The Daode jing (Tao Te Ching, Book of the Way and its Power) is a Daoist scripture that is believed to have been written by Laozi (Lao Tzu, sixth century B.C.E.). It consists of both prose and poetry, divided into eighty-one stanzas or chapters. The text is divided into two parts: the Daojing (Book of the Way, chapters 1-37) and the Dejing (Book of Power, chapters 38-81).
An important theme underlying much of the Daode jing is that the Dao (the Way) is a path that preserves cooperation and harmony between yin and yang. Yin and yang are opposing but mutually complementary principles of the universe. Yin is negative, while yang is positive. Yin is passive, while yang is active. Yin is cold, while yang is hot. Yin is liquid, while yang is solid. Yin is soft, while yang is hard. As the universe progresses through its natural cycle, yang may be replaced by yin, and yin may be replaced by yang. Yin and yang may supplant each other, and their continual interplay may produce the natural cycle of change in the universe.
The Daode jing begins by explaining that the Dao that can be named is not the same as the Dao that cannot be named. The Dao that can be spoken is not the same as the Dao that cannot be spoken. The Dao may not be spoken, but it may also not be unspoken. The Dao may not be named, but it may also not be unnamed. The interplay between the named and the unnamed corresponds to the interplay between striving (wei) and not-striving (wuwei), and it also corresponds to the interplay between desire (yu) and the absence of desire (wuyu). Just as desire and the absence of desire differ in name, so do striving and not-striving. Just as striving and not-striving differ in name, so do the named and the unnamed.
The Dao is a mystery that eludes naming, but it is also a gate to a realm of ineffability that eludes namelessness. It is the interdependent and mutually-complementary relation between acting and not-acting, between doing and not-doing, between having and not-having, between holding on and letting go, between gaining and losing. It is also the interdependent and mutually-complementary relation between long and short, large and small, high and low, rising and falling, opening and closing, beginning and ending, brightness and darkness, day and night, life and death, being and non-being, honor and disgrace, joy and sorrow, good and evil, strength and weakness, rigidity and flexibility, tranquility and agitation, harmony and discord.
The Dao blunts the sharpness of things, and it softens the hardness of things. It is neither sharp nor dull, neither twisted nor straight, neither left-sided nor right-sided, neither empty nor full, neither bright nor dark, neither loud nor silent. It is the mutually-complementary relation between the hidden and the exposed, between the seen and the unseen, between the heard and the unheard. The Dao is neither formed nor unformed, but is both. It is neither at rest nor in motion, but is both. To know the Dao is to transcend dualistic thinking, and is to realize that any condition or quality of things may be supplanted by an opposing condition or quality, and that any condition or quality of things is inseparable from an opposing condition or quality. To act in accordance with the Dao is to maintain balance and harmony between any contrary or opposing forces which affect the natural cycle of the universe.
The Daode jing describes a sage (shengren) as a person who is able to promote social cooperation and harmony by acting in accordance with the Dao. A sage is a person who acts by avoiding unnecessary action, who teaches by not trying to teach, and who is able to do everything by not striving to do anything. A sage is also a person who acts selflessly, and who demonstrates both honor and humility.
A sage is gentle and kind, but he does not seek to be recognized for his or her gentleness or kindness. He is honest and sincere, but he does not seek to be recognized for his honesty or sincerity. He works to improve the well-being of others because he truly wants to promote social justice and harmony. He is detached from all things, but he takes care of all things.
The Daode jing teaches that to act in accordance with the Dao is to be like an uncarved block of wood. If a block of wood is uncarved, then it may be cut into any shape or form. The Dao may elude definability, but it is always yielding and compliant to any change in the balance between yin and yang. The Dao is like a lump of clay which can be molded into the shape of a bowl. It is like an empty bowl which can never be filled. The Dao is like a wellspring whose resources can never be exhausted. It is like a limitless expanse of water that sustains all things and that brings all things to fulfillment.
The Daode jing says that anything that is contrary to the Dao quickly becomes weakened and exhausted. The Dao is the mother of ten thousand things, and is the nurturer of heaven and earth. It is the natural flow of things, which is manifested by an interplay of opposing forces, whereby compliance overcomes non-compliance, flexibility overcomes inflexibility, malleability overcomes unmalleability, softness overcomes hardness, tranquility overcomes agitation, and harmony overcomes discord.
To act virtuously is to act in accordance with the natural order of things, and it is to avoid using force to change or control things. To act virtuously is to be yielding and compliant, and is to avoid struggling against the natural cycle of change in the universe. To act virtuously is to empty the mind of all striving for, or attachment to, things and is to maintain tranquility and equanimity.
If things develop in accordance with the Dao, then there is harmony in the universe. The more that things develop in accordance with the Dao, the greater the harmony that may occur in the universe, and the greater the power (de) or virtue that things may attain. Thus, each thing has its own degree of power or virtue, depending on how closely it conforms to the natural order of things. The highest degree of power or virtue may be attained by those things which act only in accordance with the Dao.
At the same time, virtue or power may to some extent be hollow or empty, because those individuals who are virtuous do not attach any importance to their own virtue and do not strive to become virtuous. To be virtuous is merely to comply with the natural order of things.
In contrast to the teachings of Kongfuzi (Confucius, 551-479 BCE), the Daode jing maintains that virtue is attained by complying with the natural order of things, rather than by acting benevolently and righteously. Benevolence and righteousness may help us to resolve social conflict or discord, but they are necessary only if we have failed to comply with the natural order of things. If all individuals comply with the natural order of things, then benevolence and righteousness are not necessary in order to attain social justice or harmony. If there is no conflict or discord within a family, then filial piety and devotion are not necessary in order to comply with the natural order of things.
The Daode jing teaches that only when we neglect the importance of acting in accordance with the Dao do we argue for the importance of benevolence as a rule of conduct. Only when we neglect the importance of benevolence as a rule of conduct do we argue for the importance of righteousness. Only when we neglect the importance of righteousness do we argue for the importance of propriety. Only when we neglect the importance of propriety do we argue for the importance of ritual.
A sage (shengren) is a person who is unconcerned with his own personal loss or gain and who accepts social disgrace and disfavor willingly. A sage is a person who knows that winning may be followed by losing and that losing may be followed by winning. He recognizes that winning and losing are interrelated and inseparable. He is able to recognize that he may gain by losing and may lose by gaining.
A sage is also a person who is able to relinquish any striving for serenity or fulfillment and who is thus able to attain serenity and fulfillment. He is able to relinquish any striving for wisdom or enlightenment, and he is thus able to attain wisdom and enlightenment.
The sage understands that the natural order of things is for some things to be hidden and for other things to be revealed. He knows that the natural order of things is for some things to be difficult and for other things to be easy, and he recognizes that the natural order of things is for some things to occur sooner and for other things to occur later. He understands that the natural order of things is for some things to be ahead and for other things to be behind. Thus, he does not choose yin by rejecting yang, or choose yang by rejecting yin, and he accepts both principles as fundamental to the natural order of things.
The power or virtue that belongs to things may be determined by the extent to which they conform to the Dao. Things that conform most closely to the Dao may have the greatest degree of power or virtue. Thus, we may be able to overcome the power of those things which do not conform to the Dao (such as selfish actions which produce social disharmony) if we engage in conduct that more closely conforms to the Dao (such as unselfish actions that produce social harmony and that comply with the natural order of things). The Dao teaches us how to maintain tranquility and equanimity, and it shows us how to avoid attachment to self-interest or self-concern. It does not strive for anything, and yet it fulfills everything. It does not seek anything, and yet it finds everything. It yields to all forces, and yet it overcomes all forces.
Ames, Roger T., and Hall, David L. Daodejing: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
Chan, Wing-tsit. "The Natural Way of Lao Tzu," in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.
Lao Tsu. Lao Tsu: Tao Te Ching. Translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.
Lusthaus, Dan. "Laozi (Lao Tzu)," in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World. Edited by Ian P. McGreal. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Miller, James. Daoism: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003.
Wang Pi. Commentary on the Lao Tzu. Translated by Ariane Rump in collaboration with Wing-tsit Chan. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1979.