Tao Te Ching Explained
(Translations are from James Legge’s English version)
The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and
(Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven
and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all
Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be,
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.
Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development
takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them
the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that
is subtle and wonderful. (James Legge version).
The first chapter of Tao Te Ching is often quoted because the term “tao” appears here for the first time, a description of it and an indication of how we can directly know it.
Tao is indefinable, it is said, that is, it can not be totally contained in words, can not be formulated or theorized. That is why the chapter concludes with the idea that if we want to know its secrets we must be devoid of desires.
This is what might be called the spiritual path of Taoism (inspired by this book).
Let’s add that the word “tao” has several meanings, including that of Way (see the section on this site explaining this term). This is why we can conclude that other meaning of the entire chapter may also be deducted.
All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing
this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is; they all know the skill
of the skilful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the
want of skill is.
So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to
(the idea of) the other; that difficulty and ease produce the one (the
idea of) the other; that length and shortness fashion out the one the
figure of the other; that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from
the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and
tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and
that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.
Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything, and
conveys his instructions without the use of speech.
All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show
itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership;
they go through their processes, and there is no expectation (of a
reward for the results). The work is accomplished, and there is no
resting in it (as an achievement).
The work is done, but how no one can see;
‘Tis this that makes the power not cease to be.
All things are born of their opposite seems to be the idea here. But it is more correct to say that things can not be divided, separated or isolated from their opposite. This is one of the basic ideas of Taoism.
Another equally important idea is that the wise man practices nonaction (wu-wei) and teaches others without words.
The fourth paragraph of this chapter explains the idea of nonaction, or action without action.
Finally, we learn that the work is done in the most impersonal way possible so that its power or of the act of creation is endless.
Insisting on the idea of the indivisibility of things, we can not forget a similar expression if not identical in the Gospel of Thomas – the one who created the cup’s interior created also its exterior. Other similar ideas teach us through the words of Jesus that the unity of things must not be divided, that everything is the work of the Creator.
Of course, these teachings do not exist in official Christian church.
Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to
keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles
which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming
thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is
the way to keep their minds from disorder.
Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties
their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens
He constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without
desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them
from presuming to act (on it). When there is this abstinence from
action, good order is universal.
All the evil in the world comes from excess. An idea that Lao Tzu and his disciples insists on.
The second part of the chapter speaks of the sage’s attitude that does not encourage science and the knowledge of the people but limits himself to feeding them.
This is why he strengthens their bones and discourages their knowledge.
The practice of nonaction (wu-wei) is the solution for establishing universal order.
The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel; and in our
employment of it we must be on our guard against all fulness. How
deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were the Honoured Ancestor of
We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of
things; we should attemper our brightness, and bring ourselves into
agreement with the obscurity of others. How pure and still the Tao
is, as if it would ever so continue!
I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before
Tao is at the same time empty and full. See also the comment in Chapter 2.
In verse 2 we learn again that we must make all things equal (also as in chapter 2). And especially we have to adjust our position according to the others.
Finally, Lao Tzu declares that he does not know where the Tao comes from (whose son he is), and supposes that it appeared before the god (that is, he is above the gods).
We could continue on the subject of the Tao-God relationship showing that in the Christian translation the Tao is equated with God. Here it is clear that Tao is not God but above It (precedes God).
Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to be
benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt
with. The sages do not act from (any wish to be) benevolent; they
deal with the people as the dogs of grass are dealt with.
May not the space between heaven and earth be compared to a
‘Tis emptied, yet it loses not its power;
‘Tis moved again, and sends forth air the more.
Much speech to swift exhaustion lead we see;
Your inner being guard, and keep it free.
Nature works without care for morality. Likewise the sage – he treats the others as straw dogs.
Nature creates things life like a bellows. It’s power is inexhaustible.
The superfluous words lead to exhaustion (again warning against excess).
The last verse would sound like this: Nothing is better than keeping the inner balance.
The valley spirit dies not, aye the same;
The female mystery thus do we name.
Its gate, from which at first they issued forth,
Is called the root from which grew heaven and earth.
Long and unbroken does its power remain,
Used gently, and without the touch of pain.
The eternal female is the gate of generation – the yin principle. The valley was associated with the emptiness (wu), the lack, the void, etc. Or we know that everything (that is, fullness) comes from emptiness. And vice versa, of course.
The last verse seems to invite us to use the power of generation (which does last in eternity – in the sense that the creation continues permanently) to heal us from suffering. Here we may have indications of Chinese yoga.
It is better to leave a vessel unfilled, than to attempt to
carry it when it is full. If you keep feeling a point that has been
sharpened, the point cannot long preserve its sharpness.
When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them
safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil
on itself. When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming
distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.
Here we find the same theme of the opposites which follow one-another. But the final of the chapter give us the advice to retreat when the work is done, into obscurity. This, is said, is the Way of Heaven.
When the intelligent and animal souls are held together in one
embrace, they can be kept from separating. When one gives undivided
attention to the (vital) breath, and brings it to the utmost degree of
pliancy, he can become as a (tender) babe. When he has cleansed away
the most mysterious sights (of his imagination), he can become without
In loving the people and ruling the state, cannot he proceed
without any (purpose of) action? In the opening and shutting of his
gates of heaven, cannot he do so as a female bird? While his
intelligence reaches in every direction, cannot he (appear to) be
(The Tao) produces (all things) and nourishes them; it produces
them and does not claim them as its own; it does all, and yet does not
boast of it; it presides over all, and yet does not control them.
This is what is called ‘The mysterious Quality’ (of the Tao).
This chapter seems to mingle several unconnected ideas taken, probably, from different sources. The first paragraph talks about the nurturing of the vital force (the chi) by unifying the intelligent and animal souls in man (these two can not live together in the body but separate). The unifying process finally leads to the attainment of the child state, which is one of the symbols of the Great accomplishment. Moreover, the sage become pure (chen-jen) when he succeed in cleansing the sights of imagination. Just like Yoga-Sutra, Taoism teaches us to erase the products of imagination in order to attain the accomplishment (yoga’s samadhi).
The second paragraph is obscure. It doesn’t seem to continue the first one. Still, the first verse talks about non-intention, that is, the action without desire. Now, about the opening of the gates of Heaven – commentators gave many interpretations of this sentence. We put it in connection to the yin principle of creation as well as the next sentence ” he do so as female bird” seems logical. The translation of this passage should be: He (the sage) emulates the yin principle when opening the gates of creation.
The third paragraph talks about the mysterious quality of the Tao, that is, the non-interference.
Let’s note that this chapter offers hints to the Chinese yoga.
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