Tao Te Ching – Chapter 51


“Tao,” the label of convenience we use for the ultimate source, produces the myriad things of the world. The myriad things grow by virtue of the life force within them, and as they grow, they are shaped by the environment and other living things around them. All of this happens in a complex web of interdependent connections.

The myriad things cannot help but respect the source of life and value their own lives. This is not something that has to be taught. Living things already know they must fight to stay alive — or run away to fight another day. No one ordered them to be this way; they act like this because it is natural for them to do so.

So, the Tao doesn’t just create the myriad things and let them grow. It also provides the environment where they can learn and mature. The situation is the same for humans. The Tao doesn’t just give us the setting in which to grow. It also gives us challenges, so we can learn from life and thereby better ourselves.

The important thing about the Tao is that even though it is the source of creation for us, it is not possessive of us. Even though it makes everything happen, it does not flaunt its achievements. Even though it provides us with everything we need, it makes no demands. We call this the Mystic Virtue of the Tao.

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Translation Notes

The centerpiece of this chapter is 玄德. It is not difficult to understand when it is properly translated as the Mystic Virtue. As its name suggests, it is the one virtue we must practice when we emulate the Tao. It means we, like the Tao, can be protective and nurturing of others, without being possessive, domineering, or flaunting.

On the other hand, 玄德 can be quite puzzling when it is not properly translated, as the following examples illustrate:

  • Mysterious operation
  • Profound vitality
  • The mystery of goodness

So, to be helpful without becoming arrogant… how is that a mysterious operation? Why would we ever call it profound vitality? In what sense is it the mystery of goodness? As you can see, the right choice of words can make all the difference in the world.

Derek Lin
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