Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching or Dao De Jing, originally known as Laozi or Lao tzu, is a Chinese classic text. According to tradition, it was written around the 6th century BC by the sage Laozi, a record-keeper at the Zhou Dynasty court, by whose name the text is known in China. The text’s true authorship and date of composition or compilation are still debated. The Tao Te Ching is fundamental to the Taoist school of Chinese philosophy and strongly influenced other schools, such as Legalism and Neo-Confucianism. This ancient book is also central in Chinese religion, not only for Taoism but Chinese Buddhism, which when first introduced into China was largely interpreted through the use of Taoist words and concepts. Many Chinese artists, including poets, painters, calligraphers, and even gardeners have used the Tao Te Ching as a source of inspiration. Its influence has also spread widely outside East Asia, aided by hundreds of translations into Western languages. Depending on how the Tao Te Ching is interpreted, some ambiguous passages have multiple readings, ranging from political advice for rulers to practical wisdom for people. The following themes and concepts are central to interpreting the text:

Ineffability or Genesis
The Way that can be told of is not an unvarying way
The names that can be named are not unvarying names
It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang
The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind

These famous first lines of the Tao Te Ching state that the Tao is ineffable i.e. Tao is nameless, goes beyond distinctions, and transcends language. In Laozi’s Qingjing Jing he clarified the term Tao was nominated as he was trying to describe a state of existence before it happened and before time or space. Way or path happened to be the side meaning of Tao, ineffability would be just poetic. This is the Chinese creation myth from the primordial Tao. In the first twenty-four words in Chapter one, the author articulated an abstract cosmogony, in what would be the world outside of the cave before it took shape by Plato in his allegory of the cave.

The Mysterious Female
The Valley Spirit never dies
It is named the Mysterious Female
And the doorway of the Mysterious Female
Is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang
It is there within us all the while
Draw upon it as you will, it never runs dry

Like the above description of the ineffable Tao as “the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures”, the Tao Te Ching advocates “female” (or Yin) values, emphasizing the passive, solid, and quiescent qualities of nature (which is opposed to the active and energetic), and “having without possessing”. Waley’s translation can also be understood as the Esoteric Feminine in that it can be known intuitively, that must be complemented by the masculine, “male” (or Yang), again amplified in Qingjing Jing. Yin and Yang should be balanced, “Know masculinity, Maintain femininity, and be a ravine for all under heaven.”

Returning (Union with the Primordial)
In Tao the only motion is returning
The only useful quality, weakness
For though all creatures under heaven are the products of Being
Being itself is the product of Not-being

Another theme is the eternal return, or what Mair calls “the continual return of the myriad creatures to the cosmic principle from which they arose.” There is a contrast between the rigidity of death and the weakness of life: “When he is born, man is soft and weak; in death he becomes stiff and hard. The ten thousand creatures and all plants and trees while they are alive are supple and soft, but when dead they become brittle and dry.” This is returning to the beginning of things, or to one’s own childhood.


We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends
We turn clay to make a vesselBut it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends
We pierce doors and windows to make a house
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends

Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not
Philosophical vacuity is a common theme among Asian wisdom traditions including Taoism (especially Wu wei “effortless action”), Buddhism, and some aspects of Confucianism. One could interpret the Tao Te Ching as a suite of variations on the “Powers of Nothingness”. This resonates with the Buddhist Shunyata philosophy of “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Looking at a traditional Chinese landscape, one can understand how emptiness (the unpainted) has the power of animating the trees, mountains, and rivers it surrounds. Emptiness can mean having no fixed preconceptions, preferences, intentions, or agenda. Since “The Sage has no heart of his own; He uses the heart of the people as his heart.” From a ruler’s point of view, it is a laissez-faire approach:

So a wise leader may say:
“I practice inaction, and the people look after themselves”
But from the Sage it is so hard at any price to get a single word
That when his task is accomplished, his work done
Throughout the country every one says:
“It happened of its own accord”

Knowledge and Humility
Knowing others is wisdom
Knowing the self is enlightenment
Mastering others requires force
Mastering the self requires strength
He who knows he has enough is rich
Perseverance is a sign of will power
He who stays where he is endures
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present

The Tao Te Ching praises self knowledge with emphasis on that knowledge coming with humility, to the extent of dis-acknowledging this knowledge. An interpretation on this knowledge being irrational in connection with Chapter 19 of Waley’s translation on “Banish wisdom, discard knowledge, And the people will be benefited a hundredfold.” seem to be inaccurate stemming from Feisheng qizi which is a reverse phrase meaning the truly exalted (sheng) and intellectual (zi) never claimed they are, which might as well be abolishing the notions of exaltation and intellectuality, meaning humbleness and humility of one’s enlightenment is crucial. Knowledge, like desire, should be diminished. “It was when intelligence and knowledge appeared that the Great Artifice began.”, similarly another examplar on lost in translation by a sinologist, the third and fourth stanzas reads Zihui zu You Dawei, which should be read in reverse as the first and second stanzas, that when the world is full deceit and falsehoods (Dawei), wisdom and intellectuality shall arise.

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