Tao Te Ching

The Power of Goodness, the Wisdom Beyond Words
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Although Gracian's clear message tells us that we should, "Never disclose our sources of pain or joy, if we want one to cease and the other to endure;" lack of confidence, the desire for acceptance, approval and fame all undermine our attempts at being more inscrutable. While the wise tend to be revolutionary change agents, by far the majority of people don't want things to change—even if obviously for the better—and resist, often violently any attempt to make things different. So during most of history, inscrutability was essential for survival.

Carl Jung seemed to have a contradictory attitude toward inscrutability. He talked about how insulting it is to talk to people about things they don't understand and advised strongly against it; but, at the same time, he described how he consciously made his writings and talks very obscure "in order to avoid causing a prejudice in one direction or another." Like with most opposites, keeping a good balance becomes an important and delicate dance.

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Quotes (95)

“The wise appear simple and ordinary on the outside while holding a precious treasure concealed within.”

Lao Tzu 老子 1 via Shan Dao, chapter #70
from Tao Te Ching 道德经 Dàodéjīng

Themes: Inscrutable

43. Inscrutable

“If you can stay in the lead of men without their knowing, you are at the core of life.”

Lao Tzu 老子 1 via Witter Bynner
from Way of Life According to Lao Tzu

10. The Power of Goodness

“In seeing victory, not going beyond what everyone knows is not skilled… One skilled at battle takes a stand in the ground of no defeat… Therefore, the victorious military is first victorious and after that does battle.”

Sun Tzu 孙武 544 – 496 BCE via Denma Translation Group
(Sun Zi)
HIstory's supreme strategist
from Art of War 孙子兵法

60. Less is More

“He plans secretly, moves surreptitiously, and foils the enemy's intentions... but his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom or credit for courage because the world at large knows nothing of them.”

Sun Tzu 孙武 544 – 496 BCE via Lionel Giles and James Clavell
(Sun Zi)
HIstory's supreme strategist
from Art of War 孙子兵法

43. Inscrutable

“Not every truth is the better for showing its face undisguised; and often silence is the wisest thing for a man to heed.”

Pindar Πίνδαρος 522 – 443 BCE
Archetype of poetry

“Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.”

Euripides 480 – 406 BCE
Ancient humanitarian influence continuing today

Themes: Inscrutable

70. Inscrutable

“There are only two people who can tell you the truth about yourself - an enemy who has lost his temper and a friend who loves you dearly.”

Antisthenes 445 – 365 BCE
Creator of a religious tradition without religion

“That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill.”

Aristotle Ἀριστοτέλης 382 – 322 BCE
from Politics

“When springs dry up, fish find themselves in puddles spraying water on each other to keep each other alive. Better to be in a river or lake and oblivious to one another.”

Chuang Tzu 莊周 369 – 286 BCE via Red Pine

from Zhuangzi

Themes: Inscrutable

18. The Sick Society

“Live unobtrusively.”

Epicurus ɛpɪˈkjɔːrəs 341 – 270 BCE
Western Buddha
from On Nature

70. Inscrutable

“Never share your secrets with anybody. It will destroy you.”

Chandragupta Maurya 340 – 297 BCE
Ashoka’s grandfather, founder of the Maurya Empire

Themes: Inscrutable

“State affairs are often accomplished in secrecy but miscarried if the news leaks out. It's not difficult to know but difficult to know what to do with what you know.”

Hán Fēi 韓非 280 – 233 BCE via Lin Yutang, Shan Dao
from Hanfeitse

Themes: Inscrutable

“Real people are those united with the Tao. Wandering in the vastness beyond mundane clutter, they work freely without making an issue of it, know without learning, see without looking, achieve without striving and understand without trying.”

Liú Ān 劉安 1 via Thomas Cleary
from Huainanzi

51. Mysterious Goodness

“Sages are not controlled by names, not governed by plans, not burdened by affairs, and not ruled by intellect. They are concealed in formlessness; their acts are traceless, and their roamings are trackless.”

Liú Ān 劉安 1 via Thomas Cleary
from Huainanzi

27. No Trace

“To live well is to live concealed.”

Ovid oʊvɪd 43 BCE – 18 CE
(Publius Ovidius Naso)
Great poet and major influence on the Renaissance, Humanism, and world literature

from The Tristia

15. Inscrutability

“The perfection of art is to conceal art.”

Quintilian 35 – 100 CE
from Institutio Oratoria

Themes: Inscrutable Art

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

Epictetus Ἐπίκτητος 55 – 135 CE
from Discourses of Epictetus, Ἐπικτήτου διατριβαί

Themes: Inscrutable

41. Distilled Life

“Seemeth it nothing to you, never to accuse, never to blame either God or Man? to wear ever the same countenance in going forth as in coming in? This was the secret of Socrates: yet he never said that he knew or taught anything…”

Epictetus Ἐπίκτητος 55 – 135 CE
from Discourses of Epictetus, Ἐπικτήτου διατριβαί

77. Stringing a Bow

“Those who uncovered and touched this image of life were instantaneously destroyed and shall remain forever exposed to the play of the eternal waves. For the unutterable and the formless must be concealed.”

Proclus Lycaeus Πρόκλος ὁ Διάδοχος 412 – 485 CE via Tobias Dantzig
"The most influential Ancient Greek philosopher you've never heard of"

Themes: Inscrutable

“The Way is not difficult for those without preferences.”

Jianzhi Sengcan 鑑智僧璨 529 – 606 CE
(Jiànzhì Sēngcàn)

“If you disclose your charitable expenditures, they are good; but if you conceal them and give them to the poor, it is better for you.”

Muhammad محمد‎; محمد‎; 570 – 632 CE
from Koran

“In darkest night it is perfectly clear; in the light of dawn it is hidden.”

Dongshan Liangjie 洞山良价 807 – 869 CE
(Dòngshān Liángjiè; Tōzan Ryōkai)
from Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi

“Those who treasure the Way fit in without making a show and stay forever hidden. Hence, they don’t leave any tracks.”

Wang Zhen 809 – 859 CE via Ralph D. Sawyer
from Daodejing Lunbing Yaoyishu, The Tao of War

27. No Trace

“Although the ancient masters lived in the world, no one thought they were special.”

Cao Daochong 道寵 1
(​Daochong or Ts’ao Tao-Ch’ung)

15. Inscrutability

“These days people are extremely jealous. If this is repeated to anyone other than you, friends, virtue will not flourish and defilement will increase. Therefore, keep this secret from ordinary people.”

Marpa Lotsawa 1012 – 1097 CE via Nalanda Translation Committee

Themes: Inscrutable

“As long as a word remains unspoken, you are its master; once you utter it, you are its slave.”

Solomon ibn Gabirol שלמה בן יהודה אבן גבירול 1021 – 1070 CE via Ascher
from Choice of Pearls

“If you want to keep something concealed from your enemy, don't disclose it to your friend.”

Solomon ibn Gabirol שלמה בן יהודה אבן גבירול 1021 – 1070 CE via Ascher
from Choice of Pearls

Themes: Inscrutable

“Unless words have great meaning, they will not escape his mouth. Unless there is a point to his actions, he will not resolve his mind.”

Gesar of Ling གེ་སར་རྒྱལ་པོ། 1
from Gesar of Ling Epic

Themes: Inscrutable

“Name and reality are often at odds. The reality of the Tao remains hidden in no name.”

Lu Huiqing 1031 – 1111 CE

Themes: Inscrutable

41. Distilled Life

“This affair is like a phoenix soaring into the heavens, not leaving a trace behind.”

Touzi Yiqing 投子義青 1032 – 1083 CE
(Tōsu Gisei, “Zen Master of Complete Compassion”)

“Sages don't reveal the Way because they keep it secret, but because it can't be revealed. Thus their words are like footsteps that leave to tracks.”

Cheng Zhu 程俱 1078 – 1144 CE via Red Pine
(Ch‘eng, Chü, Zheng, Ru, Ju Cheng)
Neo-Confucian founding uncle

“She is with everyone and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them in inscrutable mercy.”

Hildegard of Bingen 1098 – 1179 CE

52. Cultivating the Changeless

“The Tao is also hard to understand and hard to put into practice… because all words are wrong, because it cannot be learned, and because the mind only leads us astray. Effortless stillness is not necessarily right, and actionless activity is not necessarily wrong.”

Li Xizhai 1 via Red Pine
(Li Hsi-Chai)
from Tao-te-chen-ching yi-chieh

70. Inscrutable

“enlightenment after enlightenment with no trace of enlightenment”

Dōgen Zenji 道元禅師 1200 – 1253 CE via David Chadwick

27. No Trace

“The reason sages don’t speak or act is so they can bestow their blessings in secret and … when their work succeeds and people’s lives go well, people… don’t realize it was made possible by those on high.”

Wu Cheng 吴澄 1249 – 1333 CE via Red Pine
"Mr. Grass Hut"
from Tao-te-chen-ching-chu

17. True Leaders

“It is only at night that brilliance and color are pleasing. By day let your appearance be simple and sober but at night it is well to wear bright and gay garments.”

Yoshida Kenkō 兼好 1284 – 1350 CE via Sir George Bailey Sansom
Inspiration of self-reinvention
from Essays in Idleness

“The meaning we have dispersed in various places and gathered again; what we have concealed in one place we have disclosed in another, that it may be understood by your wisdom.”

Agrippa 1486 – 1535 CE
(Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim)
Historian of the occult and early, important influence on science
from Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic

Themes: Inscrutable

“One must be a little foolish if one does not want to be even more stupid.”

Montaigne 1533 – 1592 CE
Grandfather of the Enlightenment

“The more pains you take, the more you should conceal them.”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

“Folly consists not in committing folly but in not hiding it when committed... the wise try to hide their errors while fools boast of them”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE via Joseph Jacobs, chapter #126
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

Themes: Inscrutable

“Never let things be seen half finished because deformity sticks in the imagination. To see the tastiest dishes prepared arouses disgust rather than appetite. Take this lesson from Mother Nature who doesn't bring the child to light until it is fit to be seen.”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE via Joseph Jacobs, Shan Dao chapter #231
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

Themes: Inscrutable

“Never disclose the source of pain or joy, if you want one to cease and the other to endure.”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE via Joseph Jacobs, chapter #145
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

Themes: Inscrutable

“Never let the extent of your wisdom and skill be known... guesses and doubts arouse more respect than accurate knowledge.”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE via Shan Dao, #94
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

Themes: Inscrutable

15. Inscrutability

“Write your intentions in cypher and like an inky cuttlefish disguise them.”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE via Shan Dao, #98
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

Themes: Inscrutable

“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.”

Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet 1694 – 1778 CE

Themes: Inscrutable

70. Inscrutable

“A little of what you call frippery is very necessary towards looking like the rest of the world.”

Abigail Adams 1744 – 1818 CE
One of the most exceptional women in American history

Themes: Inscrutable

“It is our duty to tell others no more than they are able to receive. Man grasps only what is to his measure.”

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 1749 – 1832 CE via Ungar

Themes: Inscrutable

“Tell a wise person, or else keep silent, because the mass man will mock it right away.”

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 1749 – 1832 CE

41. Distilled Life

“The more they talk, the more wrong they go. It’s like pouring on oil to put out a fire - just foolishness and nothing else.”

Ryokan 良寛大愚 1758 – 1758 CE
(Ryōkan Taigu,“The Great Fool”)

56. One with the Dust

“Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows like harmony in music; there is a dark inscrutable workmanship that reconciles discordant elements, makes them cling together In one society.”

William Wordsworth 1770 – 1850 CE

“Shame on such a morality that fails to recognize the eternal essence that exists in every living thing and shines forth with inscrutable significance from all eyes that see the sun.”

Arthur Schopenhauer 1788 – 1860 CE
from On the Basis of Morality

Themes: Inscrutable

“Only that mind draws me that I cannot read... The power men possess to annoy me, I give them with a weak curiosity.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803 – 1882 CE
Champion of individualism
from Journals, 1847

“Never complain and never explain.”

Disraeli, Benjamin 1804 – 1881 CE
(Earl of Beaconsfield )
Political balance between mob rule and tyranny

“true genius… prefers silence to saying the something which is not everything that should be said.”

Edgar Allan Poe Edgar Allen Poe 1809 – 1849 CE

56. One with the Dust

“The most wonderful things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs”

Herman Melville 1819 – 1891 CE
from Moby Dick or The Whale

Themes: Inscrutable

“brief phrases which seemed pregnant to him because he had many thoughts lying under them, like the abundant roots of a plant that just manages to peep above the water.”

George Eliot 1819 – 1880 CE
(Mary Anne Evans)
Pioneering literary outsider

from Middlemarch

Themes: Water Inscrutable

“God keep me from ever completing anything… For small creations may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity.”

Herman Melville 1819 – 1891 CE
from Moby Dick or The Whale

“How dreary to be somebody! How public, like a frog. To tell your name the livelong day, To an admiring bog!”

Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886 CE

70. Inscrutable

“Buddhists maintain that there is no Creator but an infinitude of creative powers, which collectively form the one eternal substance, the essence of which is inscrutable hence not a subject for speculation for any true philosopher.”

Blavatsky, Helena Еле́на Петро́вна Блава́тская 1831 – 1891 CE
Co-founder of Theosophy
from Isis Unveiled​​

“It's better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”

Mark Twain 1835 – 1910 CE
(Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
America’s most famous author

“Things are seldom what they seem, Skim milk masquerades as cream…”

W. S. Gilbert 1836 – 1911 CE
Innovative, influential, inspiring dramatist

from H.M.S. Pinafore, 1878

“The higher we soar the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.”

Friedrich Nietzsche 1844 – 1900 CE
from Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Themes: Inscrutable

41. Distilled Life

“Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.”

Robert Louis Stevenson 1850 – 1894 CE

15. Inscrutability

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Oscar Wilde 1854 – 1900 CE

“Never explain―your friends do not need it and your enemies will not believe you anyway.”

Elbert Hubbard 1856 – 1915 CE

Themes: Inscrutable

70. Inscrutable

“I deliberately express myself in very abstract terms in order to avoid causing a prejudice in one direction or another. The new thing must not be pigeon-holed under any heading, for then it is applied in a way that permits mechanical duplication”

Carl Jung 1875 – 1961 CE
Insightful shamanistic scientist
from Introduction to Secret of the Golden Flower

Themes: Inscrutable

“The standpoint of the man who relies on religious experience for capturing Reality must always remain individual and incommunicable.”

Muhammad Iqbal محمد اقبال 1877 – 1938 CE

“Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

Albert Einstein 1879 – 1955 CE

Themes: Inscrutable

43. Inscrutable

“though a day be as dense as a decade, no mouth has the might”

James Joyce 1882 – 1941 CE
from Finnegan's Wake

Themes: Inscrutable

2. The Wordless Teachings

“While fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a person like a mist. Dark, ample and free, obscurity lets the mind make its way unimpeded. They alone are free, they alone are truthful, they alone are at peace.”

Virginia Woolf 1882 – 1941 CE via Shan Dao
from Orlando: A Biography

“the viability of vicinals if invisible is invincible”

James Joyce 1882 – 1941 CE
from Finnegan's Wake

Themes: Inscrutable

“In times of great passion, the duty of the intellectual is to remain silent because in times of passion one has to lie and the intellectual has no right to lie.”

Ortega y Gassett, José 1883 – 1955 CE
Spanish philosopher, historian, and essayist
from Time Magazine, 1955

Themes: Inscrutable Lies

“We rejoice that the whole of the visible and invisible world is a deep inscrutable mystery—incomprehensible, beyond the intelligence, beyond desire, beyond certitude.”

Nikos Kazantzakis 1883 – 1957 CE via P. A. Bien
from Report to Greco

Themes: Inscrutable

“It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.”

Will (and Ariel) Durant 1885 – 1981 CE

53. Shameless Thieves

“Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.”

Aldous Huxley 1894 – 1963 CE

56. One with the Dust

“He who talks about truth injures it; he who tries to prove it thereby maims and distorts it; he who gives it a label and a school of thought kills it; and he who declares himself a believer buries it.”

Lín Yǔtáng 林語堂 1895 – 1976 CE

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry 1900 – 1944 CE

Themes: Inscrutable

79. No Demands

“If you want to keep a secret, you must hide it from yourself.”

George Orwell 1903 – 1950 CE
English, poet, humanist, apostle of doubt, and powerful political influence

“Fires / Burn in my heart / No smoke rises / No one knows.”

Kenneth Rexroth 1905 – 1982 CE
"Father of the Beats”

“The emotions I feel are no more meant to be shown in their unadulterated state than the inner organs by which we live.”

Hannah Arendt 1906 – 1975 CE
Fearless researcher into the darker reaches of the human psyche
from The Life of the Mind (1971/1978)

Themes: Inscrutable

“The secret of business is to know something that nobody else knows.”

Aristotle Onassis 1906 – 1975 CE

“the meaning of the words lies not in the darkened part of the page but in the white spaces surrounding the.”

Lewis Thomas 1913 – 1993 CE
Gestaltist of science and art
from The Religious Case Against Belief (2008)

Themes: Inscrutable

“The need to be right is the sign of a vulgar mind.”

Albert Camus 1913 – 1960 CE

“It's funny. All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they'll do practically anything you want them to.”

J. D. Salinger 1919 – 2010 CE
from Catcher in the Rye

“The pencil is mightier than the pen.”

Robert M. Pirsig 1928 – 2017 CE
from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“What gods notice, they destroy. Be humble and you will escape the jealousy of the great”

Philip K. Dick 1928 – 1982 CE
Legendary consciousness provocateur
from Man in the High Castle,

“Through skillful means we are able to conserve subtle energy by expressing it carefully in small amounts with pauses... When we express ourselves excessively with excitement... our energy is lost and we feel anxious and depressed... it is best to keep energy contained without expressing it until we get results, until we develop confidence.”

Thinley Norbu གདུང་སྲས་ཕྲིན་ལས་ནོར་བུ 1931 – 2011 CE
(Kyabjé Dungse)
from Magic Dance (1981)

“Inscrutability is not a product of hard work, but is inspiration, realization... when the situation is being experienced and felt fully and properly, then you have nothing to fight for... nothing to lose.”

Chögyam Trungpa 1939 – 1987 CE

Themes: Inscrutable

“inscrutability is based on fearlessness. This is unlike the conventional concept of inscrutability, which is deviousness or a blank wall… From this fearlessness, you develop gentleness and sympathy, which allow you to be noncommittal, but with a sense of humor.”

Chögyam Trungpa 1939 – 1987 CE
from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

Themes: Fear Inscrutable

15. Inscrutability

“Words and deeds can be falsified, but not understanding and practice… As with geodes, jade is found inside ordinary looking rocks. Officals once wore it on their hats as an emblem of their status, and alchemists often included it in their elixirs.”

Red Pine 1943 CE –
( Bill Porter)
Exceptional translator, cultural diplomat

Themes: Inscrutable

70. Inscrutable

“Poetry has the ability to point us toward the truth then stand aside, while prose stands in the doorway relating all the wonders on the other side but rarely lets us pass.”

Red Pine 1943 CE –
( Bill Porter)
Exceptional translator, cultural diplomat
from Lao-Tzu's Taoteching

“You can't find the right roads when the streets are paved.”

Bob Marley 1945 – 1981 CE

70. Inscrutable

“Is it possible for one human being to understand another? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?”

Haruki Murakami 1949 CE –
from Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

“Without the burdens and problems associated with fame and fortune, Lieh-tzu could live leisurely and be free to do what he liked and go where he wanted… being an unknown citizen was better than being a person of power and responsibility… it was better to remain silent and be truthful to oneself.”

Eva Wong 1
Champion of Qigong, Fengshui, and a Taoist approach to health and healing

“Even the fact that we have nothing to hide can be something we have good reason to hide.”

Paul Seabright 1958 CE –
Author and British Professor of Economics
from War of the Sexes

Themes: Inscrutable

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