Literary Meditations

A Mind's Journey

“Good travellers leave no tracks” – ‘Tao Te Ching’

Today I came across this legendary and unusual book: Tao Te Ching or Lao-tzua book originating probably in the fourth or third century B.C.E., also representing one of the first works about the early Taoism. The origins of this book as well as its author (Lao-tzu) are still uncertain and very often subjected to many myths and unfounded stories…

Certainly, the book carries in itself magical qualities of eternity and mystery: its tones are those of a stone inscription, belonging to nowhere and coming from a faraway place. It is difficult to simply summarize this book: it rather represents a way of living and thinking, mostly inspired by the self’s deepest truth and its manifestations.

Each of this book’s sentence is a world to think upon, freed of space and time. The reader is left to its own interpretation and called to respond to the many of this enigmatic book’s philosophical challenges.Thus, I decided to select one of this book’s sections and to interpret it in my on way. Here is Tao Te Ching‘s  chapter 27:

Good travellers leave no tracks.                                                      Good words leave no trace.                                                               Good counting needs no markers.

 Good doors have no bolts                                                                   Yet cannot be forced.                                                            Good knots have no rope                                                                     But cannot be untied.

In this way the Sage                                                                      Always helps people                                                                    And rejects none,                                                                        Always helps all beings,                                                                And rejects none.                                                                     This is called practicing brightness.

Therefore the good person                                                                  Is the bad person’s teachers,                                                     And the bad person                                                                           Is the good person’s resource.

Not to value the teacher,                                                              Not to love the resource,                                                           Causes great confusion even for the intelligent.

This is called the vital secret.


Stanza 1: “Good travellers leave no tracks.                                                                Good words leave no trace.                                                                        Good counting needs no markers.”

In these lines, Lao Tzu suggests that each person lives its own unique experience and that it is wrong to impose ideas or schemes upon others. Any of us is the ‘traveller’, this being a thinking person and/or someone who is concretely involved in a journey. However, the ‘good’ traveller is the one who lets others decide the best road for themselves, the ways to proceed during their journey. ‘Leav[ing] no tracks’ is the aim of the Sage: its path of wisdom will leave track only in others’ memory and no by means of imposition. The same is valid for words: any word spoken for adulation, admiration, anger or fear is a weak or bad word; the truth comes from silence or it is so evident a fact that it becomes needless of words. Thus, probably ‘good words’ are those never spoken. ‘Good counting needs no markers’ replicates the same discourse now transferred on the numerical side: everything essential or primary to human beings does not need to be remembered or marked because it is already found  in its right measure within ourselves or in nature.


Stanza 2: “Good doors have no bolts                                                                          Yet cannot be forced.                                                                                Good knots have no rope                                                                          But cannot be untied.”

Lao- Tzu reiterates the same concept but with different and evocative images. ‘Good doors’ are those that let people come in and leave without issues, open to anyone but also able to stand for themselves; ‘bolts’ become necessary when the person is afraid of the world around itself; thus, itself or the world are proceeding by following wrong dynamics that require change. Moreover, by saying that doors ‘cannot be forced’, Lao-Tzu suggests to respect each others’ times and/or those of nature. By continuity, ‘good knots hav[ing] no ropes’ represent sane and good relationships between people, where nothing is taken for granted or forced; thus, it is by respecting and loving each others that these ‘knots’ become ‘untied’.


Stanza 3: “In this way the Sage                                                                                 Always helps people                                                                                 And rejects none,                                                                                     Always helps all beings,                                                                           And rejects none.                                                                                     This is called practicing brightness.”

Spiritual wisdom is found in the figure of the Sage, this open to all living beings, understanding them through compassion and teaching to them by example. This is what Lao Tzu meant while writing ‘this is called practicing brightness’.


Stanza 4 and 5: “Therefore the good person                                                                        Is the bad person’s teachers,                                                                      And the bad person                                                                                  Is the good person’s resource.
Not to value the teacher,                                                                          Not to love the resource,                                                                          Causes great confusion even for the intelligent.”

It is clear how for Lao-Tzu everything was essential and valuable for maintaining the balance between things. Good and evil are explained by their opposition and this is the reason why the good and the bad person become each other’s teacher and resource. Balance is so important that both figures acquire an equivalent value at the Sage’s eyes and thus none of them is excluded in the scale of human nature; the contrary to this would lead to ‘great confusion even for the intelligent’.


Last sentence: “This is called the vital secret.”

It is very difficult to find a conclusive interpretation to this closing phrase. Indeed, this ‘vital secret’ could represent any of the themes reported in the above analysis: respect, balance, freedom, self-knowledge… I am unsure of it myself. Thus, I believe that any reader should give its last thoughts to this line .


I hope you have enjoyed reading this article and that it has inspired you to read the book.

Keep reading!

Atena Longo-







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