Embodying The Dao


A translation of the TAO TE CHING chapter one


道可道,非常道。 Dào kě dào, fēi cháng dào
名可名,非常名。 Míng kě míng, fēi cháng míng
無名天地之始;有名萬物之母。 Wúmíng tiāndì zhī shǐ; yǒu-míng wànwù zhī mǔ

故常無欲,以觀其妙; Gù cháng wú yù, yǐ guān qí miào
常有欲,以觀其徼。 Cháng yǒu yù, yǐ guān qí jiào
此兩者同出而異名,同謂之玄。 Cǐ liǎngzhě, tóng chū ér yì míng, tóng wèi zhī xuán
玄之又玄,衆妙之門。 Xuán zhī yòu xuán, zhòng miào zhī mén

The Dao that can be spoken of, is not the perpetual Dao.
The Name that can be named, is not the constant name.
Nameless, it is the originator of Heaven & Earth; well-known, it is the Mother of all living things.

Hence, one is always without desire, by means of beholding its subtle mysteriousness;
Constantly having desire, by means of beholding its boundaries.
With these two aspects it produces similarity as well as difference, together they are called the Mystery.
The Mystery within the Mystery, its schools are many and wondrous.
— Lao Zi, Tao Te Ching, my translation


The opening chapter of the Tao Te Ching is probably the best known, as it sets the frame of what is meant by 道 Dào.

We are told that it is impossible to define and name. It is evidence of the later dating for this text, making reference to an important point in the development of Chinese philosophy, called the “language crisis”. It suggest the writer of this verse is familiar with the propositions and arguments of an earlier proto-Taoist philosopher Zhuang Zi. This ‘language crisis’ bears striking similarity to the work of the 20th Century French Semiologist Roland Barthes, in that there is a stark difference between a word used to describe something (the signifier), and the actual thing which is being described (the signified). I’ll go more into the importance of this next month when we look at the second verse.

The 道 Dào (same as ‘Tao’, but spelled as it is pronounced) is unnamable and unknowable in its entirety. It is basically everything that is in existence; more importantly it comes before everything in existence – always referred to in ancient Chinese texts as either 天地 tiāndì (Heaven & Earth) or 萬物 wànwù (all living things). In terms of Logical Inclusion Sets, tiāndì and wànwù are sets within the larger set of Dào.

This verse continues to help define what it means to embody 道 Dào. When one can observe its subtleties and wondrousness, one is left “without desire” – the Chinese word for this, 欲 yù, implies a valley or gorge that is hollow and empty. On the other hand, when one observes the boundaries and edges of what is essentially infinite, then one now has desires.

The interdependence of these two ideas is then brought together to show inter-dependence; you cannot have one without the other – there is the subtlety of boundlessness, as well as the boundaries of the infinite. Brought together we are left with an inter-relationship that gives us both similarity and difference. This is the beginning of Yin-yang Theory, which emerged in China at about the time the Tao Te Ching can be dated. This inter-related, interdependent state is given a name: 玄 xuán, “the Mystery”. The 道 Dào is of course the “mystery within the mystery”.

Because I believe the Tao Te Ching is best dated to around the time of the Qin/Han dynasty period (2nd Century BCE) rather than centuries earlier, I have chosen to translate the last line as “its schools are many”. ‘Daoism’ as a formal movement does not come into being until almost four centuries later, near the end of the [Later] Han Dynasty in the 2nd Century CE. However, during the ‘Warring States’ period that immediately preceded the unification under the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, there was a plethora of philosophical ‘schools of thought’.

I believe this verse is an attempt to synthesise (politically) the different schools, in the sense of identifying a common, ontological concept in 道 Dào. Given it is the “mother of all things”, different perspectives and ideas and ideologies can be part of such a universe. Classical Taoism is an exemplar for a ideological pluralism and syncretism, due to the nature of the 道 Dào. Why wouldn’t the ‘portals’ it can be known through (the schools, 門 mén) be “many, diverse, and wondrous”?

Another thing to note: 道 Dào is a verb, not a noun. This brings it into stark contrast with any other spiritual/philosophical notion in the East or the West. It is literally a “way”; thus it implies ‘process’. It is not a deity to be worshipped, but a process or journey one is always participating in. This process is happening whether you choose to acknowledge or not; and your participation (or non-participation) influences it, because that action/ommission is part of the process, whether you are conscious of it or not. 

In a sense, the 道 Dào has no agency as such. Its agency comes only through an agent, and unlike the Judaeo-Islamo-Christian God does not ‘choose’ to interfere or meddle in human affairs. Human affairs (society, culture, and civilisation) are a part of the “perpetual Dao”, whatever those affairs may be and however they turn out. Human affairs are the results of human decisions and actions/ommissions; in other words we have a degree of free will and self-determination. Our choices can either go with the Dao or against it, win the same way as we can choose to swim upstream, or go with the flow of the river. One is harder than the other, and the end result may see us arrive at the same place; but in one choice we will not be as tired.

So, embodying the 道 Dào doesn’t require us to be able to name it, or write about it. It doesn’t require us to have desires, or eliminate them. Whether we see the 道 Dào as finite or limitless is also irrelevant. It is what it is, and requires nothing from us. It is simply “the way” of all of existence. We can measure it, describe it, write about it, argue about what it is… and all of that is naught but the activities (and desires) of human minds and personalities. 

In my opinion, such as it is, the 道 Dào — even if it is just another human construct — is an exemplary model of true plurality and diversity. Something that brings hope.

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