The Book of Lao Tsu


No agreement as to when he lived.

Next to the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tao Te Ching, is the most translated book in the world. In fact there are more than a hundred English renditions that have appeared over the centuries, never mind all the other European languages.

But in 1972 an interesting thing happened: A Chinese man named Gia-fu Feng had collaborated with Jane English, his American wife, who, among her many talents, was an accomplished photographer, to produce an “illustrated” translation. They accomplished this by putting the Chinese calligraphic text  against a natural photographic background, on one side of a page and, on the facing one, the English text, standing alone, but supported by smaller photos.

They showed their manuscript to Toinette Lippe an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, and the rest, as they say, is history. The former published a hardcover version and Vintage Books, a division of Random House, a paperback version. The latter was so successful that in 1997 a special 25th Anniversary Edition was published and, together they have now sold more copies than any other English translation.

My memory is that I found a copy of the original soft cover version in an Ottawa bookstore in the mid-seventies and immediately realized that here was a way of life that made much more sense to me than the Christian teachings I had grown up with. So, as I gradually immersed myself in the teachings ~ a long search for a new spiritual home had suddenly came to an end.

But then I found out two other things, one of which is mentioned in The Book Of Toinette Lippe, and that is that Jane wanted to revise the latter work, which had sold more than a million copies by then, to make it, among other things, more gender-neutral.

And so, in 2011 Vintage Books, published a Third edition of their Tao Te Ching giving a long overdue credit to Toinette their editor for all those years. And, unless otherwise stated, all the quotations that follow are from that latest edition.

But in late 1973, Chinese archaeologists working at a place called Ma-Wang-Tui in Central China, about one hundred miles south of the Yangtze River, unearthed, among other things, two silk manuscripts of the Tao Te Ching. These manuscripts are apparently at least five hundred years older that any of the ones that the existing translations have been based on.

Consequently, a U.S. sinology professor named Victor H. Mair, who had earlier vowed that he would not waste his time producing yet another translation,  changed his mind. So, all of a sudden, in 1990, there appears a new translation with, among other things, the Chapters arranged quite differently. So, for example, the opening Chapter with which many of us are so familiar:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the source but differ in name;
This appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

becomes Chapter 45 in Mair’s new translation and reads this way

The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way.
The names that can be named are not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of the myriad creatures.
The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.


       Always be without desire
       In order to observe its wondrous subtleties;
       Always have desire
       So that you may observe its manifestations.

Both of these derive from the same source;
They have different names but the same designation.

Mystery of mysteries,
The gate of all wonders.

As a quick aside, Alan Watts always referred to the Tao as the Watercourse Way.

So this opens up many possibilities. Especially since Mair says “he became preoccupied with endless details such as how to convey the meaning of the second word in the title. I spent two full months trying to arrive at a satisfactory translation of Te. Walking through the woods, riding on the train, buying groceries, chopping wood – the elusive notion of Te was always on my mind. The final choice of “integrity” is based on a thorough etymological study of the word together with a careful consideration of each of its forty-four occurrences in the text. In certain instances perhaps another word such as “self”, “character,” “personality,” “virtue,” “charisma,” or “power,” might have been more befitting. But “integrity” is the only word that seems plausible throughout. By “integrity” I mean the totality of an individual including his or her moral stance, whether good or bad. 

And my sense of this is that his choice of “Integrity” is better that the traditional ones of “Virtue” or “Strength“.

Lastly, there are 81 Chapters in Lao Tsu’s book and somewhere I read that this might have a Buddhist connection to the number nine since nine doubled is eighty-one. But what do I know?

Anyway, in addition to the first translation of Chapter One above, here are my personal favourites, with five , each marked by a asterisk, being of the most significance to me:

Chapter Six *

The valley spirit never dies;
It is the woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth.
It is like a veil barely seen.
Use it; it will never fail.

Chapter Seven

Heaven and earth last forever.
Why do heaven and earth last forever?
They are unborn,
So ever living.
The wise stay behind, and are thus ahead.
They are detached, thus at one with all.
Through selfless action, they attain fulfillment.

Chapter Eight

The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places people reject and so is like the Tao.

In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In business, be competent.
In action, watch the timing.

No fight: No blame.

Chapter Eleven *

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape the clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes that make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things.
I do not know its name.
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.

Being great, it flows.
It flows far away.
Having gone far, it returns.

Therefore, “Tao is great;
Heaven is great;
Earth is great;
The human being is also great.”
These are the four great powers of the universe,
And the human being is one of them.

The human being follows the earth.
Earth follows heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
Tao follows what is natural.

Note the gender neutral language which is not in the next two translations of the same chapter.

There was 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.

It flows through all things,
Inside and outside, and returns
To the origin of all things.

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.

Translated by Stephen Mitchell, (Harper Collins, New York, 1988)

Chapter Sixty-Nine (Twenty-Five)

There was something featureless yet complete,
Born before heaven and earth;
It stood alone and unchanging.

We may regard it as the mother of heaven and earth.
Not knowing its name,
I style it the “Way.”
If forced to give it a name,
I would call it “great.”

Being great implies flowing ever onward,
Flowing ever onward implies far-reaching,
Far-reaching implies reversal.

The Way is great,
Heaven is great,
Earth is great,
The king, too, is great.

Within the realm there are four greats,
And the king is one among them.
Patterns himself on earth,
Patterns itself on heaven,
Patterns itself on the Way,
The Way
Patterns itself on nature.

Victor H. Mair’s translation based on the recently discovered Ma-Wang-Tui manuscripts (Bantam Books, New York, 1990)

Twenty-Nine *

Do you think you can conquer the universe and improve it?
I do not believe this can be done.

The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold on to it, you will lose it.

So sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind;
Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes so easily;
Sometimes there is strength, and sometimes weakness;
Sometimes one is up and sometimes down.

Therefore the wise avoid extremes, excesses, and complacency.


Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If those in power observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
If they still desired to act,
They would simply return to the simplicity of formless substance.
Without form there is no desire.
Without desire there is tranquility.
And in this way all things would be at peace.


Returning is the motion of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.
The ten thousand things arise from being.
Being arises from not being.

Forty-Eight * 

In the pursuit of learning, something is acquired every day.
In the pursuit of the Tao, every day something is relinquished.

Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

The world is governed by letting things take their course.
It cannot be governed through interference.

Seventy-Six *

We are born gentle and weak, but at death are stiff and hard.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.

Therefore the stiff and unbending is the discipline of death.
The gentle and yielding is the discipline of life.

Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.

The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.

Lastly, I recently (November 2014) saw this quotation posted on the internet:

Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others approval. Because one accepts oneself, the world world accepts him. … and her!!