The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao

I’ve been re-reading the Tao Te Ching this week, inspired to return to the ancient text by my review of Ursula Le Guin’s selected stories for my Weird Things column at The Guardian. The text is one of Le Guin’s favourites, and a life long influence over her writing and philosophy. I first read it around three years ago. The Tao Te Ching is around 2500 years old, and was likely written in China a little while after the time of Confuscious. It’s attributed to Lao Tzu, who we believe may have been a senior Chinese civil servant, but there’s really no certainty about its authorship. It’s made up of 81 verses, and the whole thing can be read in an hour or two. But the meaning in the verses can take much, much longer to consider. Here is verse 1.

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

This is the Stephen Mitchell translation, to my mind the most open and accessible of the dozens of recognised translations from the original Chinese. Here are some alternative translations just of those first four iconic lines:

The Reason that can be reasoned is not the eternal Reason. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.


The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and
unchanging name.


If you can talk about it,
it ain’t Tao.
If it has a name,
it’s just another thing.

That’s DT Suzuki & Paul Carus, James Legge and Ron Hogan. Each translation makes use of slightly different metaphors. Hogan’s is the most recent (2004) and is well known for rephrasing the Tao Te Ching in to the ‘down home’ wisdom American readers are comfortable with. And here is Ursual Le Guin’s own translation:

The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

So what does it mean? I’d love to hear your ideas. There are likely as many different interpretations as there are schools of philosophy. If I had read that verse a decade ago, when I had a rather strict scientific materialist worldview, I think I would have interpreted the verse as nonsense or worse. Le Guin, in her introduction to the Tao Te Ching, suggests that no true translation can ever be achieved because the subject itself is beyond communication in language. Which is arguably the point of the verse…that language, concepts, the rational mind, logic…are not capable of communicating what the Tao is. You see, now I’ve been dragged in to trying to communicate it with words and am failing too!

I interpret this first verse as an attempt to define the limitations of the conscious, waking, rational mind. The next eighty verses go on to illustrate how stepping past the limitations of the purely rational mind reveal a world very different to the one most of us believe to be real. A world less rooted in dominance, control, oppression and violence than the world created by the purely rational mind. As such the first verse of the Tao Te Ching really opens up the basic question of all philosophy: is there anything more than the reality the rational mind perceives? None of the names we give to that ‘something more’ – Tao, God, Imagination, The Unconscious – really go any way to describing it.

But this is just how my own limited rational mind sees it. What meaning do you find in the opening lines of the Tao?