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Tao Te Ching: A New English Version

Tao Te Ching: A New English Version

Author: Lao Tzu, Trans. Stephen Mitchell
Rating: 10/10
Last Read: May 2017

Quick Summary:  Following What is Tao? by Alan Watts, I picked up the Tao Te Ching. The version I read was a newer translation by Stephen Mitchell. Mitchell focused on a poetic translation of the Tao Te Ching. He mentions that his translation strategy was to focus on direct translation where possible, and when not possible sticking to the spirit of Lao Tzu's message. I'd say Mitchell was very successful, as he presented the wisdom of the Tao in an absolutely beautiful way. I thoroughly enjoyed this translation of the Tao Te Ching and look forward to revisiting it frequently.

I cannot summarize the words of the Tao Te Ching better than the document itself, so I leave you with my favorite passages.

My Highlights

Regarding Lao Tzu, from the introduction:

Like an Iroquois woodsman, he left no traces. All he left us is his book: the classic manual on the art of living, written in style of gemlike lucidity, radiant with humor and grace and largeheartedness and deep wisdom: one of the wonders of the world. --loc 179

But it’s clear from his teachings that he deeply cared about society, if society means the welfare of one’s fellow human beings; his book is, among other things, a treatise on the art of government, whether of a country or of a child. --loc 183

A note on the concept of wu wei:

A good athlete can enter a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke or the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance. --loc 186

Continued notes from the introduction:

The Master has mastered Nature; not in the sense of conquering it, but of becoming it. In surrendering to the Tao, in giving up all concepts, judgments, and desires, her mind has grown naturally compassionate. She finds deep in her own experience the central truths of the art of living, which are paradoxical only on the surface: that the more truly solitary we are, the more compassionate we can be; the more we let go of what we love, the more present our love becomes; the clearer our insight into what is beyond good and evil, the more we can embody the good. --loc 198

Unencumbered by any concept of sin, the Master doesn’t see evil as a force to resist, but simply as an opaqueness, a state of self-absorption which is in disharmony with the universal process, so that, as with a dirty window, the light can’t shine through. This freedom from moral categories allows him his great compassion for the wicked and the selfish. --loc 203

Now we enter into the Tao itself

Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. --loc 233

When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad. Being and non-being create each other. Difficult and easy support each other. Long and short define each other. High and low depend on each other. Before and after follow each other. --loc 240

Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn’t possess, acts but doesn’t expect. When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever. --loc 247

The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. --loc 255

The Tao is like a bellows: it is empty yet infinitely capable. The more you use it, the more it produces; the more you talk of it, the less you understand. --loc 271

The Master stays behind; that is why she is ahead. She is detached from all things; that is why she is one with them. Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled. --loc 284

In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present. When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you. --loc 292

Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. --loc 303

Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity. --loc 304

Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will? --loc 311

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure? Whether you go up the ladder or down it, your position is shaky. When you stand with your two feet on the ground, you will always keep your balance. --loc 336

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear? Hope and fear are both phantoms that arise from thinking of the self. When we don’t see the self as self, what do we have to fear? See the world as your self. Have faith in the way things are. Love the world as your self; then you can care for all things. --loc 340

If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy. --loc 388

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!” --loc 390

Throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier. Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing. Throw away industry and profit, and there won’t be any thieves. If these three aren’t enough, just stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their course. --loc 401

Stop thinking, and end your problems. --loc 408

What difference between yes and no? What difference between success and failure? Must you value what others value, avoid what others avoid? How ridiculous! --loc 409

I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty. --loc 417

Express yourself completely, then keep quiet. Be like the forces of nature: when it blows, there is only wind; when it rains, there is only rain; when the clouds pass, the sun shines through. --loc 454

Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place. --loc 463

He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm. He who rushes ahead doesn’t go far. He who tries to shine dims his own light. He who defines himself can’t know who he really is. --loc 467

He who clings to his work will create nothing that endures. If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go. --loc 472

If you let yourself be blown to and fro, you lose touch with your root. --loc 495

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants. A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is. --loc 499

What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man but a good man’s job? If you don’t understand this, you will get lost, however intelligent you are. --loc 506

There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind; a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest; a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted; a time for being safe, a time for being in danger. --loc 531

Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men doesn’t try to force issues or defeat enemies by force of arms. For every force there is a counterforce. Violence, even well intentioned, always rebounds upon oneself. --loc 540

The Master does his job and then stops. He understands that the universe is forever out of control, and that trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao. Because he believes in himself, he doesn’t try to convince others. Because he is content with himself, he doesn’t need others’ approval. Because he accepts himself, the whole world accepts him. --loc 544

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich. If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever. --loc 579

The soft overcomes the hard. The slow overcomes the fast. Let your workings remain a mystery. Just show people the results.

The Master doesn’t try to be powerful; thus he is truly powerful. The ordinary man keeps reaching for power; thus he never has enough. --loc 623

The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone. The ordinary man is always doing things, yet many more are left to be done. --loc 626

Therefore the Master concerns himself with the depths and not the surface, with the fruit and not the flower. He has no will of his own. He dwells in reality, and lets all illusions go. --loc 636

Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it, embracing his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe. --loc 679

If you look to others for fulfillment, you will never truly be fulfilled. If your happiness depends on money, you will never be happy with yourself. Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. --loc 692

There is no greater illusion than fear, no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself, no greater misfortune than having an enemy. Whoever can see through all fear will always be safe. --loc 710

In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped. Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-action. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can’t be gained by interfering. --loc 723

She is good to people who are good. She is also good to people who aren’t good. This is true goodness. --loc 733

If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself. --loc 820

Try to make people happy, and you lay the groundwork for misery. --loc 837

Thus the Master is content to serve as an example and not to impose her will. She is pointed, but doesn’t pierce. Straightforward, but supple. Radiant, but easy on the eyes. --loc 840

The Tao is the center of the universe, the good man’s treasure, the bad man’s refuge. Honors can be bought with fine words, respect can be won with good deeds; but the Tao is beyond all value, and no one can achieve it. --loc 878

Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts. --loc 892

Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe. --loc 908

Therefore the Master takes action by letting things take their course. He remains as calm at the end as at the beginning. He has nothing, thus has nothing to lose. --loc 909

When they think that they know the answers, people are difficult to guide. When they know that they don’t know, people can find their own way. --loc 920

If you want to learn how to govern, avoid being clever or rich. The simplest pattern is the clearest. --loc 923

I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. --loc 943

The best athlete wants his opponent at his best. The best general enters the mind of his enemy. The best businessman serves the communal good. The best leader follows the will of the people. All of them embody the virtue of non-competition. Not that they don’t love to compete, but they do it in the spirit of play. In this they are like children and in harmony with the Tao. --loc 950

Not-knowing is true knowledge. Presuming to know is a disease. First realize that you are sick; then you can move toward health. --loc 979

When they lose their sense of awe, people turn to religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they begin to depend upon authority. --loc 985

If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve. --loc 999

Failure is an opportunity. If you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame. Therefore the Master fulfills her own obligations and corrects her own mistakes. She does what she needs to do and demands nothing of others. --loc 1044

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