resolve.
    He helps people lose everything
    they know, everything they desire,
    and creates confusion
    in those who think that they know.
    Practice not-doing,
    and everything will fall into place.


  4. The Tao is like a well:
    used but never used up.
    It is like the eternal void:
    filled with infinite possibilities.
    It is hidden but always present.
    I don't know who gave birth to it.
    It is older than God.

  5. The Tao doesn't take sides;
    it gives birth to both good and evil.
    The Master doesn't take sides;
    she welcomes both saints and sinners.
    The Tao is like a bellows:
    it is empty yet infinitely capable.
    The more you use it, the more it produces;
    the more you talk of it, the less you understand.
    Hold on to the center.

  1. Fill your bowl to the brim
    and it will spill.
    Keep sharpening your knife
    and it will blunt.
    Chase after money and security
    and your heart will never unclench.
    Care about people's approval
    and you will be their prisoner.
    Do your work, then step back.
    The only path to serenity.

  2. Can you coax your mind from its wandering
    and keep to the original oneness?
    Can you let your body become
    supple as a newborn child's?
    Can you cleanse your inner vision
    until you see nothing but the light?
    Can you love people and lead them
    without imposing your will?
    Can you deal with the most vital matters
    by letting events take their course?
    Can you step back from you own mind
    and thus understand all things?
    Giving birth and nourishing,
    having without possessing,
    acting with no expectations,
    leading and not trying to control:
    this is the supreme virtue.


  3. We join spokes together in a wheel,
    but it is the center hole
    that makes the wagon move.
    We shape clay into a pot,
    but it is the emptiness inside
    that holds whatever we want.
    We hammer wood for a house,
    but it is the inner space
    that makes it livable.
    We work with being,
    but non-being is what we use.

  1. Look, and it can't be seen.
    Listen, and it can't be heard.

    Reach, and it can't be grasped.
    Above, it isn't bright.
    Below, it isn't dark.
    Seamless, unnamable,
    it returns to the realm of nothing.
    Form that includes all forms,
    image without an image,
    subtle, beyond all conception.

    Approach it and there is no beginning;
    follow it and there is no end.
    You can't know it, but you can be it,
    at ease in your own life.
    Just realize where you come from:
    this is the essence of wisdom.

  1. Empty your mind of all thoughts.
    Let your heart be at peace.
    Watch the turmoil of beings,
    but contemplate their return.

    Each separate being in the universe
    returns to the common source.
    Returning to the source is serenity.

    If you don't realize the source,
    you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
    When you realize where you come from,
    you naturally become tolerant,
    disinterested, amused,
    kindhearted as a grandmother,
    dignified as a king.
    Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
    you can deal with whatever life brings you,
    and when death comes, you are ready.

  1. Throw away holiness and wisdom,
    and people will be a hundred times happier.
    Throw away morality and justice,
    and people will do the right thing.
    Throw away industry and profit,
    and there won't be any thieves.

    If these three aren't enough,
    just stay at the center of the circle
    and let all things take their course.

  1. If you want to become whole,
    let yourself be partial.
    If you want to become straight,
    let yourself be crooked.
    If you want to become full,
    let yourself be empty.
    If you want to be reborn,
    let yourself die.
    If you want to be given everything,
    give everything up.

    The Master, by residing in the Tao,
    sets an example for all beings.
    Because he doesn't display himself,
    people can see his light.
    Because he has nothing to prove,
    people can trust his words.
    Because he doesn't know who he is,
    people recognize themselves in him.
    Because he has no goad in mind,
    everything he does succeeds.

    When the ancient Masters said,
    "If you want to be given everything,
    give everything up,"
    they weren't using empty phrases.
    Only in being lived by the Tao can you be truly yourself.

  1. Know the male,
    yet keep to the female:
    receive the world in your arms.
    If you receive the world,
    the Tao will never leave you
    and you will be like a little child.

    Know the white,
    yet keep to the black:
    be a pattern for the world.
    If you are a pattern for the world,
    the Tao will be strong inside you
    and there will be nothing you can't do.

    Know the personal,
    yet keep to the impersonal:
    accept the world as it is.
    If you accept the world,
    the Tao will be luminous inside you
    and you will return to your primal self.

    The world is formed from the void,
    like utensils from a block of wood.
    The Master knows the utensils,
    yet keeps to the the block:
    thus she can use all things.


  2. Do you want to improve the world?
    I don't think it can be done.

    The world is sacred.
    It can't be improved.
    If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.
    If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it.

    There is a time for being ahead,
    a time for being behind;
    a time for being in motion,
    a time for being at rest;
    a time for being vigorous,
    a time for being exhausted;
    a time for being safe,
    a time for being in danger.

    The Master sees things as they are,
    without trying to control them.
    She lets them go their own way,
    and resides at the center of the circle.

  1. Weapons are the tools of violence;
    all decent men detest them.

    Weapons are the tools of fear;
    a decent man will avoid them
    except in the direst necessity
    and, if compelled, will use them
    only with the utmost restraint.
    Peace is his highest value.
    If the peace has been shattered,
    how can he be content?
    His enemies are not demons,
    but human beings like himself.
    He doesn't wish them personal harm.
    Nor does he rejoice in victory.
    How could he rejoice in victory
    and delight in the slaughter of men?

    He enters a battle gravely,
    with sorrow and with great compassion,
    as if he were attending a funeral.

  1. The Tao never does anything,
    yet through it all things are done.

    If powerful men and women
    could center themselves in it,
    the whole world would be transformed
    by itself, in its natural rhythms.
    People would be content
    with their simple, everyday lives,
    in harmony, and free of desire.

    When there is no desire,
    all things are at peace.