Stephen Mitchell: The Second Book of the Tao

Compiled and adapted from the Chuang-tzu and the Chung Yung, with commentaries
The Penguin Press, 2009

The most widely translated book in world literature after the Bible, Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching, or Book of the Way, is the classic manual on the art of living. Following the phenomenal success of his own version of the Tao Te Ching, renowned scholar and translator Stephen Mitchell has composed the innovative The Second Book of the Tao.

Drawing from the work of Lao-tzu’s disciple Chuang-tzu and Confucius’s grandson Tzu-ssu, Mitchell has selected the freshest, clearest teachings from these two great students of the Tao and adapted them into versions that reveal the poetry, depth, and humor of the ancient texts with a thrilling new power, and makes them at once modern, relevant, and timeless.

Alongside each adaptation, Mitchell includes his own brilliant commentary, at once illuminating and complementing the text.

The left to the Tao Te Ching’s right, the yang to its yin, a companion volume and antimanual, The Second Book of the Tao is a great gift to contemporary readers.


“A second book of the Tao? There’s no such thing! What did you do—pull it out of your hat?”

Well, yes, if hat is defined as the treasury of recorded wisdom that is our common birthright. In that treasury, there is nothing more precious than the wisdom of the ancient Chinese.

The selections in this book have been adapted from two Chinese anthologies that were probably compiled between 300 and 100 bce: the Chuang-tzu, parts of which were written by the eponymous sage, Master Chuang (c. 369 – c. 286 bce), and the Chung Yung (“The Central Harmony”), which was ascribed to Confucius’ grandson, Tzu-ssu (c. 483 – c. 402 bce).

I have anthologized these anthologies, picking from them the freshest, clearest, most profound passages. Facing each chapter there is a brief commentary, which is meant to clarify the text or to complement it. I have written these in the spirit of Chuang-tzu, for whom nothing, thank goodness, was sacred.

The first book of the Tao (written by the perhaps legendary Lao-tzu) is the Tao Te Ching, that marvel of lucidity and grace, the classic manual on the art of living. What I wanted to create here was a left to its right, a yang to its yin, a companion volume and anti-manual.

The Chuang-tzu had the perfect material for that: deep, subtle, with an audacity that can make your hair stand on end. If Lao-tzu is a smile, Chuang-tzu is a belly-laugh. He’s the clown of the Absolute, the apotheosis of incredulity, Coyote among the bodhisattvas. And the Chung Yung provided a psychological and moral acuity of comparable depth.

Readers who are familiar with the Tao Te Ching but don’t yet know the Chuang-tzu or the Chung Yung—or who, having dipped into them, were discouraged by their unevenness—are in for a treat. Naturally, since all three texts tell of the Tao that can’t be told, there are passages in The Second Book of the Tao that overlap with the Tao Te Ching.

But even these passages may strike you as revelations, as if some explorer had discovered a trove of unknown Lao-tzu scrolls buried in a desert cave. And there is much that will be entirely new: meditations on dreams, death, language, the I and the other, doing and not-doing, the origin of the universe, the absolute relativity of things.

In addition to these descriptions, we meet a cast of vivid characters, most of them humble artisans or servants, who show us what it means to be in harmony with the way things are: the monkey trainer who turns on a dime in his hilarious, compassionate diplomacy; Ting, Prince Wen-hui’s cook, whose one-pointedness elevates butchering to the level of the performing arts and beyond; Pien the wheelwright, willing to risk his life to teach a ferocious nobleman that what is most valuable can’t be taught; Ch’ing the woodworker, whose bell stand is so beautiful that people think a god must have made it; and Chi Hsing-tzu, trainer of champion gamecocks and virtuoso of patience.

We also meet philosophers and fools: Lieh-tzu, who has an intimate chat with a skull; Hui-tzu, the epitome of logic and propriety, Chuang-tzu’s friend and rival, straight man and foil; the ludicrous Marquis of Lu, who shows that the Golden Rule can be mere projected egotism; and Master Yu, who, even when afflicted with a grotesque deformity, never loses his cheerfulness and sense of gratitude.

Finally there is Chuang-tzu himself. We meet him in a few delectable stories and dialogues, as he wakes up (maybe) from the dream of a butterfly, refuses the post of prime minister, celebrates the death of his beloved wife, or discusses the usefulness of the useless and the happiness of fish.

Chuang-tzu has been called a mystical anarchist, and it’s true that his words sometimes have a contrarian flavor that seems to put them at odds with Lao-tzu’s concern for enlightened government. Given the least semblance of control, Chuang-tzu offers a whole world of irreverence and subversion. But if you look more closely, you’ll see that he is neither a mystic nor an anarchist. He’s simply someone who doesn’t linger in any mental construct about reality, someone who lives as effortless action and peace of heart, because he has freed himself from his own beliefs.

What he subverts is conventional thinking, with its hierarchies of judgment, its fors and againsts, betters and worses, insides and outsides, and its delusion that life is random, unfair, and somehow not good enough. Learn how to govern your own mind, Chuang-tzu says, and the universe will govern itself. In this he is in wholehearted agreement with Lao-tzu and with the meticulous Tzu-ssu, for whom attention to the innermost self is the direct path to a just society.

One of the qualities I most treasure in Chuang-tzu is his sense of the spontaneous, the uncapturable. This makes it easy to follow in his footsteps. Since there are no footsteps, all you can follow is what he himself followed: the Tao. He had confidence that in being true to his own insight he was being true to his teacher Lao-tzu.

There was nothing to say and no way to say it, yet it had to be said. As a Zen poet-descendant of his wrote more than a thousand years later,

The moon floats above the pine trees
as you sit on the veranda in the cool evening air.
Your fingertips move lightly along the flute.
The melody is so lovely that it makes the
listeners weep.
But wisdom’s flute has no holes
and its ancient clear music is beyond emotion.
Don’t even try to play it
unless you can make the great sound of Lao-tzu.

What could be more useless than a flute with no holes? Yet, if you understand, you put it to your lips and the ancient clear music happens by itself. Had Chuang-tzu believed that there was anything to live up to, he would have been too intimidated even to try. There was nothing to live up to. There was only a passion for the genuine, a fascination with words, and a constant awareness that the ancient Masters are alive and well in the mind that doesn’t know a thing.

When we exhaust our minds by clinging to a particular side of reality without realizing the underlying oneness, this is called “three in the morning.” What does that mean?

A monkey trainer, handing out acorns, said, “Each of you will get three in the morning and four in the afternoon.” The monkeys were outraged.

So he said, “All right, then: you’ll get four in the morning and three in the afternoon.” The monkeys were delighted.

Nothing essential had changed, yet one statement produced anger, and the other, joy. The trainer simply knew how to adapt to reality, and he lost nothing by it.

Thus the Master uses his skill to harmonize with both sides, and rests in the Tao, which makes all things equal. This is called “walking on two paths at once.”


The whole human condition is present in this tricky little tale, which would be sad if it weren’t so ridiculous. Although from the standpoint of the monkeys it’s about the power of righteous indignation, from the standpoint of the monkey trainer, behind the scenes, it’s about skillful management. You have to admire his one-two punch; he’s both bad cop and good cop. But what is the trainer training the monkeys in, anyway? Discernment? If so, he’s being made a monkey of.

Whenever we cling to a particular side of reality, it’s we who are the monkeys, losing ourselves in outrage or partial delight. If we look more carefully, though, we can see that reality has only one side, like a Möbius strip. Stars or raindrops, acorns or ashes, apparent blessings, apparent disasters—when the mind is clear, each is an occasion for rejoicing. That’s what discernment is about.

Once our mind-monkeys are fully trained, it’s all good. In the mathematics of mental peace, three equals four, one equals zero. Adapting to reality means recognizing that nothing underlies or overlays it. The Master can travel on two paths at once, like a photon, because his mind is free. He’s subatomic and supererogatory. He knows that all ways are the Way and that ultimately he is neither coming nor going.

Nothing in the world is bigger
than the tip of an autumn hair,
and Mount Everest is tiny.
No one in the world has lived longer
than a stillborn child,
and Methuselah died young.
The universe came into being
the moment that I was born,
and all things are one with me.

Since all things are one,
how can I put that into words?
But since I just said they are one,
how can my words mean nothing?
The one plus my words make two,
and the two plus the one make three.
If we continue in this way,
even the greatest mathematician
couldn’t calculate where it will end.
If by moving from non-being to being
we get to three, what happens
when we move from being to being?

It’s better just to leave things alone.


There are paradoxes born of wit and paradoxes born of insight. No thought is true, but some thoughts are so much truer than the ones we’re used to that they seem absurd at first glance. It’s all a question of perspective.

Down at the level of the micro, there is no macro. If you get small enough, you see that the world isn’t solid and that uncertainty is the only thing that’s certain, perhaps. Thus, everything the electron meets is electronal. Ditto a galaxy: its consciousness, if it has one, is as little aware of a planet as you are of a corpuscle. We can’t stand outside the system and point to what’s real, because what’s real is defined by the system. This is relativity writ large. The fastest thing in the universe isn’t light: it’s mind.

All things may be one with me, but am I one with them? That’s the issue. And once I am one, what then? Even the one is excessive for anyone who wants to be meticulous. Look where it leads, after all—to two, to three, to infinity, to an infinity of infinities and beyond: always the unattainable, unassuageable beyond.

Of course, the nothing is out of the question as well, since there’s already a word for it. Not one? Not nothing? This leaves you in an ideal position: speechless, delighted, and ready to say the most nonsensical things, if only they make sense.


Stephen Mitchell is widely known for his ability to make ancient masterpieces thrillingly new, to step in where many have tried before and create versions that are definitive for our time. His many books include the bestselling Tao Te Ching, The Book of Job, Bhagavad Gita, and The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. His web site is


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: