Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained - by Lao Tzu

"The Tao is about returning to simplicity, not pursuing knowledge. The only way to gain living wisdom from dead books is by applying their words to life."

The original conception of Tao was simply the observation that reality has a certain way about it. This "way" encompasses all of existence: life, the universe, and everything. A Christian may call it God's will; an atheist may call it the laws of nature. These are labels pointing to the same thing, and Tao is simply the most generalized label imaginable, applicable to both perspectives.

The ultimate purpose of the Tao Te Ching is to provide us with wisdom and insights that we can apply to life. If we cannot do that, then it doesn't matter how well we understand the passages. The true Tao must be lived.

The truth is that the Tao isn't just about freedom and personal liberty; it is also about discipline and diligence.

Not only is the Tao beyond the power of spoken words to describe, but it is also beyond the power of written words to define. That which can be defined is limited by the definition, and the Tao transcends all limitations.

Self-serving desires tend to limit us to a superficial level. If we think of other people and not just focus on ourselves, we will find it much easier to connect with the underlying reality. This applies to every aspect of life. It is one of the most powerful teachings of the Tao.

Each half of a duality cannot exist without the other. A descriptive concept creates its own opposite. This relative concept applies to everything, even good and evil.

The emptiness of the Tao is not a vacuous state of nothingness, because its infinite depths conceal the seeds of Creation. There appears to be nothing in the Tao, and yet it contains everything. It is the "pregnant void," a field of unlimited potentialities. One way to describe the Tao is to compare it with an empty container with infinite capacity. This container cannot be filled up, and the water that flows out of it can never be used up. It continues to function indefinitely.

The Tao does not play favorites. The rain waters weeds and orchids equally; the sun shines on everyone with the same brightness and warmth despite variations in individual merits. The sage, in emulating the Tao, also regards everyone in the same egalitarian light--none higher and none lower.


Heaven and Earth perform their functions without selfish desires. When we emulate this aspect of nature, we think of others first and ourselves last. By letting go of self-centered thoughts, we can feel the way our inner nature mirrors the greater Tao. When we let this natural mirroring process take place without interference, we become like Heaven and Earth--existing to be of service to others.

A genuine, selfless desire to be helpful inspires people and wins their respect. Although sages have no wish to draw attention, people single them out and look to them for leadership. Although the sages place themselves last out of humility, the people push them to the forefront, into positions of responsibility.

Make it a point to put this teaching into practice, and see what happens. Spend an entire day living this selfless mindset. You'll discover the world responding to you in wonderful and even miraculous ways.


Water is the most fitting metaphor for the Tao. Water always flows to the lowest place, not because it is forced to do so, but because it follows its own nature. We also place ourselves lower, not because we contrive to do so, but because it is our nature to be humble.

Water provides its benefits and moves on, without waiting for any benefits in return. We benefit others in the same way. When we provide assistance, we do so with no strings attached.

Water is versatile. It conforms to the shape of any container. Following this, we also cultivate flexibility and adaptability. Because the world is continually changing, we make constant adjustments to handle new challenges.

Moderation and restraint are crucial to life. In general, doing anything to excess is a bad idea. The smarter way is to do just enough and nothing extra. When in doubt, stop just short of the point that you think is the optimum.

Sages emulate the Mystic Virtue in their interactions with other people. They nurture, encourage, teach, and mentor those around them without the need to possess, gloat, or dominate.

An inflated sense of self-importance causes us to become attached to the praise and approval of our peers. It also causes us to fear disapproval and rejection. This is why Lao Tzu sees it as the leading source of adversity and trouble--the greatest misfortune.

Note that Lao Tzu does not advocate that we should be completely without ego, or that we should eliminate it. We need at least a moderate sense of self to function in society. Therefore, it's perfectly fine to value and love the ego--as long as we don't focus so much on ourselves that we neglect the world. As Tao cultivators, we love and value the world. Our caution against the sensory stimuli of the material world does not make us distant or uncaring. We can be joyously involved with the world and yet totally unaffected by its temptations and distractions.

Tao cultivators accept reality as it is, rather than as they wish it to be. The troubles we encounter in life and the pain associated with them are caused by the disparity between our expectations and the way things are. The more stubbornly we refuse to accept, the more we suffer.

End sagacity; abandon knowledge

The concept is clear: we should put a stop to the obsession with book knowledge and focus on the wisdom of living outside of books. It is the ancient Chinese way of telling a bookworm to "get a life." The blind pursuit of learning leads to excessive desires--the more you see, the more you want. Excessive desires, in turn, lead to anxiety and misery.

Lao Tzu went about life with a healthy dose of caution. If people considered something to be bad, there was probably a reason for it, so he would proceed with care, even though he understood the relative nature of value judgments.

The Chinese have a saying: "Take one step back. The ocean is wide; the sky is empty." What it teaches us is that when we yield in a potentially tense situation, we will suddenly feel a sense of wide open space--and wide open heart. Some may see yielding as a sign of weakness. Tao cultivators see it as a manifestation of courage and character, amply rewarded by wide open vistas.

Yielding in the Taoist sense does not mean suppressing the desire to fight. Instead, it means we relinquish the need to be defensive. Our views do not gain validity when we defend them, nor do they lose validity when we choose not to defend them. Therefore, being defensive amounts to nothing more than a tremendous waste of energy. Yielding lets us save this energy to be directed to something more constructive.

Tao cultivators value quality over quantity, and prefer fewer words with more meaning over many words with little meaning. Wind and rain (the words of nature) never last for too long. Therefore, measuring our words and saying more with less is an excellent way to emulate nature. We should express ourselves in a concise manner and return to quietude once we have conveyed our meaning. We should also beware of people who claim to study the Tao and yet speak at great length in platitudes--they have no true understanding of this chapter.

These lines are a way to describe the law of cause and effect. The function of the Tao is indifferent and will let us reap what we sow. Whether it is the Tao, virtue, or loss, we become what we think about. This means that we have the mandate to determine and direct our own thinking. Rather than allowing the mind to wander off in random directions, Tao cultivators impose discipline on themselves. Using fewer words is only the first stage in this discipline. It is followed by quiet introspection, where we consider our purpose in life and the best way to serve that purpose. Once we solidify our thoughts on this matter, our path (Tao) through life will become clear.

Those who are on tiptoes cannot stand 1 Those who straddle cannot walk 2

1 To stand on tiptoes is to raise oneself above others. This is an effective metaphor for arrogance, because we know from everyday experience that it is not possible to stand that way for long. Similarly, an arrogant person's façade of superiority cannot last. 2 To straddle is to strike an exaggerated pose. This represents pomposity--a pretentious display of the ego. Just as we cannot walk while straddling, so too can we not make any progress in life when we are too busy projecting a boastful sense of self-importance.

Skilled travelers in the journey of life follow the path of nature. They do not force their way through obstacles or trample over fellow travelers. They leave no signs of their passing. If we are similarly skillful in personal interactions, we would also follow the path of nature and not use words to find fault in others. To do so would be to leave unskillful skid marks all over the emotional landscape.

Sages do not give up on anyone. Everyone plays a role, and everyone has an impact. Good individuals can serve as teachers and examples for us. Not-so-good individuals are just as useful, because we can observe the consequences of their negative actions and learn what not to do.

Most of us do not value everyone equally. We develop likes and dislikes, preferences and aversions. We shower some with attention while ignoring others. We favor certain individuals while finding others barely tolerable. Most of us pay lip service to the concept of universal love, but few of us actually practice it. Lao Tzu would definitely see us as "greatly confused."

Know the masculine, hold to the feminine

Know the advantages of being forward and active, but keep to the principle of quietude and tranquility. We need both yin and yang to be truly complete.

To be boundless means being able to move and act without being bound by limitations. Because we do not seek the limelight, we remain unknown while doing our work. Our anonymity lets us go where we are needed and do what needs to be done. This would not be the case if we drew attention to ourselves. One consequence of fame is the severe restriction in one's ability to go anywhere or do anything.

Let us emulate the natural balance of the Tao. Like the sages, we, too, can live in accordance with the principle of moderation. This chapter gives us three simple ways to behave: reduce extremes, avoid excess, and let go of arrogance.

When we hold on to the Tao, everything seems to fall into place. Plans progress smoothly, people come to our aid, and things somehow work out in our favor more often than not. It is as if Heaven and Earth are actively helping us by granting us extra luck--thus

Lao Tzu often uses water as a metaphor for the Tao. When water encounters an obstacle such as a rock, it does not attempt to destroy the obstacle. It simply flows around, over, or under it. We can learn from this and apply it to life. When we encounter an obstacle, we may feel the urge to smash it, but the effort required to do that is not the best use of our energy. Instead, we should emulate water and simply find a way past it. There is always a way, as water demonstrates over and over again.

Just like water, we nurture other people without needing to take credit or exert influence over them. Water gives because that is its nature. Likewise, we give because it is natural for us. We attach no conditions, want nothing in return, and require no praise.

In order to receive, first we must give. For instance, if we wish to be treated kindly, we must start by giving others loving-kindness. If we wish to make friends, we must start by being friendly. If we wish to be respected, we must start by respecting others. This works because the Tao process is circular; the principle underlying all interactions is one of dynamic, universal energy exchange.

The Tao is both eternally devoid of action and the ultimate cause of all actions. It makes no attempt to achieve, and yet nothing is beyond its powers to achieve. It doesn't try to do anything; it simply does everything. Therefore, the Tao is the eternal, unchanging principle of effortless achievement. Within its workings there is no strife or struggle.

Those who have real virtue are not intentionally so; their actions are natural and unforced. Those who possess low virtue are not naturally virtuous, so they constantly have to remind themselves to act virtuously. Oftentimes, their actions advance specific personal agendas, such as improving their public image, assuaging guilty feelings, and so on.

Those who have etiquette without the Tao act with contrived politeness and propriety. They fall back on protocol and rules to mask their true intentions, and if they fail to elicit from others the response they are looking for, they will use their arms--physical means--to force their views upon others in an aggressive manner.

This is an admonition for us to focus on the inner essence instead of the veneer of superficiality. Instead of fussing over etiquette and knowledge, we should reach for benevolence, virtue … and finally the Tao.

Living things are always soft and yielding; while dead things are stiff and unyielding. This applies to the mind as well. An awareness that is in tune with the Tao is adaptable to new ways of thinking. In contrast, a mind that stubbornly clings to preconceptions and automatically rejects anything different is, in a real sense, already dead.

Higher people hear of the Tao They diligently practice it Average people hear of the Tao They sometimes keep it and sometimes lose it Lower people hear of the Tao They laugh loudly at it If they do not laugh, it would not be the Tao

Tao cultivators do not take offense at this. We understand that many people still live with the illusion of separateness--their world is black and white, us versus them, so anything beyond their comfort zone must be an enemy of sorts. Their lives are limited, so we do not regard them with annoyance or indignation, only with compassion and goodwill. Sages liken such individuals to a frog who lives in a well. From its perspective at the bottom, the sky is rather small. If a bird were to stop by and tell it about the vast spaces outside, the frog would react with disbelief. Then, perhaps feeling a tinge of fear that it might be wrong, it would ridicule the bird, to drive it away, and along with it, the sense of discomfort. The day will come when the frog grows strong enough to jump out of the well. Similarly, one day those who laugh at the Tao will gain enough spiritual maturity to venture beyond their limits. When that happens, they will see the wide open vistas for themselves, and they will know, in their heart of hearts, that nothing will ever be the same again.

The Tao acts in a wu wei (unattached action) manner and effortlessly achieves the miracle of life. We find inspiration in this and see the possibility to act without attachments and achieve great works without friction or resistance.

Constant practice of the Tao involves repetitions and reminders, until the wisdom becomes second nature.

There are people who study the Tao for years and see no significant improvements in their lives. There are also those who walk the path for a relatively short time and yet experience dramatic and profound transformation. What accounts for the drastic difference? The answer is cultivation. The Tao isn't just something to read or talk about; it is something to put into actual practice. Those who see the Tao only as a philosophy continue to live their lives as they always have, so nothing ever changes. Tao cultivators see the Tao as a way of life. We are not content merely to play with ideas. We test the Tao by applying it to life.

Those who know do not talk Those who talk do not know

To be piercing is to impose one's discipline of being incorruptible upon others. Sages do not do this--they are tough on themselves but tolerant toward everyone else. This makes perfect sense because we can always change ourselves but never others. Therefore, discipline is most effective when we apply it in our own lives, and completely ineffective when we try to force it on other people, even if we start out with the best of intentions. The wisest thing we can do is give up trying to control others and focus energy on improving ourselves instead.

Ruling a large country is like cooking a small fish

If you use too much heat, you will overcook the fish; if you keep turning the fish over and over, it will fall apart. Similarly, if a ruler constantly meddles in the affairs of the people with excessive rules and regulations, the country becomes chaotic and everyone suffers. Similarly, when we manage our lives we also need to be careful not to second-guess ourselves too much. People who frequently change their minds (turn their decisions over) tend to fail in life.

Act without action Manage without meddling Taste without tasting

As Tao cultivators, we take proactive actions without attachments or expectations of specific outcomes. We manage processes and affairs without trying to manipulate them. We get a sense (a taste) of the situation without becoming so involved and engrossed that we lose our objectivity.

When handling a large or difficult task, we break it down into its constituent parts. If it is difficult, we start with its easiest part. If it is large, we start with its smallest component. These small and simple sub-tasks require little time and effort, and when they are complete, the success inherent in their completion generates positive energy. We then leverage this energy to catapult us toward the next smallest or easiest task. Each greater success generates greater energy, a greater feeling of satisfaction, and a greater ability to handle the next challenge.

This is how we achieve great and difficult tasks with ease. The secret is that we do not tackle such tasks head-on. To do so would be foolhardy and counterproductive.