Chinese Philosophy – Laozi

The Dao is the most popular and translated work of East Asian thought, which makes Laozi one of the most popular philosophers of all time, as well as possibly one of the earliest, but there is little agreement among Chinese, Japanese and modern scholars all over the world.  Around 109 BCE, Sima Qian, historian of the early Han dynasty, wrote the first history of China, the Shiji, Historical Memoirs, and included a biography of Laozi, but even at this early date there are contradictory stories, and Sima Qian says he is puzzled as to what they add up to.  He tells us that Laozi, the Old Master, was named Li Er or Li Dan.  Sima Qian says that Lao Dan, Old Dan, of the long ears, was the royal archivist of the Zhou Emperor, of the empire that collapsed into the Warring States and Hundred Sages period, that he taught people to live obscurely and simply, that he was visited by Confucius, and he left to go to the West, leaving behind his Dao de Jing, none of which is known for certain.

Sima Qian tells us two versions of young Confucius meeting Laozi, hoping the great sage would instruct him in the rites, like the Book of Rites that Confucius taught his students to study.  Laozi told him that all he had to say was that the bones of revered ancients have crumbled to dust, in unfavorable times one should drift with the wind, a good merchant hides his wealth, the truly wise appear to be fools, and Confucius should get rid of his arrogance and desires, which are of of no use to his true self.  Confucius told his students that Laozi was a dragon, beyond his grasp. In another part of Sima’s text, Laozi tells Confucius that those who are no longer children and subjects belong to themselves, explicitly rejecting Confucian values and relationships.  As Wangbi the famed ancient analyst who wrote commentary on the Dao De Jing says, the inferior person takes pride in virtue, often illustrated by Confucius in Daoist texts, while the superior sage, portrayed as Laozi, takes none.  This is likely a clue that this dialogue could be written later by Daoists to distinguish their own philosophy from Confucians they were teaching against.  Some Daoists would like in the city, while others would live as fishers in the rivers and valleys or hermits up in the mountains.

Daoist Sage Cave

During the later years of the Han dynasty some scholars and artists began turning to Daoism for new ideas and practices.  Among the peasants in the country, farmers and fishers, Daoism was quite popular throughout the Han, and towards the end of the Han, the Yellow Turban Rebellions were based out of Daoist temples in rural areas, uprisings against the local lords.  Daoist sages are often ordinary men and women.  However it is also clear that Confucius was critical of tradition, politics, knowledge and judgement, and Daoism became an orthodox religious system that was used by the Han and later dynasties to control and pacify the people.

While Confucianism advocates city life, study, and the structure of the family and state, Daoism advocates returning to nature and the natural (ziran), simplicity, meditation, and questioning all understanding. Confucianism argues that we should cultivate and civilize ourselves through education and tradition, while Daoism argues that we should return to our natural state and let nature run its course, thus reaching a state of completion.  Rather than study harder to understand more distinctions between things, Daoism argues we should work hard to forget the understandings and distinctions we have stored up in ourselves already.  Daoists would agree with Confucius that, “A noble person is not a pot”, but rather than add and stir they would have us empty it out often.  Daoism argues that one should remove one-sided judgments and desires from the mind such that harmony with the whole, with the One, is achieved. This is similar in many ways to the Indian Jain idea of anekantavada, ‘non-one-sidedness’.

Yin Yang

Many are familiar with the Daoist image of the Yin and Yang intertwining female earth energy of darkness and male sky energy of light, however only few know that the symbol originally comes from the Yin Yang school, one of the hundred schools of thought from the warring states and hundred schools period of Chinese philosophy. The Daoists got the symbol from this school, and followed similar ideas about things being constituted by opposing forces. The symbol has also been identified as a solar calendar that charts daylight hours over the course of a year, important for farmers who were supporters and sources of both the Yin Yang and Daoist schools of thought. When the Han unified China, they patronized Confucianism and Daoism but not the Yin Yang school and others that disappeared without their support.

Chinese Painting Inquiring about the Dao
wu wei caligraphy

A key concept for Daoism is wu-wei, ‘non-action’.  Acting less is often acting better.  Make better choices by taking your time to make fewer choices.  This is not the same thing as taking forever to make a choice, but rather taking the time to think about the choices you are making and how you are making them.  The idea is to get what you want by being patient and doing less, not more, to see results. This increases one’s ability to perceive changing circumstances and opportunities in the situation that one would miss if hurried or over-acting.  The idea is to act less but still act, not to simply not act at all.  Acting with moderation and simplicity in mind conserves energy and prevents mistakes that can be avoided.  Patience and awareness are valued over speed and focus.  We will see when we study Sunzi’s Art of War that he makes much use of this, as well as the Daoist idea of being fluid like water.

samurai on horseback statue

There is a medieval Japanese story that illustrates wu-wei well.  A local lord has three sons, and must decide who should inherit his position.  He tests them by placing a pillow on the sliding door to his room and calling them one at a time.  The eldest son enters and annihilates the pillow in a frenzy of skilled sword strikes.  The middle son draws his sword but sees the pillow in midair and catches it.  The youngest son sees the pillow on the door, tucks it under his arm and enters the room to the joy of his father.  Notice that the youngest son, not the oldest, inherits his father’s title, which is a reversal of traditional practice as well as the Confucian idea of younger son deferring to older.


Those familiar with Aikido, the Japanese martial art, will recognize the concept of wu-wei as it is physically used: One defeats one’s opponent by moving out of their way and allowing the situation to take its course, not by directly striking them.  If your opponent wants to punch in a particular direction, you allow them to do so, and use their momentum to throw them rather than waste your own energy striking with a fist or foot.

The Dao De Jing of Laozi

Laozi is said to have given up on life in politically turbulent China and rode a water buffalo west to live as a hermit.  As he was about to leave the state, he was recognized by the border guard Yin Xi who pleaded with him to leave his teachings for the people before leaving society.  Laozi consented and in the dirt road wrote the 81 passages of the Dao De Jing (a sacred number, 9 times 9, each of which is 3 times 3) before disappearing forever.  Because no one witnessed his death, he is considered an immortal like other Daoist sages.  The word jing, of Dao De Jing, means warp of cloth, the straight pattern of morality underlying the interweaving of live, so the title means both the text of the way and power, but also the underlying pattern of the way of power.  Warp is straight lines of fabric, and the weft is woven serpentine through it.  Later, Chinese Buddhists borrowed the term to translate sutra.

Sages attributed many sayings to Lao Dan of the Long Ears, as well as the legendary Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, another mythical figure who is considered a founder of Daoism.  Many verses of the Dao are earlier aphorisms not attributed to Lao Dan, and the style of the book appears to be the work of several authors.  The text had reached a fixed and final version by the Warring States period, at a time when Huangdi was portrayed as the founder of Chinese culture and the father of all Chinese people.  The Dao has more commentaries written about it in China than any other work, including the famous one by Wangbi (226 – 249 CE).

The following are my translations of the text, using several translations and trying to stay with the original simplicity and brilliance of the text, saying deep things with few words.  The opening verse, of the Dao De Jing, reads:

Laozi rides the ox west

1) The endless way of things isn’t a particular way.  The endless name of things can’t be particularly named.  The named is mother to the ten thousand things, But the unnamed is the source of the sky and earth. Always hidden, we see mystery.  Always found, we see form.  One and the same, but different names.  Both are called mysteries.  Mysteries within mysteries, the door to all mysteries.

The All, or the One, includes everything. Thus, there is no proper or particular name. The All does not need a particular name, because there is nothing in particular that one can judge about it. It is the source of all things, so it could be called ‘green’, ‘not green’, ‘life’, ‘death’, ‘both’ or ‘neither’, with equal but equally incomplete meaning. The same, of course, goes for any adjective. Just as any particular thing has its opposite (hot and cold, good and evil), the One is the source of all opposites, and thus is neither and both of each particular thing. Notice the duality of heaven and earth, of open sky and closed ground.  The second verse reads:

2) Ugly makes everyone see beauty.  Evil makes everyone see good.  Hidden and common give birth to each other.  Difficult and easy help each other.  Long and short lay out each other.  High and low measure each other.  Voice and noise harmonize with each other.  Behind and in front follow each other, One after the other.  The wise take care of things without caring, Spreading teachings without talking, Giving everything to the ten thousand things, Raising them but not claiming them, Working but saving nothing, Finishing things without hanging on them. Because the wise don’t cling to things, No one can take anything away from them.

3) Don’t honor platforms, and people don’t fight.  Don’t value treasures, and people don’t steal.  Don’t flaunt prizes, and people’s hearts are still.  The wise rule by emptying hearts and filling bellies, Weakening pride and toughening bones.  Keep everyone from knowing and wanting things, So those who know don’t need anything.  Do nothing, and everything will work out well.

4) Ways are empty, Use them and they’re never used up, So deep it seems the ancestor of everything. Blunts edges, Unties tangles, Softens glare, Mixes dust. Hidden in the deep but seems to keep going. Whose child could it be?  It seems the ancestor of all the gods.

5) Sky and earth don’t care, Using everything like paper toys.  The wise also don’t care, Using everyone like paper toys.  All sky and earth is like a bellows, Empty yet inexhaustible, The more it works, there’s more and more.  Words keep trying to dive to its depths,  Best to live in the middle of it.

7) Sky goes on, Earth endures.  The secret is they don’t live for themselves, And so they continue on forever.  The wise stay behind, But find themselves ahead, Don’t care for themselves, But find themselves safe.  The wise are free from themselves, So they can be free to become themselves.

Hokusai Waterfall Japanese branching

8) The highest good is like lowly water.  Water feeds everything without trying, Settles everywhere everyone hates.  In this way it is almost the way of all things.  Earth is best for homes, Depth is the best for minds, Love is best for giving and taking, Resolve is best for words, Order is best for rule, Work is best for business, And time is best for action. Do not try, Never go wrong.

9) Doing more and more and more, Can’t compare to doing enough.  Keep on sharpening a sword, And the edge won’t keep. Fill your house with treasures, And nobody can guard it.  Take pride in wealth and glory, And reap a crop of problems.  This is the way of the source and sky: Do your work, and retire.

10) Can our minds stay together without drifting into chaos?  Can energy gathered be soft like becoming a baby again?  Can a mirror be polished to clean off the dust?  Can loving and ruling be nothing difficult?  Can playing the role of a woman open and close the gate?  Can wisdom see every inch of the earth, but know and do nothing?  Raise everyone, feed everyone, Be a leader, not a butcher.

11) A wheel could have thirty spokes, But the hole in the center makes it work.  Jars are made out of clay, But the space in the center makes it a jar.  Doors and windows are fitted for rooms, Without these holes the walls can’t hold a room.  Stuff is good, but space does things.

12) Five colors blind eyes.  Five notes deafen ears.  Five tastes wither tongues.  Races and hunts madden the mind.  Rare treasures lead us off.  The wise feeds the belly, not the eye, Chooses this, rather than that.

13) Pride is a disease as deep as fear, Seek problems as much as yourself.  Why call pride a disease like fear?  Pride always slips away, So gaining it brings fear, And losing it brings fear.  Why seek problems as much as ourselves?  We only have problems because we have selves.  If we didn’t have ourselves, What problems could harm us?  When earth is our body we trust all on earth, And loving all on earth lives as all on earth.

14) Unseen but looked at, it’s name is unknown.  Unheard but listened to, it’s name is silence.  Untouched but held tightly, it’s name is emptiness.  These three can’t be unraveled, Three fused into one.  Rises without bright, Sets without dark, Braided together beyond name, Woven back together from nothing. Formless form, invisible image, Indefinable, unimaginable.  Meet it and can’t see its face, Follow it and can’t see its back.  Living with the endless way, Use what is and learn what was.  This is weaving into the way.

15) Wise ancients used ways, Simple but deep in seeing, Deep beyond sight.  Ancients were so deep beyond sight, We can only see and say a bit about how they looked.  Careful as wading into a winter stream, Watchful as if threatened by neighbors, Calm as a guest, Giving as ice melting, Simple as an uncarved block, Open as a valley, Cloudy like a muddy puddle.  Who’s muddy enough to settle into clarity?  Who’s dead enough to awaken to life?  Live this way and never need to be full.  Never be full, and always be fruitful.

16) Get the most emptiness you can, Live in the peaceful heart of all.  Ten thousand things stir, I watch them return, All things on and on, All return to the root.  Returning to the root is finding peace, Finding peace is completing everything.  Completing everything is finding strength, Finding strength is finding insight.  Not finding strength is finding problems.  Finding strength is embracing everything.  Embracing all is strength, Strength is earthly power, Earthly power is heavenly insight, Heavenly insight is the only way, The way is safe and whole.  No self, free of death.

17) Barely aware of the highest power, Next comes power loved and praised, Next comes power feared, Next comes power hated and fought.  Don’t stand with your words, Others don’t stand with you.  Carefully guard words as rare treasure, And work will work for everyone, And everyone will say they did the work.

18) When the larger way is lost, Love and strength showed their faces.  When smart and wise showed their faces, Being two-faced showed its faces.  When family lost harmony, Loyal and kind showed their faces.  When dark and chaos rule the land, Loyal rules show their faces.

19) Drop wisdom and smarts, People profit a hundred times over.  Drop love and justice, People again feel for people.  Drop plans and insight, Robbers and thieves will go missing.  These three are tangled ways, Not enough by themselves.  They depend on something bigger: See the simple and embrace the uncarved, Forget the self and desires are rare.

Chinese Painting Mountain Waterfall

Human truth is quite relative.  At first, one believes particular things are absolute.  After negative experiences, it is easy to be discouraged and only see the limitations and emptiness of beliefs.  This would be like focusing on first the solidity and then the emptiness of the wheel exclusively.  The point is not to stop at the emptiness however, but to see that both sides work together to make the wheel, all things, and life itself, what it is.  There is a Zen Buddhist Koan which says something very similar:

First practicing (Zen), I saw a rock as a rock.  Then, I saw it as not a rock.  Finally, I saw it as truly a rock.

Daoist Sage Ming China

In Chapter 22, we read that the sage does not boast, and is thus admired by everyone, that he does not want to shine, and is thus will be enlightened, that he does not seek excellence, and is thus exalted, that because he does not argue, no one can argue with him. Most people assume that they know what is simply good, and what is simply bad, and they are not afraid to tell you so. Only the sage, the wise person, knows not to boast about anything but to enjoy and appreciate things just as they are, and thus the sage is far less annoying than the average person. This takes practice and patience, something the average person does not have the patience for before making a quick and certain judgment leading to action.  If you desire nothing, “everything will flock to you”, and you have whatever you need right at hand in any situation. This is opposite the common understanding, which says that you must want something and relentlessly seek it in order to have it.  Patient action is often more fruitful then strenuous action.

Landscape painting China

In Chapter 25, we read that there is only one thing that is complete and turns in a perfect circle without endangering itself, the “Mother of All”.  The texts says, “I call the Dao…Painfully giving it a name, I call it great”.

Chapter 33 reads, “Whoever knows others is clever.  Whoever knows himself is wise.  Whoever conquers others has force.  Whoever conquers themselves is truly strong.”

Chapter 36 reads, “What you want to weaken you must first allow to grow strong.  What you want to destroy, you must first allow to flourish.  From whomever you want to take away, to him you must first give.”

In Chapter 42 we read, “The strong do not die a natural death”, or the violent die a violent death. This is quite similar to Jesus saying, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword”. Try to gain for yourself, and the great balance of all things will cut you down, doing to you what you do to others.  In the Zhuangzi, twice there appears the example of a gnarled old tree which outlives other trees because it does not grow powerful and strong and is thus not cut down and used to build other things by woodcutters and carpenters.

Wave against the rocks

In Chapter 43, we read, “The softest thing on earth overtakes the hardest thing…From this one recognizes the value of non-action (wu-wei).”  This calls to mind a seashore, with the waves of soft fluid water battering the hard rock cliffs to make sand where the water and land meet.

Chapter 46 reads, “When the Dao rules on earth, racehorses are used to pull dung carts.  When the Dao has been lost on earth, warhorses are raised on green fields.  There is no greater defect than many desires.  There is no greater evil than to not know sufficiency…Therefore, the sufficiency of sufficiency is lasting sufficiency.”

Chinese Painting Landscape Mountains

Chapter 56 reads, “Those who know do not speak.  Those who speak do not know.”

Chapter 60 reads, “A great nation must be led the way one fries a small fish.  If one administers the world according to the Dao, then the ancestors do not swarm about as spirits.  Not that the ancestors are not spirits, but their spirits do not harm humanity.”

Chapter 63 reads, “Whoever practices non-action occupies themselves with not being occupied, finds taste in what is tasteless, sees the great in the small and the much in the little…Plan what is difficult while it is still easy.  Do the hard thing while it is still small.  Everything heavy on earth begins as something light.  Everything on earth begins as something small.”

Chinese Pagoda Buddhist

Chapter 64 reads, “The tallest tree trunk grows from a sprout as thin as a hair.  A tower nine stories high is built from a small pile of earth.  A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single footstep in front of your feet.”

Chapter 67 reads, “I have three treasures that I treasure and guard.  The first is called ‘love’.  The second is called ‘sufficiency’.  The third is called ‘not daring to lead the world’.

Chapter 68 reads, “Whoever knows how to lead well is not warlike.  Whoever knows how to fight well is not angry.  Whoever knows how to conquer enemies does not fight them.  Whoever knows how to use men well keeps themselves low.”

Chinese Sages Daoist Buddhist

Chapter 71 reads “To realize that our knowledge is ignorance, this is a noble insight.  To regard our ignorance as knowledge, this is mental sickness”.  Knowledge is always focusing on one thing. When you focus on one thing, you ignore everything else. This is crucial to seeing how our knowledge is always human perspective, and how it can always be improved and extended.  Socrates said that his awareness of his own ignorance was the greatest wisdom of Athens, and was revered by many for it.

Chinese Painting Children Rock

Chapter 76 reads, “When we enter life we are soft and weak.  When we die we are hard and strong.  Plants when they enter life are soft and tender.  When they die they are dry and stiff.  Therefore the hard and strong are companions of death, and the soft and weak are companions of life.  Therefore, when weapons are strong they are not victorious.  When trees are strong they are cut down.”

The last Chapter, 81, reads, “True words are not beautiful.  Beautiful words are not true…The more the sages do for others, the more they possess.  The more they give to others, the more they have.”

The author and artist Tsai Chih Chung has created comic book forms of the great Chinese and Buddhist classics of philosophy, including a three part cartoon of the Zhuangzi on YouTube.

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