[Interlude] Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

“Keep sharpening your knife

And it will blunt.”

This is not a regular review, more of a reflection. Outside of my ordinary reading I have been dipping into poetry and other such things and somehow I came across the Tao, I can’t really remember how it happened. I think I must have read something else which made reference to it and out of the thinnest thread of curiosity I decided to borrow it from the library. I have, for a long time, been interested in buddhism, not to the extent that I could become a ‘follower’ but rather because there are ideas in buddhism which intrigue me, and the Tao has similar appeal but I was not quite ready for how wholly it would entrance me. The Tao is like a logical puzzle, yet it is neither logical nor a puzzle. It is a strange philosophy and yet it seems to encapsulate much of what I have been thinking and feeling over the past several months since I decided I needed to slow down, to restrict my reading and take more time over things. As with my interest in buddhism I am not about to become a follower, but the ideas, the ways of being advocated by the Tao, hold great interest for me and in many ways it is closer to both how I feel and how I would like to be than any other philosophy I have encountered.

The Tao Te Ching consists of 81 passages, presented like poems. There are a number of translations. I do not know which is the most faithful, but the one I enjoy the most is the translation by Stephen Mitchell. There is something clean about it, modern perhaps, it reveals complexity of thought through simple language. Like here, in his translation of one of the more famed passages, passage 33:

“Knowing others is intelligence;

Knowing yourself is true wisdom.

Mastering others is strength;

Mastering yourself is true power.


If you realise that you have enough,

You are truly rich.

If you stay in the centre

And embrace death with your whole heart,

You will endure forever.”

It is not, of course, the veracity of the translation which interests me here, but rather the ideas contained within the words. It is an idea which has directed my thoughts and my actions for the past several months. I am trying to divest myself of the confusions created by desire, often desires which are fleeting and immaterial (or material in nature: the ownership, possession of books and things; the ideologies which are spread by the news, by politicians) and which do not bring either comfort or meaning or joy to my life. The Tao is a wonderful resource for reminding oneself of the necessity for silence and emptiness in a world which tells us that our life is worth nothing if we are not full, if we do not fill ourselves with food and experience, stuff our homes full of objects to display. As passage 9 states:

“Fill your bowl to the brim

And it will spill.

Keep sharpening your knife

And it will blunt.

Chase after money and security

And your heart will never unclench.

Care about people’s approval

And you will be their prisoner.


Do your work, then step back.

The only path to serenity.”


The Tao presents an idea of a life lived without the need for self-presentation, for praise or recognition. It is a philosophy which eschews the idea of image and exteriority. Since I have pulled back from doing things which are driven by fleeting and ephemeral desires I have noticed this more pressingly. Everything we see in the Western world is directing us towards the external presentation of the self, telling us that if we only look this way, sound this way, if only we have eaten these foods or seen these plays or TV shows, then we will be valuable and accepted in our society, that we will be admired. But admiration is like empty air, you suck it up and it is gone, it demands constant attention and it can direct us away from the things which matter most to us: love, connection, trust, intimacy. These things are not formed from external things, nor from a perfect image or from the things we have consumed. They are formed by outreaching, by being vulnerable and being willing to accept the vulnerability of others. The Tao advises us to be gentle and flexible, to be content with things as they are and not expend our energy on trying to force things to be what we want them to be. It asks us to let go of our need for control and step back, observe the world as it is and love it for what it is:

“If you realise that all things change,

There is nothing you will try to hold on to.

If you aren’t afraid of dying,

There is nothing you can’t achieve.


Trying to control the future

Is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.

When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,

Chances are that you’ll cut your hand.”


The Tao also has some comforting thoughts on matters of good governance, something which appears to be in short supply these days when ‘leadership’ seems to be reverting to a cult of personality and politics to mere gossip and squabbling. I wish our leaders would spend a little time reading and reflecting on the Tao, and perhaps they might learn this:

“If a country is governed with tolerance,

The people are comfortable and honest.

If a country is governed with repression,

The people are depressed and crafty.


When the will to power is in charge,

The higher the ideals, the lower the results.

Try to make people happy,

And you lay the groundwork for misery.

Try to make people moral,

And you lay the groundwork for vice.


Thus the Master is content

To serve as an example

And not to impose her will.

She is pointed but doesn’t pierce.

Straightforward, but supple.

Radiant, but easy on the eyes.”


I have found the Tao to be a source of great comfort, but also challenge; a way of challenging my mindset, my desires, my way of thinking and behaving. It has made me think about who and what I want to be, how I want to behave towards others and the value, the relief, of letting go.


About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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4 Responses to [Interlude] Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

  1. So much of what you’ve written about and quoted here strikes chords for me, Belinda, not least ‘If you realise that you have enough, You are truly rich’ We could all learn lessons from it, even those without a religious bent, although the Tao, like Buddhism, sounds like more of a philosophy than a religion. Another excellent post.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Susan 🙂 that was also the part that resonated quite strongly with me, the idea that realising we already have enough. This threads through a great deal of the Tao: sufficiency, silence, non-action. It is quite the antithesis of the consumerist Western culture we live in which is, perhaps, a large part of the appeal.

  2. SimplyMe says:

    I owned a copy of Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching for many years and agree with you both in terms of the content of this work and also regarding the quality of the translation (not that I am an expert on the latter, but at one time, I owned three of Mitchell’s books and loved them all. His scholarship seems impressive to me.
    To have an unclenched heart, to occupy the middle path (of passionately committed equanimity) — these two states summarize what I find to be worthy regardless of all labels (religious, spiritual, political, or otherwise). Thank you so much for sharing so openly.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Jan 🙂 I also have Gilgamesh translated by Mitchell, which gave me some comfort when approaching this version of the Tao. Also, this website gives all of the Tao with a number of translations, and I still like the cleanliness of the Mitchell best http://taoteching.org.uk/
      I love the concept of passionately committed equanimity, such a beautiful ideal. And I think in the current climate where there is so much discord and so little dialogue, the middle ground has become more important than ever. Because it requires engagement, openness and a willingness to listen and to learn from different points of view. And it is challenging, too, to stay open. Yes, I agree: these are states to be valued. Thanks, as always, for your considered comments. I have learned a great deal from you.

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