Tao Te Ching

Translation, Interpretation and
Notes by Derek Lin

Chapter 64

When it is peaceful, it is easy to maintain
When it shows no signs, it is easy to plan 
When it is fragile, it is easy to break
When it is small, it is easy to scatter
Act on it when it has not yet begun
Treat it when it is not yet chaotic

A tree thick enough to embrace
Grows from the tiny sapling
A tower of nine levels
Starts from the dirt heap
A journey of a thousand miles
Begins beneath the feet

The one who meddles will fail
The one who grasps will lose
Therefore, sages do not meddle and thus do not fail
They do not grasp and thus do not lose

People, in handling affairs
Often come close to completion and fail
If they are as careful in the end as the beginning
Then they would have no failure

Therefore, sages desire not to desire
They do not value goods that are hard to acquire
They learn to unlearn
To redeem the fault of the people
To assist the nature of all things
Without daring to meddle


Interpretation

It is relatively easy to maintain the situation when everything is peaceful and quiet. When the possibility for chaos is small or nearly non-existent, it is a simple task to keep it in check.

Generally speaking, it is always easier to act on something effectively when it is small. Take care of an issue as early as possible, before it really becomes an issue. Nip a potential problem in the bud so it doesn't get the chance to grow into something serious.

This same principle extends to many aspects of life. The mightiest trees started as a small and delicate shoot, barely noticeable in the ground. The tallest building we have had to be built from the ground up. There was a time when it was nothing more than a pile of dirt brought to the site in preparation for construction to begin.

The greatest, most epic journey one can undertake still must begin where you stand. Similarly, great deeds can have a small, indeed humble, beginning. A vast accumulation of knowledge starts somewhere, with the turning of one page in a particular book. When we keep this great wisdom in mind, it becomes easier for us to overcome inertia and take that first step.

Notes

The ancient Chinese measurement of distance, li, is loosely translated as "mile." One li is about half a kilometer, and roughly a third of a mile.

Many people know the expression, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." However, most of them probably have no idea that it originally came from this chapter of the Tao Te Ching. Some are aware that it's Chinese in origin, but mistaken it attribute it to Confucius. So now you know something they do not.

Another interesting thing to note is that the popular expression is in fact a mistranslation. The original contains no character for "one" or "step." Nor does it imply the taking of that first step. What it says is that the little piece of ground beneath your feet is the starting point of even the longest journeys. That's all it says. The taking of that first step is certainly a legitimate interpretation and amplification of this passage, but it definitely does not qualify as a translation.