Tao Te Ching – Chapter 64


In order to follow the great Tao, we have to pay attention to the small. In the beginning of any endeavor, the problems and disturbances can be easily handled because they’re still minor. That means it’s the best time to plan, establish authority, and set the tone. We also pay attention to small increments that add up to big results, like a tree that grows tall over time, a construction that is built brick by brick, or a long journey that is completed step by step.

In walking this journey, the sages adhere to the principles of non-attachment, non-interference, and consistency. They see the way people obsess over things, only to lose them; the way they get into someone else’s business, only to fail at their own; and the way they start something on a solid footing, only to slack off and stumble. They take note of all this, and learn from it.

The natural result is that the sages wish to reduce their desires and not go after material things. They unlearn conventional ideas and pursue their own ideals. They emulate nature and look after themselves — without presuming to lecture anyone else.

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Translation Notes

This chapter is the source of the well-known saying: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” The quote is sometimes misattributed to Confucius, but it actually comes from Lao Tzu.

The first part of this saying is a reasonable translation for 千里之行, which is literally “a thousand li‘s journey,” where li is the ancient Chinese measure of distance. Compared against modern measures, li is about half a kilometer or a third of a mile — so strictly speaking, the journey of a thousand li is more like the journey of 300 miles. In actual usage, 千里 means a long distance rather than a specific length. This happens to be the typical usage of “a thousand miles” in English as well, so we can use it as the exact linguistic equivalent of 千里.

The second half of this saying, 始於足下, is literally “begins at foot below,” or “begins beneath the foot.” Overall, the expression says the small piece of ground below one’s feet is the starting point of a long journey. This makes perfect sense, and is arguably better than the common but erroneous “one step.”

Derek Lin
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