Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu was a philosopher of ancient China and is a central figure in Taoism. The authorship of Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese sacred text, is attributed to him (see selections from Tao Te Ching below). Lao Tzu is not a personal name, and literally means "Old Master".

According to tradition biographies, Lao Tzu lived in the 6th century BC and was the keeper of the archives at the imperial court in China. His wise counsil attracted many followers, but Lao-Tzu never opened a formal school. He believed that written words might solidify into dogma. Lao Tzu wanted his philosophy to remain a natural way to live life. He believed "simplicity" to be the key to truth and freedom. Lao Tzu encouraged his followers to observe, and seek to understand the laws of nature; to develop intuition and build up personal power; and to use that power to lead life with love, and without force.

Legend says that in the end Lao Tzu, saddened by the evil of men, set off into the desert on his water buffalo leaving civilization behind, to live as a hermit.

When he arrived at the final gate at the great wall protecting the kingdom, the gatekeeper persuaded him to produce a record of his wisdom for posterity. The result was the eighty-one sayings of the "Tao-Te Ching". Some legends elaborate further that the "Old Master" was the teacher of the Buddha, or the Buddha himself.

Lao Tzu spelling variations include Laozi, Lao Tse, Lao-Tsu, Laotze, Lao Zi, among others.

Following are selections from Tao Te Ching in  trsanslation by Stephen Mitchell, Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Lionel Giles and Ralph Alan Dale.

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.
(Stephen Mitchell)

Among mankind, the recognition of beauty as such implies the idea of ugliness,
And the recognition of good implies the idea of evil.
There is the same mutual relation between existence and non-existence in the matter of creation;
Between difficulty and ease in the matter of accomplishing;
Between long and short in the matter of form;
Between high and low in the matter of elevation;
Between treble and bass in the matter of musical pitch;
Between before and after in the matter of priority.
Nature is not benevolent;
With ruthless in difference she makes all things serve their purposes,
Like the straw dogs we use at sacrifices.
The Sage is not benevolent: he utilises the people with the like inexorability.
The space between Heaven and Earth,—is it not like a bellows?
It is empty, yet inexhaustible;
When it is put in motion, more and more comes out.
Heaven and Earth are long-lasting.
The reason why Heaven and Earth can last long
Is that they live not for themselves, and thus they are able to endure.
(Lionel Giles)

The Tao is called the Great Mother:
empty yet inexhaustible,
it gives birth to infinite worlds.

It is always present within you.
You can use it any way you want.
(Stephen Mitchell)

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don't try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don't compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.
(Stephen Mitchell)

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.
(Stephen Mitchell)

Accolades can usher in
Great trouble for your body.
Censure can herald misery.

Why can favor and disfavor
Both be harmful?

Because both accolades and censure,
When filtered through self as ego,
Always place us in jeopardy.

But when the universe becomes your self,
When you love the world as yourself,
All reality becomes your heaven,
Reinventing you as your own heaven.

Only then, will you transcend the tense
To fully be here now.

Only then, no harm
Will the universe proffer
Nor you to her
For you will be
Not you but she
And both - the universal Great Integrity.
(Ralph Alan Dale)

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.
(Stephen Mitchell)

Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty and be full;
Wear out and be new;
Have little and gain Have much and be confused.

Therefore the wise embrace the one
And set an example to all.
Not putting on a display,
They shine forth.
Not justifying themselves,
They are distinguished.
Not boasting,
The receive recognition.
Not bragging,
The never falter.
The do not quarrel,
So no one quarrels with them.
Therefore the ancients say, “Yield and overcome.”

Is that an empty saying?
Be really whole,
And all things will come to you.
(Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English)

There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Solitary. Unchanging.
Infinite. Eternally present.

It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.

It flows through all things,
inside and outside,
and returns to the origin of all things.

The Tao is great.
The universe is great.
Earth is great.
Man is great.
These are the four great powers.

Man follows the earth.
Earth follows the universe.
The universe follows the Tao.
The Tao follows only itself.
(Stephen Mitchell)

Weapons, however beautiful, are instruments of ill omen,
hateful to all creatures.
Therefore he who has Tao will have nothing to do with them.
Where the princely man abides, the weak left hand is in honour.
But he who uses weapons honours the stronger right.
Weapons are instruments of ill omen;
They are not the instruments of the princely man,
Who uses them only when he needs.
Peace and tranquility are what he prizes.
When he conquers, he is not elate.
To be elate were to rejoice in the slaughter of human beings.
And he who rejoices in the slaughter of human beings
Is not fit to work his will in the Empire.
A certain military commander used to say:
“I dare not act the host; I prefer to play the guest.
I dare not advance an inch;
I prefer to retreat a foot.”
There is no greater calamity than lightly engaging in war.
Lightly to engage in war is to risk the loss of our treasure.
When opposing warriors join in battle, he who has pity conquers.
(Lionel Giles)

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.
(Stephen Mitchell)

She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart.

Music or the smell of good cooking
may make people stop and enjoy.
But words that point to the Tao
seem monotonous and without flavor.
When you look for it, there is nothing to see.
When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear.
When you use it, it is inexhaustible.
(Stephen Mitchell)

If you would contract, you must first expand.
If you would weaken, you must first strengthen.
If you would overthrow, you must first raise up.
If you would take, you must first give.
This is called the dawn of intelligence.

He who is most perfect seems to be lacking;
yet his resources are never outworn.
He who is most full seems vacant;
yet his uses are in exhaustible.
Extreme straightness is as bad as crookedness.
Extreme cleverness is as bad as folly.
Extreme fluency is as bad as stammering.
Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.
Abandon learning, and you will be free from trouble and distress.
Failure is the foundation of success, and the means by which it is achieved.
Success is the lurking-place of failure;
but who can tell when the turning-point will come?
He who acts, destroys; he who grasps, loses.
Therefore the Sage does not act, and so does not destroy;
He does not grasp, and so he does not lose.
(Lionel Giles)

Returning is the motion of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.
The ten thousand things are born of being.
Being is born of not being.
(Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English)

Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.

Thus the sage knows without traveling;
He sees without looking;
He works without doing.
(Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English)

Every being in the universe is an expression of the Tao.
It springs into existence,
unconscious, perfect, free,
takes on a physical body,
lets circumstances complete it.
That is why every being spontaneously honors the Tao.

The Tao gives birth to all beings,
nourishes them, maintains them,
cares for them, comforts them, protects them,
takes them back to itself,
creating without possessing,
acting without expecting,
guiding without interfering.
That is why love of the Tao
is in the very nature of things.
(Stephen Mitchell)

In the beginning was the Tao.
All things issue from it;
all things return to it.

To find the origin,
trace back the manifestations.
When you recognize the children and find the mother,
you will be free of sorrow.

If you close your mind in judgments
and traffic with desires,
your heart will be troubled.
If you keep your mind from judging
and aren't led by the senses,
your heart will find peace.

Seeing into darkness is clarity.
Knowing how to yield is strength.
Use your own light
and return to the source of light.
This is called practicing eternity.
(Stephen Mitchell)

If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.

The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.

Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law,
and people become honest.
I let go of economics,
and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
and the good becomes common as grass.
(Stephen Mitchell)

Why is the sea king of a hundred streams?
Because it lies below them.
Therefore it is the king of a hundred streams.

If the sage would guide the people, he must serve with humility.
If he would lead them, he must follow behind.
In this way when the sage rules, the people will not feel oppressed;
When he stands before them, they will not be harmed.
The whole world will support him and will not tire of him.

Because he does not compete,
He does not meet competition.
(Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English)

If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren't afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can't achieve.

Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter's place.
When you handle the master carpenter's tools,
chances are that you'll cut your hand.
(Stephen Mitchell)

Man at his birth is tender and weak;
At his death he is rigid and strong.
Plants and trees when they come forth are tender and crisp;
When dead, they are dry and tough.
Thus rigidity and strength are the concomitants of death;
Softness and weakness are the concomitants of life.
Hence the warrior that is strong does not conquer;
the tree that is strong is cut down.
Therefore the strong and the big take the lower place;
The soft and the weak take the higher place.
(Lionel Giles)

There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water,
Yet for attacking things that are hard and strong there is nothing that surpasses it,
nothing that can take its place.
The soft overcomes the hard; the weak over comes the strong.
There is no one in the world but knows this truth,
and no one who can put it into practice.
Those who are wise have no wide range of learning;
those who range most widely are not wise.
The Sage does not care to hoard.
The more he uses for the benefit of others,
the more he possesses himself.
The more he gives to his fellow-men,
the more he has of his own.
The truest sayings are paradoxical.
(Lionel Giles)


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