Daodejing Chapter 27: the heritage of light

Richard Brown
2 min readMay 20, 2023

The best traveller
Leaves no tracks.
The best speaker
Makes no slips.
The best accountant
Uses no tallies.
The best fastener
Uses no latch or bolt,
But cannot be opened.
The best knot
Is not tied,
But cannot be loosened.
The sage saves people,
Abandoning no one.
He saves things,
Wasting nothing.
This is the heritage of light.
The best teach those
Who are not-as-good.
Those who are not-as-good
Are the material the best work on.
If you do not value the teacher,
If you do not cherish the material,
No matter how knowledgeable you are,
You are greatly lost.
This is the essential marvel.

「善行無轍跡,善言無瑕謫,善數不用籌策,善閉無關鍵而不可開,善結無繩約而不可解。是以聖人常善救人,故無棄人;常善救物,故無棄物。 是謂襲明。故善人者,不善人之師;不善人者,善人之資。不貴其師,不愛其資;雖智大迷,是謂要妙。」

The Daoist principle of effortless action (無為/wúwéi) can be applied to everything we do — no matter whether it is balancing the books or tying a knot. The way to achieve this state is by drawing from and cultivating what Laozi calls “the heritage of light” in Chapter 27 of the Daodejing.

The heritage of light is the lode of shared wisdom that has been accumulated over generations and passed on by craftsmen and teachers to their apprentices and students. It encompasses much more than the skills and knowledge required to complete a specific task or finish a lesson. It also includes the development of a fundamental expertise that is not just based on formal training and practice but also honed by extensive experience and close interaction with others in the same field. Gaining your paper qualifications in accountancy does not make you a good accountant; only years of further study, close observation, and deep immersion will enable you to master your work effortlessly without having to rely on props or prompts.

Leadership abilities can also be nurtured from the heritage of light. By listening to your mentors, sharing your experiences with the people around you, and learning from the mistakes of others, you build up an instinctive understanding of the environment and the steps required to make sure that everything runs smoothly, and everyone is safe.

Note
Some scholars speculate that the second half of this passage doesn’t belong here because there does not appear to be a logical connection between it and the first half. In some versions, therefore, you will find it in Chapter 62.

I took this image at Longhu (Dragon Tiger) Mountain, a famous Daoist site about ten miles south of Yingtan in Jiangxi Province. A great place to visit!

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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.