Lao-Tzu's
TAO
Plain English Adaptation
Universal Dialectic Institute
Copyright © 2006, UDI, et al.

Creative Commons License

About Tao | Verse One



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1.

When we talk about the Tao, what we are talking about isn't really the Tao, it's just a name. Names aren't reality, they are just names. Everything in the world comes from the nameless. When we learn to think of things as separate from other things, we give them names.

If we look at the world without thinking about our own desires, we can see how everything is connected and part of the same whole. If we only think about what we want for ourselves, we can only see things as separate and disconnected.

Unity and separateness look like two very different ideas, but they really come from the same source. This is called a mystery, because it is hard to understand. It is like something hidden inside something hidden. It is the beginning of all mysteries.


2.

Things only seem beautiful to us because there are ugly things to compare them to. In the same way, things only seem good to us because there are bad things. This is why we can't have something without being able to lose it. We can't do easy things without knowing what hard things are. There can't be anything long unless there is something short to compare it to. Nothing is high unless something is low. A singer and a band have to work together to make music. Without a front, it doesn't make sense to talk about a back.

Since everything that is different is also the same, a wise person does things without making a big effort. He creates things without trying too hard. He gets things done, but he doesn't take credit for them. The work is done and then forgotten. When the wise person does things this way, they last forever.


3.

If we don't make a big fuss about what we think is good, we don't get into arguments. If we don't try to collect too many things, people won't steal from us. If we don't think about what we would like to have all the time, we won't get upset or confused.

That's why a wise person deals with other people by taking their minds off whatever they think they want and giving them what they really need. It's best not to let people get carried away with their wants and help them focus on their needs instead.

If we don't spend all of our time thinking about what we want, other people will stop trying to give us what they think we want, which usually isn't what we really want anyway.

If we aren't always trying to improve our lives, we'll be happier.


4.

The Tao is like an empty cup that we drink out of, even though it is never filled up. It is the mysterious source of everything. The Tao is what eventually wears down the sharpness of a knife, untangles knots, and softens the glare of bright lights. Everything comes from the Tao, and everything is the Tao. The Tao is hidden, but it is always there. We don't know where it comes from. It is the source of Nature.


5.

Nature doesn't think about people as separate from itself. It sees everything as One. That's why the wise person doesn't see people as separate from nature. She sees everything as One.

Nature is like a beating heart. It changes shape, but it always has the same form. The more the heart moves, the more blood it pumps.

Less words are better than more words. We should always try to find a middle way between too much and not enough.


6.

The female spirit lives forever. It is the spirit of the mother. Nature is our mother, but her spirit is hard to see. If we find it, it will never fail us.


7.

Nature lasts forever. It was never born, so it has always been alive. Because we are all part of Nature, the wise person doesn't try to get ahead of others. He doesn't get too attached to anything, so he is able to see that he is at one with everything. By doing things without thinking about himself, he finds peace.


8.

The best way to live is to be like water. Water gives life to everything without even trying. It flows in places where people don't usually go, so it is like the Tao.

We should make our homes close to the land, so that we remember our connection to Nature. When we take quiet time for ourselves, we should go deep into our hearts and experience oneness. We should be gentle and kind to other people. When we speak, we should be honest and truthful. If we have power over other people, we should use it fairly. Whatever we do in our daily lives, we should try to be good at it. When we decide to do something, we should make sure it is the right time to do it.

If we don't fight with other people, they won't be upset with us for very long.


9.

It's better to leave some room for new things than to be greedy. Having too many things is like sharpening a knife so much that the blade gets dull. If we try to keep too many things for ourselves, we have too much to protect. If we try to get too much money or power, we're asking for trouble. That's why a wise person knows when enough is enough.


10.

If we know that we have a mind and a body and they are the same thing, can we avoid believing in separateness? If we keep our minds on what we are doing and stay open to change, can we be like young children? If we understand where everything comes from, can we avoid false beliefs? If we love everyone and use our power wisely, can we avoid trying to get ahead of other people? If we understand that Nature is our mother, can we understand what it means to be a woman? If we understand the world and stay open to it, can we avoid trying to change things?

The best way of life is to take care of the things that are important to us, to get things done without taking credit for them, and to lead other people by example instead of by force.


11.

In a wheel, the spokes all come together at the hub. It's the hole at the center of the hub that makes the wheel useful. If we make a clay pot, it's the empty space inside the pot that matters most. When doors and windows are put into a room, it's the holes that make them useful. That's why we need what is there, but what is not there is just as important.


12.

If we see too many things at once, we stop seeing anything at all. If we hear too many things, we can't really hear anything. If there are too many flavors, we don't taste anything clearly. If we race around searching for things all the time, it drives us crazy. If we put too much value on things, they lead us away from happiness.

That's why the wise person is guided by what she feels instead of what she sees. She lets go of one way of life and chooses the other.


13.

If we are embarrassed or upset, we should be able to accept how we feel. We have to understand that bad things happen to everyone sometimes. This means that we need to be okay with not being the most important person in the world. We shouldn't worry much about winning or losing. That's what it really means to accept life as it is. We should also understand that being alive means that sometimes bad things will happen to us. If we weren't alive, what could happen?

If we accept the way life is without being upset, we can be trusted to take care of ourselves and others. If we love the world the same way we love ourselves, we can take care of everything.


14.

If we look for the Tao, we won't see it, because it isn't a thing. If we listen for it, we won't hear it, because it is silent. If we try to get a hold of it, we won't be able to hold on, because it isn't physical. These three facts are hard to understand when we look at them separately, and that's why they are really only one fact.

From above, The Tao is not bright, and from below, it is not dark. It is one reality, and it can't be talked about the way we talk about everything else. When we try to talk about it, it seems like nothing at all. It is the form of the formless and the image of the imageless. We can't define or imagine it.

If we try to think about a time before the Tao began, we can see that there was no beginning. If we try to follow it to its end, we can see that there is no end. That is why we should see the Tao as the source of everything, and understand that we are one with it right now, in the present moment.

Knowing about the source of everything is the most important kind of knowing there is.


15.

The masters of ancient times were quiet, mysterious, wise, and open to the world. We can't imagine how deep their understanding was. Because we can't imagine it, all we can do is talk about how they lived their lives. They were careful, like people crossing a stream in winter. They were alert, like people who were aware of danger. They were polite, like visiting guests. They were simple, like blocks of wood that haven't been carved. They were open and empty, like caves. They were hard to see into, like muddy water.

Can we wait quietly while the mud settles? Can we remain still and not act until the right time? Wise people are not selfish, so they don't always think about changing things.


16.

If we let all of our thoughts go, empty ourselves, and let the mind become still, we can watch everything in the world come and go. Things begin, grow, and go back to where they came from. Returning to the source is called stillness, and this is the way of Nature. The way of Nature doesn't change. When we know that things stay the same even when they change, we can see deeply. If we don't know this, we are asking for trouble. If we keep our minds open to change, we will care about other people and the world. If we care about others, we become wise. If we become wise, we will understand Heaven. If we understand Heaven, we become one with the Tao.

Being one with the Tao is forever. The body passes away, but the Tao will never end.


17.

Hardly anyone knows about the highest truth, the Tao. After the Tao comes everything people know and love. Then comes the things people fear. At the bottom are the things people hate.

If we don't trust other people and the world enough, we won't be trusted.

When things get done without anyone taking credit for them, everyone gets together and says "We did it!"


18.

When people forget about the Tao, they try to force themselves to treat others well. When people think they know it all, everyone starts pretending and putting on a show. When people don't get along with each other, they look for other people to tell them what to do. When everyone is confused and unable to work together, someone will take advantage of them.


19.

If we forget about trying to be perfect and trying to know everything, the world will be a better place for everyone. If we stop trying so hard to treat people the way we think they should be treated, we will learn that kindness and love come naturally. If we stop trying to make everything better and store up things for ourselves, no one will be able to take anything away from us. These are only three examples. They aren't as important as being able to see how simple life is, to figure out who you really are, to stop being selfish, and to reduce your desires.


20.

Sometimes, there isn't much difference between yes and no, and other times, there isn't much difference between good and bad. We don't always have to be afraid of the same things other people are afraid of. We don't always have to think like other people do.

While other people are happy and having fun, the wise person might be wandering, not knowing what to do or where to go. While other people seem to have everything they want, the wise person might not have much at all. Sometimes, it's natural to feel confused about this. Other people can seem strong and bright, while the wise person seems weak and dim. Others can seem smart all the time, while the wise person sometimes feels foolish. While other people always seem to have many clear goals and desires, the wise person doesn't get attached to moving in any direction. Everyone else is always busy, but the wise person is in no hurry to get anything done. The wise person is different, because he gets his happiness from the Tao instead of the things other people value.


21.

Following only the Tao is the best way to live, but the Tao is mysterious. Even though it is hard to pin down, everything comes from it. The Tao is a mystery, but when we follow it, it is very real. People have known about the Tao since the beginning of time. This is how we know that it is Nature's Way.


22.

If we move out of the way of something, we can overcome it. If we bend, we can become straight. If we empty ourselves, we can become full. If we wear ourselves out, we can become new. If we only have a little, we can get more, but if we have too much, we can only become confused.

This is why the wise person understands that everything is connected and part of the One, and she sets an example for everyone. She doesn't put on a big show, so she always shines. She doesn't make a big deal of herself, so she always stands out. She doesn't brag, so people respect her. She doesn't fight, so no one fights with her. This is why wise people say that we should get things done by letting them happen naturally. If we really know what it means to be part of the whole, everything gets done by itself, even when we are the ones doing it.


23.

Just like a thunderstorm doesn't last all day, it isn't natural to talk too much. If Nature can't make things last forever, how can we do it? A person who follows the Tao is one with the Tao. A person who is good has a good life. A person who loses goodness is lost. When we are one with the Tao, the Tao welcomes us. When we are one with goodness, the goodness is always there. When we are one with the unpleasant things in life, we are willing to experience them. A person who doesn't trust Nature will not be trusted.


24.

A person who stands on his tiptoes isn't steady. A person who runs too fast gets tired and falls behind. In the same way, a person who makes a big show about things is not wise. A person who thinks they are better than other people doesn't get any respect. A person who is always talking about what he can do usually doesn't do much at all. A person who brags won't be put up with for long. People who follow the Tao don't think we need any of these things. They don't bring happiness. That's why people who follow the Tao avoid them.


25.

Nobody knows where the Tao comes from or how it was formed, but it was around before anything else. Before the world was created, it was alone in the silence and the void, never changing. Now, it is a part of everything, and it is always moving. Everything comes from it. We don't know it's real name, so we call it the Tao. If we can't call it anything else, we can call it powerful.

Because it is powerful, it flows very far. Once it has flowed very far, it returns. This is why wise people say that the Tao is powerful, the laws of physics are powerful, the Earth is powerful, and the leaders are powerful. These are the four most powerful things in the universe.

People follow the world and its leaders, the world follows the laws of physics, the laws of physics follow the Tao, and the Tao follows what is natural.


26.

Lightness comes from heaviness, and stillness is more important than lots of activity. That's why a wise person doesn't lose sight of what is important, even if there are lots of distractions. No matter what is going on around him, he stays calm and doesn't get too attached to anything.

People who have a lot of responsibility should not act carelessly when other people are around. If we take things too lightly, we can lose sight of what is important. If we get carried away with too much activity, we can lose control of ourselves.


27.

A good walker doesn't leave tracks behind, a good speaker doesn't make slips, and someone who is good at math doesn't need to count the numbers. A good door doesn't need a lock, but no one can open it. A good binding doesn't need knots, but no one can loosen it. This is why a wise person cares for everyone, and doesn't leave anyone behind. She takes care of everything she needs to do, and doesn't leave anything unfinished. This is called "following the light."

A good person is the teacher of a bad person. A bad person is a good person's responsibility. If the teacher isn't respected and the student isn't cared for, there will be trouble, no matter how hard we try. This can be hard for us to understand.


28.

We should know what means to be strong, like a man, but it is more important to be compassionate, like a woman. We should go with the flow of life, but always honestly and with courage. This is how we become like children again.

We should know what it means to be active, but it is more important to be still. We should be examples to the world, always living with honesty and courage. This is how we return to being one with the infinite.

We should know what it means to be honorable, but it is more important to be humble. We should be open to life, always honest and able to adapt. This is how we become like an uncarved block of wood.

When a block is carved, it becomes useful. When the wise person uses it, he becomes powerful. That's why it is good to be like the uncarved block.


29.

If we think we can take over the universe and improve it, we're in for a big letdown. The universe is all it can be. We can't improve it. If we try to force it to change, we'll just spoil things. If we try to hold on to the universe the way it is now, it will just slip away from us.

Sometimes things are ahead, and sometimes they are behind. Sometimes a person is healthy, and other times he is sick. Sometimes we are strong, and sometimes we are weak. Some times we feel happy, and other times we are sad. This is why the wise person avoids going too far with anything, getting carried away, or getting stuck in rigid beliefs and ways of living.


30.

When we try to conquer the universe, we can only meet resistance. It is said that when an army passes by, thorn bushes spring up, and when there is a war, hard times follow. This is why we must not take advantage of power. Just do what needs to be done.

When you achieve results, do not bask in them, boast, or be proud. Just be satisfied with getting results. This is the natural way to get things done. Do things, but don't force them. Great effort is followed by loss of strength. Using force is not Nature's way, and whatever goes against Nature's way does not last.


31.

Weapons are used to create fear, so everyone hates them. This is why the wise person does not use weapons unless there is no choice. He prefers peace and quiet, and he does not celebrate victory in war. If we celebrate victory, we find happiness in killing, and when killing makes us happy, we can't grow spiritually.

War should be treated like a funeral, because many people are being killed. All of the victims should be mourned, and victory should not be celebrated.


32.

The Tao can't be described, it can only be pointed to. It is smaller that the smallest thing, so it can't be grasped. If the leaders of the world could understand it, many problems would be solved and life would become gentler. People wouldn't need to be told what to do all the time, and things would take their natural course.

When we divide Nature into parts, the parts need names. There are already enough names. Knowing when to stop thinking about division and separateness can keep us out of trouble. The Tao that unifies everything is like a river flowing home to the sea.


33.

Understanding other people is wisdom, but understanding ourselves is enlightenment. It only takes force to gain power over other people, but it takes real strength to master ourselves.

When we know we have enough, we are rich. It takes strong character to be honest about who we are. If we stay true to ourselves, we will have the power to endure. And if we identify with the Tao, even death is not the end.


34.

The Tao is everywhere, even when things seem opposed to each other. Everything depends on it, and it doesn't hold anything back. It gets everything done without taking any credit for it.

It takes care of everything, but it isnít a king or a master. It doesnít have a goal, so it is very modest. On the other hand, everything in the world returns to it, so it is very great.

It does not show off its greatness, so it is the greatest of all.


35.

Everyone is attracted to a person who is aware of Oneness, because that person is peaceful and happy.

People often make time for music and good food, but a description of the Tao may not seem to have much substance or flavor. It canít be seen or heard, but it is always there. We can never exhaust the Tao.


36.

Anything that shrinks must first expand. Anything that breaks must first be strong. Anything that is thrown down must first be raised up. Before we can receive, we must first give.

Understanding this is how we perceive the nature of things. Soft and weak overcome hard and strong.

Just as deep-water fish cannot rise to the surface, wise people should not be aggressive or violent.


37.

The Tao doesnít try to force anything, and yet nothing is left undone. If people understood this, the world would move along naturally. If we still desire to act, we can choose to clear our minds and return to simplicity. In simplicity, we arenít distracted by our own desires, and when we arenít distracted, there is tranquility.

In this way, all things may be at peace.


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