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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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- 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. ↵