5 Profound Insights From Lao-tzu, Founder of Taoism

By: Dave Roos
statue of Lao-Tzu
The statue of Lao-tzu is displayed at the Palace of Heaven in Qingdao city. Legend says this is where Lao Tzu descended from the heavens. Shanshan0312/Shutterstock

The "Tao Te Ching" was compiled around 300 to 250 B.C.E, but its wisdom resonates as powerfully today as it did more than two millennia ago. The slim text was written in ancient China during the Warring States period, a three-century period of incessant warfare between various Chinese states. In 81 stanzas, the "Tao Te Ching" pushes back against the all-too-human desire for "more" — more money, more status, more power, more things — and focuses instead on simplicity, harmony and a return to Tao or "the way."

The author of the "Tao Te Ching" is Lao-tzu (also written as Laozi), an honorific title that means "Old Master." According to biographies written centuries later, Lao-tzu (pronounced lao-zuh) was a sage-like archivist in the Zhou court who served as an early teacher of Confucius. Lao-tzu refused to write down his teachings, but when he decided to leave his homeland for India, he was pressed by a border guard to share his wisdom. Legend has it that the border guard dutifully copied down the words of Lao-tzu in the "Tao Te Ching," which means "The Book of the Way and Its Power."


Modern scholars disagree on whether an historical figure named Lao-tzu ever existed, or whether he and his writings were a compilation of Chinese wisdom passed down over the centuries. Eventually, what started out as a philosophy called Taoism (or Daoism) soon became a religion with Lao-tzu as the earthly personification of the Tao — the ultimate power that gives order to the universe.

Reading the "Tao Te Ching" today, it feels like Lao-tzu is directly addressing 21st-century problems: runaway consumerism, overdevelopment, the single-minded pursuit of profit and growth at the expense of the environment, and disregard for the poor and marginalized. But that's because it was written at the turn of the Iron Age, when new technologies fueled a population explosion and ensuing conflicts over land and resources.

"The 'Tao Te Ching' was written in a political climate where people were doing just what they're doing today," says Livia Kohn, professor emerita of Daoist Studies at Boston University and author of "Daoism and Chinese Culture." "They were destroying the environment and there were all of these power mongers waging war on people. It was a very messy time that they lived in."

Lao-tzu's message, then and now, is that the human urge to dominate and alter the world to fit our desires is ultimately foolish. There is an underlying nature to everything that is organic, simple and easy, and the way to find it is through calmness and quiet intuition, not through ambitious and aggressive tactics.

Here are five eye-opening passages from the "Tao Te Ching" that offer a way to maintain a sense of harmony and balance in an often-chaotic world, courtesy of the legendary Taoist master Lao-tzu.


1. "The Tao invariably takes no action, and yet there is nothing left undone."

There is a paradoxical logic to a lot of Lao-tzu's best-known sayings, and this one is a great example. The best form of action is "no action"? What does that even mean?

First of all, something is definitely lost in the translation. The Chinese word for non-action is wu wei, which is sometimes translated as "doing nothing," but Kohn prefers the wording, "not forcefully acting."


That's because the real meaning of wu wei is not to do anything that isn't in accordance with Tao, the natural order of things. Non-action means swimming with the current instead of against it, or of bending with the wind instead of trying to remain rigid. Forcefully acting, meanwhile, is like blowing up a mountain to build a bigger and more direct roadway.

"What Lao-tzu is talking about is becoming aware of what the natural flow is and just going with it," says Kohn. "Rather than taking the mountain down, there are probably comfortable ways to go around it."

Bonus saying: "The Way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure. The Way of the sage is to act but not to compete."


2. "He who is contented is rich."

Taoism doesn't teach an outright rejection of desire. The type of desire to be avoided is the one driven by materialism, which defines success as the accumulation of more and more things. What Lao-tzu emphasizes is sufficiency, of knowing when you have enough to be content instead of needlessly striving for more.

"Following the Tao doesn't mean having zero desires," says Kohn. "You can have ambitions, goals, and plans, but they should all be within a framework that's doable, that's considerate of others and that's not rapacious and destructive."


Bonus saying: "There is no calamity greater than lavish desires. There is no greater guilt than discontentment. And there is no greater disaster than greed. He who is contented with contentment is always contented."

3. "Thirty spokes make a wheel, but it is the empty center that makes it work."

Emptiness and "non-being" have real value in Taoism. What is a wheel without the empty space at its center? A room is not four walls, but the space in between them. The utility of a clay pot is what can be held inside of it. A bellows only works if there is empty space within it.

Lao-tzu teaches that humans, too, should balance being with non-being. The Tao itself is non-being; it is eternal, intangible and unknowable. Kohn says that the Tao is "the hidden quality at the root of things, the deep sense of cosmic connection, the inherent beauty and goodness in all living beings" that can only be seen and felt by retreating from the hustle and bustle of life. Look beyond the "obvious" or superficial to recognize the value of what isn't there.


Bonus saying: "The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; The Named is the mother of all things. Therefore let there always be non-being, so we may see their subtlety, And let there always be being, so we may see their outcome."


4. "To know that you do not know is the best. To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease."

Written during the Warring States period when wise rulers were in short supply, the "Tao Te Ching" was published as a political tract as much as a guide to personal well-being. The truly wise ruler or "sage" knows that he doesn't know everything. Instead of trying to dictate and control every aspect of people's lives, he or she gives them freedom and lets society find its natural balance.

"The book is addressed to policymakers," says Kohn. "Lao-tzu taught that the people in charge shouldn't think primarily of power and profit, but instead should focus on doing good for the maximum number of people."


Bonus saying: "The best rulers are those whose existence is merely known by the people. The next best are those who are loved and praised. The next are those who are feared. And the next are those who are despised."

5. "The journey of a thousand miles starts from where one stands."

This is easily the most famous passage from the "Tao Te Ching," sometimes translated as "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." The full quote reads: "A tree as big as a man's embrace grows from a tiny shoot. A tower of nine stories begins with a heap of earth. The journey of a thousand li starts from where one stands."

How do you accomplish a really big task or overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle? With patience, says Lao-tzu, and by working within your capabilities.


"Start with the first thing, and if that's successful, then you move on," says Kohn. "It doesn't mean you can't have far-reaching goals, but you have to take them one step at a time. Any builder will tell you, you don't start with the roof."

Bonus saying: "Difficult undertakings have always started with what is easy. And great undertakings have always started with what is small. Therefore the sage never strives for the great, And thereby the great is achieved."

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