The Message of Lao Tzu

Ronald L. Ecker

Quotations from the Tao Te Ching are from the translation by Lin Yutang
(The Wisdom of Laotse, New York: Modern Library, 1948).

1. The Way of Heaven

Before the Heaven and Earth existed 
There was something nebulous: 
   Silent, isolated, 
   Standing alone, changing not, 
   Eternally revolving without fail, 
   Worthy to be the Mother of All Things. 
I do not know its name 
   And address it as Tao. 
If forced to give it a name, I shall call it "Great." (ch. 25)

In these lines from the Tao Te Ching ("The Book of the Way and Virtue"), the Chinese mystic Lao Tzu (6th century B.C.) speaks of the eternal, ultimate reality that is the source of all that exists; it is the Way of Heaven, the ground of being, the infinite "something" from which "all things" evolve:

Tao is all-pervading, 
   And its use is inexhaustible! 
   Like the fountain head of all things. (4) 

Because of the transcendence of the mysterious Tao, it can only be spoken of symbolically. We may call it the "Great," or "the fountain head," we may call it God, but in fact the Tao as "the mysterious secret of the universe" (62) necessarily transcends our powers of true description:

The Tao that can be told of 
Is not the Absolute Tao; 
The Names that can be given 
Are not Absolute Names. (1)

Here we find in Lao Tzu's thought a monism quite similar to that of the mystics of India: while the Absolute Tao by its transcendent quality remains the Nameless, all the "Things" that we perceive in "Heaven and Earth" (Nature) are actually "manifestations" of the infinite "Secret." This, Lao Tzu tells us, is the "Cosmic Mystery":

The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; 
The Named is the Mother of All Things. . . .
These two (the Secret and its manifestations) 
Are (in their nature) the same; . . .
They may both be called the Cosmic Mystery. (1)

But while Indian mysticism gave rise to a pessimistic view of Nature as illusion, the Taoist mystic shows toward Nature great love and reverence. He sees in all the vital processes of Nature, and in all the manifestations of his own existence, the timeless, life-giving power of the Tao at work:

How the universe is like a bellows! 
   Empty, yet it gives a supply that never fails; 
   The more it is worked, the more it brings forth. (5)

The Heaven and Earth join, 
   And the sweet rain falls, 
Beyond the command of men, 
   Yet evenly upon all. (32)

A recurrent aspect of Lao Tzu's literary style is the use of paradox, and certainly it has great illustrative effect in speaking of the Tao. The Way of Heaven remains transcendent and invisible, yet man sees its fruits continually born in the processes of Nature:

The Tao never does, 
   Yet through it everything is done. (37)

Looked at, it cannot be seen; 
   Listened to, it cannot be heard; 
   Applied, its supply never fails. (35) 

While there is much emphasis on the benevolence of Nature, this is not to imply that the Nature at times cannot be "unkind." But Lao Tzu points out that "Reversion is the action of the Tao" (40). This means that any destructive or undesirable tendency or force arising in the created universe is invariably reversed by an opposite tendency or force, so that in effect a basic equilibrium is maintained. This involves the Chinese concepts of the "Yang" and the "Yin." These two primordial principles, firstborn of the Tao - Yang the positive, active, male principle, and Yin the negative, passive, female principle - are intrinsic elements in all of creation's manifestations, and it is through their interaction that the law of reversion operates:

The created universe carries the yin at its back 
   and the yang in front; 
Through the union of the pervading principles it 
   reaches harmony. (42)

yin and yang

2. The Way of Man

Man, like all things, is a manifestation of the One that is the active ground of being. In a more immediate sense, he is a part of Nature and its processes, and as such it is of man's own essential nature to live in harmony with Nature as a whole. The dominant ethical principle in the Tao Te Ching is "wu wei," or non-interference. As Nature by "Eternal Law" takes care of itself, so man should not interfere with its course, nor should he presume to interfere in the lives of his fellow men; interference is in effect a defiance of the Way of Heaven.

This principle of wu wei should pervade every aspect of man's life. Even if one finds himself forced by circumstances to bear arms against others, he should use "calm restraint," and celebrate victory with "the Funeral Rite" (31).

The principle of wu wei applies not only to the individual but to government as well. Taoist political philosophy is inevitably one of complete laissez-faire. "If kings and barons can keep the Tao, / The world will of its own accord be reformed" (37). In expressing his idea of good government, Lao Tzu again delights in paradox:

When the government is lazy and dull, 
   Its people are unspoiled; 
When the government is efficient and smart, 
   Its people are discontented. (58)

Implicit in the principle of wu wei is the idea of the innate goodness of man. To live according to one's own original nature keeps one in harmony with Nature at large. We find in the Tao Te Ching various allusions to a Golden Age, man's "Primeval Beginnings," when he lived naturally in "pristine simplicity," and, in his harmonious accord with Nature, love, moderation and humility were spontaneous virtues in his life. This is what Lao Tzu means when he says, "By action without deeds / May all live in peace" (3).

It is man's estrangement from his original nature that has brought evil upon the human race. Man is portrayed in the Tao Te Ching as having fallen from innocence through his ambitious striving for "knowledge" and "learning." (We may recall here the symbol of "the tree of knowledge" in the Judeo-Christian concept of the Fall of Man.) Man became cunning and proud; he decided, in violation of the Tao, to mold the world to his own liking to suit selfish ends, and thus went about constructing "civilization." His original harmony with Nature was disrupted by "busyness," and the natural virtues of his former life vanished as selfish desires and false morality arose to take their place:

On the decline of the great Tao, 
   The doctrine of "humanity" and "justice" arose. 
When knowledge and cleverness appeared, 
   Great hypocrisy followed in its wake. (18)

In his hubris and rebellion, man was doomed from the beginning to alienation from the Tao and his own inner self.

Traffic in Taiwan

There are those who will conquer the world 
And make of it (what they conceive or desire). 
   I see that they will not succeed. 
(For) the world is God's own Vessel 
It cannot be made (by human interference). 
   He who makes it spoils it. 
   He who holds it loses it. (29)

3. The Way to Happiness

Some might choose to argue with Lao Tzu's case for the innate goodness and virtue of human nature. One might also say, however, that in Lao Tzu's indictment of material-minded civilization, in which people "scheme and contend," the ancient Chinese mystic had a true vision of capitalistic society today. Lao Tzu tells us that the dehumanizing effects of hectic "civilization" and its loss of true moral values have hardly brought man happiness; rather they have alienated him from his original comfortable place in the bosom of the Tao. Man's relentless scientific progress is in reality sin against Nature, and his cultural sophistication and great intellectual endeavors only increase his estrangement, stifling the spontaneity of his true self:

Fame or one's own self, which does one love more? 
One's own self or material goods, which has more worth? (44)

(Compare Luke 9:25 in the New Testament: "For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?")

What man needs, says the Tao Te Ching, is a return to repose and peace, a return to his original nature. "Going back to one's Destiny is to find the Eternal Law" (16). Man needs to forsake his futile quest for worldly success and regain his lost identity:

Banish wisdom, discard knowledge, 
   And the people shall profit a hundredfold; 
Banish "humanity," discard "justice," 
   And the people shall recover love of their kin; . . .
The people have need of what they can depend upon: 
   Reveal thy simple self, 
   Embrace thy original nature, 
   Check thy selfishness, 
   Curtail thy desires. (44)

Once man forsakes his vain desires and regains harmony with Nature, life will again be simple and joyful and the spontaneity of man's inner goodness shall return. It is in the quietistic, calm life of wu wei, in unassuming oneness with Nature, "embracing the One with your soul" (10), that true contentment is found.

Lao Tzu likens this ideal way of life to the Way of Heaven itself by employing the symbol of water. The Tao is often identified with water in the text:

Tao is all-pervading . . .
   Like the fountain head of all things, . . .
Yet crystal clear like still water it seems to remain. (4)

Tao in the world 
   May be compared to rivers that run into the sea. (32)

The Great Tao flows everywhere, (Like a flood) it may go left or right. The myriad things derive their life from it, And it does not deny them. (34)
When this same symbol is then applied to man, it gives great insight into the Taoist concept of man's own role in the universe:

The best of men is like water; 
   Water benefits all things 
   And does not compete with them. 
It dwells in (the lowly) places that all disdain - 
   Wherein it comes near to the Tao. (8)

Implicit in the preceding verse are the natural virtues of man, the "Three Treasures" that Lao Tzu expounds:

I have Three Treasures; 
Guard them and keep them safe: 
   the first is Love. 
   The second is, Never too much. 
   The third is, Never be the first in the world. (67)

Life based on the principle of wu wei, life that manifests the timeless virtues of love, moderation, and humility, is thus envisioned as the natural way of man in ideal relation to the Way of Heaven, of which he is a part.

The world of the "vulgar," the world of man in his estranged state, can see this only as "folly," and deems "uncouth" the Sage who seeks to live the simple life of selfless virtue:

The Sage does not accumulate (for himself). 
   He lives for other people, 
   And grows richer himself; 
   He gives to other people, 
   And has greater abundance. (81)

Estranged man is blind to the rewards of such virtue, and does not see that it is only through such natural, selfless virtue that man fulfills his duty of actualizing the Way of Heaven in his own life:

The universe is everlasting. 
The reason the universe is everlasting 
   Is that it does not life for Self. 
Therefore it can long endure. 
Therefore the Sage puts himself last, 
   And finds himself in the foremost place. (7)

The Taoist Sage "embraces the One, / And becomes the model of the world" (22). It is perhaps the supreme paradox of the book that the world accuses the Sage of folly, when in fact the Sage is aware of the true folly of the world, and of its so feverishly acquired "knowledge" and "learning." The Sage is aware that in true understanding of the Tao, in true recognition of Nature and its splendor, all knowledge is complete:

Without stepping outside one's doors, 
   One can know what is happening in the world, 
Without looking out of one's windows, 
   One can see the Tao of heaven. (47)

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu

Other Links on Poets:

Archibald McLeish's J.B.

Dark Night of the Soul

The Eolian Harp

The Idea of Work in Frost's Poetry

Religious Crisis in Hopkins' Terrible Sonnets

Copyright 1966, 2007 by Ronald L. Ecker

Religion 401
Doctor Scudder
University of Florida
September 29, 1966

postmaster at ronaldecker dot com

Top of Page | The Ron Ecker Home Page

FREE counter and Web statistics from