by Lao-zi

Translation by Sanderson Beck and Ken Tsang (reprinted with permission)

The Way that can be described is not the absolute Way;
the name that can be given is not the absolute name.
Nameless it is the source of heaven and earth;
named it is the mother of all things.

Whoever is desireless, sees the essence of life.
Whoever desires, sees its manifestations.
These two are the same,
but what is produced has different names.
They both may be called the cosmic mystery:
from the cosmic to the mystical
is the door to the essence of all life.

When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty,
there arises the recognition of ugliness.
When they all know the good as good,
there arises the recognition of bad.

Therefore being and non-being produce each other;
difficult and easy complete each other;
long and short contrast each other;
high and low distinguish each other;
sound and voice harmonize with each other;
beginning and end follow each other.

Therefore the wise manage affairs without interfering
and teach beyond the words.

All things rise, and they do not turn away from them.
They give them life, but do not take possession of them.
They act, but do not rely on their own ability.
They accomplish, but claim no credit.
Because they claim no credit,
their accomplishment remains with them.

Do not exalt the worthy,
so that people will not compete.
Do not value rare treasure,
so that people will not steal.
Do not display objects of desire,
so that people's hearts will not be disturbed.

Therefore the wise lead by keeping
their hearts pure, their bellies full,
their ambitions weak, and their bones strong,
so that the people may be purified
of their thoughts and desires;
and the cunning ones will not interfere.
By acting without interfering, all may live in peace.

The Way is infinite; its use is never exhausted.
It is bottomless, like the fountainhead of all things.
It smoothes its roughness; it unties its tangles.
It softens its light; it calms its turmoil.
Deep and still, ever present.
I do not know its source.
It seems to have existed before the Lord.

Nature is not humane.
It treats all things like straw dogs.
The wise are not humane.
They regard people like straw dogs.

How the universe is like a bellows!
While empty, it is never exhausted.
The more it is worked, the more it produces.
Much talk brings exhaustion.
It is better to keep to the center.

The spirit of the valley never dies.
It is called the mystical female.
The door of the mystical female
is the root of heaven and earth.
It seems to be continuously within us.
Use it, and it will never be exhausted.

Heaven is eternal, and the earth is very old.
They can be eternal and long lasting,
because they do not exist for themselves,
and for this reason can long endure.

Therefore the wise put themselves last,
but find themselves foremost.
They exclude themselves,
and yet they always remain.
Is it not because they do not live for themselves
that they find themselves fulfilled?

The best are like water.
Water benefits all things and does not compete with them.
It flows to the lowest level that people disdain.
In this it comes near to the Way.

In their dwellings, they love the earth.
In their hearts, they love what is profound.
In their friendship, they love humanity.
In their words, they love sincerity.
In government, they love peace.
In business, they love ability.
In their actions, they love timeliness.
It is because they do not compete
that there is no resentment.

Stretch a bow to the very full,
and you will wish you had stopped in time.
Temper a sword-edge to its very sharpest,
and the edge will not last long.

When gold and jade fill your hall,
you will not be able to keep them safe.
To be proud with honor and wealth
is to cause one's own downfall.
Withdraw as soon as your work is done.
Such is heaven's way.

Can you embrace the One with your soul,
and never depart from the Way?
Can you concentrate your vital force
to achieve the gentleness of a new-born baby?
Can you cleanse and purify your mystic vision
until it is clear?
Can you love the people and govern the state
without interfering?
Can you play the role of the female
in opening and closing the doors of heaven?
Can you understand all and penetrate all
without using the mind?

To give birth and to nourish,
to give birth without taking possession,
to act without obligation,
to lead without dominating---
this is mystical power.