"What has not yet emerged is easy to prevent."
Tao Te Ching 64
The Lao Tzu Taoist Classic
Translated and Explained
Stillness is easy to maintain.
What has not yet emerged is easy to prevent.
The brittle is easy to shatter.
The small is easy to scatter.
Solve it before it happens.
Order it before chaos emerges.
A tree as wide as a man's embrace
Grows from a tiny shoot.
A tower of nine stories
Starts with a pile of dirt.
A climb of eight hundred feet
Starts where the foot stands.
Those who act will fail.
Those who seize will lose.
So, the sage does not act and therefore does not fail,
Does not seize and therefore does not lose.
People fail at the threshold of success.
Be as cautious at the end as at the beginning.
Then there will be no failure.
Therefore the sage desires no desire,
Does not value rare treasures,
Learns without learning,
Recovers what people have left behind.
He wants all things to follow their own nature,
But dares not act.
The Sage Dares Not Act
The first half of this chapter adds arguments to what
was explained in the previous one: the importance of
solving problems before they grow big.
The connection to chapter 63 is so obvious that one
must wonder why they are divided. The reason might be one
of length. Chapter 63 is long enough as it is, without the
first half of this chapter. Together they would form a
chapter longer by far than any other in the Tao Te
We are reminded of the fact that the division of the
text into 81 chapters is a later revision. It was done several
centuries after the book was written. The only division
assumed to be original was that into two parts: chapters
1-37, called Tao, and 38-81, called
The last line that deals with the theme of the
previous chapter is the one about a climb of eight hundred feet.
Most versions of it read differently: "A journey of a thousand
li starts where you stand." But both the manuscripts found
in Mawangdui, dating to around 200 BC, have lines similar
to the one used here.
The manuscript from Guodian, a hundred years older,
is inconclusive on this point, because of damages to it.
I can understand why the line was changed
somewhere along the way. The line above it already introduces
height, so length would make more sense to deal with next. Still,
I have decided to go with what is so far established as
the oldest version.
The two versions make no difference in
meaning. Projects of whatever size are minute at the moment
Attention to the End
The second half of this chapter deals with the danger of
action. What is done is hard to undo, so it has to be
considered very seriously beforehand.
Lao Tzu actually claims that most actions fail, if not
all of them. Only if there is just as much care about the end
as the beginning, there is a chance of success. That
really means the same care all through.
That might seem self-evident, but it's easily
neglected. We tend to start our projects with resolute energy and
complete attention, but soon our concentration wavers and
our efforts decrease. It's as if we tire quickly. Or we might
have the illusion that things we start reach their completion
automatically, as if nothing can go wrong along the way.
It may be a combination of both.
Our behavior is bound by patterns inside our
minds. The habit we have of starting things and then just
letting them go, stems from the patterns of how we think about
It's the rhythm of existence: We give life to our
children, take care of them while they need it to survive, and then
let them go – beyond the future that we can ourselves expect
to reach. Probably, we tend to see all our projects as
children of ours, and therefore lack the urge to follow them
through to the end. We might not even want them to ever end.
It's strange how human deeds are slowed down
right before completion. The last steps of a long walk are not
the quickest. At the end of a meal we chew less eagerly
than when the plate was full. The end of a song is rarely
as abrupt as its beginning. We hurry into things but
hesitate when the end comes near.
In many cases there are obvious reasons for this. Still,
it's a pattern we follow, even when there's no reason for it.
We like beginnings but fear endings.
Surely, this has to do with the fact that we will all
die, and we know it. A start is like birth, an end is like death.
We cheer the former and dread the latter. Lao Tzu has told
us that we should not hurry from the one to the other, and
we rarely do – willingly. So, we have great trouble
finishing things of any kind.
Because of our unwillingness to deal with endings,
we are prone to fail with what we begin.
Shortcomings of the Sage
The sage has such respect for this shortcoming of ours,
he refrains from action. He desires no desire, seeks no
treasure, ignores knowledge, and settles for what others reject.
He has no ambition. He dares not act, although he is
wise enough to lead the world around him on its natural course.
He must suspect that he, too, has the shortcomings
he finds in others, at least when it comes to action. So, in
his wisdom he refrains from acting.
In many versions of the Tao Te
Ching, the last lines of this chapter read: "He lets all things follow their own
nature, and dares not act." This implies that the sage is afraid
of disturbing the good order, and therefore refrains from
Again, the Mawangdui manuscripts present
another reading: "He could help all things follow their own
nature, but dares not act." It's supported by the Guodian
manuscript. I have allowed myself a small compromise, with
the word `wants' instead of `could help,' which is sort of
halfway to `lets.'
Still, the difference is considerable. It means that
although the sage sees the need for improvement, he
holds still. If interfered with, even an imperfect world risks
getting worse. Also when things don't go the right way, there's
an additional risk in trying to correct them.
Usually, our excuse for springing into action is
that there's need for improvement. There certainly is, in
many cases. Still, that's no guarantee we will not make
things worse. The risk is actually increased. We easily find the
right course of action in a well ordered world, but how to sort
out a mess?
To find the right solution, we must know where it
leads and how it will end. Our discomfort with endings makes
us badly equipped for that.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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