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Writings of Lieh Tzu

Introduction to the Writings of Lieh Tzu


The inspired men of old regarded the Yin and the Yang as the cause of the sum total of Heaven and Earth. But that which has substance is engendered from that which is devoid of substance. Hence we say, there is a great Principle of Change, a great Origin, a great Beginning, a great Primordial Simplicity. In the great Change substance is not yet manifest. In the great Origin lies the beginning of substance. In the great Beginning lies the beginning of material form. In the great Simplicity lies the beginning of essential qualities. When substance, form and essential qualities are still indistinguishably blended together it is called Chaos. Chaos meansthat all things are chaotically intermixed and not yet separated from one another. The purer and lighter elements, tending upwards, made the Heavens; the grosser and heavier elements, tending downwards, made the Earth. Substance, harmoniously proportioned, become Man; and, Heaven and Earth containing thus a spiritual element, all things were evolved and produced.

To the beginning and end of things there is no precise limit. Beginning may be end, and end may be beginning. But beyond infinity there must again exist non-infinity, and within the unlimited again that which is not unlimited. It is this consideration -- that infinity must be succeeded by non-infinity, and the unlimited by the not-unlimited -- that enables me to apprehend the infinity and unlimited extent of space, but does not allow me to conceive of its being finite and limited.

The lesser is always enclosed by a greater, without ever reaching an end. Heaven and earth, which enclose the myriad objects of creation, are themselves enclosed in some outer shell or sphere. Enclosing heaven and earth and the myriad objects within them, this outer shell is infinite and immeasurable.


On one hand, there is life, and on the other, there is that which produces life; there is form, and there is that which imparts form; there is sound, and there is that which causes sound; there is colour, and there is that which causes colour; there is taste, and there is that which causes taste.

Evolution is never-ending. But who can perceive the secret processes of Heaven and Earth? Thus, things that are diminished here are augmented there; things that are made whole in one place suffer loss in another. Diminution and augmentation, fullness and decay are the constant accompaniments of life and death. They alternate in continuous succession, and we are not conscious of any interval. The whole body of spiritual substance progresses without a pause; the whole body of material substance suffers decay without intermission. But we do not perceive the process of completion, nor do we perceive the process of decay. Man, likewise, from birth to old age becomes something different every day in face and form, in wisdom and in conduct ... Though imperceptible while it is going on, it may be verified afterwards if we wait.


The spiritual element in man is allotted to him by Heaven, his corporeal frame by Earth. The part that belongs to Heaven is ethereal and dispersive, the part that belongs to Earth is dense and tending to conglomeration.When the spirit parts from the body, each of these elements returns to its proper place. That is why disembodied spirits are called kuei, which means "returning," that is, returning to their true dwelling place.

There may be similarity in understanding without similarity in outward form. There may also be similarity in form without similarity in understanding. The Sage embraces similarity of understanding and pays no regard to similarity of form. The world in general is attracted by similarity of form, but remains indifferent to similarity of understanding. Those creatures that resemble them in shape they love and consort with; those that differ from them in shape they fear and keep at a distance. The creature that has a long skeleton, hands differently shaped from the feet, hair on its head, and an even set of teeth in its jaws, and walks erect, is called a man. But it does not follow that a man may not have the mind of a brute. Even though this be the case, other men will still recognize him as one of their own species in virtue of his outward form.

Between his birth and his latter end, man passes through four chief stages of development: -- infancy, adolescence, old age and death. In infancy, the vital force is concentrated, the will is simple, and the general harmony of the system is perfect. External objects produce no injurious impression, and to the moral nature nothing can be added. In adolescence, the animal passions are wildly exuberant, the heart is filled with rising desires and preoccupations. The man is open to attack by the objects of sense, and thus his moral nature becomes enfeebled. In old age, his desires and preoccupations have lost their keenness, and the bodily frame seeks for repose. External objects no longer hold the first place in his regard. In this state, though not attaining to the perfection of infancy, he is already different from what he was in adolescence.


A dream is the meeting of minds; an event in our waking consciousness is the coming together of sensible substances. Hence our feelings by day and our dreams by night are the meetings of mind with mind and of substance with substance. It follows that if we can concentrate the mind in abstraction, our feelings and our dreams will vanish of themselves. With those who rely on their waking perceptions you cannot argue. Those who put faith in dreams do not understand the alternating processes of evolution. "The pure men of old passed their waking existence in self-oblivion, and slept without dreams." How can this be dismissed as an empty phrase?


The intelligence of animals is innate, even as that of man. Their common desire is for propagation of life, but their instincts are not derived from any human source. There is pairing between the male and the female, and mutual attachment between the mother and her young. They shun the open plain and keep to the mountainous parts; they flee the cold and make for warmth; when they settle, they gather in flocks; when they travel, they preserve a fixed order. The young ones are stationed in the middle, the stronger ones place themselves on the outside. They show one another the way to the drinking-places, and call to their fellows when there is food. In the earliest ages, they dwelt and moved about in company with man. It was not until the age of emperors and kings that they began to be afraid and broke away into scattered bands.


Li (spirit of exertion) and Ming (spirit of destiny) work conjointly. The husbandman takes his measures according to the season, the trader occupies himself with gain, the craftsman strives to master his art, the official pursues power. Here we have the operation of human forces.

But the husbandman has seasons of rain and seasons of drought, the trader meets with gains and losses, the craftsman experiences both failure and success, the official finds opportunities or the reverse. Here we see theworking of Destiny.

When the body is bent its shadow is crooked; when upright the shadow is straight. Likewise, contraction and extension are not inherent in the Subject, but take place in obedience to causes. Holding this theory of consequents is to be at home in the antecedent. Therefore if speech is sweet, the echo will be sweet. Hence the saying, "Heed your words, and they will meet with harmonious response; heed your actions, and they will find agreeable accord." Therefore the Sage observes the issue in order to know the origin, scrutinizes the past to know the future. The standard of conduct lies with one's own self. You will find no instance of preservation or destruction, fullness or decay, which has not obeyed the supreme Law of Causality. Those who excel in beauty become vain, those who excel in strength become violent; for Causality ceases where Balance is.


The source of life is death; but that which produces life never comes to an end. The origin of form is matter; but that which imparts form has no material existence. The genesis of sound lies in the sense of hearing; but that which causes sound is never audible to the ear. The source of colour is vision; but that which produces colour never manifests itself to the eye. The origin of taste lies in the palate; but that which causes taste is never perceived by that sense. All these phenomena are functions of the principle of Inaction (Wu Wei). To be at will either bright or obscure, soft or hard, short or long, round or square, alive or dead, hot or cold, buoyant or sinking, treble or bass, present or absent, black or white, sweet or bitter, fetid or fragrant: -- this it is to be devoid of knowledge, yet all-knowing, destitute of power, yet all-powerful.


... the Esoteric philosophy is alone calculated to withstand, in this age of crass and illogical materialism, the repeated attacks on all and everything man holds most dear and sacred, in his inner spiritual life. The true philosopher, the student of the Esoteric Wisdom, entirely loses sight of personalities, dogmatic beliefs and special religions. Moreover, Esoteric philosophy reconciles all religions, strips every one of its outward, human garments, and shows the root of each to be identical with that of every other great religion. It proves the necessity of an absolute Divine Principle in nature. It denies Deity no more than it does the Sun. Esoteric philosophy has never rejected God in Nature, nor Deity as the absolute and abstract Ens. It only refuses to accept any of the gods of the so-called monotheistic religions, gods created by man in his own image and likeness, a blasphemous and sorry caricature of the Ever Unknowable.--S.D. I, xx. Int.

If you understand what it means to be effortless, then there is nothing you cannot do. You can be yin or yang, hard or soft, short or long, round or square...By knowing and doingnothing, you can know all and do all.

If you do not know how to keep still in this crazy world, you will be drawn into all kinds of unnecessary trouble. You will lose your view of the Way, and, when you realize it, it will be too late, for in losing the Way, you have also lost yourself.

When something grows, something else will decay. When something disappears, something else emerges. This is the balance of things. If there is only growth and no decay, the world will be overpopulated, be it with people, animals, or vegetation. If there is only decay and no growth, life will disappear. For the world to continue there must be a balance of growth and decay.

Life is but the coming together of the energies of heaven and earth, and the source of these energies has no beginning and no end. How can one ever possess the way of heaven and earth?

Without publicity or fanfare, enlightened beings continue their lives as ordinary people and live out the rest of their days in simplicity and contentment, unknown to the world and unaffected by its conventions.

Look at your condition. The parts of your body do not cooperate; the vapors of heaven and earth do not enter your body; your joints and bones are so heavy that you can't even move. And you want to learn how to ride on the wind?

To an enlightened person, the world is limitless. He hides in the realm where there is no beginning and no end, and he wanders leisurely where the myriad things appear and disappear. He purifies his original nature, he cultivates his energy, and he maintains his virtue. Unified with the laws of nature, he merges with the natural order of things. Thus, his spirit is not harmed, and things outside cannot penetrate him or harm him.

Lose your stillness and you will fail in everything you do.

You can say that I started my learning with what was given to me at birth, continued with what was natural for me to do, and completed it by trusting what was meant to be.

A person with virtue does not consider himself or herself virtuous, and someone who is enlightened does not appear perfect. Only then can you transcend the world and yet be a part of it.

The benefactors of humanity--the goddess Nü who created us, the sage Sheng-nung who taught us agriculture, and many of humanity's teachers in the ancient times--do not appear in human form. Some have the body of a snake, others have the head of a bull, and yet others have wings and claws. On the other hand, the tyrants who enslaved people and killed innocents are human in appearance. Thus, how can you judge something simply by its appearance?

Strength should always be complemented by softness. If you resist too much, you will break. Thus, the strong person knows when to use strength and when to yield, and good fortune and disaster depend on whether you know how and when to yield.

While King Mu traveled in the realm of the spirit, everything felt real to him. But when he returned to his own realm, he found that everything he had experienced happened within the wink of an eye. Is the realm of the spirit real or is it just a fleeting thought?

For the man who could make it snow in summer and thunder in winter, our "real" world may be just a fleeting thought. Can this man change reality? Or is our reality not as permanent as we think it is?

The rich man who was the king of his business during the day and dreamed he was a slave at night is not much different from a slave who suffered during the day and dreamed he was a king at night.

The world is what we make of it. We create our happiness and our sorrows. If this is the case, why make problems for ourselves?

Who can tell when and how fast one situation changes into another and which one is real and which one is not?

Our emotions are the result of our beliefs.

Most people would question why these enlightened people do not want to make themselves known. After all, they possess skills beyond our imagination and certainly can make an impact on the society and the world. But in a world of truth and lies, where people are trapped by fame, fortune, approval, and greed, the sages who hide their skill are the ones who survive.

Confucius said, "To be truly happy and contented, you must let go of the idea of what it means to be happy or content."

"Maybe far away in the West is a person who doesn't talk about the art of government and yet his country is orderly and peaceful. He rarely speaks about promises but he is trusted by all. He does not use force, so everything runs smoothly. His heart is open and his actions are spontaneous. His subjects don't even know what to call him. I suspect he is a sage, but that he is truly a sage I would not know."

Wisdom is not competence in one skill or many skills. It is the ability to recognize strengths and weaknesses in ourselves and others. Thus, a wise teacher knows that although he may not surpass certain students in specific skills, he can give them what they need to become better individuals.

In fact, there is no distinction between the viewer and the seen.

Enlightenment is a very normal experience, attainable by everyone. Therefore, there is nothing mysterious or secretive about it. There is nothing unnatural about it, either, because it follows the natural way of things.

Someone who knows how to withdraw when his work is finished is one who understands the way of heaven.

...The Way cannot be grasped with your senses and thoughts. Look for it in front and it will sneak behind you. Seek it with good intentions and it is everywhere. If you are insincere, it will never reveal itself. It is something that you cannot use your intellect to attain, but if you are not serious, it will also escape you. Only in naturalness can the way be attained. And after you have attained it, only in naturalness can it be kept.

Time went on, and the Old Fool and his children kept on digging away at the mountain. While everyone laughed at his impossible project, the spirits of the mountain became concerned...Alarmed, they went to the lords of heaven and reported their concern. The deities were both curious and amused by the Old Fool's attempt at moving the mountains, but when they saw his patience and determination, they decided to help him. One night they sent two giants to carry the mountain off, one to the east and one to the south. The next morning, when the people looked out from their windows, the mountains that had blocked their way were miraculously gone.

When I sit by the river, my mind is totally concentrated on fishing and nothing else. I have a good feel for the give and pull of the line so the fish are not even aware when the hook and bait enter the water. To them, the bait is no different from a grain of sand or a bubble, and they swallow it without suspecting. This is the principle of using the soft to win over the strong and the light to hold the heavy. My lord, if you can rule your country this way, then everything in the world will be at your fingertips. Isn't that more effective than using force?

No one is born perfect, and even if science or technology can do wonders, solving one problem will create another. Therefore, it is better to accept who we are and not want to be someone else, for each person has his value.

Wen was already an accomplished musician by the time he went to study with Hsiang, but he realized that perfection in technique alone does not make great music. When he was finally able to dissolve the duality between himself and the music, the songs he played not only had the power to create moods but literally changed reality.

Humans are also made of the same stuff as nature, for all things emerged from the gathering of yin and yang vapors and owe their existence to the primordial breath of the Tao. Whether something is real or artificial depends on how we view the materials from which is made. If this is the case, then as "real" persons, what makes us more privileged than other things in creation?

What may be beneficial now may be harmful later.

It is a blessing to be able to live and die at the right time.

Following the laws of transformation in heaven and earth, boundless and unceasing, the cycles of change come about by themselves.

Lao-tzu said to his student Wen-tzu, "We can't say that a person who is not gifted is hated by heaven. But on the other hand, who knows the will of heaven? Maybe by not giving him blessings, heaven is helping him instead."

If you trust in yourself, then it doesn't matter whether conditions are safe or dangerous. If you are true to yourself, you will not be disturbed by things that happen around you.

The ancients understood that life is only a temporary sojourn in this world, and death a temporary departure. In our short time here, we should listen to our own voices and follow our own hearts.

Don't be imprisoned by name or title, for social conventions can lead you away from the natural order of things.

There is, however, one thing we all have in common: death.

If you don't have enough to eat, work on getting enough to eat. If you can't keep warm in winter, work on getting sufficient clothing. If you don't have time to enjoy yourself, work toward getting leisure time. But when you have enough, you should stop.

Let your mind think what it wants to think and not let other people's demands dictate your thoughts.

When you cannot think, sense, feel, or act freely, then your body and mind are injured. Break these oppressions, and you will cultivate life. When you can cultivate life, then you can wait peacefully for death. Being able to escape these oppressions for one day is better than to live a hundred years being imprisoned by them.

The ancients say that if people did not sacrifice a single strand of their hair to save the world, then the world would be a less complicated place.

To use intelligence to fulfill our basic needs and comfort is appropriate; to use it to harm others is to go against the natural order of things. And intelligence is transitory. Like skin, bones, and flesh, it disappears when we die.

If this body of flesh and blood is impermanent, how much more are nontangible things like name, title, and reputation?

When there is no system of reward, there will be no competition. When there is no competition, there will be no treachery. When there is no treachery, people can be true to themselves.

Your actions produce reactions that follow you like shadows. Just as a tall person's shadow is tall and a short person's shadow is short, ugly words will produce ugly echoes, and good intentions will produce good reactions.

Thus, the key to management lies not in your own talent but in your ability to choose the right people.

If I am honored because of another person's opinion, then I can also be dismissed because of someone's opinion.

The robber said, "I am Ch'iu of the region of Hu-fu."
Startled, the traveler said, "You're not that infamous robber who's wanted everywhere, are you?"
"I am he."
"Then why did you give me food? Did you help me because you associate me with your kind? I am a man of virtue and will not eat anything that comes from a criminal."
The traveler then tried to throw up the food the robber had given him. Eventually he choked on his vomit and died.

Knowledge is the precursor to action, but action is not necessarily the precursor to knowledge. It is a rare case that someone both knows the theory and is able to apply it.

We humans eat fish and birds, mosquitoes suck our blood, and tigers eat our flesh. If we were to say that birds and fish were created for us to eat, then we would have to admit that we humans were created for the mosquitoes and tigers to feast upon.

...When he awoke, the Yellow Emperor felt enlightened. He called to his ministers and told them, "I have spent three months in seclusion trying to find out what is the best way to govern the country and cultivate myself. However, I did not become enlightened by trying to think things out consciously. I got enlightened in a dream."

Twenty years later, the Yellow Emperor's kingdom was not much different from the mythical land he had visited in his dream. Not long afterward, the Yellow Emperor left the realm of the living and ascended to heaven, and all the people mourned the passing of a great ruler.

On the islands in the eastern seas are immortal beings who live on dewdrops and pinecones. They do not eat grain, they feed on the wind and vapor, and their minds are as clear and still as the mountain lake. They have ruddy cheeks and they all look like healthy children. They are open, friendly, and have no inhibitions...There is no fear, no anger, no tension, and no dissatisfaction. No one is superior or inferior to anyone else. Everything is bountiful and everyone enjoys the providence of heaven and earth. The sun and moon send a gentle light, the seasons are never harsh, the earth is rich, and the inhabitants are kind. The deities bless the land, and the monsters never go near it. This is the land the Yellow Emperor visited in his dream.