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Exploring the Tao Te Ching With Kids

As part of our ongoing collection of ancient wisdom from all traditions, we’ve pulled together a few English language selections of the Tao Te Ching. 

Introduction

The author Ursula K. Le Guin once called the Tao Te Ching, “the most lovable of all the great religious texts,” labeling it “funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing.” The whole book can be read (or listened to) in an hour and contains wisdom for a lifetime.

Translations differ widely, as you can see in this page that compares five English translations side by side. (If you’re interested in buying a copy to read with kids, we recommend the Stephen Mitchell or Ursula K. Le Guin interpretations, for their readability.)

The Story of the Tao Te Ching

Legend has it that in 6th century China, a record keeper named Lao Tzu (which means “wise man”) had grown tired of court life and decided to leave the city on a water buffalo. As he reached the city limits, a guard recognized him and, knowing how wise Lao Tzu was, asked him to write down all his wisdom before he left. So Lao Tzu wrote down what became the Tao Te Ching, or the Book of the Way. (That’s what “the Tao” means: “the Way.”)

The book has survived the ages and is now the second-most translated book in the world, after the Bible.

Tips for Exploring the Tao Te Ching With Kids

Start by reading the legend of Lao Tzu above.

For littles and young kids: Choose one of the tactile metaphors from the text (see chapters 9 and 11 below) and explore it with your kids. For instance, you might fill a bowl to the brim and then ask your littles what will happen if you pour more water in it. Then you can explain that there comes a point when we don’t actually need more “things” in life — a moment where having more possessions (more toys, for instance) doesn’t actually make us happier. Happiness is knowing when we have enough.

For older kids and teens: Read one chapter together each night and discuss it. The abstract nature of the text lends itself to open-ended and fruitful conversations. Don’t get too caught up in “figuring it out.” Embrace the confusion that the text creates.

Notable Theme: Wu Wei (Not Forcing)

One of the core concepts of the Tao Te Ching is Wu Wei, which the popular philosopher Alan Watts defined as follows:

“Wu means non or not, no, negation. Wei has a combination of meanings. It can mean action, making, but the best translation I have found for it is forcing. And so Wu Wei is the principle of not forcing in anything that you do. Now we know when we watch any performance of an artist, be it a dancer or an actor or a musician, we know immediately when the performance is forced. And we say “it doesn’t ring true, it’s too artificial, it doesn’t seem to be natural.” Many people who study the Taoist doctrines think that Wu Wei means do nothing in the sense of laissez-faire, be lazy, always be passive. It doesn’t mean that. … Wu Wei is the art of sailing, rather than the art of rowing.”

Watts adds that “you have to be able to realize that you don’t know what you really want to do, until you are very quiet.”

He also says, “Tao is the way of nature, and the way to be in accord with it is Wu Wei.”

All of this is perhaps the central theme of the Tao Te Ching, as you’ll see in the passages below.

1.

*Since the first passage of the Tao Te Ching is among its most confusing passages, we’ve included two interpretations. The first is more traditional, from Gia-Fu Feng. The second is more conversational, from Ron Hogan. Hogan’s interpretation emphasizes that the Tao is spiritual — something that can’t be named or seen. 

In some ways, the Force from Star Wars is patterned after the Tao.

***

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
— Translated by Gia-Fu Feng

***

“If you can talk about it,
it ain’t Tao.
If it has a name,
it’s just another thing.

Tao doesn’t have a name.
Names are for ordinary things.

Stop wanting stuff;
it keeps you from seeing what’s real.
When you want stuff,
all you see are things.

Those two sentences
mean the same thing.
Figure them out,
and you’ve got it made.”

Discuss:

  • What does it mean that the “Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”? Are there any parallels from other traditions to this line? (Perhaps “the wind blows where it will, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from and where it goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit,” found in the Christian Gospels?)
  • When have you had a spiritual experience that is real but can’t be fully captured in words — an experience that “can’t be told”? How did it change your life?
  • Does this passage confuse you? Is confusion always bad? What if entering “the gate to all mystery” is part of the spiritual journey?

9.

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.

Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

— Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Discuss:

  • Have you ever pursued something to excess? When did you realize you’d gone too far?
  • Have you ever been a prisoner to someone because you longed for their approval? How did it prevent you from accessing your true self?

10.

Can you see as a child sees
And keep the simple vision?
See the inner oneness
With absolute precision

Hold all things in your embrace
The entire world is in your care
Let things be just as they are
Extend acceptance everywhere

Let go all need to comprehend
The truth is here where all behold
Their infinite capacity
To welcome and enfold

— Translated by Jim Clatfelter

Discuss:

  • How do we “let things be just as they are” while also taking a stand in life?

11.

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

— Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Discuss:

  • What’s the practical takeaway from this section?
 

15.

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

— Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Discuss:

  • What tension are you living with in your life right now, and what would it look like if you waited for the mud to settle before you acted?
  • The Bhagavad Gita says, “Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of their action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.” How does this idea relate to this section?
  • The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Wisdom requires only what your nature already demands.” What does your nature demand?

27.

Good walkers leave no track.
Good talkers don’t stammer.
Good counters don’t use their fingers.
The best door’s unlocked and unopened.
The best knot’s not in a rope and can’t be untied.

So wise souls are good at caring for people,
never turning their back on anyone.
They’re good at looking after things,
never turning their back on anything,
There’s a light hidden here.

Good people teach people who aren’t good yet;
the less good are the makings of the good.
Anyone who doesn’t respect a teacher
or cherish a student
may be clever, but has gone astray.
There’s a deep mystery here.

— Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin

35.

When you get right with Tao,
everybody wants to be your friend.
When they’re around you,
they can relax and enjoy themselves.

People can be easily distracted
by music or good food.
When we try to talk about Tao,
it seems boring by comparison.

It doesn’t look like much.
It doesn’t sound like much.
But no matter how much you use,
there’s still plenty left.

— Translated by Ron Hogan

61.

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

— Translated by Stephen Mitchell

81.

True words aren’t charming,
charming words aren’t true.
Good people aren’t contentious,
contentious people aren’t good.
People who know aren’t learned,
learned people don’t know.

Wise souls don’t hoard;
the more they do for others the more they have,
the more they give the richer they are.
The Way of heaven profits without destroying.
Doing without outdoing
is the Way of the wise.

— Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin

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