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1. the way
the way that can be experienced is not true;
the world that can be constructed is not true.
the way manifests all that happens and may happen;
the world represents all that exists and may exist.
to experience without intention is to sense the world;
beyond the gate of experience flows the way,
when beauty is abstracted
then ugliness has been implied;
when good is abstracted
then evil has been implied.
so alive and dead are abstracted from nature,
the sage experiences without abstraction,
3. without action
not praising the worthy prevents contention,
not esteeming the valuable prevents theft,
not displaying the beautiful prevents desire.
in this manner the sage governs people:
if people lack knowledge and desire
the way is a limitless vessel;
used by the self, it is not filled by the world;
it cannot be cut, knotted, dimmed or stilled;
its depths are hidden, ubiquitous and eternal;
i don't know where it comes from;
it comes before nature.
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nature is not kind;
it treats all things impartially.
the sage is not kind,
and treats all people impartially.
nature is like a bellows,
experience is a riverbed,
its source hidden, forever flowing:
its entrance, the root of the world,
the way moves within it:
draw upon it; it will not run dry.
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nature is complete because it does not serve itself.
the sage places himself after and finds himself before,
he is complete because he does not serve himself.
the best of man is like water,
which benefits all things, and does not contend with them,
which flows in places that others disdain,
where it is in harmony with the way.
so the sage:
he does not contend, and none contend against him.
fill a cup to its brim and it is easily spilled;
temper a sword to its hardest and it is easily broken;
amass the greatest treasure and it is easily stolen;
claim credit and honour and you easily fall;
retire once your purpose is achieved - this is natural.
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embracing the way, you become embraced;
breathing gently, you become newborn;
clearing your mind, you become clear;
nurturing your children, you become impartial;
opening your heart, you become accepted;
accepting the world, you embrace the way.
bearing and nurturing,
thirty spokes meet at a nave;
because of the hole we may use the wheel.
clay is moulded into a vessel;
because of the hollow we may use the cup.
walls are built around a hearth;
because of the doors we may use the house.
thus tools come from what exists,
but use from what does not.
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too much colour blinds the eye,
too much music deafens the ear,
too much taste dulls the palate,
too much play maddens the mind,
too much desire tears the heart.
in this manner the sage cares for people:
both praise and blame cause concern,
for they bring people hope and fear.
the object of hope and fear is the self -
for, without self, to whom may fortune and disaster occur?
looked at but cannot be seen - it is beneath form;
listened to but cannot be heard - it is beneath sound;
held but cannot be touched - it is beneath feeling;
these depthless things evade definition,
and blend into a single mystery.
in its rising there is no light,
attend the present to deal with the past;
the enlightened possess understanding
so profound they can not be understood.
because they cannot be understood
i can only describe their appearance:
cautious as one crossing thin ice,
who stills the water that the mud may settle,
16. decay and renewal
empty the self completely;
embrace perfect peace.
the world will rise and move;
watch it return to rest.
all the flourishing things
will return to their source.
this return is peaceful;
who accepts nature's flow becomes all-cherishing;
the best rulers are scarcely known by their subjects;
the next best are loved and praised;
the next are feared;
the next despised:
they have no faith in their people,
and their people become unfaithful to them.
when the best rulers achieve their purpose
when the way is forgotten
duty and justice appear;
then knowledge and wisdom are born
along with hypocrisy.
when harmonious relationships dissolve
if we could abolish knowledge and wisdom
then people would profit a hundredfold;
if we could abolish duty and justice
then harmonious relationships would form;
if we could abolish artifice and profit
then waste and theft would disappear.
yet such remedies treat only symptoms
people need personal remedies:
what is the difference between assent and denial?
what is the difference between beautiful and ugly?
what is the difference between fearsome and afraid?
the people are merry as if at a magnificent party
the people have enough and to spare,
the people are bright and certain,
the people are busy with purpose,
harmony is only in following the way.
the way is without form or quality,
beneath sensation and memory
accept and you become whole,
bend and you straighten,
empty and you fill,
decay and you renew,
want and you acquire,
fulfill and you become confused.
the sage accepts the world
the ancients said, "accept and you become whole",
nature says only a few words:
high wind does not last long,
nor does heavy rain.
if nature's words do not last
why should those of man?
who accepts harmony, becomes harmonious.
straighten yourself and you will not stand steady;
display yourself and you will not be clearly seen;
justify yourself and you will not be respected;
promote yourself and you will not be believed;
pride yourself and you will not endure.
these behaviours are wasteful, indulgent,
25. beneath abstraction
there is a mystery,
ubiquitous and liquid,
the mother of nature.
it has no name, but i call it "the way";
it has no limit, but i call it "limitless".
being limitless, it flows away forever;
the way is limitless,
for i am abstracted from the world,
gravity is the source of lightness,
calm, the master of haste.
a lone traveller will journey all day, watching over his belongings;
the captain of a great vessel will not act lightly or hastily.
a captain can not treat his great ship as a small boat;
the perfect traveller leaves no trail to be followed;
the perfect speaker leaves no question to be answered;
the perfect accountant leaves no working to be completed;
the perfect container leaves no lock to be closed;
the perfect knot leaves no end to be ravelled.
so the sage nurtures all men
so the strong must guide the weak,
this is the secret of perfection:
using the male, being female,
being the entrance of the world,
you embrace harmony
and become as a newborn.
using strength, being weak,
using the light, being dark,
those who wish to change the world
according with their desire
the world is shaped by the way;
so some will lead, while others follow.
so the sage will be neither wasteful nor violent.
powerful men are well advised not to use violence,
for violence has a habit of returning;
thorns and weeds grow wherever an army goes,
and lean years follow a great war.
a general is well advised
for even the strongest force will weaken with time,
armies are tools of violence;
they cause men to hate and fear.
the sage will not join them.
his purpose is creation;
their purpose is destruction.
weapons are tools of violence,
whoever finds beauty in weapons
so slaughters must be mourned
the way has no true shape,
and therefore none can control it.
if a ruler could control the way
all things would follow
in harmony with his desire,
and sweet rain would fall,
effortlessly slaking every thirst.
the way is shaped by use,
who understands the world is learned;
who understands the self is enlightened.
who conquers the world has strength;
who conquers the self has harmony.
who is determined has purpose;
who is contented has wealth.
who defends his home may long endure;
who surrenders his home may long survive it.
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the way flows and ebbs, creating and destroying,
implementing all the world, attending to the tiniest details,
claiming nothing in return.
it nurtures all things,
it is the substance of all things;
the sage would not control the world;
if you offer music and food
strangers may stop with you;
but if you accord with the way
all the people of the world will keep you
in safety, health, community, and peace.
the way lacks art and flavour;
to reduce someone's influence, first expand it;
to reduce someone's force, first increase it;
to overthrow someone, first exalt them;
to take from someone, first give to them.
this is the subtlety by which the weak overcome the strong:
the way takes no action, but leaves nothing undone.
when you accept this
the world will flourish,
in harmony with nature.
nature does not possess desire;
well established hierarchies are not easily uprooted;
closely held beliefs are not easily released;
so ritual enthralls generation after generation.
harmony does not care for harmony, and so is naturally attained;
harmony neither acts nor reasons;
when the way is lost, there remains harmony;
ritual is the end of compassion and honesty,
the sage goes by harmony, not by hope;
in mythical times all things were whole:
all the sky was clear,
all the earth was stable,
all the mountains were firm,
all the riverbeds were full,
all of nature was fertile,
and all the rulers were supported.
but, losing clarity, the sky tore;
rulers depend upon their subjects,
40. motion and use
the motion of the way is to return;
the use of the way is to accept;
all things come from the way,
and the way comes from nothing.
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when the great man learns the way, he follows it with diligence;
when the common man learns the way, he follows it on occasion;
when the mean man learns the way, he laughs out loud;
those who do not laugh, do not learn at all.
therefore it is said:
for the finest harmony appears plain;
the square, perfected, has no corner;
the way can be neither sensed nor known:
the way bears sensation,
sensation bears memory,
sensation and memory bear abstraction,
and abstraction bears all the world;
each thing in the world bears feeling and doing,
and, imbued with mind, harmony with the way.
as others have taught, so do i teach,
water overcomes the stone;
without substance it requires no opening;
this is the benefit of taking no action.
yet benefit without action,
health or reputation: which is held dearer?
health or possessions: which has more worth?
profit or loss: which is more troublesome?
great love incurs great expense,
great perfection seems incomplete,
but does not decay;
great abundance seems empty,
but does not fail.
great truth seems contradictory;
as spring overcomes the cold,
when a nation follows the way,
horses bear manure through its fields;
when a nation ignores the way,
horses bear soldiers through its streets.
there is no greater mistake than following desire;
without taking a step outdoors
you know the whole world;
without taking a peep out the window
you know the colour of the sky.
the more you experience,
the follower of knowledge learns as much as he can every day;
the follower of the way forgets as much as he can every day.
by attrition he reaches a state of inaction
to conquer the world, accomplish nothing;
the sage does not distinguish between himself and the world;
the needs of other people are as his own.
he is good to those who are good;
the sage lives in harmony with the world,
men flow into life, and ebb into death.
some are filled with life;
those who are filled with life
the way bears all things;
harmony nurtures them;
nature shapes them;
use completes them.
each follows the way and honours harmony,
the way bears, nurtures, shapes, completes,
bearing without possessing,
the origin of the world is its mother;
understand the mother, and you understand the child;
embrace the child, and you embrace the mother,
who will not perish when you die.
reserve your judgments and words
as observing detail is clarity,
53. difficult paths
with but a small understanding
one may follow the way like a main road,
fearing only to leave it;
following a main road is easy,
yet people delight in difficult paths.
when palaces are kept up
54. cultivate harmony
cultivate harmony within yourself, and harmony becomes real;
cultivate harmony within your family, and harmony becomes fertile;
cultivate harmony within your community, and harmony becomes abundant;
cultivate harmony within your culture, and harmony becomes enduring;
cultivate harmony within the world, and harmony becomes ubiquitous.
live with a person to understand that person;
how can i live with the world?
55. soft bones
who is filled with harmony is like a newborn.
wasps and snakes will not bite him;
hawks and tigers will not claw him.
his bones are soft yet his grasp is sure,
but knowing harmony creates abstraction,
who understands does not preach;
who preaches does not understand.
reserve your judgments and words;
57. conquer with inaction
do not control the people with laws,
nor violence nor espionage,
but conquer them with inaction.
yet take no action, and the people nurture eachother;
58. no end
when government is lazy and informal
the people are kind and honest;
when government is efficient and severe
the people are discontented and deceitful.
good fortune follows upon disaster;
honesty is ever deceived;
so the sage is firm but not cutting,
manage a great nation as you would cook a delicate fish.
to govern men in accord with nature
when you use the way to conquer the world,
your demons will lose their power to harm.
it is not that they lose their power as such,
but that they will not harm others;
because they will not harm others,
you will not harm others:
when neither you nor your demons can do harm,
you will be at peace with them.
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a nation is like a hierarchy, a marketplace, and a maiden.
a maiden wins her husband by submitting to his advances;
submission is a means of union.
so when a large country submits to a small country
it is in the interest of a large country to unite and gain service,
the way is the fate of men,
the treasure of the saint,
and the refuge of the sinner.
fine words are often borrowed,
why should someone appreciate the way?
attend to do-nothing;
taste the flavorless,
magnify the small,
multiply the few,
return love for hate.
deal with the difficult while it is yet easy;
the difficult develops naturally from the easy,
who finds it easy to promise finds it hard to be trusted;
64a. care at the beginning
what lies still is easy to grasp;
what lies far off is easy to anticipate;
what is brittle is easy to shatter;
what is small is easy to disperse.
yet a tree broader than a man can embrace is born of a tiny shoot;
therefore deal with things before they happen;
64b. care at the end
he who acts, spoils;
he who grasps, loses.
people often fail on the verge of success;
take care at the end as at the beginning,
so that you may avoid failure.
the sage desires no-desire,
the ancients did not seek to rule people with knowledge,
but to help them become natural.
it is difficult for knowledgeable people to become natural;
understanding these two paths is understanding subtlety;
66. lead by following
the river carves out the valley by flowing beneath it.
thereby the river is the master of the valley.
in order to master people
so when the sage rises above the people,
so the popularity of the sage does not fail,
all the world says,
"i am important;
i am separate from all the world.
i am important because i am separate,
were i the same, i could never be important."
yet here are three treasures
those who are fearless, but without compassion,
compassion is the finest weapon and best defence.
if you would establish harmony,
compassion must surround you like a fortress.
this is the value of unimportance;
there is a saying among soldiers:
it is easier to lose a yard than take an inch.
in this manner one may deploy troops without marshalling them,
there is no worse disaster than misunderstanding your enemy;
my words are easy to understand
and my actions are easy to perform
yet no other can understand or perform them.
my words have meaning; my actions have reason;
we are each unique, and therefore valuable;
who recognizes his limitations is healthy;
who ignores his limitations is sick.
the sage recognizes this sickness as a limitation.
and so becomes immune.
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when people have nothing more to lose,
then revolution will result.
do not take away their lands,
the sage maintains himself but exacts no tribute,
who is brave and bold will perish;
who is brave and subtle will benefit.
the subtle profit where the bold perish
for fate does not honour daring.
and even the sage dares not tempt fate.
fate does not attack, yet all things are conquered by it;
fate's net is vast and its mesh is coarse,
if people were not afraid of death,
then what would be the use of an executioner?
if people were only afraid of death,
people fear death because death is an instrument of fate.
when rulers take grain so that they may feast,
their people become hungry;
when rulers take action to serve their own interests,
their people become rebellious;
when rulers take lives so that their own lives are maintained,
their people no longer fear death.
when people act without regard for their own lives
a newborn is soft and tender,
a crone, hard and stiff.
plants and animals, in life, are supple and succulent;
in death, withered and dry.
so softness and tenderness are attributes of life,
and hardness and stiffness, attributes of death.
just as a sapless tree will split and decay
is the action of nature not unlike drawing a bow?
what is higher is pulled down, and what is lower is raised up;
what is taller is shortened, and what is thinner is broadened;
nature's motion decreases those who have more than they need
and increases those who need more than they have.
it is not so with man.
to give away what you do not need is to follow the way.
nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water,
yet nothing can better overcome the hard and strong,
for they can neither control nor do away with it.
the soft overcomes the hard,
who attends to the people would control the land and grain;
when conflict is reconciled, some hard feelings remain;
this is dangerous.
the sage accepts less than is due
the ancients said: "nature is impartial;
let your community be small, with only a few people;
keep tools in abundance, but do not depend upon them;
appreciate your life and be content with your home;
sail boats and ride horses, but don't go too far;
keep weapons and armour, but do not employ them;
let everyone read and write,
eat well and make beautiful things.
live peacefully and delight in your own society;
81. the sage
honest people use no rhetoric;
rhetoric is not honesty.
enlightened people are not cultured;
culture is not enlightenment.
content people are not rich;
riches are not contentment.
so the sage does not serve himself;
the gnl tao de ching.
copyright (c) 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 peter a. merel.
this document attempts to draw the texts of several popular english translationsof lao tse into a consistent and accessible context. it is based on thetranslations of robert g. henricks, lin yutang, d.c. lau, ch'u ta-kao,gia-fu feng & jane english, richard wilhelm and aleister crowley.
this work is not a translation, but an interpolation. it doesnot represent the original text; the original, if there was an original,has been jumbled, mistranscribed and reinterpreted many times over manythousands of years, and is here cast into a language that is incapableof presenting its poetic structure and philological connections.
even an original text, translated as faithfully as possible, mightremain inaccessible to the modern reader unable to place it within itsoriginal context. the intention of this work is to construct a documentthat closely corresponds with the best modern translations of lao tse,but which is blunt, easy and useful to read within a modern context.
the last three lines of chapter 28 have been moved to the end of chapter 27.
the last three lines of chapter 39 have been moved to the end of chapter 26.
the last three lines of chapter 47 oppose most translations.
the first three lines of chapter 54 have been moved to the start of chapter 38.
the last two lines of chapter 55, a repetition of the last two lines ofchapter 30, have been removed.
the first line of chapter 60 has been moved to the start of chapter 59.
chapter 64 is split into two chapters, 64a and 64b.
in chapter 64a the order of the second and third paragraphs is reversed.
the last four lines of chapter 67 have been moved to the start of chapter 68.