Study Guide

Tao Te Ching Calling Card

By Lao Tzu

Calling Card

Head-Scratchers

We're going to say the main calling card of the Tao Te Ching is that it's chock-full of head-scratchers. The TTC is famously cryptic, and it hardly ever serves its meanings up for us on a silver platter. For real, take a peep at this quote if you don't believe us:

The Tao is empty
When utilized, it is not filled up
So deep! It seems to be the source of all things

It blunts the sharpness
Unravels the knots
Dims the glare
Mixes the dusts
(4.1-7)

See what we mean? Even this one little snippet gives readers tons of questions to ask themselves. How can something that's empty be used? How can emptiness be the source of anything? Um, which sharp things, knots, glares, and dusts are we talking about here?

To make things even harder to pin down, every translation is slightly different, and even the original Ancient Chinese characters are sort of ambiguous. So even the guys who can read it straight from the source have been bickering about individual meanings for centuries.

Sometimes the Tao Te Ching is criticized for being straight-up obtuse, and we can see why. The thing is, though, that all these head-scratchers are part of what's made the TTC such an enduring book. It makes us want to dig deeper—to really think. The Tao Te Ching freely admits that the Tao is mysterious and impossible to fully understand, so why should it be any different?

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