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What is the book about?
Tao Te Ching…can be translated as The Book of the Immanence of the Way or The Book of the Way and of How It Manifests Itself in the World or, simply, The Book of the Way.
The main concepts presented in this Book are: Tao, te, wu-wei, human perfection, p’u (simplicity), fu(returning), the power of the weakness, the valley spirit, water-like conduct, the art of ruling, military strategy.
Basically there are three themes developed in the book:
- (What are) Tao and Te, the basics of Taoism;
- The (attainment of the) human spiritual perfection (sageness) in relation with the Tao;
- The art of ruling through applying the Taoist principles.
The book addresses three kinds of people: those who follow the Tao as sages, that is people retreated from this world and looking for the unity with Tao and spiritual perfection, the noblemen who take part in the life of communities and the rulers who are guided as to how to lead their lands in a beneficial way.
Lao-tzu (also spelled Lao Tzu and Laozi) may have been an older contemporary of Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) and may have held the position of archive-keeper in one of the petty kingdoms of the time.
Chapter by Chapter Summary of Tao Te Ching
Tao Te Ching is made of 81 chapters. The chapters are traditionally divided into two sections: The First 37 chapters are The Classic of Tao (the Way) and the rest are The Classic of Te. Each chapter consists of a short essay on various topics and concepts.
The Tao that can be named isn’t actually the eternal Tao. The eternal Tao is actually the nameless origin of everything there is. It’s the place where Heaven, Earth, and all that good stuff came from.
The named Tao is the “mother of myriad things,” which you might interpret to mean all the different stuff that eventually came to physically exist in the Universe—which is a lot of stuff (1.4).
Next, we dip into ideas about desire vs. lack of desire. Lack of desire allows us to see the “essence” of the Tao, while desire lets us see its “manifestations” (1.5-6).
This chapter drops some wisdom about dualities. Once we know beauty, we know ugliness. Once we know good, we know evil. High and low, long and short—all these opposites support each other and can’t exist without one another.
The sages, the super-wise Tao dudes, 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 (also known as unattached action, effortless action, or the action of no action) is a big-deal concept in Taoism. It’s slippery to define, but mostly it’s 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 starts 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.
If society is basically free of sneaky schemers, then the few sneaky schemers out there won’t dare to sneak and scheme.
Eventually, the Tao has its way with everything. Sharp things gets 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” kind of thought. Since the Tao is everything, it’s hard to recognize… but it still exists. Nobody knows where it comes from because it is older than everything.
― Lao Tzu #taoteching
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Heaven and Earth are totally unbiased. If a meteor slams into the Earth, it doesn’t exactly care who or what it slams into. You could be super-nice or super-mean, and you still might get squished.
The sages take a cue from the Heaven and Earth and also think of people without bias.
This short chapter is all about girl power and celebrates what it calls the “Mystic Female” (6.2).
It seems like it’s reminding us to recognize the sacred power of femininity, which is pretty darn impressive because all life come from it.
This constantly creating feminine spirit is flowing all around us and never gets worn out.
Heaven and Earth are eternal, and the reason they last forever is that 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 not being all grasp-y all the time.
This chapter tells us that water needs to be our new role model. Water is super good because it gives to everything without complaining and flows to places people turn their noses up at. In this way, it’s a whole lot like the Tao.
Now we get a list of everything that’s cool about water.
1) It’s deep… like spiritually deep, man.
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 great timing.
“Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.”
The ever-wise Tao Te Ching advises that it’s a bad idea to overfill your cup. We get the same kind of idea next with the metaphor of an over-sharpened knife.
Wealth and power make people arrogant, and disaster follows. If you do happen to get famous, says the Tao Te Ching, it’s best to take a step back from it.
This chapter kicks off by asking us a bunch of 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,” which is basically the ability to help and teach those around you without being all full of yourself about it.
This one’s all about the awesomeness of emptiness. Emptiness is totally and completely necessary for the function of a whole lot of things.
The book is warning us that it’s a bad idea to be over-competitive and to constantly be searching for something.
This chapter wraps us by telling us that the sages care for “the stomach not the eyes” (12.6).
Like everything in the Tao Te Ching, this could mean a billion things, but our theory is that it thinks we ought to focus on finding a deep sense of wellbeing, rather than worrying only about the superficial stuff we can see with our eyes.
The book argues that “the greatest misfortune is the self,” which might mean that the worst thing that can happen to us is for us to get too wrapped up in ourselves (13.2).
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t value ourselves, though. We should value ourselves in the same way we value the world around us.
The Tao Te Ching ends this chapter with one final wisdom bomb: people who love themselves in the same way they love the world can be entrusted with the world.
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The Tao Te Ching tells us to look at the Tao even though it can’t be seen, to listen to it even though it can’t be heard, and to reach for it even though it doesn’t have any form.
That all may sound kinda pointless, but maybe what the Tao Te Ching is saying is that even though the Tao is metaphysical (spiritual, intangible) in nature, we should try to attune ourselves to it.
Now we’re told that the Tao isn’t bright or dark. The Tao is also endless; we can’t see its end or beginning.
The last piece of advice this chapter has for us is that we should use the ancient wisdom of the Tao in our modern lives.
This chapter is all about what we can learn from the ancient Tao masters. The ancient sages knew they could never fully understand the Tao; Because they couldn’t totally figure out the Tao, they were forced to describe it.
To be a great Tao master you needed the following qualities on your resume:
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 in order to find peace. When we’re empty, we can truly see all the stuff going on around us.
If we’re disconnected from the flow, we cause all kinds of trouble. If we accept it impartially, then 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 good at what they do that the people don’t even notice them. The next best are not as subtle, but they’re still good, so they get mountains of praise from the people.
Things start going seriously downhill when a ruler rules though 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.
This first line throws us for a loop when it tells us
, “The great Tao fades away”.
In order to be at one with the eternal Tao, we have to keep these concepts in the front of our minds.
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 ministers who are loyal.
We get another curveball thrown our way at the top of this chapter. Again, here, we’re reminded to live simply and selflessly and to decrease our desires.
Everybody is better off if there aren’t any would-be sages sitting around on their piles of books, thinking they’re better than everybody else. Similarly, it could be saying that people will naturally be more generous with each other if nobody is self-righteously giving to those they think are beneath them. If nobody is selfishly lusting after profit in our society, then there would be no stealing.
We’re warned against getting too obsessed with knowledge; it only causes worries.
Next, we’re asked some questions that make us think about the relativity of things. The book goes into a description of how living as a Tao master can separate you from other people.
When everybody is happy and enjoying a feast, you can seem uninvolved, like a baby who isn’t smiling yet. Other people may seem bright and clear, but you can seem muddled.
― Lao Tzu #taoteching
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All right, time for some more seeming contradictions about the Tao.
We’re reminded 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—and not just when you see a red-and-white, triangular sign. Just because a leaf of grass bends doesn’t mean that it won’t be straight again. So 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 a lot of 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 TTC lectures us on the dangers of arrogance. People who are with the Tao hate arrogance and treat it like “leftover food or tumors” (24.7). Eww.
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 some formless thing that existed before Heaven and Earth.
It’s quiet. It’s changeless but is endlessly circulating. It’s the mother of the world. Yup, it’s the Tao.
The TTC admits that it doesn’t know the name of the Tao; Tao is only the name that’s used. The best way to describe it is “great,” and “great” means that it’s constantly receding and returning like a big, whopping ocean of everything (25.9).
“Heaviness is the root of lightness”
In order to have the looseness needed to be with the Tao, you also have a grounded kind of personality.
Next, the chapter goes into a metaphor about the sages traveling for a whole day without leaving behind heavy supplies. This metaphor could represent the way we sometimes have to carry around serious thoughts and understandings as we go through our lives.
Chapter 26 takes us deeper into metaphor land when it asks “How can the lords of ten thousand chariots / Apply themselves lightly to the world?” (26.7-8).
― Lao Tzu #taoteching
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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 to be confused.
We’ve got to be in touch with both our masculine and feminine sides. On that note, we’ve got to be the “watercourse of the world” (28.2).
We’re next 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 thing 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 are going to attack you in retaliation.
Violence is a bad idea, it also gives advice on how a good military commander behaves. Anyway, the TTC claims that a good commander achieves the necessary results and then stops.
Here, it says that all things hate a strong military. It tells us that 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” (31.14). 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.
Next, we’re warned about names. 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.
“Those who do not lose their base endure / Those who die but do not perish have longevity” (33.7-8).
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, and since it doesn’t make a big deal about itself it’s easy to not notice it. Everything returns to it, though, making it great.
“Hold the great image / All under heaven will come,
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 of these truths give us “subtle clarity” (36.9).
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.
People who are truly virtuous 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 just so 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.
Given what the rest of this chapter is saying, we figure a flower isn’t necessarily a good thing in this context.
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 came from nonexistence, or “Being is born of nonbeing” (40.3). So somewhere back in the ancient past all things came out of nothingness, and eventually, everything will return to it. But in the 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.
Very often it appears to be its opposite, or maybe it’s made of opposites that exist at the same time. 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, but then it 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 comes 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 things 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,”
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 a pretty miserable place to be, and it’s not a place where people are at one with the Tao.
This chapter claims that 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 constantly open to what people have to say.
The sages also live out in the world; they don’t go 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, and 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 if we live with excess, overindulging in everything, those rhinos, tigers, and soldiers are going to have us in no time.
If we live with the Tao, however, 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. Living things are then shaped by the forces around them. Therefore we should respect the Tao and value the 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 path of the Tao 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 see it for what it is.
The most virtuous kinds of people are like newborn babies. We figure this means they exist in a state of simplicity, not that they scream all night and poop themselves.
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 that we have to unravel the knots, which probably is another reference to living simply. Dimming the glare is also a good idea.
― Lao Tzu #taoteching
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This chapter wants to give a little advice to the rulers and governments out there.
First, it’s important to rule with integrity and to be honest, straightforward, and all that good stuff.
When governments pass a ton of restrictive laws, the people end up being poor and turn into criminals to survive.
Also, if a country is super militaristic 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 the people better over time.
Here comes a little more advice for rulers.mIf 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”
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.
Ultimately, though, this chapter leaves us with the idea that 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 the way that large, powerful countries ought to behave. If large countries are humble, then they’ll retain their influence.
If large countries spend all their time bossing around all the other countries, 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 people who are unkind. All this is the wisdom of the Tao, and it’s the greatest gift there is.
This chapter starts with some oldies but goodies. Unattached action is the way to go. Manage things, but don’t interfere too much. Respond to hatred with compassion (kind of a “turn the other cheek” sort of philosophy).
Don’t get overwhelmed by big tasks. Think of them as a series of small tasks. Do one thing at a time, and 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. Also, the longest journeys start with the dirt beneath our feet.
Not to meddle too much or grasp too hard, or else we’ll fail in what we try to do. It’s also important to put just as much energy into the end of a task as the beginning; otherwise, we’ll fail for sure.
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 of the water in the world into them simply because they are the lowest points on the Earth.
The Tao is so great that 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 are won without violence. The greatest leaders lead with humility.
Let’s talk about military strategy. 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. Therefore, a lot of people don’t get the sages either.
However, the fact that few people truly understand the sages makes them all more valuable.
The sage-iest thing about sages is that they know the things they don’t know and recognize the ways in which they’re flawed. The thing that makes the sages perfect is that they recognize their own imperfections.
If we recognize our failings and learn from them, then they have no power over us.
It’s important to give the people freedom and to make sure they’re allowed to pursue their livelihoods without a lot of 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.
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 that there’s not much point in capital punishment since it does absolutely nothing to deter crime.
It warns that the people 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. The Tao Te Ching takes a lesson from this and says that 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.
Our 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 noting how people can hide lies in flowery speeches, while the truth is much easier to find in simple, straightforward statements like the Tao masters use.
Next, we’re reminded that there’s not much good in debating; it’s just a waste of energy, really.
― Lao Tzu #taoteching
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What did you learn from the summary of Tao Te Ching? What was your favorite takeaway? Is there an important insight that we missed? Comment below or tweet to us @storyshots.
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