Tao Thought: Invisibility and daodejing 76

Invisibility is the best advantage.
But if forced to a confrontation,
Come out with all your skill.

There was once a roadside vendor who sold rheumatism formulas to the passersby. He was a cheery old man who was faithfully at his spot for years. One day a young bully began to harass the vendor. The old man tried very hard to avoid the confrontation, but eventually the bully became convinced that he had a coward to abuse as he pleased. When the moment of attack came, the old man defeated him with superior boxing skills. Significantly, the old man was never seen again. He had manifested his superiority at a critical moment, but once he had exposed himself, he disappeared.

In this competitive world, it is best to be invisible. Go through life without showing off, attracting attention to yourself, or making flamboyant gestures. These will only attract the hostility of others. The wise accomplish all that they want without arousing the envy or scorn of others. They make achievements only for the sake of fulfilling their inner yearnings.

Yet it is inevitable that you will have to prove yourself at one time or another. When that is necessary, then you must marshal all your skills and do your very best. Prove yourself when it is demanded, and when you must prove yourself, be superior. At that moment, it is no time to talk of philosophy and humility. Act. Do. Then fade back into invisibility.

365 Tao
Daily Meditations

Deng Ming-Dao (author)
ISBN 0-06-250223-9

Tao Te Ching translated by various current scholars

When people are born they are soft and supple
when they perish they are hard and stiff

When plants shoot forth they are soft and tender
when they die they are withered and dry

Thus it is said the hard and strong are followers of death
the soft and weak are followers of life

When an army becomes strong it suffers defeat
when a plant becomes hard it snaps

The hard and strong dwell below
the soft and weak dwell above



At birth a person is soft and yielding,
at death stiff and hard.

All beings, the grass, the trees: alive, soft, and yielding;
dead, stiff, and hard.

Therefore the hard and inflexible are friends of death.
The soft and yielding are friends of life.

An unyielding army is destroyed.
An unbending tree breaks.

The hard must humble itself or be otherwise humbled.
The soft will ultimately ascend.



Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plats are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.




This site contains segments of an extended interpretive theory of Classical Chinese philosophy that takes Daoism (Taoism) as the philosophical center. The interpretive theory turns on a new, more philosophical reading of the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (ChuangTzu 莊子). My analysis highlights skeptical and relativist themes in his thinking. The crucial novelty is the assumption that Zhuangzi was a philosopher of language, like his close friend and philosophical interlocutor, Hui Shi, . He was deeply engaged with the linguistic and other insights of the Later Mohists (sometimes called Neo-Mohists or Dialectical Mohists) and the School of Names. His relation to the other famous Daoist, Laozi (Lao Tzu) is rather more indirect but their views are complementary in that both deal with 道daoguide at a higher level than do Confucians or Mohists.

The site also contains my related writings about Confucianism, Mohism, LegalismAsian values, human rights and rule of law. and some reflections on Asian values, human rights and rule of law.

If you find the interpretive approach and style worthwhile, you may be interested in my systematic and more complete treatment of Chinese thought. I am please to report that Oxford University Press has reissued my book, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought , in affordable paperback (at last!).

I add essays and translation here as I finish them for publication and also include links to classes I teach at the University of Hong Kong.

Much of this is work in progress and I would appreciate any feedback about, e.g., where it is hard to follow, makes historical errors, etc. Any Chinese characters in various postings use Big5 coding (gradually changing to Unicode). Hover over note icons in the detail pages for a brief description of each article.

If you have any comments, criticisms or suggestions send mail to: chansen (at)


Tao Thought: Choosing and daodejing 73

One side of a ridge is cold and foggy,
The other is hot and dry.
Just by choosing where you stand,
You alter your destiny.

Those who follow Tao talk of destiny. They define destiny as the course or pattern of your life as it spontaneously takes shape. They do not think of destiny as a preordained set of circumstances. there is no rigid script for this mad stage that we are on.

Those who follow Tao then look of location. By this, they mean something as literal as where you situate your house or where you stand politically. They think that these factors are very important. Let us imagine for a moment that you had a job offer in another city far from where you were born. You move there with your family. Do you think that your life would change? We can refine this perception: If you went to a certain school, you would be educated differently. If you went into a different profession, it would change your outlook. If you lived in one neighborhood or another, you would be a different person. Every choice you make changes you.

N o matter how minor or how great, you must make choices each and every minute that passes. The irony of life is that it is a one-way journey. You cannot go back, you cannot make comparisons by trying one way and then another. There are no double-blind studies where it comes to your own life. Therefore, only wisdom will suffice to guide you.

365 Tao
Daily Meditations
Deng Ming-Dao
ISBN 0-06-250223-9
daodejing translated by current scholars

If people no longer fear death
why do we threaten to kill them

And if others fear death
and still act perverse
and we catch and kill them
who else will dare

As long as people fear death
the executioner will exist
to kill in the executioner's place
is to take the carpenter's place

Who takes the carpenter's place
is bound to hurt his hands



If people don't love life,
they won't fear death,
and threatening them with it won't work.

If people have lives worth living,
then the threat of death is meaningful,
and they'll do what is right to avoid it.

But killing itself should be the province
of the great executioner alone.
Trying to take his place and kill
is like cutting wood
in the place of the master carpenter:

The odds are you'll hurt your own hand.


If you realize 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.


Stanford Studies on Daoism


  • The Laozi Story
  • Date and Authorship of the Laozi
  • Textual Traditions
  • Commentaries
  • Approaches to the Laozi

Approaches to the Laozi

At the political level, the Laozi condemns aggressive measures such as war (ch. 30), cruel punishment (ch. 74), and heavy taxation (75), which reflect but the ruler's own desire for wealth and power. If the ruler could rid himself of desire, according to the Laozi, the world would be at peace of its own accord (chs. 37, 57).

In this sense, the Laozi describes the ideal sage-ruler as someone who understands and follows ziran (e.g., chs. 2, 17, 64). In this same sense, it also opposes the Confucian program of benevolent intervention, which as the Laozi understands it, addresses at best the symptoms but not the root cause of the disease. The Confucian project is in fact symptomatic of the decline of the rule of Dao. Conscious efforts at cultivating moral virtues only accentuate the loss of natural goodness, which in its original state would have been entirely commonplace and would not have warranted distinction or special attention (chs. 18, 38). Worse, Confucian ethics assumes that learning and moral self-cultivation can bring about personal and social improvement. From the Daoist perspective, artificial effort to “improve” things or to correct the order of ziran only fuels a false sense of self that alienates human beings from their inherent “virtue.”

The concept of nonaction is exceedingly rich. It brings into play a cutting discernment that value distinctions are ideological, that human striving and competitive strife spring from the same source. Nonaction entails also a critique of language and conventional knowledge, which to the Daoist sage has become impregnated with ideological contaminants. The use of paradoxes in the Laozi especially heightens this point. For example, the person of Dao is depicted as “witless” or “dumb,” whereas people driven by desire appear intelligent and can scheme with cunning (ch. 20). The way of learning, as one would normally understand, “increases” the store of knowledge and adds value to goods and services; in contrast, questioning the very meaning of such “knowledge” and “value,” the Laozi describes the pursuit of Dao as constantly “decreasing” or chipping away at the artifice built by desire (ch. 48). Driving home the same point, to cite but one more example, the Laozi states, “The highest virtue is not virtuous; therefore it has virtue” (ch. 38). In other words, those who fully realize “virtue” in the Daoist sense do not act in the way that men and women of conventional morality typically act or are expected to act. Paradoxes of this kind function as a powerful rhetorical device, which forces the reader, so to speak, to move out of his or her “comfort zone” and to take note of the proposed higher truth of Dao (see also, e.g., chs. 41, 45, 56). In this context, one can also understand some of the provocative statements in the Laozi telling the ruler, for example, to keep the people in a state of “ignorance” (ch. 65).

a reading list of books and interpretations of the Daodejing is available at
archived at


Tao Thought: Internalizing and daodejing 73

People think they don’t have to learn,
Because there is so much information available.
But knowledge is more than possessing
Only the wise move fast enough.

The amount of information available today is unprecedented. In medieval times a few volumes could form an encyclopedia of all know facts, or a despot could control his subjects simply by isolating or destroying a library. Now information is available to us in tidal proportions.

Some people take a lethargic approach to this enormity. They feel that if there is so much at hand, they do not need t actually learn anything. they’ll go out and find it when they need it. But life moves too fast for us to rely on this laziness. Just as the flow of information has increased exponentially, so too has the pace of decision making accelerated. We can’t be passive, we have to internalize information and place ourselves precisely in the flow.

It has been stated that the average human being utilizes ten percent of his or her mental capacity. A [person with a high IQ] uses only fifteen percent. So we definately have the capacity to keep up—if we unlock our potential. This requires education, experience, and determination. One should never stop learning, never stop exploring, never stop going on adventures. Be like the explorers of old. What they acquired for themselves will always surpass those who merely read about their exploits.

365 Tao
Daily Meditations

Deng Ming-Dao

daodejing translated by current scholars

Daring to act means death
daring not to act means life

Of these two one benefits
one harms what Heaven hates
who knows the reasons

The Way of Heaven
wins easily without a fight
answers wisely without a word
comes quickly without a summons
plans ingeniously without a thought

The Net of Heaven is all-embracing
it mesh is wide but nothing escapes



Those who are courageous out of daring are killed.
Those who are courageous out of love survive.

The first is harmful, the second beneficial.
Heaven prohibits some things,
but who knows the reason?
Not even the sage knows the answer to this.

This is the way of heaven:
It doesn't contend, but easily overcomes.
It doesn't speak, but always responds.
It can't be summoned,
but comes of its own volition.
Utterly without haste,
it plans for everything.

The net of heaven is vast.
Though its meshes are wide,
nothing slips through.



The Tao is always at ease.
It overcomes without competing,
answers without speaking a word,
arrives without being summoned,
accomplishes without a plan.

Its net covers the whole universe.
And though its meshes are wide,
it doesn't let a thing slip through.


Stanford Studies on Daoism


  • The Laozi Story
  • Date and Authorship of the Laozi
  • Textual Traditions
  • Commentaries
  • Approaches to the Laozi

Approaches to the Laozi

The concept of wu is difficult and has been translated variously as “nothing,” “nothingness,” or “nonbeing.” It marks not only the mystery of Dao but also its limitlessness or inexhaustibility (e.g., ch. 4). Names serve to delimit, to set boundaries; in contrast, Dao is without limits and therefore cannot be captured fully by language. This suggests a positive dimension to transcendence, which brings into view the creative power of Dao: “All things under heaven are born of being (you); being is born of wu” (ch. 40). What does this mean?

Elsewhere in the Laozi, Dao is said to be the “beginning” of all things (chs. 1, 25). Daoist creation involves a process of differentiation from unity to multiplicity: “Dao gives birth to One; One gives birth to Two; Two gives birth to Three; Three gives birth to the ten thousand things” (ch. 42). The text does not indicate tense or spell out what the numbers refer to -- is it saying that something called “the One” produced or produces “the Two”? The “nothingness” of Dao helps impose certain constraints on interpretation. Specifically, the idea of a creator god with attributes, like the “Lord on High” (Shangdi) in ancient Chinese religion, does not seem to fit with the emphasis on transcendence.

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