The teaching of Lao Zi as written in Dao De Jing (or The Tao Bible) is easily misunderstood as passive, no action and let it be. Here is an attempt to share the essence of Dao De Jing in one minute.For Dao De Jing references, a good website with Chinese-English-French translation is here. A recommended English translation is here. Another good site with Chinese & English translations of many Chinese Classics work is here.
Foundational Truth - The Way
This created universe has a universal way of working called the Dao (The Way). While this eternal way cannot be described fully (since our mind and language are limited and any observation and measurement will distort the original), nevertheless, we could observe its workings and see its wonderful glory: the abundance of lives and things in harmony. Dao De Jing itself was an attempt by Lao Zi to share it with us. Lao Zi's thinking follows much from the I-Ching teaching that preceded him. Even though many I-Ching commentaries were written by Ru Jia (followers of Confucius and Mencius), I think Dao De Jing captures the essence of I-Ching better.
Principal Teaching - Know The Way and Follow It will lead to Abundance & Peace
In Hebrew, there is a word that describes this abundance, peace, and harmony. It is the word, Shalom, meaning complete and translated as peace, prosperity, abundance, and harmony. I prefer the word harmony as peace tends to be taken as quietness and no movement. Harmony gives the ideas of powerful forces at work and yet synchronizes well and produces a great symphony.
The Corollary - Violating The Way will need much effort and still Ends in Failure
The working order of The Way (the Dao) cannot be violated without paying a price. We need great efforts and may have temporary success. But in the long run, we will lose the very thing that we tried to gain. Man learns it the hard way and never seems to learn the lessons. Wars after wars. Trying to outdo nature only results in a violent reaction from nature ending in global warming and weather distortions.
The Duality Mindset: Yin + Yang
The mindset is duality. Lao Zi used Yin and Yang only once in Chapter 42. He used Have and Have-Not more often. Other related words include Act and Rest, Hard and Soft, Seen and Unseen, and True Wisdom of Dao vs Worldly Wisdom (Selfishness, Short-cuts, Cheats, Lies to gain for self).
The Key Principles of the Dao-Way
The two main principles are "No-Action Action" 无为之为 and “Empty Heart” 虚心。
K1 - No-Action Action 无为之为 - Acting according to Dao-Way
A key principle in Dao De Jing is 无为 No Action. Most people think it means don't do anything or do nothing. The Chinese even have a famous phrase, 以静制动， not reacting to overcome actions. However, I think the real meaning of the 无为 No Action is the 'not violating the Way' type of action. It is not talking about doing nothing, but about doing things that do not violate the Way such as harming the natural ecosystem for selfish gains. The better translation for '无为之为' will be 'Action according to the Dao-Way' or simply "Action of Dao".
Doing nothing is just one of the many possible non-violating actions. Another way could be to channel the attacking energy back to the attacker. This is the concept of Judo. We have heard the phrase "giving him enough rope to hang himself". Lao Zi preferred the gentle approach, to draw out, to embrace, over direct confrontation with a stronger force. Chapter 36 柔 弱 胜 刚 强, the gentle overcome the hard and strong. Chapter 76 强 大 处 下 ， 柔 弱 处 上 。 Strong and big occupy the lower ground but soft and gentle occupy the higher ground.
The wise men are encouraged to do 'no-action' action as written in Chapter 2 是 以 圣 人 处 无 为 之 事 行 不 言 之 教. They are to teach without words (i.e. teach by examples. The exhortation is not to teach, but to teach rightly, by being the model for others to follow). This teaching without words is repeated in Chapter 43.
Chapter 3 为 无 为 ， 则 无 不 治 。 Do the non-violating actions and then there is nothing that cannot be ruled or managed. It is about not forcing people to do certain things but creating the environment and facilitating them in such a way that the people do them automatically. Letting the people 自动自发 self-directed and self-motivated is the best. When they are self-motivated, they will do them happily and do them with quality and excellence. When people are forced, they will do them with anger and bad quality.
The working of the Dao Way is given in Chapter 37 道 常 无 为 而 无 不 为。 The Way always has no-violating action and is always active. This is repeated in Chapter 48. In Chapter 81 圣 人 之 道 ， 为 而 不 争 。 make an example clear. The wise men act but without fighting (for self-benefits).
Chapter 16 不 知 常 ， 妄 作 凶 shows the negative in action. Not knowing the constant Way and acting in recklessness will result in disaster.
Christians will paraphrase this "Always do the right things and no disobedient sinful acts“.
K2 Empty Heart - Humility
The other key principle is to have an empty heart. A heart without desires and prejudices. A good word for it is humility. But it is richer than what we would normally understand as humility. It includes the following:
- Not Knowing 无知 and hence always learning. Chapter 27 虽 智 大 迷 ， 是 谓 要 妙 。Wise but appeared confused, this is because wanting to be wonderful.
- Not selfish 无 私 Chapter 7 非 以 其 无 私 邪 。 故 能 成 其 私 。 Not selfish and yet ends up receiving!. Chapter 13 及 吾 无 身 ， 吾 有 何 患 。 Because I have 'no-body' (self) and hence I have no worry!.
- No Selfish Desire 无欲 Chapter 44 祸 莫 大 于 不 知 足 ﹔ 咎 莫 大 于 欲 得 。Disaster comes from not knowing contentment and sin comes from wanting to gain.
- Not Insisting on one greatness 不持: C2 功 成 而 不 居 Achieve success and yet don't claim credit. C77 是 以 圣 人 为 而 不 恃 ， 功 成 而 不 处 ， 其 不 欲 见 贤 。 The wise men do and yet don't insist on claiming success, not sitting on the success and not wanting to know the high-level people. C44 以 其 终 不 自 为 大 ， 故 能 成 其 大 。 In the end not thinking about one's greatness and therefore is able to accomplish great things.
- Not Competing 不争. C8 ...水 善 利 万 物 而 不 争 ，... 动 善 时 。 夫 唯 不 争， 故 无 尤。 Chapter 8 describes Dao Way as water. Water supports living things and does not fight with them. Because I don't fight with others, trying to get ahead of them, and hence I have no regrets or faults.
C81 圣 人 之 道 ， 为 而 不 争 。 The Way of the Saints is doing and yet not competing (for credits or benefits) with others. Non-competing can be found in C22, C66, and C68 too.
- See also Yin-Yang Thinking Framework - Building Upon the Great Teacher on key teachings by Zhuang Zi, the 2nd most important guru of Dao besides Lao Zi. 化解自我，虚而待物
Translated: Forget about oneself, handle things with humility and gentleness (as if empty).
Lao Zi's active push for kindness is seen all throughout. The opposite of the Not selfish, Not fighting, No-Self-Desire, is LOVE or Kindness to others. There are quite a number of places where he stated it in the positive - do the kind thing. We have covered Chapter 8 above. Chapter 49 善 者 ， 吾 善 之 ﹔ 不 善 者 ， 吾 亦 善 之 ﹔ 德 善 。 We are good to all - those that are good to us and those that are not good to us. Chapter 63 show forth the power of love - transform badness into goodness. 为无为，事无事，味无味。大小多少，报怨以德。Do the things that do not violate the Way, doing things as if not doing (effortless work, no motives), bring out the taste from the tasteless, no matter big or small, and return hurts and harms with the virtue of love!
Chapter 67 says Love is the best and most powerful.
Doing the right things without selfish motivation, not claiming credits or benefits, and following the great universal Dao Way to bring vitality and harmony into the world is the heart of Lao Zi. Let's follow them and benefit the world likewise.
Update 6 Dec 2011
Here is an updated mind map on the Tao Bible in One Minute. It provides additional information.
Lim Liat (c) 2011