Daodejing Chapter 2 breakdown: teaching without words

Richard Brown
3 min readDec 5, 2023

Chapter 2 of the Daodejing advises you to remain detached from the hurly burly of the world by practicing effortless action and teaching without words. Once you fall into the trap of comparing things with each other, you can all too easily get caught up in your emotions and lose touch from what is truly important.

Section 1
When all-under-heaven
Knows beauty as beauty,
There is also ugliness.
When all-under-heaven
Knows good as good,
There is also evil.

The chapter begins by cautioning against placing arbitrary distinctions on the world around you based on your perceptions. As soon as you start using a subjective label such as beauty to define a person or object, you cross the threshold into an ever more tumultuous world of dualities or opposites in which for every this there is a that, for every right there is a wrong, and for every good person there is an evil one.

Section 2
Being and non-being
Generate each other.
Difficult and easy
Complete each other.
Long and short
Give form to each other.
High and low
Complement each other.
Note and sound
Harmonize each other.
Front and rear
Follow each other.

In the second section, the text provides more examples of dualities, showing that they can only exist in relationship with each other rather than on their own. How do you know if something is long if you do not have something shorter to compare it with? How do you know if a task is simple if you have not already completed a challenging one? How do you know if you are alive if others have not died?

The problem with thinking in terms of dualities is that if you are not careful you will constantly compare yourself with others and enter a vicious cycle of desire and loathing that distorts your approach to life. Once you become concerned that your best friend is wealthier, more attractive, and more popular than you are, your natural reaction will be envy accompanied by a raging desire to knock them off their pedestal.

Section 3
The sage conducts affairs
Through effortless action.
Practices teaching
Without words.
The myriad things arise,
And none are rejected.
The Dao gives birth,
Yet never possesses.
The sage acts without attachment,
Accomplishes without claiming credit.
Because he does not claim credit,
He never loses it.

The chapter concludes by advising you to free yourself from this ever more tangled web of dualities through the practice of wuwei, or effortless action, and teaching without words. This means allowing things to happen without interfering with them and achieving your goals without seeking praise or affirmation from others. By going with the natural flow of the Dao, you will accomplish more than you ever thought possible because you will be able to focus solely on what is truly important and will not allow your thoughts and energy to be diverted by unnecessary distractions.

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Daodejing Chapter 2: effortless action

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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.