Montessori, Lao Tzu and The Watercourse Way


By Dr. Jim McFarland

Twenty five hundred years ago, an old Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, wrote down eighty one short verses that became the Tao Te Ching – the book of how things happen.  It has become one of our most revered texts of world literature.  It posits a way of life based on respecting and trusting the inherent goodness of the natural order or the Tao.  When in harmony with our deepest and most authentic nature of goodness, we transcend fear and find peace. Lao Tzu says,

“She who is centered in the Tao can go where she wishes, without danger.  She perceives the universal harmony even amid great pain because she has found peace in her heart.”  (Mitchell, 1988, 35) 1

Like Lao Tzu, Maria Montessori was a very careful observer of nature, people, events and especially children. As a result she came to many of the same conclusions as the old sage did. They both had a cosmic view of a universe as an interconnected harmony of symbiotic elements which cannot exist without each other. She believed that the challenges of life, society, education and leadership must be solved by adherence to the natural laws of cosmic order. Lao Tzu uses the flow of water as a metaphor to describe this cosmic order.  “The highest good is like water, for the good of water is that it nourishes everything without striving.” (Mitchell, 1988, 8)  Thus we speak of the “Watercourse Way.”

Following are several of the key concepts that Lao Tzu and Montessori had in common. Lao Tzu sums up his teaching by saying:

“I have just three things to teach: Simplicity, Patience, Compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.  Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.” (Mitchell, 1988, 67)


When we simply look within we find our inherent being ness, our true self. “Only in being lived by the Tao can you be truly yourself.” (Mitchell, 1988, 22) Lao Tzu further assures us that, “If you want to know me, look inside your heart.” (Mitchell, 1988, 70)  We have teachers in the world, but we also have an inner teacher to guide us on the way. “The Master observes the world but trusts his inner vision.” (Mitchell, 1988, 12)

Adhering to Simplicity reveals to us great inner powers.  This is the core of Taoist wisdom that leads to peace.  Belief in these inner powers is, likewise, the key to Montessori’s approach to the child.  She is firm in her assertion that, “Nature offers an inner guidance.  Education demands, then only this, the utilization of the inner powers of the child for his own instruction.”  (Montessori, 1988, pp. 3-8)  The primary task of the Montessori teacher is, “to care for and keep awake the guide within every child.” (Montessori,, p. 92)  In addition to this inner guide, Montessori recognized the “élan vital” or life force that is more than instinct or will. (Montessori, 1988 pp 76, 39, 87)  She believed it is the very essence of life-giving vitality and that it must be channeled through the inner guide; without direction and discrimination from the inner guide, the life force acting by itself can run wild.  Lao Tzu calls this inner force and guide the “Tao.”  In China it is called “Chi,” in India “Prana” and in Hawaii “Mana.”  Both Lao Tzu and Montessori took it seriously and saw it as a real inner force capable of self direction.


The second defining principle of the Taoist watercourse way is Patience. This suggests a way of relating between people that is based on inner direction, rather than an outer authority. It relies on mutual participation rather than control; inspiration rather than force, guiding rather than demanding. “The Tao nourishes by not forcing. By not dominating the Master leads.” (Mitchell, 1988, 81)  Lao Tzu’s style of interaction says that, “If you want to be a great leader (teacher), you must learn to follow the Tao. Stop trying to control.  Let go of fixed plans and concepts and the world will govern itself.” (Mitchell, 1988, 57) Don’t push the river; it flows all by itself – just like the children learn. Lao Tzu teaches us that “Governing a large country is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking.” (Mitchell, 1988, 60)

Montessori also believed in non-interfering, softness, yielding and independence for the child.  She said that interaction with the child is to be “based on the law of nature and not on the preconceived notions and prejudices of adult society,” (Montessori, 1988, p. 256) She further stated that the “child’s spirit” becomes “master;” the teacher is the servant.  She uses the example of a “good valet” to illustrate this.   The valet prepares and provides everything the master needs, but does not tell her when or how to dress or groom; but rather discretely disappears.   Maria concludes, “We must help the child act, think, and will for himself.  This is the art of serving the spirit.” (Montessori, 1988, p 257)


Total reconciliation, acceptance and love of self and others, in their unity and pure form, lies at the heart of compassion.  Montessori’s notion that the cosmic force of Love holds the “universe together because it is a real force and not just an idea,” (Montessori, 1988, p. 269) expresses her vision of cosmic wholeness. She says,

“Whoever touches the life of the child touches the most sensitive point of a whole which has roots in the most distant past and climbs toward the infinite future.” (Montessori, 1988, p. 263)

Compassion becomes alive within when we reconcile, unify and accept the world as it is.  Lao Tzu concludes that the “Tao will be luminous inside you and you will return to your primal self.” (Mitchell, 28) This authentic self is the place where peace dwells.

While the inner luminous nature of the child can seem abstract and mystical, it can be made concrete and presented to the children in a meaningful way. When in Taiwan, my wife, Sonnie, and I visited a classroom where she had presented the “Love Light” activity from her book Honoring the Light of the Child the year before.  The teacher had worked with the concept during the year and it had been internalized and become meaningful to the children. As they sang “This Little Light of Mine – I’m Going to Let It Shine (over the whole world) with Sonnie, I witnessed one of those precious, pure Montessori moments that you have all experienced many times.  It is our common task to ALLOW this radiance to happen over and over again for the children.  Lao Tzu and Montessori would have smiled and shed a tear—I know I did!

Sonnie McFarland and teacher, Mickey Lin, sing “This Little Light of Mine – I’m Going to Let It Shine” with children at Trillium Montessori School in Chang Hua, Taiwan, October 2007.

1 Note: All Lao Tzu quotes include the verse number rather than the page number


Mitchell, S. (1988) Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper & Row

Montessori, M. (1988) The Absorbent Mind.  Oxford: Clio Press

McTamaney, C. (2005), The Tao of Montessori.  Lincoln:  iUniverse, Inc

Dyer, W. (2007) Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life.  USA:  Hay House

McFarland, S. (2004) Honoring the Light of the Child – Activities to Nurture Peaceful Living Skills in Young Children.  Buena Vista:  Shining Mountains Press

Dr. Jim McFarland is a retired University Professor in the field of Interpersonal Relations and Communication.  The material in this article was taken from presentations he recently gave to Montessori audiences in China and Taiwan.

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