Laozi and the Daodejing
Cosmology, Self-Cultivation & Sociopolitical Applications
Laozi Instructing Confucius on the Rites

The Old Master
The 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

A way that can be way’d is not the Constant Way;
A name that can be named is not the Constant Name.
The nameless is the beginning of Heaven and Earth;
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!
[Daodejing, Chapter 1 (translated by Brian Hoffert); cf. Sources..., 79-80]

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).
[Daodejing, Chapter 10 (translated by Brian Hoffert); cf. Sources..., 82-3]

Devotion to learning means increasing day by day;
Devotion to the Way means decreasing day by day.
Decreasing and decreasing still more,
one arrives at doing nothing,

And in doing nothing, nothing remains undone.
If one would take control of all-under-Heaven
one should always refrain from activity;
One who is engaged in activity
is unworthy to control all-under-Heaven.


The Way is constant: by doing nothing (wu-wei),
nothing is left undone.
If lords and kings can hold on to it, all things will,
of themselves, be transformed.
If, as they are transformed, desires arise,
I suppress them by means of the nameless uncarved wood.
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 worthy,
and the people will not compete.
Do not value goods that are hard to come by,
and the people will not steal.
Do not display objects of desire,
and the people’s minds will not be disturbed.
Therefore the ordering of the sage
empties their minds,
fills their bellies,
weakens their ambitions,
strengthens their bones.
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 implements,
But they should not be used.
Let the people, regarding death as a weighty matter, not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, none shall ride in them.
Though they have armor and weapons, none shall display them.
Let the people return once more to the use of knotted ropes.
Let them savor their food and find beauty in their clothing,
peace in their dwellings, and joy in their customs.
Though neighboring states are within sight of one another,
And the sound of cocks and dogs is audible from one to the other,

People will reach old age and death
and yet not visit one another.
[Sources..., 94; cf. Daodejing, Chapter 80]