The Old MasterThe
figure of Laozi (Master Lao or Old Master) looms large in Daoist
history, as he is often regarded as the tradition’s founder. According
to legend, his name was Lao Dan and he worked as an archivist during
the Zhou dynasty (presumably active during the sixth century [BCE]).
Little is known about his life, and some scholars have questioned the
historicity of Laozi as an actual person. He is best known as the
putative author of the famous text that bears his name, Laozi,
although later a deified form of him also became an important part of
the Daoist pantheon. ... Laozi’s book is also known by the alternative
title of Classic of the Way and its Power (Daode jing), from the opening Chinese characters of its two main parts: Way (Dao) and power (de, also possible to translate as “charisma” or “virtue”).
Aside from the traditional legend about Laozi’s
authorship, we have no definitive knowledge about the text’s early
provenance. The standard edition in use today was put together during
the third century CE, although recent archeological discoveries of
early bamboo and silk manuscripts indicate that the text already
existed by the fourth or third century BCE. It seems probably that Laozi
is a collection of aphorisms and poetic reflections that represent the
ideas of various thinkers that lived at different times. Initially
these materials might have been transmitted orally, and they were put
together into a coherent form at a later stage of the text’s literary
evolution. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 63-64]
The Nameless and the Named
that can be way’d is not the Constant
A name that can be named is not the Constant Name.
The nameless is the beginning of Heaven and
The named is the mother of all things.
Thus be constantly without desire
in order to observe its subtlety,
Yet constantly have desire
in order to observe its manifestation.
These two arise together,
But differ in name.
Their unity is therefore called a mystery.
A mystery on top of a mystery—
The gateway of all subtleties!
In holding the hun and po souls in a single embrace —
Can you keep them from separating?
In concentrating the breath (qi) until it becomes supple —
Can you be like a baby?
In polishing your mysterious mirror —
Can you make it blemish free?
In loving the people and governing the state —
Can you be wuwei (i.e. literally “without action”)?
In the opening and closing of the Gates of Heaven —
Can you play the role of the female?
In comprehending all within the four directions —
Can you be without knowledge?
[The Dao] gives birth to [things] and nourishes them —
It gives birth to them but doesn’t possess them,
Acts on their behalf but asks for nothing in return,
Helps them to grow but doesn’t rule over them.
This is called the “Mysterious Inner Power” (xuan de).
Devotion to learning means increasing day by day;
Devotion to the Way
means decreasing day by day.
decreasing still more,
one arrives at
And in doing nothing,
nothing remains undone.
If one would take
control of all-under-Heaven
always refrain from activity;
One who is
engaged in activity
is unworthy to control
無為而無不為 The Way is
constant: by doing nothing (wu-wei),
nothing is left undone.
If lords and kings can hold on to it, all
of themselves, be transformed.
If, as they are transformed, desires arise,
I suppress them by means of the nameless
From the nameless uncarved wood comes
absence of desire,
Through not desiring one becomes tranquil,
And the empire, of itself, becomes settled.
[Sources..., 87; cf. Daodejing, Chapter 37]
Empty Minds & Full Bodies
Do not exalt the
and the people will
Do not value goods
that are hard to come by,
and the people will
Do not display objects
and the people’s minds
will not be disturbed.
Therefore the ordering
of the sage
empties their minds,
fills their bellies,
He always causes the
people to be
without knowledge, without desire,
And causes the wise
ones not to dare to act.
He does nothing (wuwei),
and there is nothing
that is not brought to order.
[Sources..., 80-1; cf. Daodejing, Chapter 3]
The Ideal “Primitivist” State
Let the state be
small and the people be few.
There may be ten or even a hundred times as many
But they should not be used.
Let the people, regarding death as a weighty
not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, none shall
Though they have armor and weapons, none shall
Let the people return once more to the use of
Let them savor their food and find beauty in
peace in their dwellings, and joy in their
Though neighboring states are within sight of one
And the sound of cocks and dogs is audible from one to
People will reach old age and death
and yet not visit one another.
[Sources..., 94; cf. Daodejing, Chapter 80]