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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"To hold..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: To hold, you must first open your hand. Let go.

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"To hold, you must first open your hand. Let go."






Indeed, if you want to grab something you must start with an open hand. A fist can hold on to nothing. The paradox is in "let go." So you hold on just to let go? Well, it is the only way to get hold of something else. Still, this is a strange message. It seems to say: always let go, so that you can hold anew. Perpetuum mobile.

       Letting go, though, was something Lao Tzu felt strongly about and recommended as a basic principle of reaching wu-wei, non-action. Chapter 48 of Tao Te Ching says (my version):


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

They let go and let go,
Until reaching no action.
When nothing is done,
Nothing is left undone.



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       The quote examined here is not from Lao Tzu. He would not regard letting go as something by which to grab something else. Still, it is inspired by his teaching.

       The source to this quote is not from the Far East but from 'far out.' It can be found in Psychedelic Monograph II from 1966, with a new edition called Psychedelic Prayers and Other Meditations in 1997, by the psychologist, writer, and psychedelic drug enthusiast Timothy Leary (1920-1996). The book consists of "psychedelic prayers" based on the first 37 chapters of Tao Te Ching. In the foreword, Leary described the Chinese classic as a "psychedelic manual" and Tao as an "energy process" (page 37).

       The quote is part of a poem called "Take In - Let Go." The whole poem reads (page 64):


To breathe in
You must first breathe out
Let go

To hold
You must first open your hand
Let go

To be warm
You must first be naked
Let go


       In an endnote, Leary specified that this poem was adapted from chapter 36 of Tao Te Ching (page 134). There is another poem based on the same chapter, called "The Lesson of Seed" (page 79):


The soft overcomes the hard
The small overcomes the large
The gentle survives the strong
The invisible survives the visible

Fish should be left in deep water
Fire and iron kept under ground
Seed should be left free
To grow in the rhythm of life


       His interpretations of the chapter are not impossible to extract from the original, though partly deviating from it by the obvious use of poetic license - and admittedly of meditation as well as psychedelic drugs (page 38). Here is my version of the same chapter:


What should be shrunken must first be stretched.
What should be weakened must first be strengthened.
What should be abolished must first be cherished.
What should be deprived must first be enriched.

This is called understanding the hidden.
The soft and weak overcome the hard and strong.

The fish cannot leave the deep waters.
The state's weaponry should not be displayed.


       It is understandable how Leary's poems adapted from Tao Te Ching chapters were later mistaken to be proper translations of them. After all, many versions claiming to be translations allow themselves even greater liberties with the original than Leary did.

       Psychedelic Prayers and Other Meditations is still in print. So is his book Start Your Own Religion, containing the same poem (page 99).

       On Goodreads, the quote examined here, ascribed to Lao Tzu, got its first like in November, 2008, which was the year after the website was launched. With that exception, the oldest web page I found with an ascertained date, containing the quote, is from October 2010, also ascribing it to Lao Tzu. On Facebook, the quote seems to have started to appear in 2012.

Stefan Stenudd
September 22, 2020.



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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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