Lao Tzu
(604 B.C.-517 B.C.)
Chinese silk painting,
British Museum

Lao Tzu (604 B.C.-517 B.C.):
Tao Te Ching, Verses #4, 6, 11, 33

Lao Tzu in Chinese means literally "old boy" or "old-young". He was the father of Taoism, whose symbol of Yin-Yang seems to personify him as embracing and transcending the opposites. According to the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien (145-90 B.C.), Lao Tzu was a historian in charge of the Archives in the state of Chou. Lao Tzu reprimanded Confucius when the latter paid him a visit, "Rid yourself of your arrogance, your ingratiaing manners, and your excessive ambitions. These are all detrimental to you. This is all I have to say to you." On leaving, Confucius told his disciples, "I know a corded arrow can bring down a flying bird, a net can trap a running animal, and a swimming fish can be caught with a line & hook. But a dragon's ascent to heaven on wind and cloud is beyond our reach. Today I met Lao Tzu— what a dragon!" When Lao Tzu left for the hills, the Gatekeeper requested him to write some words of wisdom for his children. The 81 verses of the Tao Te Ching was what Lao Tzu left behind. This text is the most translated book after the Bible. My first copy of Tao Te Ching was translated by D. C. Lau in the Penguin Classics edition (1967). The smiling countenance of Lao Tzu on the cover (left) was a detail from a Chinese silk painting in the British Museum. It became my favorite book, and I carried it around with me often. While shopping in New York's Chinatown with my Mom, we went to the Chinatown Book Company at 70A Mott Street. I found a copy of Tao Te Ching with the original Chinese text. It was titled Truth and Nature by Cheng Lin, published in Hong Kong (May 1968). I bought it for 90¢ and consulted the Chinese text with the many English translations. During Intersession week at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (January 1979), I taught a course "Philosophy of Enlightenment: Teachings of Greek & Oriental Sages" to 20 engineering students. I translated 18 of the 81 verses and gave the handout to students when lecturing on Taoism. In April 1988, I gave a seminar "Tao of Writing" at Writers Connection, Cupertino, CA. As I was learning to write poetry at this time, my translations of 21 verses were more succinct, trying to capture the simplicity of the original. I'm including Verses #4, 6, 11, 33 with added titles that give some flavor of the Tao. (Peter Y. Chou)

Tao Te Ching


The Tao is an empty vessel,
    yet use will not exhaust it.
Like a deep fathomless abyss
    it is the source of all things.
It smooths the sharpness,
    unravels the knots,
    softens the glare,
    clarifies the obscure.
Its fountain is deep and everlasting.
    I know not who gave it birth,
        it came even before the gods.


The Spirit of the Valley never dies,
    it is the Eternal Feminine.
The gateway of the mysterious female
    is the root of heaven and earth.
Darkly veiled, it remains forever.
    It may be used, but cannot be exhausted.


Thirty spokes converge in the hub of a wheel;
    It is the center hole which makes it useful.
Mold clay to form the walls of a pot;
    It is the emptiness within which gives its use.
Cut out doors and windows to make a room;
    It is the space therein which makes it useful.
Therefore, we profit from the existence of things,
    but are served by things which are non-existent.


Knowing others, one is learned;
Knowing thyself, one is enlightened.
Conquering others requires force;
Conquering oneself requires strength.
Knowing contentment, one is rich;
Having perseverance, one is firm;
Abiding in the center, one endures;
Even in dying, one enjoys eternal life.

Translated by Peter Y. Chou for “Tao of Writing” Seminar
presented at Writers Connection, Cupertino, CA (April 23, 1988)

— Lao Tzu (604 B.C.-517 B.C.),
     Tao Te Ching
     Translated by D.C. Lau
     Penguin Books, Baltimore, MD, 1963,
     pp. 60, 62, 67, 92

Lao Tzu: Father of Taoism
     (By Christopher Majka, History & Philosophy of Taoism)
Tao Te Ching
     (Six Translations & Etymological Resource)
Lao-tzu's Taoteching (1996) translated by Red Pine (Bill Porter)
     (with selected commentaries of the past 2000 years)
Wikipedia: Tao Te Ching
     (Text, Interpretation & Themes, Translations, Links)
Wikipedia: Laozi
     (His Life, Taoism, Names, Links, Bibliography)
Wikipedia: Taoism
     (History, Beliefs, Deities, Scriptures, Symbols & Images)

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (3-15-2007)