The Tao Te Ching, a book of both mystical ruminations and practical guidance, is one of Eastern philosophy’s central texts. It was authored in the sixth century BCE by the archivist and philosopher Lao Tzu, whose name is an honorific meaning “Old Master.”
Legend has it that as the Zhou dynasty began to decline, Lao Tzu chose to migrate from China to live in peace and solitude away from the discord of China’s ongoing wars. As he was crossing the border, a guard stopped him and asked him to write down his philosophy. Lao Tzu then penned the Tao’s 81 verses, handed them to the guard, and passed on in silence, never to be seen or heard from again.
Unsurprisingly, the factuality of this origin story — yea, of Lao Tzu himself — is contested. But the Tao’s by whoms are not nearly as important as its whats.
The Tao Te Ching, or, “The Book of the Way and its Virtue,” begins with a paradox:
“The Tao which can be expressed in words is not the eternal Tao.”
Given this opener, one may find themself wondering what the rest of the text could be about! The truth is that the written Tao is an approximation of the eternal Tao — the former’s passages, no matter how expertly crafted, only incompletely represent the Way. This is because to put into words is to limit, whereas the Tao is limitless.
But while our finite language cannot fully capture the Tao’s infinite nature, it can be used to identify some of its qualities.
The first among these, eternality, connotes that without a beginning or end. This ungenerated, indestructible substance is the singular source of all diversity, from “heaven and earth” to the “ten thousand things.”
The Tao is also a unifier, reconciling contrary pairs — darkness/light, beauty/ugliness, good/evil — as parts within its overarching whole. The following excerpt speaks to this principle of united opposites:
“Therefore, being and nothing give birth to one another.
Difficult and easy complete one another.
Long and short fashion one another.
High and low arise from one another.
Notes and tones harmonise with one another.
Front and back follow one another.”
While we typically think of opposites as having nothing to do with each other, the Tao points out that they are in fact only possible because of each other. Without an opposite to contrast itself to, no concept could distinguish itself. Ask yourself: if the concept of, say, difficulty did not exist, how could anything be identified as easy?
Additionally, the Tao contextualizes opposites in the process to which they belong. For instance, being and nothing are both moments in the process of becoming: things pass from being to nothing and vice versa. This is what the Tao means when it says opposites “give birth to one another.” By introducing a broader context, the Tao harmonizes so-called opposites and thus unifies all difference.
It is crucial to note that the Tao operates both effortlessly and impartially. It does not act from a place of forcing or judging; rather, it flows naturally, like a stream. This is known as the principle of “wu wei,” or non action. It is at this junction that the Tao Te Ching passes from metaphysics to ethics: to live in accordance with the Tao, one must embody wu wei.
One example of wu wei cited early on is the surrender of self-interest. The Tao views our myriad desires (for wealth, power, status, etc.) as sediments that pollute the mind and muddy the waters of our perception. By dispensing with desire, the mind’s sediments settle to the floor so we can see more clearly. This clarity begets virtues such as kindness, humility, patience, and generosity.
Another practice related to wu wei is the acceptance of misfortune. The Tao realizes that an unavoidable part of having a body and a mind is experiencing hardships such as pain, embarrassment, disappointment, and loss. One should not be surprised when these hardships occur and should strive to navigate them with equanimity. In doing so, one becomes more emotionally resilient in dealing with the inherent ups and downs of life.
Lastly, there is “yielding to overcome.” The Tao holds that imposing one’s will only leads to conflict, as anger begets anger. Instead, the Tao reminds us of a basic lesson: “by not quarrelling, no one quarrels with you.” This practice of non-contending but instead cooperating is said to create more harmonious relations and by extension a more prosperous society.
These are the practices that exemplify the Tao. Lacking personal desire, the Tao simply is and does, never striving nor coveting; simply unfolding in nature. Lacking attachment, the Tao is never upset by the currents of fate, but rather flows with them like the ocean’s waves. And lacking pride, the Tao never picks a fight with anyone or anything and thus avoids all conflict.
The Tao Te Ching regards these behaviors as the behavior of the universe and recognizes that by syncing ourselves to its Way, we may improve our relationships with both one another and ourselves.