Study Guide

Tao Te Ching Awe and Amazement

By Lao Tzu

Awe and Amazement

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name (1.1-2)

Talk about awesome and amazing... the true Tao is so great and eternal that there is no word that can possibly sum it up. Even the word "Tao," which we use to represent it, isn't enough. The nameless Tao is the great flow of everything there is, was, or will be, and our puny speech just isn't enough to nail it down. So should we have even have bothered to write the sentences we just wrote? Hey, you can't fault us for tryin'.

Thus being and non-being produce each other (2.3)

Okay, wait. How can something that doesn't exist create something that does? The thing is that Tao practitioners think of the Tao as encompassing both existence and nonexistence. But even the void isn't devoid of anything. They think of it as the "pregnant void," which is kind of a primordial soup of possibilities. In the Taoist mind, being and nonbeing flow back and forth. Everything is in balance.

So indistinct! It seems to exist
I do not know whose offspring it is
Its image is the predecessor of the Emperor (4.8-10)

So if the Tao gives birth to everything, what originally gave birth to the Tao? According to these lines—nothing. The Tao has always existed. It even came before the Emperor, which here could represent an earthly ruler, or even the Jade Emperor, an ultimate god-figure from ancient Chinese mythology.

The valley spirit, undying
Is called the Mystic Female
The gate of the Mystic Female
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth (6.1-4)

The Mystic Female sounds this old hippie lady on our street who does yoga all the time and has a massive collection of crystals. It represents the great Tao itself and the way in which the Tao gives birth to everything. Taoists revere feminine energy and females in general because they're the source of life. So maybe you should send this quote to your Mom on Mother's Day.

Above it, not bright
Below it, not dark [...]
The image of the imageless
This is called enigmatic
Confront it, its front cannot be seen
Follow it, its back cannot be seen (14.9-17)

Uh, how can something that's imageless have an image? Could this mean that the physical things we see around us are just the tip of the iceberg? That the Tao is so vast and incomprehensible that we can only see a fraction of what it is? The answer is: maybe.

From ancient times to the present
Its name never departs (21.13-14)

Belief in the Tao didn't just start with the Tao Te Ching. People came up with the idea way before this book was written. Really, this book is just an accumulation of thousands of years philosophy and belief. When did the idea of Tao first pop into our brains? Nobody knows. Maybe around the time any ideas first popped into our brains.

Independent and changeless
Circulating and ceaseless (25.4-5)

These lines get at the idea that the Tao exists in eternal cycles. We can see these cycles in the world around us, right? Let us all think back to that first earth science class we took. There's the water cycle, the tides, the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. It's hard to deny that there are cycles everywhere we look.

Higher people hear of the Tao
They diligently practice it
Average people hear of the Tao
They sometimes keep it and sometimes lose it
Lower people hear of the Tao
They laugh loudly at it
If they do not laugh, it would not be the Tao (41-1.7)

So the best people diligently practice the Tao, so-so people do it every once and a while, and the lowest of the low just make fun of it. Is it a little contradictory that the TTC says there's a hierarchy among people, even when that hierarchy is based on closeness with the Tao? What do you think?

Myriad things, backed by yin and embracing yang
Achieve harmony by integrating their energy (42.5-6)

Yin and yang are the two great opposing forces that make up the Tao. Living things can only find peace when they balance these forces. This is different from other religions, which look at existence as a battle between good and evil. Here, one side isn't trying to destroy the other; both sides exist together.

Everyone in the world calls my Tao great (67-1)

How can this possibly be true if everyone in the world isn't a Taoist? Could this be saying that every religion can fit into the Tao? Maybe so, since Taoists think the Tao encompasses everything, even Gods.

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