The Tao Te Ching is the fundamental book for the philosophy of Taoism, attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who was said to be a contemporary of Confucius during the 5th or 6th century BC.
All his life, Lao Tzu taught that “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”, which is in fact the first paragraph of the Tao Te Ching. This can be interpreted as the Tao being teachable, but that it must be put into practice, not just to be a talker in the learning of the Tao. Language has its limitations and is only second-hand knowledge. According to ancient legend, as he was approaching his death, he was persuaded by his followers to write down his teachings, to serve as a guide on achieving the Tao for future generations.
His main ideas are the Tao or “The Way”, which is the natural order of the universe which one must discover to realise the potential for wisdom, and “Wu wei”, meaning “effortless action or actionless action”, describing a state of flow that is characterised by great ease and awareness, in which, without even trying, we achieve perfect harmony and perfect knowledge of the current situation. Just as an athlete entirely focused on what they are doing, absorbed in the moment.
Taoism along with Confucianism are the two great currents of Chinese thought, which have thoroughly moulded the culture of China.
Confucius meeting Lau Tzu is almost like yang meeting yin. Each offered his answer to chaos, from Confucius, the way of the yang: firm government, law and order, respect for authority. From Lao Tzu, the way of the yin: the natural way, the waters way, yielding to effortless action. In this sense, the yin and yang describe nature in duality with two opposite, complementary and interdependent forces.
The Taoist way is for people to be freed from their regular lifestyle, after contributing to society. In other words, to retire when the work is done, in order to find out who you ultimately are.
The basic thing in the whole philosophy is the conception of Tao.
The Tao, like water flows everywhere, to the left and to the right and it loves everything. It nurtures animals and plants and then moves on without seeking praise, when good things are happening, it is not there to receive any thanks.
The world is a system of interrelated components, none of which can survive without each other. In other words, everything arises mutually. To be and not to be, yes and no, light and dark, everything becomes a Happening.
Nature and the species arise mutually because they interdepend. There is no cause and effect, as is commonly expressed in Western thought, and this is perhaps the most important thing to grasp in the Chinese and Oriental philosophy.
The Tao is this moment, without past and future. There is no such thing as a progression in time, the spring does not become the summer, but rather there is first spring and then there is summer. In the same way, your present self does not become your future self.
The person that you are right now, is not the same person who will die because we are all a constant flux, the continuity of the person from past through present to future is an illusion.
In other words, there is a stream of the universe. In this way, the ability to hear, say music, depends on a relationship between past, present and future sounds.
The Taoists simply live now, letting things be as they want to be, and then, there will be no problem. This is a great relief.
These are my favourite and most useful lessons:
1. Be at peace
“Empty yourself of everything. Let the mind become still.” – Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16
We worry too much, we are constantly thinking about the external world, what we need to achieve, what stuff we need. To maintain the balance, we can practice mindfulness or meditation, so that when we do act, we have the sufficient energy and can do it effortlessly.
2. Be yourself
“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner” – Lao Tzu
Most of our life revolves around trying to impress other people. We compare ourselves to other more successful people, and thus become frustrated. We must then learn to live in the present, not comparing ourselves to others, but rather focusing on improving ourselves.
3. True wealth
He who knows he has enough is rich. Perseverance is a sign of willpower. He who stays where he is endures. To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.
– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 33
Wealth consists not in having more, but in having few wants.
4. Less is more
Better to stop short than fill to the brim. Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt. Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it. Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.
– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 9.
Others have more than they need, but I alone have nothing. I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused. Others are clear and bright, But I alone am dim and weak. Others are sharp and clever, But I alone am dull and stupid. Oh, I drift like the waves of the sea, Without direction, like the restless wind.
– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20.
Appreciating what you have got, no matter how little, is the true path to the Tao.
5. Do not be attached to things
Fame or self: Which matters more? Self or wealth: Which is more precious? Gain or loss: Which is more painful?
He who is attached to things will suffer much. He who saves will suffer heavy loss. A contented man is never disappointed. He w ho knows when to stop does not find himself in trouble. He will stay forever safe
– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 44.
In Western culture, we often believe that having more and doing more of something will bring us more happiness. However, to be truly rich is to be content with what you already have. And, to become enlightened, we mustn’t seek power through recognition, money, or control, but rather detach ourselves from them, loving and embracing what we have got.
6. The simpler, the better
He who stands on tiptoe is not steady. He who strides cannot maintain the pace. He who makes a show is not enlightened. He who is self-righteous is not respected. He who boasts achieves nothing. He who brags will not endure. According to followers of the Tao, “These are extra food and unnecessary luggage.” They do not bring happiness. therefore followers of the Tao avoid them.
– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 24.
Living frugally and minimalistically, can bring much more happiness, avoiding the troubles and cluttering of our minds with having too many unnecessary things in our mind. The simple life, is the good life.
7. Being humble
Why is the sea king of a hundred streams? Because it lies below them. Therefore it is the king of a hundred streams.
If the sage would guide the people, he must serve with humility. If he would lead them, he must follow behind. In this way when the sage rules, the people will not feel oppressed; When he stands before them, they will not be harmed. The whole world will support him and will not tire of him.
– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 66
Just do what needs to be done. Never take advantage of power.
Achieve results, But never glory in them. Achieve results, But never boast. Achieve results, But never be proud. Achieve results, Because this is the natural way. Achieve results, But not through violence.
– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 30
Rather than seeking to be praised, be humble – this will naturally give place to praise, and happiness. Achieve results, without expecting anything in return.
8. Do not give up
A tree as great as a man’s embrace springs up from a small shoot; A terrace nine stories high begins with a pile of earth; A journey of a thousand miles starts under one’s feet.
People usually fail when they are on the verge of success. So give as much care to the end as to the beginning; Then there will be no failure.
– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 64.
Do not be romanticised on achieving, but rather enjoy the journey. Keep going, and don’t give up.