Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

3.7: Lao Tzu--Daoism

  • Page ID
  • The Daodejing


    One of the values of Daoism is the concept of Wu Wei. A simple translation of this might be “go with the flow”, but this is not quite enough to really describe wu wei. The literal meaning of wu wei is “without action”, “without effort”, or “without control”, and is often included in the paradox wei wu wei: “action without action” or “effortless doing”.

    To Live Our Lives Like Water from Parker Palmer[1] talks about Daoism and how people can find this concept of Wu Wei in their living.

    Chapter 1.

    A dao that may be spoken is not the enduring Dao. A name that may be
    named is not an enduring name.
    No names – this is the beginning of heaven and earth. Having names – this is
    the mother of the things of the world.
    Make freedom from desire your constant norm; thereby you will see what is
    subtle. Make having desires your constant norm; thereby you will see
    what is manifest.
    These two arise from the same source but have different names. Together
    they may be termed ‘the mysterious’.
    Mystery and more mystery: the gate of all that is subtle.

    Chapter 2.

    All in the world deem the beautiful to be beautiful; it is ugly. All deem the
    good to be good; it is bad.

    What is and what is not give birth to one another,
    What is difficult and what is easy complete one another,
    Long and short complement one another,
    High and low incline towards one another,
    Note and noise harmonize with one another,
    Before and after follow one another.

    Therefore the sage dwells in the midst of non-action (wuwei) and practices
    the wordless teaching.
    Herein arise the things of the world, it does not turn from them; what it gives
    birth to it does not possess; what it does it does not retain. The
    achievements complete, it makes no claim to them. Because it makes
    no claim to them, they never leave it.

    Chapter 11.

    Thirty spokes share a single hub; grasp the nothingness at its center to get
    the use of the wheel.
    Clay is fashioned to make a vessel; grasp the nothingness at the center to get
    the use of the vessel.
    Bore windows and doors to create a room; grasp the nothingness of the
    interior to get the use of the room.
    That which is constitutes what is valuable, but that which is not constitutes
    what is of use.

    Chapter 24.

    One on tiptoe cannot stand; one whose legs are spread cannot walk.
    One who shows himself cannot be bright; one who asserts himself cannot
    shone; one who praises himself can be meritorious; one who boasts of
    himself cannot endure.
    For the Dao, these are called “excess store and superfluous acts.” Things
    detest them; therefore, the man of the Dao does not abide in them.

    Chapter 51.

    The Dao gives birth to them, virtue (de) rears them, things give them form,
    circumstances complete them.
    Thus all things in the world revere Dao and honor virtue. That the Dao is
    revered and virtue honored is ordained by no one; it is ever so of itself.
    Thus the Dao gives birth to them and virtue rears them – fosters them,
    nurtures them, settles them, completes them, nourishes them, covers them.

    To live but not possess, to act but depend on nothing, to lead without
    directing, this is called mysterious virtue.

    Chapter 71.

    To know you do not know is best; not to know that one does not know is to be
    One who sees his flaws as flaws is therefore not flawed.
    The sage is flawless. He sees his flaws as flaws, therefore he is flawless.

    Chapter 78.

    Nothing in the world is more weak and soft than water, yet nothing surpasses
    it in conquering the hard and strong – there is nothing that can
    All know that the weak conquers the strong and the soft conquers the hard.
    But none are able to act on this.
    Thus the sage says that he who receives the derision of the state is the lord of
    the state altars; he who receives the misfortune of the state is the king
    of the world.
    Straight words seem to reverse themselves.

    Access to the entire Dao de jing also includes Dr. Eno’s comments on this work. Dao de jing

    © 2010, 2016 Robert Eno
    This online translation is made freely available for use in not-for-profit educational settings and for personal use.
    For other purposes, apart from fair use, copyright is not waived.

    1. PARKER J. PALMER is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday. He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.
    • Was this article helpful?