About Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu, also known as Laozi and Lao-Tze, was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer. The name “Laozi” is known to mean Old (lao) Master (zi). He is the founder of philosophical Taoism and a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions.
Tao Te Ching can be translated as The Book of the Way. The main concepts presented in this book are:
- (What are) Tao and Te, the basics of Taoism.
- The (attainment of the) human spiritual perfection (sageness) in relation to the Tao.
- The art of ruling through applying the Taoist principles.
The book addresses three kinds of people: those who follow the Tao, the noblemen who take part in the life of communities and the rulers who aim to lead their lands beneficially.
The Tao that can be named isn’t actually the eternal Tao. The eternal Tao is the nameless origin of everything there is. It’s the place where Heaven and Earth come from. The named Tao is the “mother of myriad things.” This is all the stuff that eventually came to physically exist in the universe.
Once we know beauty, we know ugliness. Once we know good, we know evil. All these opposites support each other and can’t exist without one another.
The sages use this knowledge of dualities to live their lives with the Tao. For one, they live with the wu wei, or unattached action. Wu wei is about living in the moment, being relaxed and not obsessing over outcomes.
This chapter ends by giving us the secret to the sages’ success: they don’t dwell on success, so it never goes away.
Now, we get some advice on how to run a society. It’s a bad idea to make a big deal about overachievers. If we do, then everybody will start fighting because they want to be a big deal too. It’s also a bad idea to declare things that are hard to find as valuable. This is another way to encourage fighting over something that is scarce.
Eventually, the Tao has its way with everything. Sharp things become dull. Knots come loose. Lights go dim. The dust of everything mixes together. You could see this as a “time heals all” or a “time destroys all” concept. Nobody knows where this concept comes from because it is older than everything.
Heaven and Earth are totally unbiased. If a meteor slams into the Earth, it doesn’t care who or what it slams into. You can be hit by this meteor irrespective of how good or bad a person you have been. The sages take a cue from Heaven and Earth and also judge without bias.
This short chapter is all about girl power and celebrates what it calls the “Mystic Female.”
The book reminds us to recognize the sacred power of femininity and that all life comes from it. This feminine spirit is flowing all around us and never gets worn out.
Heaven and Earth are eternal, and the reason they last forever is they don’t ever think of themselves. So, the sages take another cue from Heaven and Earth by always putting others first. In the end, the sages actually achieve their goals by adopting this approach.
This chapter tells us that water needs to be our new role model. Water is excellent because it gives to everything without complaining and flows to places people turn their noses up at. In this way, it’s a lot like the Tao.
Here are all the relevant positive traits associated with water that you should be inspired by:
1) It’s deep
2) It gives with kindness
3) It’s honest, reflecting everything as it is
4) It controls everything within its power equally and impartially
5) It’s totally adaptable, always changing to match its environment
6) It has excellent timing
It is a bad idea to overfill your cup. Wealth and power make people arrogant, and disaster follows. If you do happen to get famous, it’s best to take a step back from it.
This chapter highlights the importance of asking yourself the following questions:
- Is it possible to be totally at one with everything and never stray from that oneness?
- If we concentrate our energy and find total relaxation, can we be as simple as babies again?
- If we don’t get all wrapped up in the world, will we be clean of imperfections?
The chapter ends by defining something called the “Mystic Virtue.” This is basically the ability to help and teach those around you without being arrogant.
This chapter covers the awesomeness of emptiness. Emptiness is totally and completely necessary for the function of many things.
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.” – Lao Tzu
It is a bad idea to be over-competitive and constantly be searching for something.
The sages care for “the stomach not the eyes.” We ought to focus on finding a deep sense of wellbeing rather than worrying about the superficial stuff we can see with our eyes.
The book argues “the greatest misfortune is the self.” The worst thing that can happen to us is becoming self-obsessed. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t value ourselves, though. We should value ourselves in the same way we value the world. People who love themselves in the same way they love the world can be entrusted with the world.
The Tao Te Ching tells us to look at the Tao even though it can’t be seen, listen to it even though it can’t be heard and reach for it even though it doesn’t have any form.
Even though the Tao is metaphysical (spiritual, intangible) in nature, we should try to attune ourselves to it. The Tao isn’t bright or dark. The Tao is also endless; we can’t see its end or beginning.
To be a great Tao master, you need the following qualities:
- Careful and cautious, but not crazily so
- Serious in a respectful way, like a guest
- Loose; kind of easygoing
- Genuine and simple
The Tao Te Ching advises us to empty ourselves to find peace. When we’re empty, we can truly observe our environment. If we’re disconnected from the flow, we cause all kinds of trouble. If we accept it impartially, we can get rid of the self and be at one with the eternal Tao.
What makes a good ruler? The best rulers are so subtle and skilled at what they do that people don’t even notice them. The next best is not as subtle, but they’re still valuable. So, they get mountains of praise from the people.
Things start going seriously downhill when a ruler rules through fear. And we’ve hit rock-bottom when a ruler is totally incompetent and despised.
The book advises us to have no trust in rulers who don’t have any trust in themselves.
To be at one with the eternal Tao, we have to remember that the great Tao fades away. Keep this idea in the front of your mind. Next, we’re advised that if our families are falling apart, we need to focus on love and loyalty. And if our nations are in chaos, we need to know that somewhere there are loyal ministers.
Everyone would be better off if there weren’t any would-be sages publishing books, thinking they’re better than everybody else. Similarly, people will naturally be more generous if nobody is self-righteously giving to those they think are beneath them. If nobody is selfishly lusting after profit in our society, there would be no stealing.
The author warns against getting too obsessed with knowledge. Knowledge only creates worry. So, we’re asked some questions that make us think about the relativity of things. The book describes how living as a Tao master can separate you from other people.
When everybody is happy and enjoying a feast, you can appear uninvolved. You are like a baby who isn’t smiling yet. Other people may seem bright and clear, but you may seem muddled.
This chapter reminds us that the Tao is eternal and has been spoken of ever since ancient times. It is the source of all things. So, if there’s anything you don’t like about your life, you can take it up with the Tao.
This chapter gives us a lesson on yielding. Just because a leaf bends doesn’t mean it won’t be straight again. If somebody comes at you with some conflict, just let them do their thing and go about their business.
It’s better to use fewer words that say a lot rather than many words that say nothing.
The next chunk of this chapter gives us a lesson on how we become whatever we set our minds on. If we focus on the Tao, we’re with the Tao. If we focus on virtue, then virtue is with us. If we focus on loss, then all we are is loss. If we live our lives distrusting everybody, then nobody will trust us.
The author lectures us on the dangers of arrogance. People who are with the Tao hate arrogance and treat it like “leftover food or tumors.” Even though arrogance is part of the Tao like everything else, it’s an unfortunate part of the Tao that real-deal Tao masters don’t engage in.
This one starts by talking about a formless substance that existed before Heaven and Earth.
It’s quiet. It’s changeless but is endlessly circulating. It’s the mother of the world. It’s the Tao.
The best way to describe the Tao is “great.” “Great” means it’s continually receding and returning like a big, whopping ocean of everything.
To have the looseness required to be with the Tao, you must also have a grounded personality.
We sometimes have to carry around serious thoughts and understandings as we go through our lives.
You can learn from good people and bad people too. Good people who don’t realize that they can learn from bad people are destined for confusion.
We’ve got to be in touch with both our masculine and feminine sides. We’re also advised to try to be like babies, who exist in a simple, open state.
It’s useless to try to control the world because the world cannot be controlled. The Tao is all about balance, and everything has its place in that—leaders and followers, hot things and cold things, strong things and weak things. The sages recognized that the best thing to do is to eliminate extremes, excess and arrogance.
There’s not much point in using soldiers to solve problems since eventually, somebody else’s soldiers will attack you in retaliation.
Violence is a bad idea. The book also advises on how a talented military commander behaves. A talented commander achieves the necessary results and then stops.
All things hate a strong military. The military is not a tool for honorable men.
When honorable men are forced to use violence, they only do it out of necessity. They remain detached from the whole thing and don’t find any glory in victory. People who enjoy killing are never going “to achieve their ambitions upon the world.” In the end, we’re told everyone who dies in war should be mourned.
There will be no need to force things to be good; they just will be good. We have to know when to stop naming things. If we know when to stop, then we avoid danger.
This one’s all about knowing yourself. You’re pretty smart if you understand others, but you’re totally enlightened if you understand yourself.
Then it tells us that you’re strong if you overcome others, but it’s only when you overcome yourself that you’re truly powerful.
Again, the Tao is compared to water. This time it’s compared to a flood that can flow around any object it comes into contact with.
The Tao doesn’t desire anything. It doesn’t make a big deal about itself, so it’s easy not to notice it. Everything returns to it, though.
“Hold the great image / All under heaven will come” – Lao Tzu
If you’re at one with the Tao, then people will come to you. The next line adds that when they come, they’ll come peacefully. We’re reminded that the Tao can’t be tasted, seen, or heard.
If we want to shrink something, we have to expand it first. If we want to weaken something, we have to strengthen it first. If we want to get rid of something, we have to encourage it first. If we want to seize something, we have to give that thing first. All these truths give us “subtle clarity”.
The Tao never tries to do anything, yet everything that’s done is caused by it.
Again, we’re reminded of the importance of humility and decreasing desire. If we find true stillness, then anything is possible.
Genuinely virtuous people just are. They don’t force it. People who are truly generous and kind don’t go around announcing how generous and kind they are. They don’t do generous things so that people will think they’re generous.
People who hide behind etiquette and rules to show that they’re good are posers when it comes right down to it.
Finding oneness comes with all kinds of benefits. You’ll find clarity like the sky. Peace like the Earth. Spiritual power like the gods. Vital energy like all the living things around you.
If we don’t find oneness, bad stuff happens. A sky without clarity breaks apart. The Earth without peace erupts. Good rulers base everything on those beneath them.
Everything that exists comes from nonexistence. So, somewhere back in the ancient past, all elements came out of nothingness. Eventually, everything will return to it. But in Tao, nothing isn’t nothing. It’s filled with infinite possibilities.
Different kinds of people have all kinds of different reactions to the Tao. The true Tao is hard to understand and full of contradictions.
Often it appears to be its opposite, or maybe it’s made of opposites that exist simultaneously. This is why the true Tao is hidden and nameless.
This chapter digs into the concept of yin and yang. Basically, these are the two opposing forces within the Tao that work in harmony to keep everything rolling along.
In the beginning, there was only the one Tao. It then split into yin and yang, which then split into everything there is. If we want to live healthy lives, we have to find the balance between yin (humble female energy) and yang (more aggressive male energy).
Here come a couple more seeming contradictions. The softest things override the hardest things. Things that seem like they have no substance can creep into things that seem totally solid.
A person who acts with the Tao isn’t hardcore about everything; they act with subtlety.
Which is more important, being rich and famous or truly knowing yourself? Which is more painful, gaining things or losing them?
When we base our lives on making money to buy stuff, all we ever want to do is buy more stuff. And when all we are in the purchases we have, then we’ve lost something that’s pretty darn important: our true selves.
Great perfection, a.k.a. the Tao, might seem flawed. Great fullness, a.k.a. the Tao, might seem empty. Still, the Tao does its thing without stopping.
“Stillness overcomes movement” – Lao Tzu
This all might be getting at the way Tao masters live simply and quietly. They don’t do more than is necessary, but when they do something, they make it count.
The answer to world peace? A world where everybody has the Tao.
A world that’s full of greed and dissatisfaction is an unpleasant place to be. It’s not a place where people are at one with the Tao.
This chapter claims we can know the Tao without ever going out the door or looking out of a window. The true sage looks inward to find the Tao.
Here, we’re told that the pursuit of knowledge does gain us stuff. But gaining isn’t always a good thing since all it does is make you want to gain more of the same thing. To find the Tao, you have to lose, lose, and lose some more.
When you’ve found the Tao, you can engage in unattached action, which can mean that when you do stuff, you don’t get super obsessed with the outcome.
The sages don’t get stuck in one way of thinking. They’re always open to what people have to say. The sages also live out in the world; they don’t hide on mountaintops. It’s kind of their job to take care of all people like parents take care of children.
This chapter represents the dangers in life with rhinos, tigers, and soldiers. It points out ways to avoid them.
If we’re overly cautious, we never truly live. If we’re too bold, we’re just begging to die. And suppose we live with excess, overindulging in everything. In that case, those rhinos, tigers, and soldiers will have us in no time.
But, if we live with the Tao and practice moderation, the bad things in life will have a much harder time taking hold of us.
Every living thing comes from the Tao and is then shaped by its own virtue or living energy. The surrounding forces then shape living things. So, we should respect the Tao and value virtue.
The Tao is the mother of the world and every living thing. Knowing that we are the children of the Tao helps us to avoid all the dangers in life.
We should close our mouths and shut our doors so that we can live peaceful lives. But if we’re always all up in everybody’s business, our lives will blow chunks.
The Tao’s path is wide and simple to walk, but people still get distracted by side paths like greed.
You can always tell when a society is living without the Tao because the rulers wear fancy clothes, have dangerous weapons, and are crazy rich.
You can see the Tao of others through yourself, of other families through your family, of other communities through your community.
The chapter ends by telling us to observe the world with the world.
But how do we know that the world is? Easy. It’s just another part of the Tao like everything else. If we have that strong spiritual foundation, we can recognize it for what it is.
The most virtuous kinds of people are like newborn babies. They live in a state of simplicity. The key is being in harmony with the Tao, which gives you the clarity you need to be simple and virtuous.
The main thing to avoid is being too aggressive. If you spend all your energy in one sudden burst, it quickly runs out.
People who talk all the time don’t know that much, but people who are silent know a lot.
We’re also told we have to unravel the knots, which probably is another reference to living simply. Dimming the glare is also a good idea.
This chapter wants to give a little advice to the rulers and governments out there.
First, it’s crucial to rule with integrity and be honest, straightforward, and good.
When governments pass a ton of restrictive laws, they end up being poor and turn into criminals to survive.
If a country is super aggressive and all its people are armed, things get super chaotic super fast.
As a ruler, practicing unattached action, limiting interference, and decreasing personal desire will make the lives of all people better over time.
Here comes a little more advice for rulers. If you aren’t overbearing as a ruler, the people are automatically simple and honest.
If you constantly spy on your citizens and boss them around, they’ll just find more and more sneaky ways to avoid your scrutiny.
Whether you’re governing people or serving Heaven, it’s best to conserve your energy. Be moderate and give yourself over to the Tao, and you’ll steadily accumulate virtue. If you do these things, there’s nothing you can’t overcome.
When you have a firm spiritual foundation in the Tao, you’ll be everlasting.
“Ruling a large country is like cooking a small fish” – Lao Tzu
Next, we’re told that when a country is ruled with the Tao, neither its gods nor its demons can harm it. So, the demons must be all the bad stuff like violence and turmoil that can happen when a ruler’s got no Tao.
Nonviolence is the way to go. Like the gods, the sages don’t harm people. Choose peace, and peace will come back to you.
This chapter takes the idea of humility and applies it to how large, powerful countries ought to behave. If large countries are humble, they’ll retain their influence.
Suppose large countries spend all their time bossing around all the other countries. In that case, they’ll eventually fall and will be taken over by the smaller countries they used to pick on.
The Tao is everything. Kind people treasure it. Unkind people are protected by it.
Since good words and actions can improve people, we should never abandon unkind people. All this is the wisdom of the Tao, and it’s the greatest gift there is.
Unattached action is the way to go. Manage things, but don’t interfere too much. Respond to hatred with compassion.
Don’t get overwhelmed by big tasks. Think of them as a series of small tasks. Do one thing at a time as eventually you’ll get it all done.
First, we’re advised to deal with small problems before they turn into big ones. Then we’re reminded that the biggest trees grow from small saplings and that the tallest towers start from heaps of dirt. The longest journeys start with the dirt beneath our feet.
Don’t meddle too much or grasp too hard, or else you’ll fail in what you try to do. It’s also important to put just as much energy into the end of a task as the beginning. Otherwise you’ll certainly fail.
The ancient sage kings used the Tao to help people. Instead of ruling through clever tricks, they ruled with straightforward honesty.
This encouraged people to live with simplicity. Living simply with the Tao is called the Mystic Virtue. The Mystic Virtue is infinite and goes beyond material things.
This chapter points out the power of being humble with a pretty great metaphor.
Rivers and oceans take all the water in the world into them simply because they are the lowest points on the Earth.
The Tao is so great it can’t be compared to anything. If it could be compared to anything, then it wouldn’t be the Tao.
The way of the Tao has three main treasures:
The best generals aren’t big, aggressive jerks who love war. They don’t stomp around being angry all the time.
The greatest victories were won without violence. The most outstanding leaders lead with humility.
In war it’s best to let the enemy be the aggressor. By biding your time and strategically retreating, you create a situation where your enemy is more likely to make a mistake.
The chapter uses a cool metaphor for this when it advises armies to behave more like a guest than a host.
We’re told that even though the way of the Tao is based on simple, universal truths, it can be tough for people to understand. So, most people don’t get the sages either.
But, the fact that few people genuinely understand the sages makes them all more valuable.
The sage-iest thing about sages is that they know what they don’t know and recognize how they’re flawed. The thing that makes the sages perfect is they recognize their own imperfections.
If we recognize our failings and learn from them, then they have no power over us.
It’s essential to give people freedom and make sure they’re allowed to pursue their livelihoods without significant interference.
1) Know themselves, but don’t brag about themselves.
2) Respect themselves, but don’t talk about how cool they are all the time.
“A man with outward courage dares to die; a man with inner courage dares to live.” – Lao Tzu
People who are super bold and go rushing into everything end up dead. People who have courage without being overly aggressive are the ones who will survive.
The Tao doesn’t fight but always wins. It doesn’t speak but always answers. It doesn’t do things in a rush but gets everything done.
This chapter argues there’s not much point in capital punishment since it does absolutely nothing to deter crime.
It warns the people to starve when a ruler overtaxes them. When a ruler is too forceful and controls every little thing, the people eventually become hard to control.
The people will rebel if the ruler lives a fancy life at their expense. If the people’s lives are awful, they won’t care if they die. So, there’s no reason they won’t violently rebel against their corrupt ruler.
This chapter begins by observing that dead things are dry and brittle while living things are soft and flexible. Tao Te Ching takes a lesson from this and says we should live with flexibility.
If we are rigid and superset in our ways, then the world is going to break us. An army that’s inflexible will lose.
We begin by using a simile to say that the Tao is like drawing a bow. If the arrow is pointed too low, you have to raise the bow to compensate, and vice versa.
The Tao naturally balances everything. When something becomes excessive, it reduces it. When something is reduced, it fills it up again.
Water should be our role model. Though it seems soft and weak, it can overcome anything, no matter how hard and strong the thing seems.
The chapter ends by telling us again that humility is the way to go. Through humility, we gain personal power.
After any fight, there’s bound to be some residual bad feelings. The best thing to do is forgive and forget.
Small countries can be well-armed, but they shouldn’t use their arms unless they absolutely have to. The best thing is for people to live at peace in their homeland, enjoying their simple lives and customs.
Neighboring countries should live in harmony and not bug each other all the time.
The final chapter begins by pointing out that sometimes beautiful words aren’t true and that true words sometimes aren’t beautiful.
You could interpret this as people can hide lies in flowery speeches. The truth is much easier to find in simple, straightforward statements like the Tao masters use.
Comment below and let others know what you have learned or if you have any other thoughts.
New to StoryShots? Get the audio and animated versions of Tao Te Ching and hundreds of other best-selling nonfiction books in our free top-ranking app. It’s been featured by Apple, The Guardian, the UN, and Google as one of the world’s best reading and learning apps.
Related book summaries:
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Ikigai by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Be Here Now by Ram Dass
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin