What is the Tao Te Ching?

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Answered by: Michael, An Expert in the Taoist Principles 101 Category
The Tao Te Ching is a compilation of 81 precepts compiled by Lao Tzu on "the art of living". It is said that Lao Tzu was on his way to the Himalayan mountains to die, as was the custom at that time, and was imprisoned in a guard shack based on orders from the emperor of China. You see, one of the unique aspects of Lao Tzu was that he intentionally left nothing behind. No congregation, no written text, nothing. So, the Chinese emperor did not want Lao Tzu leaving China without some compilation of his life's perspective.

This put Lao Tzu in a rather interesting predicament in that death was drawing nearer but now he was being forced to violate his own principles by delineating his perspectives on the Art of Living. Since he knew that he would not be able to escape this situation, he wrote the Tao Te Ching.

The first of the 81 precepts discounts the other 80 by stating, "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao", meaning, that whatever I write about the Tao does not actually represent its true meaning. That said, the wisdom contained in the Tao Te Ching is of tremendous value. Given that I only have less than 300 words to go, this venue does not permit me to cover all of the precepts, however, I will concentrate on some of my favorites in order to give the reader a flavor of the document.

#2 When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see things as good, other things become bad. Meaning, that discrimination automatically divides up the playing field. If this sounds familiar, it is; it's the basis of all organized religion.

#15 The ancient masters were profound and subtle. There is no way to describe it; all we can describe is their appearance - they were careful as someone crossing an iced over stream. Alert as a warrior in enemy territory. Courteous as a guest. Fluid as melting ice. Shapeable as a block of wood. Receptive as a valley. Clear as a glass of water.

#22 If you want to become whole, let yourself be partial. If you want to become straight, let yourself be crooked. If you want to become full, let yourself be empty. If you want to become reborn, let yourself die. If you want to be given everything, give everything up.

#33 Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is true strength; mastering yourself is true power.

If you realize you have enough, you are truly rich. If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever.

#41 When superior men and women hear of the Tao, they embody it. When average men and women hear of the Tao, they half believe it and half doubt it. When foolish men and women hear of the Tao they laugh out loud, if they didn't laugh, it wouldn't be the Tao. The path into the light seems dark, the path foreword seems to go back, the direct path seems long, true power seems week, true purity seems tarnished, true steadfastness seems changeable, true clarity seems obscure, the greatest art seems unsophisticated, the greatest love seems indifferent, the greatest wisdom seems childish. The Tao is nowhere to be found, yet it nourishes and completes all things.

On a personal note, I have been in love with Lao Tsu and the Tao Te Ching for many years. From a literal perspective it makes little if any sense, and yet after I read the various translations over and over it seemed to make more sense than anything I've ever read.

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