Daodejing Chapter 16 breakdown: returning to the root

Richard Brown
2 min readDec 20, 2023

Chapter 16 of the Daodejing urges you to return to a natural, unadulterated state of being, recognise the cyclical nature of life, and the importance of understanding and aligning with the Dao, the fundamental principle of the universe. It calls for a life of balance, awareness, and harmony with the natural world.

Section 1
Achieve perfect emptiness.
Maintain pure stillness.
The myriad things emerge.
I observe their return.
Each thing grows and flourishes.
Each one returns to its root.
Returning to the root is stillness,
It is true life-destiny.

The text begins by highlighting the importance of achieving a state of mental and spiritual openness and receptiveness, free from prejudices, preconceptions, and desires. It is about being in harmony with the natural flow of life.

Reaching a state of emptiness and stillness allows you to see with great clarity the circle of life and existence, where everything originates from a fundamental source and eventually returns to it. The root symbolizes the Dao, the underlying unity and origin of all things.

Returning to the root or Dao is associated with stillness, which is essential for understanding your true nature and destiny. This stillness is not just physical but also mental and spiritual, enabling a deep state of awareness and connectedness with the Dao.

Section 2
Knowing constancy is enlightenment.
Not knowing constancy
Leads to recklessness and calamity.

Constancy refers to an unchanging, eternal principle underlying the ever-changing world. Understanding and aligning with constancy leads to a profound understanding of life and existence. This knowledge fosters acceptance of the way things are rather than how you would like them to be. This mindset is crucial for living in harmony with the Dao.

Section 3
Knowing constancy leads to acceptance,
Acceptance to impartiality,
Impartiality to wholeness,
Wholeness to heaven,
Heaven to the Dao,
The Dao to resilience,
To living out your days,
Free from peril.

Impartiality comes from acceptance of the world as it is. It means being unbiased and balanced, leading to a sense of wholeness or completeness. This wholeness is linked to the concept of heaven, which symbolizes a state of ultimate harmony and balance.

Living in accordance with the Dao leads to greater endurance and resilience. This does not imply a life without challenges, but rather one where you are able to adapt and thrive in even the most trying circumstances because you are acting in harmony with the natural order.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.