Daodejing Chapter 64 breakdown: act before something happens

Richard Brown
3 min readSep 25, 2023

Chapter 64 of the Daodejing continues the exploration of the concept of wuwei (無為), often translated as effortless action, non-action, or non-doing, that was begun in the previous chapter. It highlights the importance of adopting a pro-active approach to prevent issues from getting out of control, as well as the value of starting small, taking balanced and mindful action, and resisting the urge to push things too fast and too hard.

Section 1
It is easy to manage a stable situation.
It is easy to nip a problem in the bud.
It is easy to shatter something that is brittle.
It is easy to scatter something that is tiny.
Act before something happens.
Establish order before chaos emerges.

The opening section of the chapter advocates the need to manage proactively so that a minor issue does not escalate into a full-blown crisis. When times are good, it is important to guard against complacency and remain alert to everything that is happening around you. If you sense a problem emerging, take immediate action to resolve it.

Section 2
A tree an arm’s span in girth,
Grows from a tiny shoot.
A terrace nine storeys high,
Rises from a mound of earth.
A journey of a thousand miles,
Starts with a single step.

The second section uses a trio of popular sayings to highlight the highlight the idea that significant accomplishments start from humble beginnings. Just as a tree grows from a tiny shoot, a terrace starts from a mound of earth, and a long journey begins with a single step, you need to take small, manageable steps toward achieving your goals. It takes a lot of work and careful planning to become an overnight success!

Section 3
Those who act fail.
Those who grip lose.
The sage never acts and so does not fail.
He never grips and so never fails.
People often fail on the brink of success.
Be as careful at the end as at the beginning,
And there will be no failure.

The third section warns that pushing too aggressively or attempting to control everything to speed up the process is a recipe for failure. This aligns with the concept of wuwei, which favors natural and effortless action over forceful intervention.

Paying as much attention to the end of the process as the beginning is equally critical to avoiding failure. When everything seems to be going well, it can be all too easy to become so careless or overconfident that you take your eye off the ball at a critical moment.

Section 4
The sage desires without desiring.
He does not value rare goods.
He studies without studying.
He balances the excesses of the masses.
By refraining from action,
He enables the myriad things to flourish naturally.

Because the Daoist sage is not driven by any desire for personal wealth or acclaim, he does not act impulsively and allows everything to unfold naturally. With his imperturbable calm and refusal to chase after personal gain, he serves as a shining beacon to the common people — helping them to abandon their excess desires and enjoy peace and prosperity in harmony with the Dao.

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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.