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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"As soon as you have made a thought..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: As soon as you have made a thought...

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"As soon as you have made a thought, laugh at it."






My first reaction to this quote was: do you make a thought, isn't it so that you have it? We will get to that, but let's start with the message of this quote as it is written and what it suggests. Should you laugh at a thought that appears in your mind, whatever it is? That's like saying you should reject all your thinking. It will not get you anywhere.


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       It is by thinking we can begin to understand the world in which we live. If we discard thinking just because it is a thought, then we realize nothing. Lao Tzu was not opposed to thinking. What he regarded with suspicion was knowledge, the attitude of being certain about things by being learned. Chapter 48 of Tao Te Ching says (my version):


Those who seek knowledge,
Collect something every day.
Those who seek the Way,
Let go of something every day.


       And chapter 71 starts with this clear statement:


Knowing that you do not know is the best.
Not knowing that you do not know is an illness.


       He made a distinction between knowing and knowledge. The former is the mind reaching conclusions - or realizing that it cannot. The latter is an unprocessed quantity, gathering and memorizing a lot of information without properly digesting it. In the 81st and last chapter, Lao Tzu spoke of the difference between knowing and being learned:


Those who know are not learned.
Those who are learned do not know.


       As for laughter, he was indeed no stranger to humor. Tao Te Ching is full of it, playing with words, using amusing paradoxes, and so on. But laughter per se he only mentioned once, in chapter 41, when speaking about people's differing attitudes towards teachings of Tao, the Way:


The superior student listens to the Way
And follows it closely.
The average student listens to the Way
And follows some and some not.
The lesser student listens to the Way
And laughs out loud.
If there were no laughter it would not be the Way.


       Notice, though, that this laughter is a sign of folly, and not at all some enlightened reaction to thoughts about the Way.

       The earliest appearance I have found of this exact quote in a book is in Fellini on Fellini, a collection of texts by the movie director Federico Fellini translated by Isabel Quigley, from 1976. It says, in regard to Fellini's 1970 film The Clowns (page 124):


Wasn't St. Francis known as God's clown? And didn't Lao Tse say: 'As soon as you have made a thought, laugh at it'?


       This is from an essay by Fellini called "Un viaggio nell'ombra" ("A journey into the shadows") in I clowns, edited by Renzo Renzi, from 1970. I have not been able to check the Italian text, but it is possible that Fellini might have misinterpreted the line about laughter in chapter 41, quoted above.

       The next book with the quote is Silver Departures: a Collection of Quotations from 1983, by Richard Kehl, ascribing the quote to Lao Tzu (page 40). Kehl might have gotten it from the Fellini book, but he gave no information about it.

       The oldest appearance of the quote I have found on the Internet is a blog post from October 2006 by the writer Roger von Oech, accrediting it to Lao Tzu. He had previously published the quote in his book A Whack on the Side of the Head in its 1990 edition (page 91), but not in the first edition from 1983. Therefore, I find it likely that he got the quote from Kehl's book mentioned above.

       Now, let us move on to a shorter version of the quote that makes more grammatical sense:


As soon as you have a thought, laugh at it.


       This quote is less spread, but it is also accredited to Lao Tzu. The earliest book I have found to include it is The Four Purposes of Life from 2011, by Dan Millman (page 23). It is possible that he paraphrased Kehl or von Oech.

       On the web I have found one occurrence of the quote older than Millman's book. It is in a column by Joey Garcia in a Sacramento news website, already from February 26, 2004. She accredited it to Lao Tzu. It would be very interesting to know where she got it from, since it cannot have been Millman. Being a journalist, she might have seen the quote with "made a thought" and edited it, which is totally understandable.

       So, I have to settle for the most plausible source to this false Lao Tzu quote being Fellini. It could be worse.

Stefan Stenudd
September 13, 2020.



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The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. The great Taoist philosophy classic by Lao Tzu translated, and each of the 81 chapters extensively commented. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

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Fake Lao Tzu Quotes - Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Fake Lao Tzu Quotes

Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. 90 of the most spread false Lao Tzu quotes, why they are false and where they are really from. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

       More about the book here.



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