Tao Te Ching Book Summary - Tao Te Ching Book explained in key points
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Tao Te Ching summary

Lao Tzu

Taoist Philosophy for Peace, Contentment & Balance in Life

4.2 (265 ratings)
16 mins

Brief summary

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu is a classic Chinese philosophy book that emphasizes the harmony and balance of the Tao, or the way of nature. It advocates simplicity, humility, and living in the present moment to achieve true contentment.

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    Tao Te Ching
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    A book or an anthology?

    It’s difficult to explain any sort of ancient text without getting into some of the background context. Certainly, this is the case with Tao Te Ching.

    On its own, there are 81 short chapters in Tao Te Ching. Each one contains a poetic passage that imparts a bit of wisdom. But beyond that, things get a little complicated. Every reader is sure to note that many of these tiny chapters bear similarities to one another. It’s almost like they're saying the same thing, but with different words.

    Take for instance this passage from chapter 22:

    “He does not show himself, and so is conspicuous; He does not consider himself right, and so is illustrious; He does not brag, and so has merit; He does not boast, and so endures.”

    Now let’s compare it to this passage from chapter 24:

    “He who shows himself is not conspicuous; He who considers himself right is not illustrious; He who brags will have no merit; He who boasts will not endure.”

    This is basically the positive and negative way of saying the same thing, and it’s not the only example of repetition with slight variation that appears in the text.

    These irregular qualities are why some scholars believe that Tao Te Ching is more of an anthology than the work of a singular author.

    Of course, the text has long been attributed to Lao Tzu, but there’s very little evidence to suggest that he was an actual historical figure. Further confusing the matter is that the name Lao Tzu roughly translates to “old man.” So it’s quite possible, if not highly likely, that Tao Te Ching is a collection of sayings that have been passed down and accumulated over the span of many, many years.

    It is also likely that most of the passages in Tao Te Ching are a combination of two things, a short bit of wisdom that had been passed down verbally, followed by a brief bit of text that kind of explains or underlines the meaning of the passage. Why do we think this? Well, many chapters are made up of a poetic section that, in the original language, has a rhyming pattern – which made it easier for people to memorize. This rhyming part is then followed by a very blunt summarizing section that doesn’t really flow with the previous part. This does make sense though because, as we’ll see, these poetic bits of wisdom can be a little cryptic. So when they were collected it is believed that a little commentary was included to make things clearer.

    Also, when we look back to the third century BC, we can see that this sort of anthologizing was common. The Analects of Confucius is a similar collection of sayings. Only in that case, each passage had a helpful beginning that attributed the saying to a particular person, either Confucius himself or one of his disciples. With Tao Te Ching, we only have the name Lao Tzu, and it may be the case that these are the kinds of sayings that captured the kind of wisdom that came from old masters who were valued in Chinese culture for their years of gained experience and insights.

    The collection that makes up the Analects also had the benefit of being somewhat thematically organized. But in Tao Te Ching, the organizing principle appears to be centered around the recurrence of certain words or phrases, even if the passages themselves convey different or even contradictory messages. For example, there are two passages in chapter five that use the phrase “heaven and earth,” yet the two passages convey different meanings and no attempt is made to connect them or create a transition.

    All of this is to say that, even though Tao Te Ching is a short work, it offers a lot to parse through and a lot to consider. So now that we’ve got some context, let’s get to those actual words of wisdom, shall we?

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    What is Tao Te Ching about?

    Tao Te Ching (circa 400 BC) is one of the foundational texts of Taoism, the enduring philosophical and religious movement that can be traced back to around the fourth century BC. Throughout the ages, its poetic wisdom continues to be relevant, inspirational, and timeless.

    Tao Te Ching Review

    Tao Te Ching (6th century BC) is a profound ancient Chinese philosophical text that offers deep insights into the nature of life and the ways to achieve harmony and balance. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Its sage wisdom and profound teachings provide a timeless guide for living a meaningful and fulfilling life.
    • Simple yet profound, it presents philosophical ideas in a way that is accessible and thought-provoking for readers.
    • Through its exploration of nature, virtue, and the Tao, the book sparks a sense of wonder and contemplation, making it a captivating read.

    Who should read Tao Te Ching?

    • Spiritual or philosophical guidance seekers
    • People interested in living a more virtuous life
    • Admirers of Eastern schools of thought

    About the Author

    Lao Tzu has long been considered the principal author of Tao Te Ching, though both his authorship and his existence as a historical figure continue to be debated. Some believe he was a contemporary of Confucius, living in the sixth century BC, others believe his life dates back to the fourth century BC.

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    Tao Te Ching FAQs 

    What is the main message of Tao Te Ching?

    The main message of Tao Te Ching is to embrace the power of Tao and live in harmony with nature and simplicity.

    How long does it take to read Tao Te Ching?

    The reading time for Tao Te Ching varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just a few minutes.

    Is Tao Te Ching a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Tao Te Ching is a profound and timeless book that offers valuable insights into living a fulfilling and balanced life.

    Who is the author of Tao Te Ching?

    The author of Tao Te Ching is Lao Tzu.

    What to read after Tao Te Ching?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Tao Te Ching, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
    • The Analects by Confucius
    • The Way of Zen by Alan W. Watts
    • Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life by Wayne W. Dyer
    • The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox
    • The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra
    • On Having No Head by Douglas Harding
    • The Art of War (new version) by Sun Tzu
    • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
    • Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg