Traditionally dated to the 6th Century BCE and attributed to the Sage Lao Tzu (Laozi), the Tao Te Ching (Classic of the Way and its Power) is a pivotal text for all Taoists. It integrates a mystical path of naturalness and unconstrained non-volitional action with the political philosophy of a minimal state. The text endorses a spiritualised vision of immortality, which is seen as arising from a non-acquisitive, natural and harmonious life. Chinese mystics, philosophers and poets have been inspired by its teachings.
It also inspired many commentarial and interpretative works as well as artistic products. It provides the underlying theory behind T’ai chi ch’uan. In Religious Taoism, the text was given a more ritualised interpretation, with immortality conceived in more literal terms.
Selected extracts from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:
Yield and you will become whole,
Bend and you will become straight,
Be hollow and you will become full,
Be worn and you will become new,
Have little and you will get more,
Have much and you will be perplexed.
Therefore the sage embraces the one, and is an example to all under Heaven.
He does not show himself, and so is clearly apparent.
He does not define himself and so is distinct.
He does not boast, and so has merit.
He is not proud of his attainments, and so they endure.
It is because he does not contend that no-one under heaven can contend with him. Hence the ancient saying, “Yield and you will become whole” is not empty words,
True wholeness is achieved by returning. (ch 22)
That which you wish to shrink
Must first be stretched.
That which is to be weakened
Must first be made strong.
What is to be overthrown
Must first be set up.
If you wish to take you must first give.
This is called the subtle light.
Thus the soft overcomes the hard.
It is better to leave the fish in the depths;
It is better to leave the State’s sharpest weapons where none can see them. (ch 36)
The softest thing in the world can overcome the hardest,
That without substance can enter where there is no space.
I know the value of action through no action.
That there can be teaching without words
And action through no action,
Few indeed understand. (ch 43)
When people are born they are supple and soft;
When they die, they are hard and rigid.
In life the ten thousand creatures, plants and trees are supple and pliant;
In death they are brittle and dry.
So it is said that the hard and rigid are the companions of death, while the supple and soft are the companions of life.
So if a fighter is rigid, he will not win,
If a tree is rigid it will come to an end.
The rigid and powerful are inferior,
The supple and soft are superior. (ch 76)