As a small collection of teachings and definitions of the two terms "dao" 道 and "de" 德, this book is as a Han time composition not the oldest Daoist writing, but purports to be the oldest, written by a 6th century philosopher named Li Dan 李聃, called the "old Master" Laozi 老子, who was forced to lay down his thoughts as a book when he left China to the West, disappointed of his contemporarians. His philosophy is full of riddle-like similes and parables to explain what is meant by dao and de. In a time of neverending war, chaos and of social changes, the Taoist thinkers tried to find a principle of constancy and invariability and found it in nature and cosmos. Man, like all the "ten thousand beings" (wanwu 萬物), are tied up in a universal context that is founded upon a principle called dao 道 (a word otherwise meaning "way, street"). Dao is a not-being (wu 無) that determines being and disappearing, change and steadyness of all things within the cosmos. It is originator of a evolutionary-quantitative growing of all things. Unlike the greek philosophers, Daoism does not see a special matter like air or fire as the ground material for all existing things. The magical influence of dao on every single thing is called de 德 (a word that in its Confucian sense means "virtue, good manners"). Taoist philosophy does not resolve the dialectical problem of the unitiy and quietness of dao and the diversity of the everchanging beings, but instead does accept that everything develops into its counterpart, being connected in a continual unity. The quietness of the universe is only achieved when man himself behaves quietly, does not study nor desire nor act (wuwei 無為) in order not to endanger the stability of a self-moving universal stability. The ideal society in this state is the innocent village community.|
The earliest and and one of the most important commentaries is that of Wang Bi 王弼 (d. 249).
1. 道可道，非常道。名可名，非常名。無名，天地之始。 有名，萬物之母。故常無，欲以觀其妙；常有，欲以觀其徼。此兩者，同出而異名， 同謂之玄。玄之又玄，眾妙之門。
The dao that can be spoken of is not the eternal dao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth; the namable is the mother of all things. Therefore constantly without desire, there is the recognition of subtlety; but constantly with desire, only the realization of potentiality. The two come from the same source, having different names. Both are called mysteries, more mystical than the most mystical, the gate of all subtleties.
Thirty spokes converge in a nave; just because of its nothingness (void) the usefulness of the cart exists. Molded clay forms a vessel; just because of its nothingness (hollowness) the usefullnes of the utensil exists. Doors and windows are cut in a house; juse because of their nothingness (emptiness) the usefulness of the house exists. Therefore, profit from which exists and utilize that which is absent.
16.致虛極，守靜篤。萬物并作，吾以觀其復。各復歸其根。歸根曰靜，是謂復命， 復命曰常，知常曰明。不知常，妄作，凶。知常，容。容乃公，公乃王，王乃天， 天乃道，道乃久，沒身不殆。
Attain the ultimate emptiness; maintain the absolute tranquillity. All things rise together. And I observe their return... The multitude of all things return each other to their origin. To return to the origin means repose; it means return to their destiny. To return to their destiny means eternity; to know eternity means enlightenment. Not knowing eternity is to do evil things blindly. To know eternity means capacity. Capacity leads to justice, justice leads to kingship, kingship leads to Heaven, Heaven leads to dao. Dao is everlasting. Thus the entire life will be without danger.
There is a thing formed in chaos existing before Heaven and Earth. Silent and solitary, it stands alone, unchanging. It goes around with peril. It may be the Mother of the world. Now knowing its name, I can only style it dao. With reluctance, I would call it Great. Great means out-going, out-going means far-reaching, far-reaching means returning.
Returning is dao's motion. Weakness is dao's function. All things in the world are produced by being. And being is produced by non-being.
Dao begets One (nothingness; or reason of being), One begets Two (yin and yang), Two begets Three (Heaven, Earth and Man; or yin, yang and breath qi), Three begets all things. All things carry the femals and embrace the male. And by breathing together, they live in harmony...
64.為者敗之，執者失之。是以聖人無為，故無敗，無執，故無失。 民之從事，常於幾成而敗之。慎終如始，則無敗事。是以聖人欲不欲，不貴難得之貨， 學不學，復眾人之所過。以輔萬物之自然，而不敢為。
... To act means to fail; to insist means to lose. The Sage does not act and therefore never fails; he does not insist and therefore never loses. When the people undertake to do something, they almost always fail at the point of success. One should be cautious at the end as at the beginning, then there will be no failure. Therefore the Sages desires no desires, values not the rare treasures, learns from the unlearned, reverses the faults of the people, and assists all things in their natural development, never daring to interfere.
76.人之生也柔弱，其死也堅強；萬物、草木之生也柔脆，其死也枯槁。 故堅強者，死之徒；柔弱者，生之徒。是以兵強則不勝，木強則折。強大處下， 柔弱處上。
In life, man is supple and tender; in death, he becomes rigid and stark. Myriad things such as grass and trees are supple and frail in life, and shrivelled and dry in death. Therefore, the rigid and stark are disciples of death, while the supple and weak are disciples of life. Therefore the army that uses strength cannot win, the tree that stands firm will break. The strong and large are subordinate, the soft and weak are superior.
80.小國寡民。使有什佰之器而不用。使民重死而不遠徙。 雖有舟輿，無所乘之。雖有甲兵，無所陳之。使人復結繩而用之。 甘其食，美其服，安其居，樂其俗。鄰國相望，雞犬之聲相聞， 民至老死不相往來。
The state may be small; its people may be few. Let the people have tenfold and one-houndredfold of utensils, but never make use of them. Let the people weigh death heavily and have no desires to move far away. Though there be boats and carriages, no one wille ride in them. Though there be armour and weapons, no one will exhibit them. Let the people return to tying knots and using them, relish their food, appreciate their clothes, secure their homes, happy with their customs. The neighbouring states will be so close that they can see each other, and hear the sounds of roosters and dogs. But the people will grow old and die, without having visited each other.
Translated by Paul J. Lin (1992). A Translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching and Wang Pi's Commentary. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies.