Book of the Forest Path



I. A New Rendition of the Tao Te Ching




The Tao Te Ching is an ancient work consisting of 81 cryptic verses. It is the basic text of the philosophical and religious movements known collectively as Taoism. And it is certainly one the most read, celebrated, and translated works in the history of the written word. It has been reasonably dated anywhere within the millennium before the West's Christian era. I think the versions we are familiar with were likely composed shortly after the life of Confucius (551-479 BCE), because I think it is, in part, a response to Confucian teachings.

    It is not clear whether the person to whom it is attributed, Lao Tzu, actually existed, though in the tradition he has been represented as a younger contemporary of Confucius. At any rate, the question is ill-formulated, as someone certainly wrote it, and "Lao Tzu" means simply "the old master." One legend about his person and his book is worth recounting, however. When Lao Tzu was, as an old man, fleeing a war zone (and the China of Lao Tzu's time was continuously torn by war, a fact that is evident from the text), border guards refused to let him cross until he wrote down his teachings; the result was the Tao Te Ching. This makes sense of one of the book's main themes: that what it teaches cannot be taught, that what it says cannot be written.

   The book is, of course, worth the huge number of translations it has received, since it is at once so profound and so cryptic. It supports an incredibly wide range of formulations into English.

   I am trying to accomplish a couple of things in the translation that follows. First of all, I have a particular philosophical interpretation of Taoism, and I am trying to see how far it can be reflected in a translation. I think it is not compatible with the translations I've seen. Second, I've tried to make it plain and cool English. My objection to the existing translations is basically philosophical and it is fundamental. I think the going translations (even the ones I like the most (Mitchell's and Red Pine's, for example)) still reflect a dualistic metaphysics. They take Taoism to privilege emptiness over existence, inaction over action, yin over yang, and so on. That is understandable and does emerge from the text. But I think the reasons for that are, from a certain view, historical accidents: they reflect a Taoism that is dedicated to a critique of Confucianism. Nevertheless the considered position of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu (another great Taoist sage) is that, finally, both yin and yang, both the world and the emptiness at its heart, must be approached with a perfect affirmation, and that they are, in fact, the same thing. I have tried to apply that insight - surely fundamental to Taoism, throughout the text. So, for example, the first chapter in my view just can't possibly say that namelessness is good and naming bad, that desirelessness is good and desire bad, and so on. Such views would be more proper to Buddhism, for example.

    In addition, the Tao Te Ching is an anarchist political text, and its radical attack on political authority and wealth have often been obscured by translators: I have tried to restore a sense of its pointed political critique, its direct attack on inequalities of wealth and power in ancient China.

     Finally, I regard the work as more playful and aware of its paradoxes than most other translations make it out to be. There is a touch of irony, emerging in part from the self-awareness with which it says what it says cannot be said.




This book can tell you nothing;

the Tao leaves you where you began.

A maiden can leave things nameless;

a mother must name her children.

Perfectly empty or carrying ten thousand words, you still return,

and return, and return.

Naming things loses what unites them.

Failing to name things loses them into what unites them.

Words are limits that make experience possible.

But form and formlessness are the same.

Tao and the world are the same,

though we call them by different names.

This unity is dark and deep, but on the other hand it is deep and dark.

It opens into the center of everything.






Beauty originates in ugliness,

virtue in vice.

Life and death, being and nothingness:

you might as well think of them as the same thing.

What's easy and what's difficult make each other what they are

to the point where they are precisely identical.

What's long and what's short are the measure of one another.

What's high and what's low reach toward each other.

High notes and low notes form a harmony.

Future and past form a circle.

So there's nothing to do but remain in the emptiness

from which all these notions emerge and into which they are released.

The speech of the sage is silence; his silence, speech.

Things come and go, and he lets them.

He doesn't seize them, and so participates in their own spontaneity.

He does his job and lets go.

Because he does, he acts in eternity as he finds repose in time.






If you're always groveling before the great,

people become envious and quarrelsome.

If you hide your riches

you obviously think people are robbers.

Soon they will be.

If, on the other hand, you flaunt your things

you encourage people to be devoured by their own greed.

So the sage governs himself, not other people.

He empties his own mind and so helps free others from greed and envy.

He fills their stomachs and helps them relax.

He strengthens people's bodies.

In the company of people, he tries to find simplicity.

Look. Forget how smart you think you are. Stop wanting everything,

as though there is something out there that will cure or fix you.

Just make things happen by allowing them to happen

Then everything will turn out alright.






The Tao empties itself continually,

and is never exhausted.

The source

gives everything as a pure gift.

In it, sharp things are rounded,

knots are untied,

water settles, clears,

becomes pure and still

Whose child is it?

It is the source, even, of God.






Obviously, the world makes no judgments.

It's as likely to be evil as good.

It doesn't care about our little preferences.

The Tao is empty, like a flute making music,

like a bellows making fire.

It's silent, like the place from which

we speak.

Live from the center.






The source of water gives over and flows:

a woman,

a mother, a lover,

an origin, clear as mystery.

The more it yields

The more it has.






The sky endures, and the earth.

How? They do not care what they are.

The sage, too, endures

by losing herself.

To lose yourself is to achieve yourself







If there were a god,

he'd be like water

that brings life to things

without trying.

Water seeks the lowest place

and cleanses what it touches.

It is as satisfied with the humble

as with the exalted.

Still, deep, clear,

true, kind, useful,

generous, prompt.

This is also the true man,

liquid, and at ease.






Keep pouring, and the vessel overflows.

Keep sharpening, and the knife becomes useless.

Hoard gold and jade, and you are in continual danger.

Pride and its collapse are the same.

Work hard, then relax.

Nurture, then release.

That's the true way.






Let your spirit embrace your body,

and your body your spirit.

Preserve your vital force

in a state of utmost flexibility.

Be like a small child.

Clean the dark mirror

so that it can reflect things with the utmost clarity.

Order the state merely by loving people.

Can you overcome your own cleverness

and walk the world's path?

Can you maintain a female receptivity?

Can you achieve transparent awareness

and see everything clearly while remaining still?

If so, with the Tao, you can create things

without owning them.

You can act with immersion in the process

and let go of the result.

Lead but don't dominate.

This is the forest path.






You make a wheel by arranging spokes,

but the empty hub receives the axle.

You make a vessel from clay,

but it's the emptiness that holds things.

You build a house from lumber,

but you live in the space inside.

We work with things

and shape the emptiness.






Always staring at bright colors

makes your eyes less sensitive.

Always listening to beautiful music

can compromise your ability to hear yourself.

Eating gourmet food all the time

can dull your taste for truth.

Always running around, searching

for excitement, hunting

for what seems precious

injures your capacities.

So the sage attends to his senses

as well as to his pleasures.

Hence he learns to preserve himself.






Honor and disgrace are both warnings.

Fear and confidence are equally ways by which

the self loses everything that is not itself, that is, everything.

Exaltation anticipates its own collapse.

Disgrace exalts.

Exaltation disgraces. Why?

Because it seems to trap you in the self

when in fact there is no self.

Treasure even your misfortunes, if you can.

Nature can be trusted to govern everything,

even you.






You can't see the invisible.

You can't name the fugitive.

You can't hear what can't be heard.

You can't grasp what you can't touch.

Now can you?

You can't avoid these qualities,

but you can't comprehend them, either.

They make a universe.

Tonight the sky is dark and the earth glows

as with moonlight.

A cord stretches from it to it, and returns and returns.

What is the substance of emptiness,

the form of the shapeless?

Confront it and its face evades you.

Follow it and its back disappears.

But still the ancients moved with the Tao into presence.

Stay connected to the origin.

That's Tao's cord.






In the time of origin, masters and warriors

approached mystery mysteriously,

profundity profoundly.

If you try to grasp such people, you miss them:

poised, as though hopping rocks in a stream;

careful as a man surrounded by enemies;

reserved as an honored guest;

open, like ice in a thaw;

straightforward as uncarved wood;

empty and accepting as a valley;

opaque as muddy water.

Allow water to settle and it clears,

but life stirs neverthless.

They didn't try to assume any particular form,

so they were again at each moment renewed.






Arrive at emptiness.

Keep still.

Things are balanced and in repose at their center.

They arise in unison.

We experience that,

and then we and they return.

All things come to be together,

and in unity they return to the source.

The source is serene.

Emergence and return form a circle.

Its center is permanent;

if you find it you find truth,

tolerance, comprehensive knowledge.

If you don't find it, you live falsely.

Real nobility is found in acting from the Tao,

acting and knowing that you are a part of nature.

Then you, like nature, like the Tao,

are inexhaustible.






The greatest leader is one

of whom the people need not even be aware.

Then there is the one who is loved,

then the one who is held in awe,

then the rest, who are despised.

If you have no trust in the people,

they will show you no trust either.

The real leader acts quietly, without display.

And when he is done, the people say:

we did the right thing, spontaneously.

We must be good.






Benevolence and rectitude make their appearance

When the real Tao is lost,

Learning and intelligence appear together with hypocrisy.

Filial piety is necessary

only if there's no peace in the family.

Patriotic fervour arises

in a nation in crisis.






Abandon holiness,

discard your plans,

and the people will improve.

Let go of duty,

and the people will find devotion.

Renounce learning and ceremony,

and the people will find peace.

Ditch your clever schemes and thirst for profit,

and thieves will disappear.

Better yet,

just return to the purity and simplicity,

of raw silk or unworked wood.

Lose your self-consciousness

and ease yourself away from desire.






What, exactly, is the difference between yes and no,

good and evil? You can't get one without the other.

Must I fear what other people fear,

want what they want?

This wilderness of ideas is bewildering.

Everyone seems to want to party,

or glut themselves with food and drink,

as though that will refresh them.

Sometimes I think that I'm the only one< who can be alone and

hold steady within myself,

giving no sign,

like a baby who doesn't know much of anything.

I alone can wander aimlessly,

and always be home.

Most people have too much,

and want even more.

I know that I possess nothing,

and am happy that I'm not clever.

I must be the deepest sort of fool.

People try to shine;

I allow myself to be concealed and nurtured in darkness.

People try to be sharp,

but I am dull about distinctions.

They resemble the ocean in a gale,

but I am adrift and becalmed.

They've got their important purposes;

I let such things go.

They try to seem sophisticated;

I'm deeply uncouth.

I seem to be estranged from people

because I am still connected to the source.






A path through the forest

is merely where the trees aren't:

a clearing or absence.

What is it? Where is it?

These are not exactly the right questions;

it is an absence in space

that is also the way you are going.

It is surrounded by trees;

if it had a nature, that would be it:

the stuff all around it that touches

and shapes the emptiness within it.

But that's where you move, isn't it?

That's how and where you go.

It is a useful emptiness, an effective absence.

You've never left it, even if you think you have,

and everything you've seen, you've seen from it.

I know it because here I am.






To become strong, yield.

To be straightened out, bow down.

To achieve fullness, empty yourself.

To be young again, allow yourself to age.

To learn, forget.

The wise person seeks the darkness

and shines.

She doesn't boast or compete,

so no one can compete with her.

There is an old saying that, like a tree, our survival depends

on flexibility, that the rigid snap when the wind rages.

That is a cliche. It is also true.

If you can let yourself go

you have already returned.






Stop your whining.

Even the most intense storm ends eventually;

in fact the strongest storms are brief.

Their origin is the relation of sky and earth.

If they can't go on forever

neither can you.

So just do your daily tasks

embodying the Tao in yourself.

Allow yourself the experience the power of loss

as well as the power of aspiration.

You can do this by allowing yourself

to find your identity with Tao and Te.

What won't fail you is directness and honesty.






Standing on tiptoes,

you lose contact with the ground and grow unsteady.

Trying to take great strides,

you forget how to walk.

Trying to show off,

you conceal what actually shines.

Concentrating on your righteousness,

you misplace your real qualities.

Praising yourself,

you make yourself ridiculous.

In relation to the Tao, that's all just crap.

If you must embody ambition,

make it to steadiness and stillness.







In origin

all is complete, combined, one.

There is no distinction

between earth and sky:

just tranquility, formlesseness, solitude,

circulating freely, inexhaustible.

This is the world's mother.

It precedes and overwhelms

our attempts to know or name it.

Constrained to pick it out,

we'd call it Tao.

It flows without stint,

giving everything to everything.

It has made itself scarce and it is returning.

Tao is spacious.

The sky is spacious.

Earth is spacious.

Even the center of man is spacious,

when it finds its connection to these.

What we are is fused to earth,

earth to sky,

sky to Tao,

Tao to what we are.






The root's stability makes possible

the leaf's communion with air.

Likewise, serenity is always still there,

at the heart of agitation.

The sage travels lightly,

but his wagons are heavily laden.

He is still, even as he moves

through the beauty and strangeness of the world.

He is unattached and rooted simultaneously,

a leaf moving freely on a stem.

He moves outward into the air,

into a kingdom,

into everything

and yet remains steady within himself.

Without that steadiness, rulership

is ridiculous.






If you could walk perfectly

you would leave no trace.

If you could speak perfectly

your words would be like birdsong,

lovely, then gone.

If you could make perfect decisions

you would not stop to calculate.

You could be secure without locks,

bound without cord.

That's how the sage abandons no one

and helps everyone, without trying.

Maybe people think his light is shrouded;

he knows the light and its shroud

need one another.

If he teaches bad people to be good,

it's because they taught him first.

The wise are lost.

That is called the crux.






Encompass the male but reside within the female.

In the world, be a valley,

a source of waters, pure:

an infant.

Know cleanness, but affirm even filth.

The stream, but also the bank.

The water and its channel.

The spring and the fall.

The origin and the outcome.

Gaze upon the white, but always from within the darkness

that has no borders.

There you will find your essence.

The sage is not an official.

The block of wood is not a tool.

The fabric is not clothing.





Do you intend to seize the world

and make it better?

I hope you will not succeed,

and I don't think you will.

The world is sacred.

It cannot be improved.

If you try to transform it

you will only damage it.

If you try to control it

you will only lose it.

Just let it happen, and yourself within it.

Breathe in; breathe out.

Push forward; fall back.

Find strength or lose it.

Enjoy companionship or dwell in solitude.

The wise person knows the sweetness of the ordinary.

Why would she need to go to extremes?







If you want to serve your ruler,

do it with the Tao, not with weapons,

not with force.

Violence recoils on the person who inflicts it.

Where armies camp, brambles grow.

Where armies march, desolation follows.

Fight only if you must. Be resolute and let go.

Be resolute and abandon pride.

Be resolute and abandon vanity.

Be resolute and abandon cruelty.

Attain your purpose and stop.

Don't swagger and wave your manhood around.

People like that lose their way and die quickly.







Weapons, even lovely ones, are terrible things.

They are forged from greed.

Abandon them into the Tao.

Rulers who pursue peace and freedom

mourn when they must fight.

If you are forced to fight,

do so solemnly, with clarity and forbearance.

Do not display weapons proudly or ostentatiously;

that merely displays a love of killing.

If you love killing, you yourself cannot survive.

When you gather to plan a military campaign,

it ought to be like gathering for a funeral.

When you see the dead on the field of battle,

allow yourself to feel grief and remorse.

If you win the war,








"Tao" is the name of the nameless,

of the perfectly simple.

The emptiness at the heart of real power

renders it impossible or pointless to resist.

Reside in this central stillness

and all things begin to shape themselves

and come to exist with ease in your experience.

The sky unites with the earth in a gentle rain.

People find unity without constraint.

Names dissolve and namelessness with them,

until each thing is precisely itself;

each thing stands as itself in your awareness,

names itself, depicts itself, contains itself.

The river contains the sky.

The sea contains the river.

The sky contains the sea.






Know others by knowing yourself.

Overcome others by overcoming yourself.

Understanding what is enough is enough.

Presence is perseverance.

Coming to stillness is forging ahead.

Find life by accepting death.







The way is a river

flowing and overflowing everywhere.

Completely reliable, it receives every thing.

Whatever it does, it does without effort,

and when the job is finished lets it go.

It touches everything and controls nothing.

That is why whatever it touches is eternal.






Reside in the center

where understanding does not require words or images,

and folk will come to you to be taught

how to be serene.

Where there is good music and food

people stop to rest and regain their energy.

But though the Tao seems unmelodious or even bland

it is an inexhaustible source of refreshment.







To shrink something,

allow it to expand.

To weaken something

allow it to become strong.

To abolish something,

exalt it.

To take something,

abandon it.

This is seeing beneath the surface.

Live in the world like fish in a river.

Rule the world like a knife cutting water.







The Tao does nothing

and leaves nothing undone.

When a ruler inhabits it,

the people come to be themselves.

They forget even to try

not to try.

In being,

everything saves itself.







Reality does not represent itself as real:

that is its reality.

Reality abandons itself into reality:

that is its presence.

It cannot judge this to be high or that to be low:

that is its exaltation.

It has no purpose:

that is its fulfillment.

It is without compassion:

that is its mercy.

The man of rectitude tries to make things turn out right,

and when that fails he rolls up his sleeves and redoubles his efforts.

If you lose the way, you lose reality.

If you lose reality, you lose compassion.

If you lose compassion, you lose rectitude.

If you lose rectitude, you lose your manners.

When people have no manners the world descends into anarchy,

tumbles into a void.

But in the anarchy we act again;

we must learn how to behave;

we learn rectitude;

we learn sincerity:

not the appearance this time but the very heart.

Can you remain in the center and allow things to be?

Either way you always return.






At the origin

each thing was whole

and all things were connected.

In their wholeness they found clarity

and serenity. In their connection,

they were sacred. People, too,

were whole, unified with each other,

integral to the world, each one a ruler,

each one pure.

Remain in the primordial purity

and the sky will become clear;

the earth will find peace;

the spirit, strength;

the valley, water;

living things, growth;

leaders, integrity.

Humility is the source of nobility.

The low is the foundation of the exalted.

Root yourself in responsibility.

Quiet yourself.







Back here.

That's where the path always leads.

That's where these wings will always bring you.

All the things that are

come from the one that is not.







When the wise study about the Tao,

they slog through its lessons with appropriate diligence. 

When the sort-of-wise hear about it, they grasp it and lose it.

If they didnąt lose it, they couldnąt try to find it.

When the fool hears about the Tao, he laughs and laughs.

That is the Tao.

The Tao sees darkness as though it were light,

sees retreat as progress,

knows that that the rough conceals the smooth,

that the truth appears in fragments,

purity within defilement,

goodness as incoherence,

integrity in letting go,

simplicity in ramification.

A perfect square is a circle.

A perfect circle is boundless.

A perfect note is enwrapped in the silence.

The world has no form.

Is the Tao hidden?

It forms and fills us.

It empties and releases us.







The Tao makes one.

The Tao and one makes two.

The Tao and two makes three.

The Tao and three makes everything.

Everything makes the Tao.

The male and the female separate and coalesce;

they are two; they are one; it is whole and lost.

What people hate is to stand alone,

yet that is also what they want.

Power cannot overcome death.







What is unyielding slowly yields to what is yielding.

That which has no solidity

can enter anything, anywhere, and permeate it.

This shows the value of not intending,

of teaching without subject or substance,

of moving without effort.

That is how we travel the path.







Let your name name yourself.

Let your things be yourself.

Hoarding wealth is poverty;

poverty is wealth.

Avoid disgrace by finding contentment.

Avoid danger by stopping.

Then live forever when you are.






What is most perfect seems shabby, worn,

but it is consecrated by use.

What is fullest seems empty,

a sheer capacity.

What is most true is not level;

what is most skilled is simple;

nothing prospers like poverty;

sincerity is most eloquent.

When it gets cold, move around.

When it gets hot, grow still.

In general, stay calm.







The sky, the ground.

When they know the way,

people use their horses to plow the fields,

and use their horses' manure to enrich them.

When they lose their way,

they breed their horses for war.

No knowing is greater than no knowing.

Wanting, always wanting:

that is our calamity.

He who knows that he already has what he wants

knows peace.





Traveling is homelessness.

Seek truth at home;

it is there too; and as you travel it remains

just as far away as ever.

Therefore the sage knows more and more

about less and less.

She stays home.

She is home.





A man hungry for knowledge gains something every day.

A man who already knows loses something every day:

strips down to the essence

and strips down the essence to nothing,

and leaves nothing unknown.

To rule, let go.

Let people go; let yourself go; let the empire go.

Anarchy is the only art of rulership.





The person who knows

has no fixed ideas, and allows the ideas of others to come and go.

They see the goodness in good people, and the goodness in evil people:

she sees that both are both and that neither is either,

that there is power in both, and powerlessness.

What would be ideal would be to return

to the simplicity of childhood.

If we could, we would receive

the universe in its own beginning,

its infancy, its alien innocence.





We live between life and death.

One in three is a follower of life.

One in three is a follower of death.

One in three is suspended, like a leaf in a wind,

like a fish in water.

The one who is suspended,

who knows and loves life and death,

is safe and without fear, even in a world

infested with ferocious animals and terrible wars.

The teeth that rend him

cannot rend him.

The swords that lacerate him

cannot lacerate him.

Even his death is a way of life.





Tao is the origin of life.

Your life is that life.

Merely by breathing, by being,

you know and honor the source

and its expression or manifestation.

Each of us is a place of culmination.

Each of us is nurtured by the source

and is what nurtures us.

Create and let go of what you create.

Give and expect nothing.

Work hard and do not claim ownership.





The source is a mother.

Nature is her child.

To know the mother, know the children.

They - you - will always return to her.

They - you - will persist in death.

Stop your chattering,

close your eyes and find the still moment

that is the center and the end of life.

Find truth even, or especially, in what is smallest.

Let the light bathe your body.







My greatest fear is pride.

That's what kills a sage.

That's what kills the powerful

and tortures the powerless.

The road is plain before us,

but we strike out willfully.

When the palace is grandly appointed

the fields are full of weeds and the granaries are empty.

When the famous and powerful preen,

wear grand clothes

go armed,

and spend all their time eating and drinking

and displaying their possessions,

the people starve.

The Tao has no pride.






Plant carefully.

That's the best way to keep your crops from being uprooted.

Hold tight to what you do not want to lose.

Love your children;

that's the best way to honor your ancestors.

Cultivate yourself;

care for your family;

these are the ways to preserve your culture.

Devote yourself to your village;

that's the best way to help your country.

Measure yourself the way you measure others.

Measure others the way you measure your village.

Measure your village the way you measure your country.

Measure your country the way you measure the Tao.

And measure the Tao by what is in you.






The person who has real power

is as immediate and sweet as a baby.

Bees, wasps, snakes, scorpions

don't even bother with a baby.

His body is yielding, but his grip is strong.

He knows nothing about sex

but his little penis is stiff.

He spends half the day crying

and never gets hoarse.

That's because he accords with himself and his world.

Let the vital force within you emerge, and live.

Then as you grow old, grow old.

This is the Tao of man.

It starts strong and does not cease.





If you know, there is no need to speak.

If you speak, there is no need to know.

Put a lid on it.

Once in a while,

close your openings and explore what you already are.

Blunt your blade;

don't cut the knot;

untie it.

Be as gentle as light,

as dust.

Blend yourself with them.

Love. But stop trying to possess.

Enrich yourself. But stop grasping,

and you will come to no harm.

Real honor and real disgrace

are not obtained by effort.

They are given by nature.





If you are a ruler,

rule straightforwardly, with simplicity and justice.

If you are a fighter,

fight with extreme unconventionality.

Conquer without acting,

by the strange and sudden realization

of the way things are, and yourself with them.

Rule without prohibiting,

and the people will find a way out of poverty.

When a kingdom is ruled badly,

it is ruled with elaborate policies and schemes.

Laws multiply like mosquitoes.

For every new law, there are ten thousand new criminals.

The true ruler rules without ruling.

He does nothing,

and the people naturally take control of themselves.

He cultivates himself,

and the people become just.

He stops interfering,

and the people become independent.

When each rules himself,

the state is well-governed indeed.





The more fragmented the government,

the more wholesome the people.

The more the government keeps the people under surveillance,

the more cunning  and evasive they become.

Misfortune contains the seed of good luck,

and good luck the seed of misfortune.

What is rigidly correct is perverse;

perversity cloaks itself in etiquette.

Orthodoxy is blasphemous.

Rigidity twists people.

Sorry, but that's how it is.

The sage stays firm

but is not rigid.

She is a blade that does not cut.

She is right but not in control.

She glows but does not dazzle.






What I'd suggest for ruling is just gentleness and frugality.

What I'd suggest for ruling is allowing things to grow.

Be the dirt from which the plant emerges.

Stay close to the source,

hold the seed,

and proceed with care.

Then you will be able to give people power.

Keeping yourself plain,

you will help others be learn themselves.

Then your empire can be safe,

as if in the arms of a caring mother.

You will be the ground.





Rule a great country

the same way you'd cook a small fish.

Don't poke at it all the time:

just put it in the pan and let it fry.

One of the hardest things

is to let people alone.

That doesn't mean there won't be any difficulties,

only that each person must find his own way through them.

The way through and the difficulty must both be accepted.

They are equally necessary.






Water flows downhill without trying.

A great country is ruled the same way;

with a feminine receptivity like a sea.

In it, people and things can find their level,

their stillness, their place of peace..

A great country can conquer a small country

by yielding to it.

A small country can conquer a great country

simply by remaining itself, remaining at rest.

Conquer by giving.

by serving.

It is appropriate for the great to be humble.





Tao is the empty center,

the darkness and silence.

You need not throw out high-sounding words

or recount your noble deeds.

When an emperor is crowned,

people know he will be appointing officials,

so they bring him things:

jade, or a beautiful horse or something.

It would be more honorable to stay calm

and make to the empire a gift of the Tao.

The words, treasures, and appointments

are measures of people's crimes.

Therefore, keep still.





Act without acting.

Work without effort.

Prepare your food with simplicity.

What is rigid is brittle.

Solve problems before they arise;

embrace trouble when it comes.

A huge tree grows from a small seed.

A huge tower is built brick by brick.

A journey of a thousand miles

begins from the place

where you are now standing.

If you grasp things you lose them.

Therefore the sage begins in stillness.

He does not destroy

because he applies no power.

The place people fail

is on the verge of success,

so remain as careful at the end

as at the beginning.

The sage quiets his desires,

does not value the opinion of others,

hoards the real treasure.

He learns to forget what he has learned.

He helps people without commanding them.






The men of ancient times

knew the Tao.

They did not oppose,

they simply illuminated.

People are hard to deal with because they are sophisticated;

they know too much.

Using cleverness to rule a country,

you are the merest criminal.

Rule a country using balance.

Know the real measure;

the simple truth is the real power.

No matter how far you and your country have strayed,

return to the source.

The last shall be first.






The ancient rulers taught by not teaching.

They knew that a country can suffer

from a surfeit of cleverness.

It's the learning not the ignorance of people

that makes them unruly.

To use only knowledge to rule a state

invites disaster.

Instead, use also emptiness.

Acknowledge your ignorance and rule in that awareness.

Those who know their own ignorance

and nurture others in theirs

are suited to rule.

They have already returned to the source.





What is lowest rules,

as water always seeks the lowest point.

The valley is created and ruled by the water at its bottom.

The sage rules people

by knowing the depths

by affirming his degradation.

He rules by following.

Only the person who is lowest

has no competitors.






I am great

in my resemblance to nothing at all,

in my sheer impossibility.

If we were possible,

we'd be boring.

These are my amazing qualities:

I'm compassionate. That's my courage.

I'm frugal, so I'm generous.

I have no ambition, so I rule.

To be courageous without compassion,

generous without frugality,

powerful and at the same time ambitious:

that is the way of death.

Compassion is the real victory.

Generosity is the real frugality.

Humility is the real power.

When nature gives us life

it shows all these qualities.





Fight without violence.

Fight without rage.

Forget the supposed hurts done to you

and do not seek vengeance.

Take pride in your humility.

Real decency is quiet,

it brings people together and empties the self.

It is the same thing that holds the universe together.





Here's a guide to strategy:

Do not seek the fight; accept it.

Don't get ahead of yourself,

but stay in the center.

Look the foe directly in eye.

Be ready to fight, but not eager.

Do not brandish your weapon like an idiot.

If you find a real foe,

respect him,

know him;

to fight him is to honor him.

And however brutal the battle,

do not forget compassion,

or you will have lost indeed.





What I'm teaching you is easy to understand;

perhaps you're thinking too hard.

What I'm teaching you is easy to put into practice;

perhaps you should relax.

What I'm teaching you has a source;

but you're expecting a result.

You want the precious jade;

I offer only homespun cloth.

Which will keep you warm?





What would be best would be to know

without knowing you know,

or not to know

without knowing that you do not know.

It's that second layer that kills you.

The healthy are just the folks

who don't yet know they're sick.






People who do not fear punishment

cannot be controlled.

People who fear punishment

tempt everyone to oppress them.

Therefore proceed without fear.

Proceed without fixed purposes:

those purposes with be turned into threats.

Be as wide as the sky,

and just as stormy or as calm.






Obviously, bravery in battle sometimes gets you killed.

Real courage helps you survive, and everyone else too.

Or, try this: courage sometimes helps you survive.

Other times it gets you killed.

Who knows the reason that things happen?

Some things seem easy, some hard.

At any rate, the sage doesn't struggle,

but simply responds.

He doesn't summon,

but things appear.

He's patient and resourceful.

When the source casts its net,

nothing escapes.






When people fear death,

there's always an executioner.

Where people fear death, there

officials and criminals control them

with its threat.

If people didn't fear death,

they could not be governed by death.

But think about the executioner.

His first victim is himself.





When taxes are high,

officials get fat while the people starve.

Then the officials blame the people for being unruly.

Really. These people will kill you

to enrich themselves.

They call that "justice" or "order."






At birth one is soft and flexible;

at death one is stiff and brittle.

A fresh shoot is perfect supple;

a weathered branch snaps in a wind.

Flexibility is life;

rigidity is death.

If your weapon is too strong,

it will bring your own destruction.

If a tree is too strong,

it will fall.

The mighty are scum.

The low are exalted.






The world is like a bow being drawn;

what is high comes down; what is low rises.

What is lacking gets filled;

what is full leaks into the emptiness.

The world threatens those who have too much

and yields its real wealth to those who have nothing.

Yet human beings try to operate in exactly the opposite way.

We give power to those with power

and take it away from those who don't.

Good luck!

Justice always returns.






Nothing is more yielding than water.

And yet nothing can resist it in the long run;

it shapes the earth.

Therefore for conquest

substitute generosity.

In the long run, what gives rules,

what hardens itself erodes into it.

I'm serious about this.

The sage knows that dishonor

inculcates real virtue;

power only pride, only death.

True words appear deranged.






You can apparently resolve a situation of conflict

by a compromise.

But the resentments will remain.

The sage does not sit there with a tally book

toting up the injustices.

That's just a sad way to live.

If you want to stop losing,

stop keeping score.






The best situation would be to live in a small country.

Have enough weapons to defend it;

try not to use them.

Preserve the people's lives

and give them reasons to stay at home.

Don't parade your weapons and have no recourse

to stupid patriotism.

People did fine when they kept records with knotted string,

when they were satisfied with a good meal

and plain dress. That was beauty indeed.

Practicing your traditions

and being secure in your home:

that is enough.

Although there may be great a great metropolis nearby,

people won't even need to go there.






True words aren't elegant.

Elegant words aren't true.

Good people don't quibble.

People who quibble aren't good.

Those who know aren't scholars.

Scholars don't know.

Sages just give, without effort;

the more they give, the more they have.

The way to safety

is to empty the self.









The more the ruler can give to his people,

the more he will have.

Accomplish without formulating policies.







































II. Wu Wei Ching (Kuo Hsiang's Commentary on the Chuang Tzu)





"The flow of nature is melodic: both inevitable and spontaneous." Thus begins this rendition of Kuo Hsiang's Chuang Tzu Chu, his commentary on the Taoist classic Chuang Tzu. The Wu Wei Ching (Book of No Action) constitutes a deep meditation on freedom and self-expression, improvisation and self-control, that is one of the great theoretical and practical philosophies ever articulated.


Kuo Hsiang (active circa 300 AD?) is responsible for the Chuang Tzu canon: the current arrangement of chapters (including the emphasis on the first seven, "inner" chapters) and the selection among works attributed to Chuang Tzu during Kuo Hsiang's era. Kuo Hsiang's text consists of interpolations in the text of the Chuang Tzu, which is probably responsible for Kuo Hsiang's relative obscurity in the West. It may be thought that he is a mere interpreter or elaborator. And it may also be thought that his philosophy could only be presented in its context within the Chuang Tzu, so that to do a translation would require a massive volume consisting of both. However, I think the treatment here, in which thoughts of Kuo Hsiang are presented as brief chapters by analogy to the structure of the Tao Te Ching, has much to recommend it. First of all - though if you know the Chuang Tzu the connections are obvious - Kuo Hsiang's writings make perfect sense on their own. Second, the very fact that they do consist of relatively brief comments makes them natural to present in this style.


The treatment below is, hence, loose. It unmoors the commentary from its source. It rearranges the bits thematically, since they are now independent of the Chuang Tzu's almost random development. And it intends to reconstruct the text into something that flows well in English and captures the essence of Kuo Hsiang's Taoism (or indeed, in my view, of Taoism in general).


Though Kuo Hsiang is often thought of as a syncretist, and though he actually said that Confucius was the greatest sage (because his teachings were more practical than those of Lao Tzu), it seems to me that this text is in some ways the most satisfactory philosophical expression of Taoism. It is far less cryptic than the Tao Te Ching, and far more systematic than the Chuang Tzu, and as profound as either. It does indeed, however, give a more "active" account of inaction, identifying it explicitly with spontaneous activity. And it was certainly a major influence on neo-Confucianism and a key moment in the development of Ch'an Buddhism.


It is worth mentioning that Kuo Hsiang was accused of plagiarizing this commentary from one Hsiang Hsiu, and that for this and perhaps other reasons, he was described by one ancient source as "a petty man." In the absence of some dramatic new textual discoveries, we are unlikely ever to determine the truth of this literary scandal. But whatever the truth, we can certainly assert that whoever wrote this commentary - which displays remarkable clarity, depth, and scope - was not a petty man.


What follows is my own rendition of portions of the text translated by Wing-Tsit Chan in A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, by Fung Yu-Lan in his translation of the Chuang Tzu (which is long out of print), in History of Chinese Philosophy, volume 2, and by Livia Kohn in Early Chinese Mysticism.


The central theme of this work is perhaps the proper interpretation of the Taoist concept of wu wei or "non-doing," "inaction" (hence the title I have given it: "Wu Wei Ching" or the book of inaction). But in exploring this topic, Kuo Hsiang gives what I think is the most satisfactory Taoist metaphysics. He beautifully elucidates the Taoist conception of nature. And though he is often called a "fatalist" (and one can see why), in fact he is what we might call a radical compatibilist: he holds both that all events are absolutely necessitated and that everything is perfectly spontaneous, and that these are different ways of saying the same thing.




1. The flow of nature is melodic: both inevitable and spontaneous.



2. If by true we mean undistorted, then the true man is simple, though he may be able to do many things. If beauty is truth, then the dragon and phoenix are the most beautiful things because they are the most fiercely themselves.



3. Some people try incredibly hard to be great artists. But great artists become artists without even knowing how. Some people try hard to be wise. But wise people become wise without trying. We can't even become fools or dogs by trying.



4. If you can find simplicity within yourself, you will be at ease no matter where you go and no matter what befalls you. Even death can be faced calmly, as can flood or fire. The sage is not beset by calamities, not because nothing bad ever happens to him, but because he knows what he is and moves forward easily.



5. Keep climbing long enough, and you'll reach the bottom. Keep walking and walking, and you'll end up where you started.



6. Man and nature are not separate, and they are certainly not opposed. The idea that man can conquer nature, or that nature can conquer man, is itself destructive. The sage is everything, everywhere. He unifies his self with the world, or rather realizes the unity that already exists.



7. The Tao makes things possible by leaving them be. It does not make the gods divine, but they are divine. It makes them divine by not making them divine. It does not produce the world; the world produces itself. The Tao makes things happen by not making them happen.



8. The Tao is at the zenith, but it isn't high. It's at the bottom, but it isn't low. It has been around since ancient times, but it isn't old. It's everywhere, but everywhere it isn't anywhere.



9. Nothing makes nature what it is. Nothing owns nature or possesses anything. Nature is not a hierarchy in which some things obey other things. Each thing is what it is. That is the Way.



10. Speech is music. Really, talking is just making some noise. Go ahead.



11. Obviously, Mount T'ai is larger than a hair. But they are both what they are, and so the mountain is not too big and the hair is not too small. The hair isn't sitting there thinking "I'm too small," and the mountain isn't thinking "I'm too big." If whatever is sufficient is big enough, then a hair is as big as a mountain. If what is sufficient is not big enough, then a mountain is as small as a hair. If Mount T'ai is small, nothing in this world is big, and if a hair is big, nothing in this world is small.



12. A short life and a long life are both perfectly sufficient to themselves: they last exactly as long as they last. The quail's glory is as glorious as a god's. If I can be satisfied with what I am and satisfied with my destiny, all things will be at ease with me and I with all things.



13. Each thing emerges in a situation. Big things emerge in big situations such as the world. You can't stop or change that, so don't worry about it.



14. The flight of a huge bird may take half a year, while a little bird's journey lasts half a morning as he flits from tree to tree. They have different capacities, but they both enact what they are perfectly.



15. The huge bird and the little bird have different goals, but they are not conscious of pursuing them. They're naturally different and there is no decent explanation of why. That's what Chuang Tzu means by roaming or freedom. Each thing has its own necessity and each thing has its spontaneity, and these are, finally, the same thing.



16. Each thing exists in the context of the whole, and within that whole, each thing enacts what it is with perfect spontaneity. The p'eng bird soars high and the quail stays on the ground. The cedrela tree lives a long time and the mushroom a moment. They do this without trying, because that's what they are.



17. All of this is as true of governments as of birds. Yao didn't govern by seizing command of things; he governed because that was his necessity. That's why he governed perfectly. It's not too much to say that he didn't govern; certainly he didn't force things to be what he wanted; he allowed things to be what they already were.



18. Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu teach us wu wei, but that doesn't mean you sit silently in the forest. Responsible officials remain in the realm of action without regret, but their action does not seize and transform things; it works with things as they are. The true governor is like a boat unmoored and drifting, moving in whatever direction the current flows. He moves with his people.



19. Wu wei is everywhere. If the ruler doesn't interfere with his prime minister, then the prime minister can serve him freely. The prime minister, in turn, had better just let his officials do their jobs. And the officials should leave the people in peace. In other words, if everyone just does what they are, everything will find its place of repose. No one, from the Emperor to an insect, succeeds by violating the way things are.



20. The cook, the boy impersonating the dead at the sacrificial rites, and the man in charge of the prayer are all content to fulfill their roles. Birds and animals and all things are content with what they have and what they are. Even Emperor Yao and Hsu Yu were at peace with their situations. This is reality. When each thing finds its truth, it need take no action. Everything will be content and at ease. Though each thing is different from every other, their freedom and their necessity are the same.



21. The spider spins her web and the beetle rolls his ball without any help from an expert. Each creature, even you, has something for which he is suited. Use people who are good at making squares to make squares, and those who are good at making circles to make circles. Then the overall result will be achieved with perfect skill.



22. Sometimes you should act. Sometimes you shouldn't. Both can be in accord with nature. Both can be wu wei.



23. Even in the midst of his business, the sage's mind resides in a mountain forest. He acts in the world, but he wanders freely.



24. The sage has reached the point at which he does not even desire not to desire.



25. The sage reconciles opposites and understands that things are what they are. Therefore he can participate in the changes around him, and find that everything is alright. He embraces things and knows they are all necessary; they are all what they are. People want him to rule, but he works with no goal. Hence he can respond to the world. If you simply identify yourself with the mystery in truth and appreciate the way things are, you partake in the processes by which the world transforms itself, because you act always only as part of the whole.



26. First forget the traces of judgment, such as benevolence and righteousness, then forget that you've forgotten. Forget that you have a distinct body; forget that there's a universe outside oneself. Then you will be fully open.



27. The sage has lost his ego. He dwells in the light that emerges from darkness. He sees the unity of good and evil, normalcy and perversion. He allows each thing to find itself, and each person to do what brings her satisfaction. So he doesn't use anything, but everything finds the use of itself liberated from right and wrong. So the changes my be dramatic and the differences extreme, but they circulate freely and the world works itself out.



28. The supreme principle is that right and wrong, life and death, are one. This principle leads beyond limits, and that is a place we can find rest.



29. Flutes differ in length and in pitch and in many other respects. But, insofar as they are flutes, they are also the same.



30. When you've really got it, the outside and the inside merge. The further you wander out there, the deeper within you go. The deeper you go within, the freer your wandering. So the sage wanders in the world to find herself. She finds the empty place within as she merges with all things. She can work hard the livelong day and not harm her spirit. Though she sees everything, she remains what she is. Ferry over to the ordinary and encompass the world.



31. Whether you are a slave or a lord, it is possible to find contentment in the place you inhabit. Seek that contentment instead of pursuing your advancement. Whether something is a hand or a foot, a ruler or a minister, a superior or an inferior, it is where it is supposed to be at the moment. Attendants too can be contented, maybe with more ease and simplicity than a commander can be. Everything has its truth. Embody yours.



32. Paired concepts such as this and that, good and evil, oppose one another, but the sage is both at once. If you have no deliberate mind, no illusion of detachment, you can never be opposed to the way things are. Occupy the center; achieve oneness with things; reside in the world in peace.



33. Everything happens precisely as it happens.



34. Each thing has its spontaneity, and in the spontaneity of each thing what it is emerges necessarily. Follow things and come into accord with them. Keep silent.



35. People are tortured as they chase after this and try to avoid that. The sage has no preconceptions. He proceeds with utter simplicity, identifies himself with the world's transformations and roams in a world he knows to be a unity. But though people are often bewildered by the world, the Tao operates as it must. Things receive many names. But since all things are what they are and all events happen as they happen, the world is actually utterly simple.



36. Whether you're lifting something light or something heavy, obviously your strength is proportioned to your load. When you strive after power and fame, you're showing that you don't understand; your pride and desire for knowledge know no limit. Your every whim implies an infinite burden. Knowledge itself is a pale reflection of unity with things and will be unlearned by the time you achieve a silent harmony with the world. Finding this silent harmony is a matter of always allowing one's strength to be proportioned to one's task. You might be carrying five tons, but if that is proportioned to your strength, you will forget the weight upon your body. If you've got 10,000 things to do, you'll be unaware that you are busy, if only the task is proportioned to your capacity. This is fundamental to living decently. Find your capacity and fill it, but do not exceed it.



37. Joy and sorrow result from desire. If you find a balance with the world, you can be contented with whatever time brings you. The sage follows the flow of nature in every situation. Quietly, he finds peace even in adversity. He will be himself wherever he is. So where does desire come in? He sees that he can't really gain or lose. Just take what you receive.



38. Allow your foot to walk according to its function, your hand to grasp according to its strength. Listen with your ears; see with your eyes. Do not waste your intelligence trying to unravel what cannot be known. Do not waste your energy trying to do what cannot be done. Within your capacities be unrestrained, but there is no point trying to exceed them. Employ your abilities and your possessions as they employ themselves. Try to do whatever happens. If your actions are simple and natural, your destiny will be satisfying, your life a blessing.



39. Society changes from generation to generation, and there is no escape from people. So approach social situations and their changes with flexibility and creativity. Let people change.



40. Be a companion of nature, like a child heedlessly charging straight ahead.



41. Events unfold as they must. So if we leave things alone, they will accomplish what they are fitted for. This is the preservation of life, so don't be anxious.



42. Bad people need to be commanded. But good people need no ruler.



43. If the king does nothing, people will fulfill the roles assigned to them. Those who can see will look; those who can hear will listen; those who are wise will make plans. What need is there to do anything? Only remain at the silent center.



44. The world and the laws that govern it are from the start correct and irreversible. You can't escape reality. So a person is never born by mistake, and my existence right now follows from the nature of the world, and cannot be rescinded by human power or natural disaster. Nature and fate are what they are, what they should be. Thus we can be at ease as we face life or death, wisdom or ignorance, fame or obscurity.



45. People cry over death; that is what life is like here on earth. But the sage can sing even in the presence of a corpse. The world and its laws are of necessity in harmony with one another. There is nobody who has knowledge of the nature of things who is not silently in harmony with the real flow of events, nor anyone who lives in the real world but does not intuit the deepest truth of reality. Thus the sage roams freely in the truth and opens himself to reality. He is in accord with things.



46. Life and death are different, but both can be approached with calm acceptance. Life and death are one because they are both things that happen. Maybe when we're alive, we think of death as death. But maybe when we're dead, we think of life as death. So maybe there's no such thing as life or death, except from inside some particular situation. There is no death, no life. Nothing is possible, and nothing is impossible.



47. The expert driver knows the capacity of his horses, and uses them in accordance with that knowledge. If they are old and broken down, they may still bear a load, but it had better be light. If they are thoroughbreds in the prime of youth, they will enjoy bearing great burdens. If you use each horse according to its capacity, all of them will be preserved, and all of them will be useful. But there are always those who take wu wei as a prescription for laziness. They want to let the horse go and then they think they'll just lie down somewhere. That is not enlightenment. Act according to your capacity and you will leave nothing undone.



48. Wu wei does not mean folding up one's arms or taking a vow of silence. Just let everything, even yourself, act as it does; then it will be content, centered in its nature and destiny. Some people really have no alternative but to rule an empire. If you embrace the Tao and choose simplicity, if you allow each thing to run its course with the greatest intensity, each thing will reach its point of stillness; each thing will find peace.



49. Natural things transform themselves without intending to.



50. In the destruction of the world's and the mind's wholeness, there are four stages.

First, chaos and completeness. This is a state of perfect forgetfulness and non-distinction from things. There is no notion of time and space, no self-consciousness. People are free: they go along with things in full flowing accordance.

Second, beings. In this stage, the distinctiveness of things can be recognized, but it can also be put aside and their oneness recovered.

Third, distinctions. Here, differences between this and that are fundamental and thought to be aspects of the real world. But value is not yet created, and hence truth remains.

Fourth, right and wrong. The Tao and our primordial oneness is lost in illusion, and people learn to love this and hate that, want this and reject that. All that's left is yearning. [kohn 73]



51. Yu and Wen had to govern their empires in time of crisis. Emperor Shun bowed and yielded his throne to Yu, whereas Wen stood his ground and fought. The situations were different. But either course might accord with the Tao.



52. Stop trying to imitate what the sages have done. That's past, and though it might have been appropriate at the time, that time is over. The present is alive. Don't use what's dead as a guide to what's alive.



53. The lumberjack does not cut down the tree; he merely wields the axe; it is the axe that cuts. The king does not rule; he employs ministers. The lumberjack uses the axe and the king the minister. Each thing does what it is suited to do, and human nature gains scope without being forced. The king must be a king and his ministers must be ministers. Therefore attend to your own responsibility and the things around you will reach serenity. This is called wu wei because the action is spontaneous and gives play to the nature of things. The ruler is tranquil and the minister is active. But in each case they allow their nature to emerge easily and therefore perfectly. Don't act; just be.



54. Don't imitate anyone, even if they're admirable. When things lose their individuality, they descend into chaos. The thing you should fear most is the loss of your individuality. Disregard advancement. Live by your own truth. Preserve what is genuine within yourself.



55. Events of the past have disappeared, and even if they have been recorded or remembered, they are over and inaccessible to us. The past is not present, but the present is soon past. Therefore abandon the pursuit of knowledge and allow yourself to change with time.



56. The ceremonies of the past were designed to meet the needs of the past. When these needs no longer exist but the ceremony continues, it becomes a pernicious influence, and degenerates into mere affectation. It becomes a lie.



57. Humaneness and virtue are principles inherent in our nature. Nevertheless, our nature is transformed with time and we are changed. If you take what is offered and then let it go, you will find the still, silent center of reality. But if you try to freeze time and hold on to what you have, you become prejudiced and hypocritical.



58. Yao ruled, but he left things to his officials and did not interfere. He did not use people. He was in accord with his people and allowed things to run their course. Thus he was a ruler indeed and not a slave.



59. What does not exist cannot produce things that exist. How, then, is existence possible? Things spontaneously produce themselves. That's really all there is to metaphysics. The self cannot produce things, and it cannot be produced. Things are not created intentionally. The self exists for itself, in itself, simply in virtue of being what it is. That means there are no overall explanations, because the principle of existence and action in each thing is inherent in that thing and emerges spontaneously. The word "t'ien" (nature or heaven) means the spontaneity or play of things, not the blue sky, though the sky too might be a place to play.



60. Everything is related to everything else. There are things outside of each self, and each self acts for itself, and thus opposes the rest, as east is opposed to west. But on the other hand the relation of self and other might be conceived of as being like the relation of lips and teeth. If you don't have lips, your teeth get cold. They are opposed to each other. But they are indispensable to one another. Each thing is what it is because of what it is not.



61. Look. Not only is it impossible for not-being to become being, it is impossible for being to become not-being. So from where and how do things and for that matter the absence of things arise? What came first? If we say yin and yang came first, how did they come? From where? Maybe nature came first. But nature is only another name for beings. Suppose I say the Tao came first. But the Tao is only another name for not-being, so how can it arise? There must be another thing or not-thing and so on infinitely. When you get down to it, we cannot say anything except that things just are, that they arise spontaneously and spontaneously disappear.



62. Everything is alike in that it is part of nature, but nothing knows itself or commands itself consciously. Everything changes all the time; the world is always in process. But nothing commands things to change. They change themselves and one another spontaneously, by the simple emergence of their own nature, of the nature in them. Leave things alone and things will be perfectly realized without your help. Things seem to be directed by an intelligence, but in fact each simply does what it does. Let that happen; it will happen in any case.



63. Look. You can trace the causes of things infinitely, or else you come to a first cause. But is there a first cause - a creator - or is there not? Obviously if there is not than he can't create anything. And if there is, he himself is spontaneously self-created. Either way, all things emerge spontaneously. Stuff just keeps happening. Everything emerges in an uncontrolled improvisation, whether there is a creator or not. Nothing, therefore, is commanded by anything else. That's the truth.



64. When you get right down to it, there is no genuine distinction between right and wrong. Every one listens to his own opinion: he thinks what he thinks is right is right, and, if anyone disagrees, that they're wrong. Now first of all, if the distinction were evident, we'd agree more often, as we agree that the sky is blue. The distinction between right and wrong actually arises from partiality. Find a point of view on which the universe is a finger and all things are one horse. Then just let judgment go and live in peace. All things enact what they are. All things enjoy themselves. There is no distinction between right and wrong.



65. Moral principles do emerge from human nature, but human nature changes in response to its situation. If you accept the principles of the past provisionally or experimentally, you can stay flexible. But if you get rigid, you'll be broken.



66. The sage thinks of right and wrong as a circle. He just stays in the middle, and responds to the circle's infinity.



67. Wise people forget everything; they lose consciousness of the world and their own bodies. They wander freely everywhere. All things are their companions and they remain untroubled.



68. The sun and the moon illuminate things without preference or prejudice. If you're there, they shine on you. But of course there are things their light doesn't reach. But nothing is left out of the truth. If you try to pull people out of the underbrush and make them follow you, you've already abandoned the Tao. Just let everything enjoy its own truth, and find its own satisfaction. Just let things do what they do and be what they are. They'll be at peace and so will you.



69. Actually, it's easy to do nothing. What's hard is to do something without harming anything.



70. The sage is useless to others, but everything is useful to itself. So the sage leaves each thing its name and task, and mingles with them without drawing distinctions. He isn't harmed, and everything helps him. He's not smooth, just real.



71. People are always struggling. Therefore Yi [a famous archer] is everywhere. Everyone can be hit by the arrow except those who have left behind knowledge and the self. But whether you're hit or not is not up to you. You're always in some situation, but sometimes you think it's all under your own control. So if you're not hit, you think you're especially skillful. And if you are hit, you think you must have done something wrong. But we don't choose to be alive. And the things within our lives - our hundred years of sitting, getting up, standing, walking, acting, resting, gaining, losing, feeling, wanting, knowing: all that we have, all that we don't, all that we do, everything we meet - ultimately we receive rather than choose them. They just are what they are. But people get all sentimental about this. That's a mistake.



72. When a man is born, insignificant though he is, he is already what he has to be. The whole universe as it exists is the condition of his own existence. Nothing could cease to exist without having an effect on him. If one thing were different, perhaps he would be annihilated.




I arise and take form.

I am alive and find my work.

I grow old and decay.

I die and am at rest.

All these states are different.

But they are all the same

because they are all "I."

Through all these changes, the self persists.

So you can just let it be, let it go.



74. Our lives are not an accident, not chance. The universe is very large and contains many things. Yet, in it and among them, we are exactly what we are. In fact, this is true of everything: the sage, the warrior, the state: even the universe itself. What we are not, we cannot be. What we are, we cannot but be. What we do not do, we cannot do. What we do, we cannot but do. Just let everything be what it is. It will be anyway.



75. Change is a real force. It carries away hills and mountains. The old doesn't ever stop, but the new keeps on coming. Everything changes all the time. Everything we know secretly passes away. We touch someone's arm, then pass. What we ourselves were remains and is always leaving. There's no reason to hold on.



76. When water runs downhill, nothing can resist it. When small things get together with small things, and large things with large, the tendency can't be opposed. When a man is empty - receptive and without bias - everything gives him its wisdom. What does a true leader do? He trusts the wisdom of time; he flows downhill; he lets the world take care of itself.



77. If you are completely open and hide nothing, you can allow everything to take its course, become the same as everything and flow with all changes. Then there's no distinction between inner and outer, or between life and death. Even if the sage wants to find a place where she can be alone and separate from things, she can't. Existence is not a small or tortured thing.



78. It's not important whether people call you a sage, or whether you appear to have fulfilled your truth. When the question is how you look to other people, love and righteousness have degenerated into lies. Your music has departed from nature's and is disharmony.



79. Some people aren't satisfied with themselves, and always attempt to transcend themselves. They can't succeed. A circle is not going to become square no matter how it tries, or a fish a bird. What they're trying to imitate might be good and beautiful. But the harder they try, the further their goal recedes. The more knowledge they gain, the more truth they lose.



80. You can't play all melodies at once, and the possibility of playing any given melody resides in the omission of the rest. Music is a system of absences that makes melody possible. So if you wanted to find all the melodies, you would have to stop playing. Maybe you should try that. When Chao Wen played the lute, he destroyed something by making something. When he didn't play the lute, he destroyed nothing by making nothing.









Wu Wei Ching: Sources


F = Fung Yu-Lan, Chuang Tzu: A New Selected Translation with an Exposition of the Philosophy of Kuo Hsiang (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1994 (1931)).


FH2 = Fung Yu-Lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, Volume 2, trans. Derk Bodde ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983 (1953)).


C = Wing-Tsit Chan, A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963). (listed by section, then page)


K = Livia Kohn, Early Chinese Mysticism: Philosophy and Soteriology in the Taoist Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press).



1. C 11: 328


2. F: 125


3. F: 126


4. F: 33


5. FH2: 234


6. F: 94


7. F: 96


8. F: 96


9. C 12: 329


10. F: 45


11. C 15: 329


12. C 15: 329


13. C 1: 326


14. C 2: 326


15. C 3: 326


16. C 4: 326


17. C 5: 327


18: C 5: 327


19. FH2: 216


20. C 6: 327


21. FH2: 220


22. FH2: 217


23. C 7: 327




25. C 8: 328


26. K 74


27. FH2: 231


28. FH2: 231


29. C 10: 328


30. FH2: 236


31. C 13: 329


32. C 14: 329


33. C 16: 330


34. C 17: 330


35. C 18: 330


36. C 20: 331


37. C 21: 331


38. C 27: 332


39. C 22: 331


40. C 23: 331


41. C 25: 332


42. C 24: 332


43. C 26: 332


44. C 28: 332


45. C 29: 333


46. FH2: 229


47. C 30: 333


48: C 31: 333


50. K 73


51. C 33: 334


52. F 123


53. C 34: 334


54. FH2: 220


55. C 35: 334


56. C 36: 335


57. C 37: 335


58. C 38: 335


59. C 39: 335


60. FH2: 211


61. C 39: 335


62. C 11: 328


63. C 19: 330


64. F 45


65. FH2: 214


66. K 76


67. K 74


68. F 50


69. F 69


70. F 76


71. F 83


72. F 120


73. K 75


74. F 121


75. F 122


76. F 123


77. FH2: 233


78. FH2: 219


79. F 127


80. F 47