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Reading the Tao Te Ching

taoThe Tao Te Ching is the most popular book outside the Bible, with over 100 translations into English alone. Yet it is completely naturalistic. It does not talk about gods, revelations, and miracles, but about harmonizing with the flow of nature. The Tao, explains Robert C. Solomon (2002, 41), “has much in common with what we are calling naturalized spirituality.”

Who wrote this small but profound book? Originally it was credited to a man named Lao Tzu, who was supposed to have been, explains D. C. Lau (1963, 90), “an older contemporary of Confucius.” But most scholars now believe that it is a compilation of different authors. Based on this, most modern scholars “would place the work in the late fourth or early third century” (1963, 90).

The Tao Te Ching is a short text divided into eighty-one chapters and two parts. Part one is about the Tao (pronounced Dow). Part two is about Te (pronounced Duh). These two concepts are important to understand before reading the Tao Te Ching.


First, what is the Tao? “The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name” (Chan 1963, 139). The word Tao is usually rendered as “Way” in most translations. But the concept has very deep and profound meaning in Chinese. So in once sense you cannot really define Tao, it is beyond concepts.

Hua-Ching Ni (1995, 7), in his explanatory translation of the Tao Te Ching, paraphrases this first two lines as, “Tao, the subtle reality of the universe cannot be described. That which can be described in words is merely a conception of the mind.”

Let me clear up one misconception some Westerners have. The Tao is not God. As Eva Wong (2011, 23) explains, “Although the Tao is the source of all life, it is not a deity or spirit… [it] is an impersonal and unnamed force behind the workings of the universe.”

But, as Burton Watson explains, as “unknowable as the [T]ao may be in essence, one must somehow learn to sense its presence and movement in order to bring one’s life and movements into harmony with it” (Addiss 1993, xii). Hence, such books as the Tao Te Ching.

Tao, explains Livia Kohn (2001, 30), “can be understood either metaphysically as the underlying source and power of the universe, practically as the way in which the world functions, or analytically as the way in which people can (or cannot) speak about reality.” This is the fullest definition, covering many different nuances.


Diane Dreher (1990, xiv) says that it means “means virtue or character.” Brook Ziporyn (2009, 214) defines it as “the intrinsic powers constituting a thing’s distinctive being.” You could think of it this way. Tao is the way of nature, while Te is our response to the Tao, our harmonizing with that Way.

Te includes morality and ethics, but an ethics based on the natural flow of things. It has the connotation of being true to yourself as you really are, the nature of the Tao in you. It is from this that we get such ideas as simplicity, spontaneity, and naturalness. This is what it means to be in harmony with the Tao.

Wu Wei

And one last concept that would be good to understand is Wu Wei (pronounced woo way). It is usually translated as nonaction, but this can be misleading. In the Tao Te Ching, as Eva Wong (2011, 25) explains, Wu Weir “means not using force.” So it might be better translated as unforced action.

Going a little deeper, Wu Wei means “letting go of egoistic concerns and passions and desires on the personal level,” writes Livia Kohn (2001, 22), and “finding a sense of where life, nature, and the world are headed on the social level, and abstaining from forceful and interfering measures in the political realm.”

Just in passing, it is interesting to note Stoicism and Taoism share similar goals, that of attaining tranquility. Stoic tranquility, explains William B. Irvine (2009, 29), was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions… and the presence of positive emotions.”

We also see this in Taoism, as Livia Kohn (2001, 23) points out, the “goal of practicing nonaction and naturalness” is “to be as much ‘in tune’ with [T]ao as possible.”. This “complete harmony” is expressed in the Taoist text “On the Visualization of Spirit” as having the mind “turned entirely toward purity and tranquility” (2001, 128).

How to Read It

First, pick a good translation. My first recommendation is the one by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo. This is the translation recommended by Burton Watson, Livia Kohn, and Gary Snyder (Back Cover). I also like the translation done by D. C. Lau, which is part of the Penguin Classics. I also really like Wing-Tsit Chan’s version.

The best online version of the Tao Te Ching is translated by Derek Lin, which was published by SkyLight Paths in 2006. This can be found at

Once you have a good translation, don’t just sit down and read it like you would any other book. It is meant to be pondered. It should be read in a reflective mode, mulling over each part. Treat it like a cow treats its cud. Crew it over and over and over again.

Naturalists don’t have scriptures per se, but we do have the Tao Te Ching. We can read it reflectively, contemplate and ponder its meaning, and let the text guide us into a deeper harmony with the way things are. If we let it, the Tao Te Ching can help us learn to tune into the ebb and flow of the natural order of things, relax into it, and find that tranquility we long for.

Let me end with a quote from the Tao Te Ching (Chan 1963, 147):

Attain complete vacuity,
Maintain steadfast quietude.
All things come into being,
And I see thereby their return.
All things flourish,
But each one returns to its root.
This return to its root means tranquility.


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• Addiss, Stephen and Stanley Lombardo, trans. 1993. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.
• Chan, Wing-Tsit, trans. 1963.A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
• Dreher, Diane. 1990. The Tao of Inner Peace. New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc.
• Irvine, William B. 2009. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. New York: Oxford University Press.
• Kohn, Livia. 2001. Daoism and Chinese Culture. Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press.
• Lau, D. C., trans. 1963.Tao Te Ching. New York: Penguin Books.
• Lin, Derek. , 2006. Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths. Accessed June 1, 2016.
• Ni, Hua-Ching. 1995. The Complete Works of Lao Tzu: Tao Teh Ching and Hua Hu Ching. Los Angles: Tao of Wellness.
• Solomon, Robert C. 2002. Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
• Wong, Eva. 2011. Taoism: An Essential Guide. Boston: Shambhala.
• Ziporyn, Brook, trans. 2009. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.

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