This edition first published 2012

Introduction copyright © Tom Butler-Bowdon, 2012

The material for Tao Te Ching is based on the 1919 edition of Laotzu's Tao and Wu Wei, translated by Dwight Goddard and Henri Borel, published by Brentano's: New York, and is now in the public domain. This edition is not sponsored or endorsed by, or otherwise affiliated with Dwight Goddard or Henri Borel, their families or heirs.


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ISBN 978-0-857-08311-1 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-857-08333-3 (ebk)

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Set in 11/15 pt ITC New Baskerville by Sparks –


An Introduction

by Tom Butler-Bowdon

“Elusive and obscure, indeed, but at its heart… is all being. Unfathomable and obscure, indeed, but at its heart is all spirit, and spirit is reality. At its heart is truth.”

What is Tao? Very simply, it is the timeless, changeless spirit that runs through all life and matter. God, or Universal Mind or Intelligence, are other ways of describing it, but it is beyond the categorization of man. According to Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese personage who drew attention to the Tao, it is “Being that is all-inclusive and that existed before Heaven and Earth.” Tao both creates everything in the universe, and keeps it all going.

This is all very well, but why should the Tao matter to you, an individual in the 21st century? What is the relationship between this spirit or force, and the individual?

The task of life, according to Lao Tzu, is to bring ourselves into attunement with the Tao, so that we are always moving with the grain of the universe, and not against it. This may not sound like much, but it makes all the difference to the quality and usefulness of our lives.

Tao is variously translated as “Way” or “Creative Principle,” the principle behind all reality. In concrete terms, Tao manifests as “Teh,” which means virtue or moral action. By being in tune with Tao, we naturally know the best action to take in any situation. Yet Lao Tzu did not lay out a set of social rules to be obeyed as such, but rather pointed to a certain positive way of being and acting that upholds the Tao's creative principle.

Broken down, the title means “The Classic (Ching) of the Way (Tao) and Virtue” (Teh). In other words, it is a book about recognizing truth and acting in accordance with it. The Tao Teh Ching, or (Daodejing, as it is also known) is sometimes called “The Way of Power,” because one who is in accordance with the Tao is naturally insightful and powerful.

In this introduction we will go further into the value of the Tao Teh Ching for the individual, before discussing Taoism and Lao Tzu himself. All quotes below come from the classic rendering of the Tao Teh Ching by Dwight Goddard, which follows this Introduction. We also use Goddard's spelling of “Teh,” which has the same meaning as the more often used “Te.”

A Person of Power and Wisdom

“Therefore the wise man, embracing unity as he does, will become the world's model. Not pushing himself forward he will become enlightened; not asserting himself he will become distinguished; not boasting of himself he will acquire merit; not approving himself he will endure. Forasmuch as he will not quarrel, the world will not quarrel with him.”

The Tao Teh Ching famously rejects the value of worldly power, fame and riches, and teaches instead the peace and freedom of a life of service. This does not sound that exciting, but as Lao Tzu points out, someone of this nature is much closer to knowing “the way things are” than another who simply chases illusory material or egoistic goals.

The paradox is that because such a person is so grounded, people naturally tend to be drawn to them. They have something others don't, and tend to become a natural leader in their domain. The wise person, Lao Tzu says, “… is inaccessible to favour or hate; he cannot be reached by profit or injury; he cannot be honoured or humiliated. Thereby he is honoured by all.”

Lao Tzu notes that “Heaven is eternal, earth is lasting.” He means that the heavens and the earth we walk on are the base and ground for life, and yet “Because they do not live for themselves… that is the reason they will ever endure.” Observing this, the wise person learns that in a world of competing egos, their personality is not really important. In a disinterested way they look to support others and foster their wellbeing. Yet the irony of doing so, Lao Tzu notes, is that their personality is preserved and they begin to be noted by others.

The opposite is a person who seeks only wealth and self-glorification. Yet Lao Tzu notes that a building “crowded with gold and jewels” can't be protected, and simply becomes a target of theft and a magnet to misfortune. Instead, “To win true merit, to preserve just fame, the personality must be retiring.” He observes:

“It is not natural to stand on tiptoe … One who displays himself is not bright, or one who asserts himself cannot shine. A self-approving man has no merit, nor does one who praises himself grow.

     “The relation of these things (self-display, self-assertion, self-approval) to Tao is the same as offal is to food. They are excrescences from the system; they are detestable; Tao does not dwell in them.”

Running through the book is a gentle call for restraint and limiting one's desires. According to Lao Tzu, desires lead only to an awareness of the extent to which matter is limited, and its ultimate meaninglessness. In contrast, not desiring things related to the senses allows us to exist in the freedom of the spiritual realm, where truth resides.

At several points, the reader is told that before they can become effective leaders, they must first be able to control themselves. Such restraint means that, when we have to act, it is done so out of pure objective justice rather than through any kind of emotional compulsion:

“By patience the animal spirits can be disciplined. By self-control one can unify the character. By close attention to the will, compelling gentleness, one can become like a little child. By purifying the subconscious desires one may be without fault.”