Translated from the Chinese by Seten Tomh. Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.
The accepted way is not the timeless way.
The accepted language is not the timeless language.
Without language, the spiritual and the material are born.
The spoken is the mother of everything.
Therefore, without desire one sees the inmost.
With desire one sees the outmost.
These two are alike, yet opposite.
I say both of these are mysterious. The mysterious is itself mysterious. Thus, there are three mysteries.
The proliferation of phenomena is subtle and wonderful. It is the antechamber of initiation.
Everyone in the world knows the beautiful as beautiful. This is the origin of disgust.
Everyone knows the good as good. This is the origin of evil.
Thus, being and nothing produce each other; difficult and easy complete each other;
Long and short shape each other; high and low overturn each other;
Music and voice harmonize together; front and back follow each other.
Truly, therefore, the sage lives effortlessly.
He professes, but does not communicate his teaching in words.
Everything functions, somewhere, somehow, yet does not cease.
He lives, but does not grasp.
He succeeds, but does not rest.
Truly, he has nowhere to stay because he has nowhere to go.
Not esteeming worthies will cause the people not to compete.
Not esteeming precious rarities and valuables will cause the people not to steal.
Not encouraging desire will cause the heart-mind of the people not to fall into confusion.
Truly, therefore, the sage governs by emptying their heart-mind,
Filling their bellies, weakening their wills, strengthening their bones,
Always keeping the people innocent and without desire.
They will also cause the wise man not to dare to act on his knowledge.
By acting without acting, he governs without governing.
The way is an unfathomable vessel.
An abyss! It seems to be the ancestor of everything.
It dulls the sharp,
Softens the bright,
Embraces the earth.
Deep! It seems like existence.
I do not know whose child it is.
It seems preeminent.
The spiritual and the material are not humane.
They treat everything like animal fodder.
The sage is not humane.
He treats the common people like animal fodder.
The space between the spiritual and the material,
Is it not like a bellows?
Empty yet not ineffectual,
The more it is used, the more it produces.
Excessive talk is quickly exhausted
By one who does not guard the belly.
The spiritual abyss is not impassable.
Truly, we say this is the female mystery.
The female mystery is the gate.
Truly, we say this is the root of the spiritual and the material.
Continuously it perpetuates its continuity.
Used, it is never exhausted.
The spiritual and the material are eternal.
Therefore, the spiritual and the material are immortal.
It is because they do not originate from the self
That they are immortal.
Truly, because the sage puts himself last he assumes the first place.
Because he treats his life as other than himself, he is able to survive.
Because he is not selfish, the evil of selfishness does not afflict him.
Therefore he is able to overcome the self.
The highest good is like a raging river.
Good water benefits everything effortlessly.
Most people do not want to live in such desolation.
Therefore, it is almost like the way.
The good dwelling must be on good land. The good heart-mind must be deep.
Good associations must be humane. Good speech must be true.
Good government must be just.
Good work must be effective.
Good action must be timely.
Truly, therefore, he who does not contend is not singled out.
The cup that is full cannot be carried.
The point that is used cannot stay sharp.
When money and jade fill the hall, there is none able to guard it.
The inheritance of valuing wealth that leads to pride and selfishness is loss and blame.
When the purpose of life is fulfilled, to retire is the spiritual way.
Can you retain your animal soul and still hold onto the singularity?
Can you concentrate the energy of the breath, making yourself as soft and flexible as a babe?
Can you wash away the obscurations and see without blemish or flaw?
Can you love your country and still govern the people effortlessly?
Can you open the spiritual door of all and take the female part?
Can you attain the understanding of the four stations of the sun while appearing uneducated?
Parturition is not possessive.
It acts yet is not dependent. It grows yet does not kill.
Truly, I say this is the mysterious virtue.
Thirty spokes combine in a single wheel,
Yet the utility of the cart depends on the void at its centre.
Water and clay are fashioned into the cooking pot
Yet the utility of the pot depends on the void at its centre.
Doors and windows are cut out of the wall, but the utility of the room depends on the void at its centre.
Therefore, the utility of being is beneficial
But the utility of utility is the void at its centre.
The five colours are blinding.
The five sounds are deafening.
The five tastes are overpowering.
The speed and haste of the hunt makes the hunter’s heart-mind crazy.
The competition for money harms people’s conduct.
Truly, because the sage serves the belly and not the eye,
Therefore he lets go of the one and chooses the other.
Favour and disgrace should be feared. Honours incur great suffering in life.
Why do we say that favour and disgrace should be feared?
We should be afraid of favour because favour incurs disfavour.
We should be afraid of disfavour. Truly, we say that favour and disgrace should be feared.
Why do we say that honours cause great suffering in life?
I suffer greatly
If I take my life to be my self.
If I am not attached to my life
Why would I suffer?
Therefore, he who honours life can act in the world
And the world can depend on him.
Because he loves life he can act in the world
And be entrusted with the world.
We look at it, but we do not see it. We say it is invisible.
We listen to it, but we do not hear it. We say it is inaudible.
We knead it, but we do not grasp it. We say it is intangible.
These three cannot succeed in their inquiry.
Therefore, we mix them up and take them to be the one.
The height is not light. The depth is not dark.
The thread of the thread cannot be described.
To return to its source leads nowhere.
Truly, we say this is the unconditioned state.
It seems like nothing. Truly, we say this is the empty illumination.
We greet it but do not see its face.
We follow it but do not see its back.
We grasp yesterday’s way in order to use it today.
We can know the ancient source. Truly, we say this is the work of the way.
The ancients were great scholars,
With subtle and profound understanding
Of deep and recondite knowledge.
Truly, these men are unknown.
Therefore, I will try to describe them:
Prepared, like wading through a stream in winter;
Cautious, like fearing everyone around them;
Of dignified countenance;
Expansive, like melting ice;
Kind-hearted as a fool;
Open as a valley;
Opaque as muddy water;
Tranquil as the ocean;
Windy without ceasing.
What can unmuddy the waters? Let them run still and slow and they will become clear and pure.
Who can be tranquil? Let him move slow and tranquility will arise.
He who follows this way does not desire to be full.
Truly, he is not satiated.
Therefore, he protects and renews himself.
To attain the highest emptiness guard tranquility and sincerity.
I see everything appear and disappear.
Artisans craft things, then everything returns to its original state.
I say that returning to the original state is the cultivation of tranquility. Truly, I say that this is the process of revitalization.
I say that this process of revitalization is eternal. I say that to know the eternal is to clearly understand the eternal.
Not knowing the eternal is rash. Acting on this basis is ominous.
He who knows the eternal follows the eternal. To follow the eternal is good.
To be good is to be perfect. To be perfect is to be spiritual.
The spiritual is the way. The way is long-lived.
Dying is easy.
Long ago there was no distinction between high and low.
In the course of time, the rulers were honoured like one’s parents.
Next they were feared.
Finally they were reviled.
Where truth is lacking
There is no trust.
Good speech is pensive and distant.
And when the result of one’s work is completed, forthwith
The common people all say, “We did it ourselves.”
When the ancient way is abandoned, courts of law appear.
When knowledge arises, lying appears.
When the six relations are disharmonious, duty to family appears.
When the state falls into confusion and disorder, bureaucracy appears.
Extinguish sanctity, abandon wisdom, and the people will benefit a hundredfold.
Extinguish humanity, abandon goodness, and the people will rediscover love of family.
Extinguish opportunity, abandon profiteering, and there will be no stealing and no thieves.
Because these three (sages, humanitarians, and opportunists) are spoiled, they are not satisfied.
Therefore, enjoin moderation.
Appear plain, cherish simplicity, with few selfish wants and desires.
Extinguish learning and worry will disappear. What is the difference between yes and no?
What is the difference between good and evil?
What people fear is to be feared.
Those who do not practise the way cannot be fearless! They are not centred in the belly!
The crowd are so prosperous and splendid! They are too attached to their pleasures.
As though they were climbing the hills in springtime. I alone am anchored. That is ominous.
I am like a babe that has not yet learned to laugh.
I am so tired! Like one with no place to go.
Everyone in the crowd has lots of food, yet I alone seem to be left out.
I am a fool, and my heart-mind also!
Confused and turbid! By comparison the common people appear bright!
I alone am dark and muddle-headed.
The common people are observant and talkative!
I alone am depressed and melancholy.
Everyone in the crowd is useful.
Yet I alone am obstinate and low.
I alone am a stranger
Yet I quaff my mother’s milk.
Truly, one can only enter the good through following the way.
The way is only realized by means of an insight that is hard to understand.
Obscure yet luminous! Within it images, shapes, and forms appear.
Luminous yet obscure! Within it material objects appear.
Deep! Dark! Within it energy appears.
This energy is salvific. Within it signs appear.
From ancient times till now
Its name has not gone, through which we view the all-father.
How do I know the all-father?
Wrongness posits completion, crookedness posits straightness,
Emptiness posits fullness, shabbiness posits newness,
Poverty posits sufficiency, multiplicity posits confusion.
Truly, because the sage follows the the singularity
He becomes the archetype of the world.
Selfless, he shines.
Truly, because he is selfless he is a star.
He is not proud, therefore he is successful.
He does not boast, therefore he is ahead.
Truly, he does not fight.
Therefore there is none to fight with him.
The old saying says that “the twisted becomes straight.”
How can it be vain?
True completion goes back to the beginning.
Infrequent personal speech is good.
Therefore, a rising wind does not last all morning.
A cloudburst does not last all day.
What is their cause? Nature.
If nature cannot perdure,
How can man maintain his state?
Therefore, he undertakes the way.
He who follows the way is like the way.
He who follows the good is good.
He who loses, loses.
Similarly, the way rejoices in those who follow the way.
The good rejoices in the good.
And loss rejoices in those who lose.
Lack of trust propagates lack of trust.
He who stands on tiptoe is not steady. He who jumps up and down goes nowhere.
The arrogant person does not understand others.
The self-absorbed person is not understood.
The aggressive person achieves nothing.
The boastful person does not perdure.
According to the way, such people seem like bits of discarded food
Therefore, he who follows the way does not stay anywhere for long.
Primordial matter, inchoate, chaotic, divided into the spiritual and the material.
Silent! Empty! The singularity was stable and changeless,
All-powerful and undying.
I think it is the mother of the world.
I do not know its name.
By the power of truth I call it the way.
By the power of action I declare that its name is great.
I say it is great in its passing away. In its passing away I say it is primordial. In its primordiality I say it will return.
Therefore, the way is great. The spiritual is great. The material is great. Man also is great.
In the land there are four greats,
And man is one of them.
The people follow the law of the land. The law of the land follows the spiritual law. The spiritual follows the law of the way.
The law of the way is inherently good.
The heavy is the basis of the light.
The tranquil overcomes the impetuous.
Truly, even if the noble travels all day, he does not abandon his loaded cart.
Although there are glorious side paths, he stays the course.
How can the master treat the enormous burden of rulership lightly?
If he is too gentle, he has no basis.
If he is too impetuous, he cannot govern.
The good traveller leaves no trace. The good speaker finds no fault.
The good accountant does not need a tally stick.
The good door does not need a lock to shut, yet it cannot be opened.
The good knot does not need a rope to bind, yet it cannot be loosened.
Truly, the sage is always good at saving the people. Therefore, he does not abandons anyone.
He is always good at saving things. Therefore, he does not abandon anything.
Truly, I say this is the inherent illumination.
Therefore, the good man teaches the man who is not good.
And the man who is not good values the good man.
If the teacher is not esteemed, then there is no love of values.
Even though he has great wisdom, he is lost. Truly, I say this is a vital mystery.
He who knows his virility while protecting his femaleness
Is a valley to the world. He who is a valley to the world
Never departs from the good, but is reborn as a babe.
He who knows the bright yet protects the dark is the archetype of the world.
The archetype of the world is always and constantly good.
He returns to moderation.
He who knows honour but protects himself from dishonour is the valley of the world.
The valley of the world is always good and thus sufficient.
He returns to the original state of simplicity.
The simple is everywhere yet can be used as a tool.
The sage uses it yet acts as the head of state.
Therefore the government is not harmed.
He who would act in such a way so as to take over the world,
I see that he will not succeed.
The World Spirit cannot be used in this way.
He who tries to take it will be defeated. He who tries to grasp it will lose it.
People and things might lead or they might follow, they might exhale or they might inhale.
He who is strong might win or lose, might destroy or be destroyed.
Truly, for this reason the sage eschews excess, eschews extravagance, eschews grandiosity.
He who would use the Way to help his lord
Will not use force of arms, or he will pay a heavy price.
Where armies dwell, brambles and thorns flourish,
Leaving behind a bad year.
Having achieved victory, it is good to stop. The victor should not dare to go further.
The victor should not boast. The victor should not continue to attack.
The victor should not be proud. The victor should not be complacent.
The victor should not be brutal.
The robust becomes decrepit. Truly, I say that this is not the Way.
And this has never been the Way.
He who knows people is smart.
He who knows himself is enlightened.
He who conquers people is powerful.
To conquer oneself is better.
He who knows what is enough is rich.
He who acts forcefully is wilful.
He who does his duty will perdure.
He who dies but does not perish will live forever.
Worldlings seek out he who grasps the great image.
They seek him out yet are not troubled. They find the highest tranquility and peace.
The guests stop to share the music and the cakes.
Is the way that is spoken insipid? It has no taste.
Looked for, it cannot be seen.
Listened for, it cannot be heard.
Used, it cannot be exhausted.
He who would exhale must first inhale.
He who would weaken must first strengthen.
He who would abolish must first encourage.
He who would take must first give.
Truly, we say this is the subtle illumination.
The soft and the weak conquers the hard and the strong.
Fish cannot escape from the depths.
The weapons of the state should not be subject to popular approval.
The constant way acts effortlessly.
If princes and kings were able to guard it
Everything would be changed.
If change were to be sought,
I would suppress it because the nameless is plain and simple.
The nameless is plain and simple. Man too will not have desire,
Because without desire the tranquility of the world will of itself arise.
The way changes through antithesis.
The way uses weakness.
Everything in the world is born from being.
Being is born from nothing.
Because this is true I know the value of acting effortlessly.
Teaching without words,
Increasing without action,
Few attain it.
Which is more dear, one’s celebrity or oneself?
Which is better, oneself or money?
Which is worse, getting or dying?
Truly, the most loved exacts the greatest cost.
He who gains the most has the most to lose.
To know what is enough is no disgrace.
To know when to stop is not dangerous.
Truly, for this reason one will live a long time.
The great accomplishment seems inadequate, yet its utility is unimpaired.
The great completion seems empty, yet its utility is not exhausted.
The upright seems bent.
The great work seems awkward.
The great teaching seems inarticulate.
Rest conquers unrest.
Coolth conquers heat.
When everything is clear and tranquil, goodness is established.
When the whole world follows the way
The horses will go back to fertilize the fields.
When the world does not follow the way
The war horses will breed in the outlands.
There is no misfortune greater than not to know what is enough.
There is no blame greater than greed.
Therefore, knowing enough to know what is enough
Is always enough!
Without going outside he knows the world.
Without looking out the window he sees the spiritual way.
He who travels far
Truly, because the sage
Does not travel, he knows;
Does not see, he names;
Does not act, he succeeds.
He who studies gains every day.
He who follows the way loses every day.
He who loses, loses increasingly.
Thus, he arrives at acting effortlessly,
Acting effortlessly yet not acting.
Because he does not labour, everything in the world comes to him.
Thus he reaches for and obtains his reward,
Because he who takes from the world does not know what is enough.
Governing a great state is like cooking a small fish.
Because the way attends to the world
Mischievous spirits will not be threatening.
It is not that such spirits are not threatening,
But that they will not injure the people.
It is not that such spirits would not injure people
But that the sage also does not injure people.
These two are mutually non-injurious.
Therefore goodness is reciprocal.
Good officers do not fight.
Good fighters are not enslaved by rage.
Good victors do not take sides.
Good leaders of men follow.
Truly, we say this is not war but goodness.
Truly, we say this is the real power of the leaders of men.
Truly, we say this is the supreme spiritual union which was of old.
To know that one does not know is true knowledge. Not knowing that one does not know is a defect.
Truly, only the man who knows his defects as defects is not defective.
The sage is not defective because the sage knows his defects as defects.
Truly, only the man who knows his defects as defects is not defective.
If the people do not fear authority
Then a greater authority will appear.
Let them not disrespect their homes
Nor loathe their homeland.
Truly, only he who is not disrespectful
Will not be disrespected.
Truly, because the sage
Knows himself, he appears selfless.
Because he loves himself, he is not pretentious.
Therefore, he lets go of one and chooses the other.
True speech is not refined; refined speech is not true.
Good people do not argue; argumentative people are not good.
Knowledgeable people are not learned; learned people are not knowledgeable.
The sage does not hoard.
The more he acts for the people, the more he has.
The more he gives to the people, the more he receives.
The transcendent way cuts like a diamond, yet harms none.
The way of the sage acts, yet strives not.