“The truth is right before our eyes; right under our noses; so simple that every child understands it; and yet, as Bankei said, the farther you enter into it, the deeper it is. Where is the way to the Way? What a question!” — Stephen Mitchell

Tao Te Ching Theme #1TAO—The Tao is the infinite, common source; eternally present within you. No beginning, no end. The essence of wisdom. Just be.

  • There is something formless and perfect before the universe was born. It is serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. It is the mother of the universe. For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao. (25)
  • Approach it and there is no beginning; follow it and there is no end. You can’t know it, but you can be it, at ease in your own life. Just realize where you come from: this is the essence of wisdom. (14)
  • The Tao is the center of the universe, the good man’s treasure, the bad man’s refuge. (62)
  • It is always present within you. You can use it any way you want. (6)
  • The Tao is like a well: used but never used up. It is like the eternal void: filled with infinite possibilities. (4)
  • The Tao nourishes by not forcing. By not dominating, the Master leads. (81)
  • Why did the ancient Masters esteem the Tao? Because, being one with the Tao, when you seek, you find; and when you make a mistake, you are forgiven. (62)
  • All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being. (40)
  • Seeing into darkness is clarity. Knowing how to yield is strength. Use your own light and return to the source of light. This is called practicing eternity. (52)
  • Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source. Returning to the source is serenity. (16)
  • All things end in the Tao as rivers flow into the sea. (32)
  • The Tao is great. The universe is great. Earth is great. Man is great. These are the four great powers. Man follows the earth. Earth follows the universe. The universe follows the Tao. The Tao follows only itself. (25)

Tao Te Ching Theme #2: CENTEREDNESS—Balance and reside at the center of the circle within the Tao for peace in your heart, natural rhythms, and universal harmony.

  • As it acts in the world, the Tao is like the bending of a bow. The top is bent downward; the bottom is bent up. It adjusts excess and deficiency so that there is perfect balance. It takes from what is too much and gives to what isn’t enough. (77)
  • The great Way is easy, yet people prefer the side paths. Be aware when things are out of balance. Stay centered within the Tao. (53)
  • The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them. She lets them go their own way and resides at the center of the circle. (29)
  • Just stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their course. (19)
  • When you stand with your two feet on the ground, you will always keep your balance. (13)
  • She who is centered in the Tao can go where she wishes, without danger. She perceives universal harmony, even amid great pain, because she has found peace in her heart. (34)
  • If powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao, all things would be in harmony. The world would become a paradise. All people would be at peace, and the law would be written in their hearts. (32)
  • If powerful men and women could center themselves in it, the whole world would be transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms. People would be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire. (37)
  • If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever. (33)

Tao Te Ching Theme #3: NO SELF—Don’t live life, let life live you. You will be truly yourself and perfectly fulfilled. This leaves nothing to fear, not even death.

  • Only in being lived by the Tao can you be truly yourself. (22)
  • Let the Tao be present in your life and you will become genuine. (54)
  • The Master views the parts with compassion because he understands the whole. His constant practice is humility. He doesn’t glitter like a jewel but lets himself be shaped by the Tao, as rugged and common as a stone. (39) (“As a piece of marble lets itself be shaped by the sculptor so that the statue inside can be revealed. Hammer and chisel are necessary agents. Ouch.”)
  • Close your mouth, block off your senses, blunt your sharpness, untie your knots, soften your glare, settle your dust. This is the primal identity. (56)
  • He who defines himself can’t know who he really is. (24)
  • Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. (33) (“When I know myself, I know others. When I master myself, I don’t need to master others.”)
  • Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled. (7)
  • What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear? Hope and fear are both phantoms that arise from thinking of the self. When we don’t see the self as self, what do we have to fear? (13)
  • If you want to be reborn, let yourself die. If you want to be given everything, give everything up. (22)
  • If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve. (74)
  • The Master gives himself up to whatever the moment brings. He knows that he is going to die, and he has nothing left to hold on to: no illusions in his mind, no resistance in his body. He doesn’t think about his actions; they flow from the core of his being. He holds nothing back from life; therefore he is ready for death, as a man is ready for sleep after a good day’s work. (50)

Tao Te Ching Theme #4: LOOK INSIDE—Embrace solitude and trust your inner vision to see your oneness with the whole universe. Go deep internally instead of living on the surface externally.

  • Since before time and space were, the Tao is. It is beyond is and is not. How do I know this is true? I look inside myself and see. (21)
  • Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it, embracing his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe. (42)
  • Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light? (10)
  • The Master observes the world but trusts his inner vision. He allows things to come and go. His heart is open as the sky. (12)
  • Therefore the Master concerns himself with the depths and not the surface, with the fruit and not the flower. He has no will of his own. He dwells in reality, and lets all illusions go. (38)
  • Thus the Master travels all day without leaving home. However splendid the views, she stays serenely in herself. (26)
  • A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. (27)
  • Some say that my teaching is nonsense. Others call it lofty but impractical. But to those who have looked inside themselves, this nonsense makes perfect sense. And to those who put it into practice, this loftiness has roots that go deep. (67)
  • If you want to know me, look inside your heart. (70)
  • How do I know this is true? By looking inside myself. (54)

Tao Te Ching Theme #5: DESIRE NON-DESIRE—Remove all expectations and stop seeking to realize the mystery of life and be at peace in the present.

  • Therefore the Master takes action by letting things take their course. He remains as calm at the end as at the beginning. He has nothing and thus has nothing to lose. What he desires is non-desire; what he learns is to unlearn. He simply reminds people of who they have always been. He cares about nothing but the Tao. Thus he can care for all things. (64)
  • The Master’s power is like this. He lets all things come and go effortlessly, without desire. He never expects results; thus he is never disappointed. He is never disappointed; thus his spirit never grows old. (55)
  • The master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present and can welcome all things. (15)
  • Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. (1) (“Infinitely marvelous, yet as ordinary as sunlight.”)
  • I let go of all desire for the common good, and the good becomes common as grass. (57)
  • When there is no desire, all things are at peace. (37)
  • Peace is his highest value. If the peace has been shattered, how can he be content? (31)

Tao Te Ching Theme #6: NOT-KNOWING MIND—The Tao isn’t something you can “know” through your intellect/intelligence. Not knowing is true knowledge; know that you don’t know. Step back from your mind to understand. Stop thinking, and end your problems.

  • Can you coax your mind from its wandering and keep to the original oneness? (10)
  • Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things? (10)
  • The more you know, the less you understand. (47)
  • Stop thinking, and end your problems. (20)
  • Those who know don’t talk. Those who talk don’t know. (56)
  • My teachings are easy to understand and easy to put into practice. Yet your intellect will never grasp them, and if you try to practice them, you’ll fail. (70)
  • When they think that they know the answers, people are difficult to guide. When they know that they don’t know, people can find their own way. (65)
  • Not-knowing is true knowledge. Presuming to know is a disease. First, realize that you are sick; then you can move toward health. (71)
  • The Master is her own physician. She has healed herself of all-knowing. Thus she is truly whole. (71)
  • The ancient Masters didn’t try to educate the people but kindly taught them to not-know. (65) (“The ancient Masters taught them the supreme value of Don’t-know Mind, which is forever fresh, open, and fertile with possibilities. Another name for it is Beginner’s Mind.”)
  • The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. (3) (“Their innermost intention. They develop enough self-reliance to give up the idea of self.”)
  • He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know. (3)
  • Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding. (1) (“In order to understand, we have to remain in the darkness of not-knowing.”)
  • What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man but a good man’s job? If you don’t understand this, you will get lost, however intelligent you are. It is the great secret. (27)

Tao Te Ching Theme #7: NON-ACTION ACTION—Through “non-action” and “not-doing,” you will do everything that needs to be done because the Tao will act through you. Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place.

Non-action is often a big misperception. Here’s an explanation from Stephen Mitchell in gray italics before the supporting passages:

  • “The misperception may arise from his insistence on wei wu wei, literally ‘doing not-doing,’ which has been seen as passivity. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
  • “Nothing is done because the doer has wholeheartedly vanished into the deed; the fuel has been completely transformed into flame. This ‘nothing’ is, in fact, everything. It happens when we trust in the intelligence of the universe in the same way that an athlete or a dancer trusts the superior intelligence of the body.”
  • “This is a paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance.”
  • The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done. (37)
  • The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone. The ordinary man is always doing things, yet many more are left to be done. (38)
  • The Master arrives without leaving, sees the light without looking, and achieves without doing a thing. (47)
  • In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped. Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-action. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. (48)
  • Therefore the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. (2) (“Her actions are appropriate responses. Thus they are effortless…She never has to make a decision; decisions arise by themselves. She is like an actress who loves her role. The Tao is writing the script.”)
  • Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place. (3)
  • Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself? (15)
  • The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world. That which has no substance enters where there is no space. This shows the value of non-action. (43)
  • True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can’t be gained by interfering. (48)
  • Act without doing; work without effort. Think of the small as large and the few as many. Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts. (63)
  • The Master stays behind; that is why she is ahead. (7) (“She is like a turtle: wherever she is, is home. Actually, she is neither behind nor ahead, but exactly even with all things.”)

Tao Te Ching Theme #8: NON-RESISTANCE, NON-JUDGMENT, & NON-ATTACHMENT—Let things come and go. Have without possessing; act without expecting. Problems will be no problem for you.

  • Giving birth and nourishing, having without possessing, acting with no expectations, leading and not trying to control: this is the supreme virtue. (10)
  • Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn’t possess acts but doesn’t expect. When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever. (2)
  • He who clings to his work will create nothing that endures. (24)
  • Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity. (9)
  • She is detached from all things; that is why she is one with them. (7)
  • The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas. (59)
  • The Master never reaches for the great; thus she achieves greatness. When she runs into difficulty, she stops and gives herself to it. She doesn’t cling to her own comfort; thus problems are no problem for her. (63)

Tao Te Ching Theme #9: CONTENTMENT & SIMPLICITY—When you realize you have enough, you are rich. When nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you. Simplicity returns you to the source.

  • The Master has no possessions. The more he does for others, the happier he is. The more he gives to others, the wealthier he is. (81)
  • If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich. (33)
  • Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. (44)
  • The simplest pattern is the clearest. Content with an ordinary life, you can show all people the way back to their own true nature. (65)
  • I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, and compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world. (67)

Tao Te Ching Theme #10: PARADOXES—The paradox is the way. When the Tao is forgotten, humanity goes off course. The world is sacred as-is and can’t be improved. We only need to trust in the Tao.

  • True words seem paradoxical. (78) (Only when the mind is cluttered with untruth.)
  • True words aren’t eloquent; eloquent words aren’t true. Wise men don’t need to prove their point; men who need to prove their point aren’t wise. (81)
  • When man interferes with the Tao, the sky becomes filthy, the earth becomes depleted, the equilibrium crumbles, creatures become extinct. (39)
  • Do you want to improve the world? I don’t think it can be done. The world is sacred. It can’t be improved. If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it. If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it. (29)
  • When the great Tao is forgotten, goodness and piety appear. When the body’s intelligence declines, cleverness, and knowledge step forth. (18) (“When the Tao is forgotten, people act according to rules, not from the heart.”)
  • When the Tao is lost, there is goodness. When goodness is lost, there is morality. When morality is lost, there is ritual. Ritual is the husk of true faith, the beginning of chaos. (38) (“You can never lose the Tao. But you can find it.”)
  • When they lose their sense of awe, people turn to religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they begin to depend upon authority. (72)
  • Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself. (60)
  • Throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier. Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing. Throw away industry and profit, and there won’t be any thieves. (19)
  • In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present. (8)
  • The heavy is the root of the light. The unmoved is the source of all movement. (26)
  • We work with being, but non-being is what we use. (11)
  • The path into the light seems dark, the path forward seems to go back, the direct path seems long. (41)
  • The soft overcomes the hard. The slow overcomes the fast. Let your workings remain a mystery. Just show people the results. (36)
  • True perfection seems imperfect, yet it is perfectly itself. True fullness seems empty, yet it is fully present. (45)
  • All of them embody the virtue of non-competition. Not that they don’t love to compete, but they do it in the spirit of play. In this, they are like children and in harmony with the Tao. (68)
  • Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. (76)
  • The journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath your feet. (64)


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