“When superior people hear of the Way
they follow it with devotion
when average people hear of the Way
they wonder if it exists
when inferior people hear of the Way
they laugh out loud
if they didn’t laugh
it wouldn’t be the Way
hence these sayings arose
the brightest path seems dark
the path leading forward seems backward
the smoothest path seems rough
the highest virtue low
the whitest white pitch-black
the greatest virtue wanting
the staunchest virtue timid
the truest truth uncertain
the perfect square without corners
the perfect tool without uses
the perfect sound hushed
the perfect image without form
for the Tao is hidden and nameless
but because it’s the Tao
it knows how to start and how to finish”

(Taoteching, verse 41, translation by Red Pine)

CONFUCIUS says, “To hear of the Tao in the morning is to die content by nightfall” (Lunyu: 4.8).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “When great people hear of the Tao, even if others laugh at them, they can’t keep them from practicing it. When average people hear of the Tao, even if they don’t disbelieve it, they can’t free themselves of doubts. When inferior people hear of the Tao, even the ancient sages can’t keep them from laughing. Everyone in the world thinks existence is real. Who wouldn’t shake their head and laugh if they were told that existence wasn’t real and that non-existence was?”

TE-CH’ING says, “The Tao is not what people expect. Hence, the ancients created these twelve sayings, which Lao-tzu quotes to make clear that the Tao has two sides.”

SU CH’E says, “These twelve sayings refer to the Tao as it appears to us. Wherever we look, we see its examples. The Tao as a whole, however, is hidden in namelessness.”

LI JUNG says, “The true Tao is neither fast nor slow, clear nor obscure. It has no appearance, no sound, no form, and no name. But although it has no name, it can take any name.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Name and reality are often at odds. The reality of the Tao remains hidden in no name.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “Tools are limited to the realm of form. The Tao is beyond the realm of form.”

YEN TSUN says, “The quail runs and flies all day but never far from an overgrown field. The swan flies a thousand miles but never far from a pond. The phoenix, meanwhile, soars into the empyrean vault and thinks it too confining. Where dragons dwell, small fish swim past. Where great birds and beasts live, dogs and chickens don’t go.”

THE CHANKUOTSE says, “Those who know how to start don’t always know how to finish” (31).


“The Tao moves the other way
the Tao works through weakness
the things of this world come from something
something comes from nothing”

(Taoteching, verse 40, translation by Red Pine)

LIU CH’EN-WENG says, “Once things reach their limit, they have to go back the other way.”

WEI YUAN says, “The Tao moves contrary to how most people look at things.”

CHAO CHIH-CHIEN says, “To go back the other way means to return to the root. Those who cultivate the Tao ignore the twigs and seek the root. This is the movement of the Tao: to return to where the mind is still and empty and actions soft and weak. The Tao, however, does not actually come or go. It never leaves. Hence, it cannot return. Only what has form returns. ‘Something’ refers to breath. Before things have form they have breath. Heaven and Earth and the ten thousand things are born from breath. Hence, they all come from something. ‘Nothing’ refers to the Tao. Breath comes from the Tao. Hence, it comes from nothing. This is the movement of the Tao.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The reason the Tao works through weakness is because it is empty. We see it in Heaven blowing through the great void. We see it in Earth sinking into the deepest depths.”

TE-CH’ING says, “People only know the work of working. They don’t know that the work of not working is the greatest work of all. They only know that everything comes from something. They don’t know that something comes from nothing. If they knew that something came from nothing, they would no longer enslave themselves to things. They would turn, instead, to the Tao and concentrate on their spirit.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The ten thousand things all come from Heaven and Earth. Heaven and Earth have position and form. Hence, we say things come from something. The light and spirit of Heaven and Earth, the flight of insects, the movement of worms, these all come from the Tao. The Tao has no form. Hence, we say things come from nothing. This means the root comes before the flower, weakness comes before strength, humility comes before conceit.”

LI JUNG says, “‘Something’ refers to Heaven and Earth. Through the protection of Heaven and the support of Earth, all things come into being. ‘Nothing’ refers to the Tao. The Tao is formless and empty, and yet it gives birth to Heaven and Earth. Thus, it is said, ‘Emptiness is the root of Heaven and Earth. Nothingness is the source of all things.’ Those who lose the Tao don’t realize where things come from.”

SU CH’E says, “As for ‘the things of this world,’ I have heard of a mother giving birth to a child. But I have never heard of a child giving birth to its mother.”

WANG PI says, “Everything in the world comes from being, and being comes from non-being. If you would reach perfect being, you have to go back to non-being.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Those who cultivate the Way should act with humility and harmony. The slightest carelessness, any action at all, can destroy everything. Those who cultivate Virtue look to themselves for the truth, not to the words of others. For those who understand that what moves them is also the source of their lives, the pill of immortality is not somewhere outside.”

And RED PINE adds, “The moon can’t keep up with the sun, but as it gets farther and farther behind, the darkness of nothing gives rise to the light of something.”


“Of those that became one in the past
Heaven became one and was clear
Earth became one and was still
spirits became one and were active
valleys became one and were full
kings became one and ruled the world
but from this we can infer
Heaven would crack if it were always clear
Earth would crumble if it were always still
spirits would dissipate if they were always active
valleys would dry up if they were always full
kings would fall if they were always high and noble
and the high is founded on the low
thus do kings refer to themselves
as orphaned widowed and destitute
but this isn’t the basis of humility
counting a carriage as no carriage at all
not wanting to clink like jade
they clunk like rocks”

(Taoteching, verse 39, translation by Red Pine)

WANG PI says, “One is the beginning of numbers and the end of things. All things become complete when they become one. But once they become complete, they leave oneness behind and focus on being complete. And by focusing on being complete, they lose their mother. Hence, they crack, they crumble, they dissipate, they dry up, and they fall. As long as they have their mother, they can preserve their form. But their mother has no form.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “It’s because Heaven becomes one that it graces the sky with constellations and light. It’s because Earth becomes one that it remains still and immovable. It’s because spirits become one that they change shape without becoming visible. It’s because valleys become one that they never stop filling up. It’s because kings become one that they pacify the world. But Heaven must move between yin and yang, between night and day. It can’t only be clear and bright. Earth must include high and low, hard and soft, and the five-fold stages of breath. Spirits must have periods of quiescence. They can’t only be active. Valleys must also be empty and dry. They can’t only be full. And kings must humble themselves and never stop seeking worthy people to assist them. They can’t only lord it over others. If they do, they fall from power and lose their thrones.”

CHENG LIANG-SHU says, “In ancient times, kings used carriages as metaphors for the wealth and size of their kingdoms. To refer to one’s carriages as no carriages was an expression of self-deprecation.”

SU CH’E says, “Oneness dwells in the noble, but it is not noble. Oneness dwells in the humble, but it is not humble. Oneness is not like the luster of jade (so noble it cannot be humble) or the coarseness of rock (so humble it cannot be noble).”

And RED PINE reminds us, “One is the number between zero and two.” This is to remind us we need to move between zero and two, yin and yang, to be one.


“Higher Virtue isn’t virtuous
thus it possesses virtue
Lower Virtue isn’t without virtue
thus it possesses no virtue
Higher Virtue involves no effort
or the thought of effort
Higher Kindness involves effort
but not the thought of effort
Higher Justice involves effort
and the thought of effort
Higher Ritual involves effort
and should it meet with no response
then it threatens and compels
virtue appears when the Way is lost
kindness appears when virtue is lost
justice appears when kindness is lost
ritual appears when justice is lost
ritual marks the waning of belief
and the onset of confusion
augury is the flower of the Way
and beginning of delusion
thus the great choose thick over thin
the fruit over the flower
thus they pick this over that”

(Taoteching, verse 38, translation by Red Pine)

HAN FEI says, “Virtue is the Tao at work.”

WANG PI says, “Those who possess Higher Virtue use nothing but the Tao. They possess virtue, but they don’t give it a name.”

YEN TSUN says, “Those who embody the Way are empty and effortless, yet they lead all creatures to the Way. Those who embody virtue are faultless and responsive and ready to do anything. Those who embody kindness show love for all creatures without restriction. Those who embody justice deal with things by matching name with reality. Those who embody ritual are humble and put harmony first. These five are the footprints of the Tao. They are not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is not one, much less five.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Kindness is another name for virtue. It differs, though, from virtue because it involves effort. The kindness of sages, however, does not go beyond fulfilling their nature. They aren’t interested in effort. Hence, they don’t think about it.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Higher kindness is kindness without effort to be kind. Kindness is simply a gift. Justice is concerned with the appropriateness of the gift. Ritual is concerned with repayment. When ritual appears, belief disappears and confusion arises.”

SU CH’E says, “These are the means whereby sages help the people to safety. When the people don’t respond, sages threaten and force them. If they still don’t respond, sages turn to law and punishment.”

FAN YING-YUAN says, “‘Augury’ means to see the future. Those in charge of rituals think they can see the future and devise formulas for human action, but they thus cause people to trade the spirit for the letter.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The Tao is like a fruit. Hanging from a tree, it contains the power of life, but its womb is hidden. Once it falls, it puts forth virtue as its root, kindness as its stem, justice as its branches, ritual as its leaves, and knowledge as its flower. All of these come from the Tao. ‘That’ refers to the flower. ‘This’ refers to the fruit. Those who embody the Tao choose the fruit over the flower.”

RED PINE adds, “And yet the plastic flowers of civilization still deck a billion altars.”


“The Tao makes no effort at all
yet there is nothing it doesn’t do
if a ruler could uphold it
the people by themselves would change
and changing if their desires stirred
he could make them still
with simplicity that has no name
and stilled by nameless simplicity
they would not desire
and not desiring be at peace
the world would fix itself”

(Taoteching: verse 37, translation by Red Pine)

CHUANG-TZU says, “The ancients ruled the world by doing nothing. This is the Virtue of Heaven. Heaven moves without moving.” (Chuangtzu:12.1).

WU CH’ENG says, “The Tao’s lack of effort is ancient and eternal and not simply temporary. Although it makes no effort, it does everything it should do. If rulers could uphold this Tao of effortlessness, without consciously thinking about changing others, others would change by themselves.”

LAO-TZU says, “I make no effort / and the people transform themselves” (Taoteching: 57).

TE-CH’ING says, “If nobles and kings could only uphold the Tao, all creatures would change by themselves without thinking about changing. This is the effect of upholding the Tao. When creatures first change, their desires disappear. But before long, their trust fades and feelings well up and begin to flow until desires reappear. When this occurs, those who are adept at saving others must block the source of desire with nameless simplicity.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘Nameless simplicity’ refers to the Tao, which all creatures use to transform themselves and which nobles and kings use to pacify those who engage in cleverness and deceit.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “When people first change and begin to cultivate the Tao, they think about reaching a goal. Once this desire arises, it must be stilled with the Tao’s nameless simplicity.”

SU CH’E says, “Sages have no thought of embracing simplicity, nor do they show any sign of doing so. If the thought of becoming simple existed in their hearts, they would miss the mark completely.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Once rulers use nameless simplicity to still the desires of the people, they must then give it up so that the people don’t follow its tracks and once again enter the realm of action. Once our illness is cured, we put away the medicine. Once we are across the river, we leave the boat behind. And once we are free of desire, we must also forget the desire to be free of desire. Serene and at peace, the ruler does nothing, while the world takes care of itself.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Other creatures follow their natures without creating chaos or disaster. They change by themselves without seeking change. People, meanwhile, race through the realm of existence and never know a quiet moment. They abandon their original innocence and don’t practice the true Tao of doing nothing. They don’t care about their lives, until one day they offend and retribution arrives.”

And RED PINE adds, “Name takes sides. Complexity limits options. Hence, those who uphold nameless simplicity don’t take sides and keep their options open.”


“What you would shorten
you first should lengthen
what you would weaken
you first should strengthen
what you would topple
you first should raise
what you would take
you first should give
this is called hiding the light
the weak conquering the strong
fish can’t survive out of the depths
a state’s greatest weapon
isn’t meant to be shown”

(Taoteching, verse 36, translation by Red Pine)

TE-CH’ING says, “Once things reach their limit, they go the other way. Hence, lengthening is a portent of shortening. Strengthening is the onset of weakening. Raising is the beginning of toppling. Giving is the start of taking. This is the natural order for Heaven as well as for Humankind. Thus, to hide the light means the weak conquer the strong. Weakness is the greatest weapon of the state. But rulers must not show it to their people. Deep water is the best place for a fish. But once it is exposed to the air, a fish is completely helpless. And once rulers show weakness, they attract enemies and shame.”

LU HUI-CHING says, “To perceive shortening in lengthening, weakening in strengthening, toppling in raising, taking in giving, how could anyone do this if not through the deepest insight? This is the hidden light. Moreover, what causes things to be shortened or lengthened, weakened or strengthened, toppled or raised, taken or given is invisible and weak. While what is shortened or lengthened, weakened or strengthened, toppled or raised, taken or given is visible and strong. Thus, the weak conquer the strong. People should not abandon weakness, just as fish should not leave the depths. When fish leave the depths, they are caught. When people abandon weakness, they join the league of the dead.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Hiding the light’ is the same as ‘cloaking the light.’” (See verse 27)

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “According to the way of the world, the weak don’t conquer the strong. But Lao-tzu’s point is that the weak can conquer the strong by letting the strong do what they want until they become exhausted and thus weak. Those who cultivate the Tao speak softly and act with care. They don’t argue about right or wrong, better or worse. They understand the harmony of Heaven and Earth, the Way of emptiness and stillness, and become adept at using the hidden light.”

CHANG TAO-LING says, “The Tao is like water. People are like fish.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “The sage is the world’s greatest weapon but not one that is known to the world” (Chuangtzu: 10.3).

HAN FEI says, “Rewards and punishments are the state’s greatest weapon.”


“Hold up the Great Image
and the world will come
and be beyond harm
safe and serene and at peace
fine food and song
don’t detain guests long
thus the Tao speaks
plain words that make no sense
we look but don’t see it
we listen but don’t hear it
yet we use it without end”

(Taoteching, verse 35, translation by Red Pine)

CH’ENG HSUAN-TING says, “Here ‘hold’ means to hold without holding, to hold what cannot be held.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “The Great Image is the Great Way, which gives birth to Heaven and Earth and all creatures. It is called ‘great’ because it encompasses everything.”

LI JUNG says, “The Great image has no form. What has no form is the great and empty Way. To ‘hold’ means to focus or to keep. Those who can keep their body in the realm of Dark Virtue and focus their mind on the gate of Hidden Serenity possess the Way. All things come to them. Clouds appear, and all creatures are refreshed. Rain pours down, and all plants are nourished. And these blessings come from such a subtle thing.”

WU CH’ENG says, “To come to no harm means to be protected. But when people turn to sages, sages use no protection to protect them. If they protected people with protection, protection and harm would both exist. But by protecting people with no protection, people are always protected and kept from harm.”

LU TUNG-PIN says, “Unharmed, our spirit is safe. Unharmed, our breath is serene. Unharmed, our nature is at peace.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Sages rule the world through selflessness. All things come to them because they are one with all things. And while they forget themselves in others, others forget themselves in them. Thus, all things find their place, and there are none that are not at peace.”

CHANG TAO-LING says, “What the Tao says is the opposite of the mundane or the clever. Most people find it completely senseless. But within its senselessness, there is great sense. This is what sages savor. The Tao prefers simplicity of form and a minimum of expression. Hence, it is hard to see and hard to hear and also hard to follow. But those who can follow it and use it enjoy limitless blessings.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “A great person’s words are plain like water. A small person’s words are sweet like wine. The plainness of a great person brings people closer, while the sweetness of a small person drives them apart. Those who come together for no reason, separate for no reason” (Chuangtzu: 20.5).

SU CH’E says, “Banquets and entertainment might detain visitors, but sooner or later the food runs out, the music ends, and visitors leave. If someone entertained the world with the Great Image, no one would know how to love it, much less hate it. Although it has no taste, shape, or sound with which to please people, those who use it can never exhaust it.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If someone used the Tao to govern the country, the country would be rich, and the people would be prosperous. If someone used it to cultivate themselves, there would be no limit to the length of their life.”

And RED PINE adds, “The Great Image is Te, or Virtue, the manifestation of the Tao.”


“The Tao drifts
it can go left or right
everything lives by its grace
but it doesn’t speak
when its work succeeds
it makes no claim
it has no desires
shall we call it small
everything turns to it
but it wields no control
shall we call it great
it’s because sages never act great
they can thus achieve great things”

(Taoteching, verse 34, translation by Red Pine)

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “To drift means to be unrestrained. The Tao is neither yin nor yang, weak nor strong. Unrestrained, it can respond to all things and in any direction. It isn’t one-sided. As Chuang-tzu says, “The Tao has no borders’ (Chuangtzu: 2.5).

CHUANG-TZU says, “Those who are skilled toil, and those who are clever worry. Meanwhile, those who do not possess such abilities seek nothing and yet eat their fill. They drift through life like unmoored boats” (Chuangtzu: 32.1).

WANG PI says, “The Tao drifts everywhere. It can go left or right. It can go up or down. Wherever we turn, it’s there for us to use.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Great Way is a watery expanse that extends to the eight horizons. But when we use it, it’s as close as our left or right hand. There is nothing that doesn’t depend on it for life, and yet it never speaks of its power. There is nothing that doesn’t happen without its help, and yet it never mentions its achievements.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Outside of the Tao there are no things. Outside of things there is no Tao. The Tao gives birth to things, just as wind creates movement or water creates waves.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although living things might be infinite in number, the Tao creates them all through the mystery of doing nothing. It doesn’t mind making so many. And it creates them without thinking about its power.”

WANG P’ANG says, “When the Tao becomes small, it doesn’t stop being great. And when it becomes great, it doesn’t stop being small. But all we see are its traces. In reality, it is neither small nor great. It can’t be described. It can only be known.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “The Tao produces all things, and all things turn to it. It’s like the sea. All streams empty into it, and yet it doesn’t control them.”

Commenting on lines eight and eleven, WU CH’ENG says, “Even though there are no question indicators, these are questions and not statements, just as in verse 10. If we can call something great, it isn’t the Tao.”

SU CH’E says, “Those who are great and think themselves great are small.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The Tao hides in what has no name, and sages embody it through what has no name. They don’t consider themselves great, and yet no one is greater, for they can go left or right. Hence, they are neither small nor great. And because they are neither small nor great, they can do great things.”