Tao Te Ching — a new translation of a Chinese classic

The Tao and the Power 道德經, attributed to Laozi 老子 (5th or 4th century BCE), is one of the most famous Chinese works. Previously, China Heritage has introduced chapters from a new translation of this classical text by John Minford. The full work, introduced, translated and annotated by John, with extensive commentaries is published by Viking Random House in New York under the title Tao Te Ching — The essential translation of the ancient Chinese book of the Tao by Lao Tzu.

The translator has granted us permission to quote material from the introduction to this new version of what is a timeless work, as well as the first chapter of the translation — ‘Gateway to All Marvels’ 眾妙之門 —  and the Florilegium, or Glossary. In reproducing this material we have followed the design, and style, of the book. We have also included the calligraphic titles done by Liao Hsin-t’ien 廖新田.

— The Editor
China Heritage
20 November 2018

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On Tao and Te

John Minford


The Tao and the Power (Daodejing) is the founding text of China’s ancient and enduring religious philosophy, known in the West as Taoism. Taoism, with its history of two and a half millennia, is usually depicted in stark contrast with China’s other main traditional philosophy, the secular ideology known in the West as Confucianism, whose founding text is another equally short early work, The Analects of Confucius (Lunyu). Broadly speaking, we may say that Confucianism as it evolved in subsequent centuries emphasized the need for order, respectful harmony within family and society, coded ritual, precise terminology, clearly delineated duty, and structured hierarchy in daily life. Taoism, on the other hand, emphasized inner freedom, meditation and the self-cultivation of the individual, surrender to the spontaneous rhythms of nature, primordial intuition, and exploration of the mysteries of the human condition and the wonders of the cosmos, listening to the silent music of the Tao.

The Tao and the Power is attributed to a shadowy figure known as Lao-tzu (the Old Master), while the book known as The Analects contains the enigmatic and often delightfully eccentric sayings, as recorded by his circle of disciples, of a well-documented historical personality, the peripatetic teacher Confucius (Kongzi, 551-479 BC). Confucius lived toward the very end of what is known as the Spring and Autumn period (771-ca. 475 BC), during which the Zhou dynastic royal house, forced to move its capital eastwards in 771 by the incursions of the Quanrong or “Dog” barbarians, began to suffer the erosion of its central authority while several lesser states contended for power. The more stable earlier half of the dynasty (the Western Zhou, ca. 1046-771 BC) had previously seen the gradual emergence of a written culture and the appearance of such formative pre-philosophical compendia as the oracular Book of Change (the I Ching), with its sixty-four Hexagrams and its wide-ranging and thought-provoking prognostications, and the Book of Songs, with its enchanting repertoire of early folksong and dynastic hymns. These collections were eventually to be enshrined as Classics in the official Confucian canon, often undergoing tortuous ideological distortions in the process. Meanwhile in the southern state of Chu, shamanistic poets had begun to sing with a very different and less restrained voice, one that venerated magic, nature, and the supernatural, in which the individual yearned for erotic and mystical union with the divine. This was the earliest outpouring of Chinese expressive lyricism. Taoism had much in common with this softer and more exotic southern world, and many have claimed it that had its origins there, whereas Confucian thought grew out of the harsher climes of the central plain and the north, especially the rocky eastern area of the states of Qi and Lu (homeland of Confucius), which now form the Province of Shandong.

The Tao

The single word Tao (or Dao in its modern spelling), from which the term Taoism is derived, is shared by many Chinese schools of thought. One of its literal meanings is “way” or “road.” In later centuries, in common parlance, Tao came to mean little more than what we would call the Art, or Fundamental Principle: The Tao of Music, the Tao of Tea, the Tao of Painting or Calligraphy or Poetry, etc. Another old and fundamental meaning of the word is to “tell” or “say,” to verbalize, to find Words for ideas, somewhat akin to the logos of early Western philosophy. Hence the word play of the book’s opening line: the Tao that can be verbalized or Tao-ed is not the True Tao. Joseph Needham gave his own inimitable explanation of the word:

Tao is the Order of Nature, which brought all things into existence and governs their every action, not so much by force as by a kind of natural curvature in space and time. It reminds us of the logos of Heraclitus.

Richard Wilhelm, the German sinologist, rhapsodized (very much in the style of the Book and its Commentators):

Tao is earlier than Heaven and Earth. One cannot tell whence it comes … It rests upon itself, it is immutable, rapt in eternal, cyclical movement. It is the beginning of Heaven and Earth, in other words, of temporal and spatial existence.

The Power

So the Taoist is hard to spot and describe, and the Tao itself is Untellable and therefore Untranslatable. (The word itself is indeed best “retold”— i.e. “transliterated” — as Tao.) But what can be said of the Power of the Tao, the second word, Te (modern De), of the Book’s title The Tao and the Power, Tao Te Ching (modern Daodejing — a title it only acquired after many centuries)? In Waley’s words, it is a “latent” power, an inherent “virtue” (in the old sense). It is the Inner Power or mana attained by the Taoist Adept through Self-Cultivation, “by virtue” of which, by emanating which, the Taoist can mysteriously influence everyone and everything in the Universe. The Dutch scholar Ian Duyvendak (1889-1954) called it a “magical life-force, the influence radiating from one link to the next in the interminable chain” of Cosmic Resonance and Correspondence which is the Tao. The Taoist tunes into this life-force, which operates or emanates without conscious effort. It is also described variously as the Power of the Infant, the Power of Not-Contending, the Power of Non-Action. Every Taoist reader of this little text, every Seeker of the Tao, accumulates a reservoir of this Energy and Power, this gentle Source of Strength. It is a Power that makes itself felt in everyday life, and although the teaching of the classic is often mystical and enigmatic, its applications are deeply practical and unpretentious. The Taoist mystic or perfectus has a wonderful sense of humor, a twinkle in his eye. He knows, after all, that governing a large state is like cooking a small fish.

from “Introduction”, Tao Te Ching
The Tao and the Power, pp.vii-viii & xv-xvii


Laozi, Chapter 1, in the calligraphy of Zhao Mengfu

— ‘Gateway to All Marvels’, Chapter One of 
The Tao and the Power, in the hand of
Zhao Mengfu
趙孟頫 of the Yuan dynasty 



The Tao that can be Told
Is not the True Tao;
Names that can be Named
Are not True Names.
The Origin of Heaven and Earth
Has no Name.
The Mother of the Myriad Things
Has a Name.
Free from Desire,
Contemplate the Inner Marvel;
Feeling Desire,
Observe the Outer Radiance.
These issue from One Source,
But have different Names.
They are both a Mystery.
Mystery of Mysteries,
Gateway to All Marvels.



The Tao that can be Told is the mundane Tao of the Art of Government, as opposed to the True Tao of Nature, of the So-of-Itself, of Long Life, of Self-Cultivation through Non-Action. This is the Deep Tao, which cannot be Told in Words, which cannot be Named. The Names that can be Named are such worldly things as Wealth, Pomp, Glory, Fame and Rank.

The Ineffable Tao
Emulates the Wordless Infant,
It resembles
The Unhatched Egg,
The Bright Pearl within the Oyster,
The Beauteous Jade amongst Pebbles.
It cannot be Named.

The Taoist glows with Inner Light, but seems outwardly dull and foolish. The Tao itself has no Form, it can never be Named.

The Root of the Tao
Proceeds from Void,
From Non-Being,
It is the Origin,
The Source of Heaven and Earth,
Mother of the Myriad Things,
Nurturing All-under-Heaven,
As a Mother Nurtures her Children.



The single word Tao is the very Core of this entire Classic, its lifeblood. Its Five Thousand Words speak of this Tao and of nothing else.

The Tao itself
Can never be
We can but witness it
Its Origin,
Mother of the Myriad Things.
The Tao itself can never be
It cannot be Told.

And yet we resort to Words, such as Origin, Mother, and Source.

Every Marvel
Every Radiance
Issues from this One Source.
They go by different Names,
But are part of the same
Greater Mystery,
The One Tao, the Origin, the Mother.
In freedom from Desire,
We look within
And Contemplate
The Inner Marvel,
Not with eyes
But inwardly
By the Light of Spirit.
We look outward
With the eyes of Desire,
And Observe
The Outer Radiance.

Desire itself, in its first Inklings, in embryonic Springs of Thought, is born within the Heart-and-Mind. Outer Radiance is perceived through Desire, in the World, in the opening and closing of the Doors of Yin and the Yang. This is the Named, the Visible, these are the Myriad Things. Thus, both with and without Desire, we draw near to the Mystery of Mysteries, to the Gateway that leads to all Marvels, to the Tao.


John Minford:

The Tao and the Power says to its reader at the very outset, “Only through experience, only through living Life to the full, in both the Inner and Outer Worlds, can the True Nature of the Tao be Understood and communicated. Not through Words.” Desire and the Life of the Senses are part of that experience. Through Desire we witness and enjoy the Beauty of the World, we Observe the Outer Radiance of the Tao. We live Life, we bask in its Radiance. Taoists do not deny the Senses. But Contemplation, the Light of Deep Calm, of meditative experience, goes further. It reveals the Inner Marvel, the Mystery of Mysteries. Outer Radiance and Inner Marvel issue from one and the same Source, which is the Tao. This twofold path is one of the central themes in Magister Liu’s commentary, one to which he returns again and again, exhorting the Taoist Aspirant to begin from Observation of the Outer Radiance, and to proceed through Contemplation of the Inner Marvel to a deeper level of Self-Cultivation, to a deeper Attainment of the Tao. ‘It is Contemplation that gives spiritual significance to objects of sense.’

The Book of Taoist Master Zhuang:

The Great Tao cannot be Told. The Great Discussion lies beyond Words… Where can I find someone who Understands this Discussion beyond Words, who Understands the Tao that can never be Told? This True Understanding of the Tao is a Reservoir of Heaven-and-Nature. Pour into it and it is never full. Pour from it and it is never exhausted. It is impossible to know whence it comes. It is Inner Light.

Arthur Waley: Not only are Books the mere discarded husk or shell of wisdom, but Words themselves, expressing as they do only such things as belong to the normal state of consciousness, are irrelevant to the deeper experience of the Tao, the ‘wordless doctrine’.

Jan Duyvendak: The ordinary, mundane Tao (the one that can be easily Told, or talked about) is unchanging, static and permanent. The True Tao is Elusive and Ineffable, is in its very Essence Perpetual Change. In the Tao, nothing whatsoever is fixed and unchanging. This is the first great paradox of this Classic, the ever-shifting Cycle of Change, of Being and Non-Being, in which Life and Death constantly yield to and alternate with each other.

Richard Wilhelm: In the Taoist Heart-and-Mind, Psyche and Cosmos are related to each other like the Inner and Outer Worlds.

JM: A Tao that could be Told might be any one of the Prescriptions for Living and Ruling that were being proposed in the ferment of the Chinese Warring States period (475-221 BC). All of them would have been called a Tao, a Way, a Recipe for Life. One such Tao, for example, was contained in the little book from that period known as The Art of War (Sunzi bingfa), whose ‘author’ Sun Tzu (Sunzi) is every bit as lost in the mists of legend as Lao-tzu (Laozi). The Deep Tao, the True Way, and the inexhaustible Inner Power or Strength that flows from the experience of the Tao, are the subjects of this whole Five Thousand Word text. But they are beyond Telling. Words and Names are nothing more than disjointed bits and pieces, they fragment the whole, the One Tao. The paradoxical Mystery of Mysteries is that the Taoist fuses Being on the one hand (the Radiance, the Magnificence and Beauty of the Outer World, as perceived through the Senses, through Desire), and Non-Being on the other (the Dark Intangible Marvel and Mystery of the Inner World). This fusion, this Gateway to Marvels, does not lend itself to any simplistic Name or Label. Names were the pre-occupation of more worldly schools of thought, especially the Confucians, for whom Names needed to correspond precisely to Things. As with so much of this short and densely ambiguous Classic, the Chinese word used here for Name, ming, has more than one meaning. It also means Fame, Renown or Reputation (it is after all by being Famous that one acquires a Name for oneself). Taoists care nothing for Fame. They hide their Light. They are incognito. And yet, despite these protestations about the vanity of Words and Names, and the powerlessness of Words to describe the True Nature of the Tao, despite the futility of even attempting to define or dissect the Tao, paradoxically, The Tao and the Power itself is written in an intensely poetic language (sometimes mesmerizingly and bafflingly so), which edges imperceptibly towards the Wordless Truth, it is an inaudible Song with neither Words nor Music, it sings the Silence that is the Tao. The Tao needs to be experienced, not talked about. This Classic and its countless Commentaries do talk, they propose all manner of Images (see the Taoist Florilegium below). But these are merely pointers towards the Tao, toward the gnosis of Taoist experience, parts of a hermetic vocabulary for initiates. In that sense these Names are No-Names.

Arthur Waley, whose translation from the 1930s remains one of the best, gives us a pithy summary of this first Chapter and of the whole book. ‘In dispassionate Vision the Taoist sees a world consisting of the things for which language has no Name. We can call it the Sameness or the Mystery. These Names are however merely stop-gaps. For what we are trying to express is Darker than any Mystery.’


The Tang-dynasty poet Bo Juyi (772-846) jested: 

Those who speak
Know nothing;
Those who Know
Are silent.
Those Words, I’m told,
Were uttered
By Lao-tzu.
If we’re to believe
That he himself
Was someone who Knew,
Why did he end up
Writing a Book
Of Five Thousand Words?

A Taoist Florilegium

Gleanings of the Tao

Taoist Self-Cultivation:
Adept with Inner Infant

To help readers new to the Taoist way of thinking, and to illustrate certain of the book’s key Images and Themes, I have selected a few flowers and woven them together, from both the original text and the commentaries.




The word Tao was translated by the Jesuit Father Régis as Vis Operativa et Operandi, Via, Ratio, Lex. The Tao is ‘the unnameable in union with which we are spontaneously on course’. The Great Tao is complete. With Good Faith and Kindness, one sees the Myriad Things as one great entity; one sees Self and Other as one great Family. It is like the Wind blowing… Everything dances before it. Ignorance of the Great Tao is a darkened, deserted house, it is conceit, it is self-satisfaction, vain embellishment of the façade. This gaudy shrine contains no Buddha. It is ultimately Ineffable and thus cannot be ‘understood’ cognitively. Even though the Tao cannot be known intellectually, because it is fundamental to all Being, it can be experienced and embodied. 

Inner Power 


This is the Inner Strength or mana that flows from the experience of the True Tao. The Greater Knowledge which resembles Folly, the Greater Cleverness which resembles Clumsiness, provide a path to a Higher Heart-and-Mind, to the Inner Power of the Tao. To Cultivate this Power, one must go beyond Attachment and Action, to the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao, which cannot be seen, which cannot be heard, which has no Form, which leaves no Trace. This is the Mystic Power of the Infant. The Power is the Tao, the Tao is the Power. To discard Learning is to Cultivate Inner Power, to be Nourished by the Mother is to follow the Tao. The Power never ceases to be Calm even in Motion, it never ceases to be One with the Tao. Inner Power Radiates and Heals. This Inner Power is the fruit of Self-Cultivation, it is the manifestation of the Tao. It is the personal capacity to carry out the most Harmonious course of Action, or Non-Action. Cultivate Heart-and-Mind, let it be unmoved by sorrow and joy, Know that certain things are inevitable. This is the height Of Spiritual Strength. Inner Strength is the only True Source of Teaching. It makes Connections. It is an uninterrupted current, one and the same Water, passing from one place to another. It reaches everywhere. The True Gentleman practises the Tao, building Inner Power, Inner Strength, taking every step in a measured way. It is like Water flowing easily from one place to another. His every word is well considered. He is at peace, like a Lake on which no wave stirs. When he acts, he never loses touch with his Inner Nature.



Self-Cultivation is Mastery of the Heart-and-Mind. It covers a wide range of Practices. These include paradoxical thinking along the lines of the Taoist Masters, stretching the Heart-and-Mind beyond ‘normal’ confines, psychological practices (various forms of yoga, plain ‘sitting’ and still meditation), sexual or dietetic practices, and basic ethical principles, such as living according to Moderation and in Harmony with Nature.  Self-Cultivation in the broadest sense also includes such activities as calligraphy, painting and literature, in fact all of the arts, when carried out ‘in the Tao’. The Alchemical Work is Achieved through Self-Cultivation. The Embryo of the Tao is formed through the Soft and Gentle Practice of Contemplation. The Taoist stills Desire through the Great Tao, keeps Spirit Whole and safe from Harm. This is to put aside Human Heart-and-Mind, and to Attain the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao. Self-Cultivation Returns first to the Infant, then to the Infinite, finally to the Uncarved Block, the True Elixir itself, in which the Tao is Whole. This is to be One with Emptiness, with Non-Action. Spirit can only be Transformed through Inner Power, not through Action. The Work of Genuine Understanding, the proper Work of Self-Cultivation, requires the peeling away of layer upon layer, until one reaches the Marrow of the Tao, True Knowledge, Clear Perception. Just as Water is drawn from the Well, so too the numinous content deep in the soul is drawn upwards into consciousness through Self-Cultivation.



This is the Inner Power of Primal Radiance, the Gateway of All Marvels. It cannot be seen, it cannot be known, it cannot be Named. If we have to give it a Name, we call it the So-of-Itself, we call it Nature. For the True Seekers of the Tao, who Nurture Life, there is no Terrain of Death.  Inner Power, Mystic Power, in its Non-Being, in its Non-Action, is invisible, is unknowable, it Nourishes them, brings them to Fulfillment, to Completion. They Return to Nature, to the So-of-Itself. Heaven models itself on the Tao, the Clear, the Calm and Silent. The Tao models itself on Nature, the So-of-Itself. The Tao is Nature. It has no other model.

Transformation of Human Heart-and-Mind 


White Light shines in an Empty Room, the Inner Marvel of Illumination is Born of Outer Radiance. All is in the Heart-and-Mind. It is a solitary grain in the Vast Void, Round and Bright, Calm and Naked. The wiles of the Human Heart-and-Mind are thorns and brambles, futile expense of Spirit, a poor harvest. The Taoist Returns Home, to Nature, to the So-of-Itself, and thereby keeps Heart-and-Mind safe from Harm. This is the Transformation of the Tao. Brambles are Transformed into healing herbs, the poor harvest into an Abundance.

Observation and Contemplation 


Magister Liu stresses the importance of the stage of Observation in Self-Cultivation, whereby the Taoist first perceives the working of the Tao in the outer physical world, then proceeds to Inner Contemplation of its Marvels. In freedom from Desire, we look within and Contemplate the Inner Marvel, not with eyes but inwardly by the Light of Spirit. Looking outward, with the eyes of Desire, we Observe the Outer Radiance. Desire itself is born within the Heart-and-Mind, in the first Inklings, in the embryonic Springs of Thought. I am the Tao. The Tao is Me, One with the Ancestor and the Lord, One with the Outer Radiance, with the Inner Marvel, with the Tao, the Jade in the bosom beneath Sack-cloth.



This is Vitality, Life Breath or Vital Breath. Joseph Needham calls it pneuma, or matter-energy. It is a fundamental concept in the whole range of Chinese traditional thinking. It is the basic substance out of which the entire universe is composed. Human beings have some measure of control over the rate at which their original endowment of Breath-Energy (qi) stagnates or is depleted. Balance of Breath-Energy in the mental and emotional spheres can be Achieved by Self-Cultivation. Various techniques designed to retain (and ideally augment) Breath-Energy include both moral and physical arts: moderation in daily habits, adjustment of posture, meditation as ‘inward training’ or Self-Cultivation, habituation to goodness, and a calm acceptance of fate. Breath-Energy is a force that expands and animates the world in a turning motion, in the revolutions by which it spreads and distributes itself into every corner of Space and Time. 



This translation (rather than either heart or mind) reflects the blending of belief and desire (thought and feeling, ideas and emotions) in the Chinese word xin. This English word is singular (The Heart-and-Mind is …), and has nothing whatsoever to do with winning over ‘Hearts and Minds’. The Human Heart-and-Mind must be restrained by the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao. Expel Cleverness, Treasure the Light within. A man’s True Yin and Yang become Dispersed when he clings to the Human Heart-and-Mind, and abandons the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao. Every step down this path leads further towards Danger. Embrace the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao, let go of the Human Heart-and-Mind, take hold of the Jewel of Life in the Tiger’s Lair, the Bright Pearl in the Dragon’s Pool (enlightenment in the mundane world).



This is not idly ‘doing nothing’, the lazy attitude of a fainéant, but the relaxed, effortless attitude of the Taoist, who seems to ‘do’ nothing, but actually does a great deal, because he is naturally in Harmony with the Tao. Things just Happen. The folk Return to Calm, to Simplicity and Purity. They find Peace in Non-Action, in the Rhythms of Nature. With True Knowledge, Action is Eschewed, and all is Accomplished through Non-Action, through the Pure Breath-Energy of the Tao. The Taoist Accomplishes through Non-Action, through the So-of-Itself, the Way of Nature. The Taoist is Busy about No-Business, tastes No-Taste with the dispassionate appreciation of the connoisseur, with Clarity and Calm. The Master is Calm, his is the magical passivity that is also called Non-Action. The Tao is Non-Action. With it the Myriad Things are Transformed and effortlessly become Whole, according to the So-of-Itself. This is the True Benefit of Non-Action, the Soft and Gentle Tao. This Wordless Teaching is learned from Self-Cultivation in Non-Action.



Not-Contending is Non-Action. Through Not-Contending Water Benefits the Myriad Things. Therein lies its Excellence. Every Excellence (in dwelling, in Heart-and-Mind, in friendship, in words) resembles that of Water, which does not Contend. This is the Excellence of the Inner Power of the Tao, which resembles that of Water.



The Taoist has this Powerful and True Knowledge of the Tao. Highest Knowledge is to Attain Meaning and to forget Words, is to Know No-Knowledge, to seem to Know Nothing.

Non-Being, Emptiness 


With the Return to the Primal, to the Root, to where Non-Being and Being are once again One, the World’s Hurly-Burly grows quiet. Being and Substance bring Benefit; Non-Being and Emptiness make things Useful. This is the opposite of Being, it is the formless undifferentiated Void or Chaos out of which Being comes. It is in going ‘back’ to that Non-Being, in the Return to that Root, that the Taoist seeks his Life-Destiny.



This is the Prime Symbol of the Tao. Water is close to the Tao. It resembles the Woman who lies Beneath the Man. Dammed it comes to a Halt, released it Flows. It follows and obeys. This is its Nature. None can find fault with Water. Whosoever sees by the Light of the Primal Mother, Understands this Truth, Knows that Water is the Exemplar of the Tao. The Heart-and-Mind finds Excellence in Calm and in Freedom from Desire, in Depth, just as Water finds Calm in a still, unruffled pond. Just as Water brings moisture to every place, so too the Taoist sees all as equals, close friends and distant persons alike, brings Peace to the elderly, Cherishes the young. Water wends its way gently round every obstacle, avoids height, sinks to depths, bends with curves, fills and pours, fits into Square and Circle, into Small and Great, into springs and rivers, smooths the Surface of things, accepts all manner of filth, contains gold, extinguishes fire, brings Life to plants and trees, softens and moistens the soil, brings Benefit to the Myriad Things, never Contending, always lower, always beneath All-under-Heaven, Supremely Soft and Gentle.

Mother, Woman, the Mysterious Feminine 


The Son Returns to the Mother, Cleaves to her. The Son knows the Man, but Cleaves to the Woman. The Son is Nourished by the Mother, builds strength from softest shoots, from tiniest details. Woman Prevails through lying Beneath, through Calm, Prevails through Softness, over the Hard, over Man,. When Man unites with Woman, Hard submits to Soft, Hard is contained within Soft. The Primal Mother’s voice can be heard in every word. The Taoist like Woman, is Quiet and Still, is Soft and Tender.

Flood, Ocean 


The Flood of the Tao is like water blown by the wind, like waves rippling to left and right, coming forth and disappearing in unfathomable ways. I drift and glide, like the boundless floods of River and Ocean, seeking repose in the Realm of Spirit. My Heart-and-Mind Drifts in the Tao, my only Home. Others busily Contend, wasting Spirit. Others sparkle and are bright, I am dull and listless, like the boundless Ocean.

Valley Spirit 


Consider two mountain peaks facing each other, and the Valley between. A voice calls out, an echo replies, a Sound from Nothingness, a Something without Form, neither a Nothing nor a Something, a concentration of Pure Breath-Energy. This is the Valley Spirit.

Ravine, Abyss 


The Tao is fathomless and unknowable, like Water deep in an Abyss. Be Humble and Lowly, like a Deep Ravine, and the Power will be Constant. All-under-Heaven Comes Home to the One, like Water pouring into a Deep Ravine. Know Man, Cleave to Woman. Be a Ravine for All-under-Heaven, with Constant Power that never fades. Be Humble and Lowly, like a Deep Ravine, and the Power will be Constant. All-under-Heaven Comes Home to the One, like Water pouring into a Deep Ravine.

Dust, In the World 


Dust is a common metaphor for the noise and fuss of the World, of everyday life. Taoism in its true sense calls for identification with, not an escape from, the World (‘merging with the Dust’), all the while keeping the Light of the Tao Dark, not letting it shine. Be One with the Dust of the World, blend with it, do not stay aloof. This is the Mystic Union of Heaven-and-Nature, to be One with the Tao. The Taoist often conceals his Treasure, and lives hidden in the crowd. But once met, he kindles Light in others. Dwell in the world, do not deny it, Merge with the Dust, Resonate with outer things, be still and not entangled, in the Dust, but not of the Dust, in the World, but not of the World. The True Gentleman, who practises the Tao, gathers his Vital Spirit, vast as the Heavens. He learns to live in the World without injuring Spirit. He dwells in the Dust but is able to rise above the Dust.



Like Air from a Bellows, Infinite Breath-Energy issues from the Emptiness of the Tao.  The Bellows works through the Tao of Non-Action between Heaven and Earth, through the Wordless Tao, through Emptiness. Utter No Words, Hold Fast to the Centre. This is the Bellows, the Tao of Heaven and Earth.

Bent Bow 


Dark is the Tao of Heaven-and-Nature, it is a Bent Bow well adjusted, Generous Harmony and Moderation. This is the Tao of the Bent Bow, of Heaven-and-Nature, the Return to the Primal Root, to the Inchoate Mist, the Mystery of Light Concealed.



Abundant Inner Power resembles an Infant, whom poisonous insects do not sting, whom fierce beasts do not seize, whom birds of prey do not attack. The Infant’s bones and sinews are Soft, but its grasp is Sure. The Infant knows nothing of the joining of Woman and Man, and yet its member can stand erect. Its Essence is Perfect. All day the Infant may cry, but is never hoarse. Its Harmony is Perfect. The Heart-and-Mind of the Tao, of the Infant, is One. It has no Two, no Division, no False Knowledge, only the Primordial Power of the Ancients. With the Greater Knowledge which resembles Folly, with the Greater Cleverness which resembles Clumsiness, this Power of the Infant is the path to a Higher Heart-and-Mind, to the Inner Power of the Tao.



The Mystic Power of the Taoist is deep and distant, it cannot be sought out by Taught Illumination, it cannot be Attained by so-called Wisdom. It is reached through sheer Folly, Returning with things to their Source, to the Tao, following Gently in the Grand Flow. The Taoists of Old did not seek Illumination by way of False Knowledge and Cunning, but instead sought the Transformation that comes of Folly. This brought Clarity and Calm to their thinking. The Taoist deals quietly with All-under-Heaven, with the Heart-and-Mind of a Fool.

Root, Source, Origin 


The Root of the Tao proceeds from Void, from Non-Being, it is the Origin, the Source of Heaven and Earth, Mother of the Myriad Things, Nurturing All-under-Heaven, as a Mother Nurtures her Children. The Myriad Modes of Being share a Single Root, like the many Streams and Valleys which Return Home to the Great River and the Ocean, like the thousands of Threads, the Myriad Strands, which are One Tao, One Uncarved Block.

Embracing the One 

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Wholeness is Achieved by Attaining the One. Without the One, Things Fail. The One is the True Breath-Energy contained within the Supreme Ultimate, it is the Mother of the Myriad Things, it is itself without Form but sets Form in Motion. The One enables everything to be what it is – Heaven, Earth, Spirit, the Valley. Without the One, Kings lose Authority, they Tumble, however high their Rank. The One is Root and Foundation of all.

Uncarved Block 


Symbol of the “primal undifferentiated unity underlying the apparent complexity of the universe”. To Return Home to the Uncarved Block, to the Inchoate Fog, to the Infant, is to put aside the Human Heart-and-Mind, and to Attain the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao. The Uncarved Block Transforms Heart-and-Mind. Be Simple, like a Block of Uncarved Wood; be Broad as a Valley, Murky as Mud. The Taoists were like Mud that settles and becomes clear. They Attained Calm but were lively in Gentle Motion.

Simple Undyed Silk, Knotted Cords 


Like the Uncarved Block, Simple Silk is a symbol of the “attributeless” nature of the Tao, a Return “from the dead letter of moral precepts” to a Taoist state of Simplicity without Culture or Artifice. It resembles the Simplicity of the Three Most August Ones of Ancient Days, who communicated with Knotted Cords and dispensed with writing altogether. 

Binding Strand 


With the Binding Strand of the Tao, among its Countless Transformations, Being Returns to Non-Being, in the Free Flow of Nature, Returns to the One with No Substance which dwells in its midst, to the Ancient Beginning that Binds.

Heaven’s Net 


Heaven’s Net is the Tao. Heaven-and-Nature is silent, it does not Meddle. Its Net is Non-Action.

Lineage of the Light 

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There is a Higher Knowledge, deep within the sense of being lost, a Knowledge that is No-Knowledge. Its Transmission is the Lineage of Light, which stems directly from Nature, from the So-of-Itself. This is a Great Mystery. The Lineage of Light is transmitted from Teacher to Disciple. If the Disciple does not esteem his Teacher, if the Teacher does not care to Teach, then one receives no Transmission of the Lineage and one loses one’s way, however hugely knowledgeable and clever and wise one may think oneself to be. To Understand this is to Understand a Great Mystery of the Tao.

Small Fish, Not-Meddling 


So the True Taoist says: I change nothing, and the folk are Transformed and Perfected. I do not Meddle, and they prosper Of-themselves. It is One, not Two, it is Dark, it does not shine. The Large is Hard and Forceful, the Small is Soft and Gentle. To Rule a Large Nation in the manner of cooking a small fish is to use the Soft and Gentle to pacify the Hard and Forceful. Do not handle a small fish too much, in case it disintegrates. If the Rulers of a Nation Meddle, the folk will be distressed. 



This is the Self-Perfection that Heaven has given a person, to accomplish which is the consummation of all Taoist practice. It can also be translated as Life-Store, the Font of Vitality, the store of Vital Forces of a human being that are wasted in such things as Sex, Violent Emotion, and Desire, all of which cause the vital fluids (sexual fluids, sweat, saliva, moist breath) to drain away. When this Life-Store is exhausted, the result is Death.

Myriad Things 


Everything that exists, all objects or external phenomena. 



Literally, the World “Beneath Heaven”, all things and peoples, the entire world known to the Chinese.




Literally Heaven, but in a broader sense Nature, the course which things follow or should follow – the recurrence of the Seasons, the cycles of the Heavenly Bodies, the Tao of Heaven-and-Nature. Everything which man cannot alter – his Nature, his Destiny – is due to the Decree of Heaven.

Life and Death 


Taoists understand the Cycle of Life and Death in the light of the So-of-Itself, of the Tao of Heaven-and-Nature. When the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao holds sway, then Life and Death are seen for what they are, the Cycle of Nature, the So-of-itself.

Usefulness of the Useless, Utility of Futility 


The Taoist knows the Use of the Useless, the Utility of Futility, brings Spirit close to Life-Destiny, finds the Way Home, Truly Whole. This is to Embrace the One, to be Woman not Man, to Resonate with All-under-Heaven, to have an Inner Power that is Whole. 

Clarity and Calm, Mirror 


The Taoist’s Heart-and-Mind is a Bright Mirror. It reflects but does not absorb. It is Still Water. It is Tranquil, Calm without a ripple. To Attain Clarity and Calm, to Purify the Human Heart-and-Mind, is to be truly Alive, it is to Witness the Quickening of the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao, the Return of the Real. The Taoist’s Heart-and-Mind is the Tao, the Tao is the Taoist’s Heart-and-Mind, Still as Water, Bright and Clear as Radiant Sky and Lustrous Moon, Outer Radiance containing Inner Marvel. 

Dark Light, Inner Light


True Taoists care nothing for Fame. They hide their Light. They are incognito. To Know Self, to wear sack-cloth but to have jade in one’s bosom, is to have True Knowledge within. To follow the True Light of the Tao is to search in the Dark.

Resonance, Connection 


When things or people Resonate, they also Connect. They are in tune with the Cosmos, with Change, they are in Harmony with the Tao.

Silent Music of the Tao 


The inaudible Song with neither Words nor Music that is the Tao. Its Completion is slow. This is the Great Music of the Tao, too Faint to be heard. The Tao itself is Silence. To Attain the Tao is to dwell in Non-Action, to live in No-Business, to enter the Realm of Silence, which is the finest Music of all.

Soft and Gentle 


When men are born, they are Soft and Gentle, alive with Numinous Breath-Energy, Embracing Spirit within. The Taoist is Soft and Gentle as Water, is Beneath not Above, absorbs filth, accepts Misfortune and Calamity. Unexpected hardship, which Others find overwhelming, is overcome by the Taoist through the Soft and Gentle. This is the paradox, the Truth, that Soft and Gentle Prevail over Hard and Strong. The Practice of the Tao is Soft and Gentle, it leads to Endurance and Long Life.

Return, Turning 


The Tao moves like this, in Cycles. It Turns, it moves round, backwards, in reverse motion. It Returns, to the Primal State of Simplicity, to the Root. It revolves, according to the constant Transformations of Change. The Taoist Turns away from the world, Returns to Self, to basic Nature. This is to Return Home, to the Uncarved Block, to the Inchoate Fog, to the Infant. This is to put aside the Human Heart-and-Mind, to Attain the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao.

Retreat, Retirement, Seclusion 


Through Retreat, by being ‘aloof’, by withdrawing into Inner Contemplation, the True Gentleman engages in Self-Cultivation and Achieves Inner Power. Small Men cannot come near him or cause him Harm. The Tao seeks no recompense. The Taoist, having Achieved, Retires to Seclusion and never dwells on Achievement. To withdraw into Retirement in the wake of Accomplishment and Success, to Let Go, averts Calamity. The Taoist follows the Cycle of the Tao, of Heaven-and-Nature, according to which the sun declines from its zenith, the moon waxes only to wane, flowers bloom only to fade, the greatest joy turns to sorrow.