Imagine writing something today and still having someone quote you in the year 4700. Now, image writing hundreds of things and having them all quoted 25 centuries from now. What would you write on? How would it still be relevant? What could you say to galvanize generations to translate, transcribe, and continue to share your words? That’s the power of Lao Tzu quotes. He has transcended time, culture, race, and systems of belief.
Lao Tzu quotes are excerpts from the Tao Te Ching, a Chinese philosophical text written around 400 BCE by an imperial archive clerk named Li Er. More commonly known by the honorific Lao Tzu (Old Master), he is considered the father of Taoism and was a contemporary of Confucius.
Quotes from Lao Tzu address all aspects of life and resonate with everyone. It’s in part due to his position in the royal court and consultant of the I Ching or Book of Changes, partly due to his knowledge and intelligence, and partly due to his age and witnessing a great time of change in China.
Let’s start with six of the most famous quotes by Lao Tzu. No matter who you are or where you are coming from, I can almost guarantee you have heard these quotes. It goes to show you how ever-present Lao Tzu quotes are in our societies. Then I want to share some interesting background about the “Old Master” to give some context about how he arrived at the knowledge he did. Finally, I have organized some of the most famous quotes from Lao Tzu by topic. You can read all of the way down or use these links to jump to the section that most interests you:
Best Lao Tzu Quotes Organized by Topic
What follows is not an extensive list of dozens and dozens of quotes. For that you should really just read the Tao Te Ching. Here I organized quotes from Lao Tzu that relate to a specific area of inspiration I was needing at a time. His work is really all encompassing and I find myself revisiting his work in a variety of situations. I even have a picture of him (and Rumi) in the corner where I sit to meditation (thank you my wife!).
6 Famous Quotes by Lao Tzu
You know a quote is famous when almost everyone has heard it, even though they might not know who has said it. These six quotes have been made famous through leadership seminars, empowerment movements, motivational posters, and even political uprisings. This really shows how broadly relatable quotes by Lao Tzu are.
I particularly like the first one although the full quote is not always shared. The first half is about knowing yourself but the second half while gives us instructions for what to do with the knowledge.
“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
“Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”
“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. “
Why Are There So Many Famous Quotes by Lao Tzu?
Lao Tzu was a historiographer working for the Chinese emperor. It’s a term that encompasses many important duties for the ruling family. He had access to ancient archives from the emperors and sages that ruled before his lifetime. He was expected to help maintain the archives as well as explore them for knowledge to use in consultations for leaders. Included in this governmental position was observing changes to the solar system and use of the Book of Changes (I-Ching) for prophecy. Not only that, he had access to other great thinkers of the time and it’s possible that he interacted with Confucius, or was at least intimately acquainted with his work.
After decades of reading and synthesizing vast amounts of information, he came up with his own set of truisms that guide life. This included influences from science, politics, leadership, war, interpersonal relationships, medicine, and history. Legend has it that he saw big political and economic changes coming and was ready to retire away from the world. He wrote down his collective beliefs in what is now known as the Tao Te Ching and left the gates of the city on a water buffalo. The Tao or “the Way” would end up influencing many eastern religions and being the primary philosophy studied by the monks and martial artists of the Wudang Mountains.
Lao Tzu Quotes on Leadership
Leading others is tough. Many of us have experienced a degree of success in the working world or have spent a lot of time doing it so we are highly proficient. Getting from that place to where you can lead others to have the same success is an ability unto itself. Leadership creates a really unusual relationship because a person dedicates her time to helping others or advancing an initiative and can be loved or hated for it! Lao Tzu quotes on leadership really speak to the maturity needed to gather and direct other humans. His special brand of wisdom highlights our own reactions and ego which I think makes Lao Tzu quotes about leadership unique.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy.”
“Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?’
“Leadership is your ability to hide your panic from others.”
Love Quotes by Lao Tzu
Love quotes by Lao Tzu are about power, courage, and acting because it is the right thing to do. Many of my relationships changed when I wrapped my mind around this first quote. I love doing things for other people but didn’t always get the reaction I was expecting. When I dropped that expectation because we can’t control others’ behaviors, I just began serving others for the joy it gave me.
“Act without expectation.”
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.“
“Surrender your self-interest. Love others as much as you love yourself. Then you can be entrusted with all things under heaven. “
“Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.”
Inspirational Lao Tzu Quotes
I don’t think there is much that is more enjoyable then feeling inspiration. I even love the root of the word – “being filled with spirit.” Inspirational Lao Tzu quotes often provide the fuel that keeps us working at something long after the initial excitement has worn off. They also paint our small efforts in the light of the greater world so you can see yourself alongside everyone else who is struggling to create something great or live up to their true potential.
“All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small.”
“Ambition has one heel nailed in well, though she stretches her fingers to touch the heavens.”
“As long as we have hope, we have direction, the energy to move, and the map to move by. We have a hundred alternatives, a thousand paths and an infinity of dreams. Hopeful, we are halfway to where we want to go; hopeless, we are lost forever.”
“Your own positive future begins in this moment. All you have is right now. Every goal is possible from here”
Gratitude Lao Tzu Quotes
Gratitude Lao Tzu quotes hit the nail on the head when you dealing with high levels of frustration. Things aren’t going right, something breaks, something costs more money, something take more time, or we don’t get the outcome we want after putting in a ton of work. Frustrating, right? Lao Tzu’s view on gratitude gives us a way out. If we concentrate on what is eternally important like our health and relationships and if we find joy in the doing, the outcome isn’t so weighty and we experience a lot more joy. And according to Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, it’s as simple as acknowledging how great our life is and being grateful for what is right in front of us.
“Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.”
“Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. Non-being is the greatest joy.”
“When you accept yourself, the whole world accepts you.”
Lao Tzu Quotes on Life
Lao Tzu quotes on life make me laugh. He has a real knack for painting the absurdity for things that we take too seriously. Another thing that I love about his observations is that we often get exactly what we don’t want when we try too hard. Lastly, Lao Tzu has a way of simplifying things. This way, when you are feeling overwhelmed it’s easier to get moving in the right direction.
“An over sharpened sword cannot last long.”
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”
“Whatever is flexible and living will tend to grow; whatever is rigid and blocked will wither and die.”
“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”
Lao Tzu Quotes on Happiness
The opposite of happiness is depression of course. Lao Tzu quotes on happiness and depression show us the spectrum that all of us travel along throughout the day. We rarely stay the same degree of happy or sad. Something can depress us or someone can make us ecstatic. And these shifts can happen in the blink of an eye. Something that makes depression difficult is that when we are wrapped up in it, it feels like it will never end. Reading what Lao Tzu had to say on depression and happiness shows how transitory it all is.
“As soon as you have made a thought, laugh at it.”
“Be content with what you have, rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
“In order to eliminate the negative influences, simply ignore them.”
Lao Tzu Death Quotes
Death is kind of a strong word. In the West we shy away from it and prefer words like loss, or passing on. A true strength of Taoism is how it confronts death and the fact that it comes to all of us. Lao Tzu quotes on death still take a soft approach and give us a silver lining. If we come to an understanding on how all things come to an end (our day, a meal, our jobs), it gives us a way to understand and accept change. There is another silver lining because even the things that are causing us pain or suffering come to an end. Nothing escapes the cycle.
“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.”
“Loss is not as bad as wanting more.”
“The body comes to its ending but nothing dies.”
“New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”
Reference: The Founder of Daoism