Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Tao Te Ching–Chapter 1

[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]

The Tao Te Ching opens with its most famous line:


You can see that the character for Tao appears three times. Many Chinese characters have multiple meanings. This character can mean Tao, as in the metaphysical Way or Path, or ultimate truth or reality. As a verb, it can mean to say or communicate, or to understand.

So this first line can mean: The way that can be understood is not the eternal Way

This line reflects the profound mystery of truth. Or of God. In Western culture, we are very fond of our thinking minds. We like to analyze and rationalize and scientifically prove things in order for them to be acknowledged as real or true. We love logic and facts.

As a lawyer, I get that. I also understand that when we peer beyond that comfort zone of the known and knowable, we can feel anxious or afraid. In the uncharted areas beyond the explored world, some ancient maps included the warning “Here there be dragons.”  Indeed!

If all we contemplated of this entire ancient text was the first line, it would be enough.


For those who want to delve further into this first chapter, let’s continue.

The name that can be named is not the eternal Name
The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth
The named is the mother of ten thousand things

Along with our love of logic comes our love of names. We like to label and categorize things. Adam was tasked by God to name all the creatures of the earth. Science has divided us into genus and species. Many traditions include sacred naming rituals for our children.

Naming identifies things and makes them known. Names bring forth mystery into the concrete, called here by the poetic image of the ten thousand things. The nameless abides in mystery. The Hebrew “unname” of God is YHWH, which, when one attempts to pronounce it, has no sound other than the breath.

Ever desireless one sees the mystery
Ever desiring one sees the manifestations

Ah, here’s the tough part. If what we want is to experience the mystery, the only way is to be without desire! My desire restricts my vision to the manifestation of the mystery in the ten thousand things.

How can I not want what I want most of all?

For me, the answer lies in surrender, in accepting that my effort, my will, my attempts to control, my attachment to outcome, will avail me nothing. Mystery is not achieved; it is revealed, glimpsed in fleeting moments of grace, sometimes when we least expect it. No, always when we least expect it.

So, if you dare, step into your small craft without desire, and sail into uncharted waters, into the “cloud of unknowing” where you will dance with dragons.

If you can understand it, it’s not God. ~St. Augustine


  1. The theme here, from first line right to St Augustine, came up recently on a sermon I was listening to. We see with our understanding contradictions, the example used at the time being "If God has chosen who will be saved, there is no urgency for us to witness, since He's got it handled. The point of the sermon then became that the contradictions were just the manifestation of a God beyond our understanding. He went on to explain how God's sovereignty in no way takes away from OUR requirements. It's not that God gave us a job He can do; It's that we don't yet comprehend the WHY of our assignment.

    "For me, the answer lies in surrender, in accepting that my effort, my will, my attempts to control, my attachment to outcome, will avail me nothing." If there is a definition to why most of my life has been "wasted" relatively speaking, that is it, emphasis on control. You spend 45 years of your life thinking you have to control your situation, it's a hard habit to break.

    Being desireless... I'd settle for at least being in control of them. This was a very informative and learning post!

    1. Thanks, CW, for your insights and reflections. Your observations about control reminded me of the saying, "For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe." Ha!

  2. I loved the last paragraph; that's what I want to do are that i feel like I am doing.
    Always enjoy these and have to ponder on them for a while.

    1. I think your life, LeAnn, at least what I know of it from your writing, is a great example of surrender to the divine. Thanks for commenting.

  3. What a great way to start my day. I first read the chapter in my translation of the Tao Te Ching then moved on to your comments and those of other readers. Yes, there is much to “ponder”! I found this reminiscent of the first lessons in ACIM. That naming things create the world we live in and if we can reside in a nameless place, there is no separation between us and God.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Polly. Yes, the Tao Te Ching is very consistent with A Course in Miracles (ACIM). The whole concept of naming/labeling is fascinating. We take it for granted without thinking of the ramifications. It is a necessary part of our ten thousand thing world. In fact, one might say it created our ten thousand thing world. After all, God said "Let there be light." So at least in a figurative sense, there is a connection between naming and creating. More to ponder!


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