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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"The reason why the universe..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: The reason why the universe is eternal is that it does not live for itself...

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"The reason why the universe is eternal is that it does not live for itself; it gives life to others as it transforms."






The term 'universe' has sometimes been used in translations of Tao Te Ching, although it is a concept far from what was imagined in ancient China. A more adequate word for what Lao Tzu meant and perceived is 'world.'

       Also, the idea of the universe transforming is something closer to our conception of how it all works than what he might have imagined. He saw there was movement on earth as well as in the sky, but would not describe it as transformation. To him, the world had reached its form at the dawn of its emergence and would remain so forever.

       And who are the "others," given life by that transformation? The universe contains everyone and everything, There is no other. It would make more sense to say, for example, that the movements in the world create life within it. That is also how to approach something actually written in Tao Te Ching. Chapter 5 states (my version):


Is not the space between Heaven and Earth like a bellows?
It is empty, but lacks nothing.
The more it moves, the more comes out of it.



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       Heaven and Earth were to Lao Tzu the whole world or, to be more precise, the framework of the world. In between these two opposites was where the continuous process of creation took place. Still, the true creative force was not Heaven and Earth, but that out of which they were formed: Tao, the Way. Already the first chapter makes it clear, calling Tao "the nameless":


The nameless is the beginning of Heaven and Earth.


       After having emerged out of Tao, Heaven and Earth were established and would last forever, continuously producing new life. Chapter 7 declares:


Heaven is eternal and Earth is lasting.
How can they be eternal and lasting?
Because they do not live for themselves.
That is how they can be eternal.


       These lines are most likely the origin of the quote examined here, maybe in combination with the bellows process described in chapter 5.

       This somewhat elaborate quote would most likely have an origin, either an odd version of Tao Te Ching or a text commenting it. I have not been able to trace it in either. The closest semblance to the quote is in a Tao Te Ching version by Jerry O. Dalton from 1993 (page 16 in the 1996 edition):


The universe is eternal.
Why is the universe eternal?
It does not live for itself.
Thus it is everlasting.


       Close, but no cigar. It lacks the words in the quote examined here about giving life by transforming, nor is that possible to deduct from his version of chapter 5. Another quite similar version is that by Lin Yutang from 1948 (page 73):


The universe is everlasting.
The reason the universe is everlasting
Is that it does not live for Self.
Therefore it can long endure.


       The word "Self" is confusing, but Yutang explained it in a footnote: "Gives life to others through its transformations." So, there is the transforming. Also, Yutang's wording of the lines from chapter 5 would bring some support to the quote examined here (page 63):


How the universe is like a bellows!
Empty, yet it gives a supply that never fails;
The more it is worked, the more it brings forth.


       It is difficult to decide if the quote is paraphrased from Yutang or Dalton, or a combination thereof, but at least they indicate how the quote might have been formed.

       The earliest book I have found with the exact quote is The Celestial Fortune Cookie: An Astrological Book of Days with Quotations for Every Sign from 2000, by Andrea Valeria. The quote was accredited to Lao Tzu and assigned to the Zodiac sign Sagittarius (page 426).

       Valeria used several quotes, mostly accrediting them to Lao Tzu but a few times to Tao Te Ching. It seems that she used different sources, maybe from the Internet in those rather early days of it.

       The Internet gives no clue to the origin of the quote. I have found no ascertained earlier appearance on the web than 2011. On Goodreads, the quote got its first like on June 8, 2011. Also on Facebook, the quote started to appear in 2011, the first two actually on January 8, which is before the first Goodreads like. Probably, the one got the other started. They all accredited Lao Tzu, but without giving any source.

       Since the quote had kind of a little boom on the web in 2011, the reason is probably not Valeria's book from 2000, nor the three books from 2007 and 2008 with the quote: Law of attraction by David Hooper (page 28), Java data mining by Hornick et al (page 451), and One reckless summer by Toni Blake (page 153). But the one to come next, From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time from 2010, by Sean Carroll (page 82), was just in time to create some Internet noise the following year.

       On the other hand, Carroll and others might have found the quote on an older web site that I have not been able to find.

       Of the books mentioned above, only Hooper's gives a source to the quote: The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu from 2001, by Brian Browne Walker. Unfortunately, I have not found the quote in that source, nor did I find a 2001 edition. The book was initially published in 1995 and 1996, with a new edition in 2011. Well, 2001 can just be a reprint. None of the other editions contains the quote.

       If it is simply a typo, it has been persistent. Hooper's book has three Lao Tzu quotes, all given the same source, and I could find none of them there. Nor did I find it in Walker's version of Hua Hu Ching, falsely claimed to contain Lao Tzu's words. Instead, one is a Chuang Tzu quote in Arthur Waley's 1934 version of Tao Te Ching, discussed in the chapter To the mind that is still, and the other is from Poems of the Universe: Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching from 2005, by Brian Donohue (page 40), which seems only to exist as a PDF file on the web. None of those books contains the quote examined here, though. Nor did I find any other book than Hooper's with all three quotes, so the origin of the quote examined here remains hidden.

Stefan Stenudd
September 21, 2020.



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