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?

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15 thoughts on “The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao”

  1. Those are some great quotes!

    It’s fascinating how the purely contemplative Daoism is similar to the sayings and poems in Zen (the two are culturally related), Tibetan Dzogchen philosophy, Pure Land Buddhism, Advaita and other forms of Hinduism, and some Christian, Muslim and Jewish contemplative texts.

    They talk about the same formlessness, consciousness, awareness, Self, God, Love, I AM, and how it represents everyone and everything.

    Even some Greek philosophers and the Roman stoics arrived at some of the same conclusions about consciousness and the self as Zen and Daoism does.

    Fascinating, isn’t it? :)

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      1. Or a certain line of contemplation and observation.

        I’d definitely avoid some of the New Age chatter, it’s very watered down and serving a sales purpose rather than being analytical or observational.

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  2. I always thought that the first verse was actually the clearest of them all: The Way that can be described or taught is not the true Way. The Way underpins everything, explains everything, creates everything. You have to figure out your own Way for yourself, but when you do, man, is it awesome!

    I have the Richard Wilhelm translation, but would love to get the Stephen Mitchell one for comparison. You should also get Chuang Tzu’s Inner Chapters, which is even more brilliant than the Tao Te Ching, not least because of Chuang Tzu’s wicked sense of humour. He takes the piss out of hermits that retreat to mountain caves to find enlightenment, and talks about the virtues of uselessness and the importance of shucking off ambition. Of a particularly gnarled tree he says

    Spared by the axe
    No thing will harm it.
    If you’re not use at all,
    Who’ll come to bother you?

    Which is particularly apropos these days, I think!

    One of my favourite games to play with all three books is to open them at a random page, see what it says, and see if there’s anything it tells me. Interestingly today, opening the Book of Lieh Tzu, that also opened to a page on the problems of being too useful and allowing people to lay too many demands upon you:

    “I told you confidently that others would lay responsibilities on you, and it turns out that so they have. It is not that you are capable of allowing them to do so; you are incapable of preventing them. What use is it to you to have this effect on people, which is incompatible with your own peace?”

    Always thought-provoking are the Taoist texts.

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  3. I’ve been a non-traditional Taoist since that late 80’s (read Westerner who never went to China but learned from his Chinese Sifu “teacher” who taught him body/mind/spirit approach to martial arts).

    How these lines were explained to me was something like this:
    If you can name it – you limit it to the confines of the word.
    If you can touch it – it becomes a memory of an experience. Memories change.
    The Tao is more than what can be defined by a word, more than a memory. It simply is.
    …especially since ‘simply’ is so much a relative term now, isn’t it?

    I don’t know. It just kind of made sense to me this way.
    But that’s just one guy’s perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. HUMBLY!!! My interpretation, is that, to some degree, you can replace the word Tao with the word self…and the meaning is…he is telling us the thing you refer to as your self, is not your self…as the self (who you are) is not a thing and so can’t be known/told

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  5. Damien,

    Thanks for this discussion, this is one of my favorite Taoist teachings. I think your interpretation, and those of your readers are pretty good.

    For me the meaning becomes very clear when you substitute the word God.

    The god which can be described is not the true God.
    The god which can be named is just another god.

    I find this particularly relevant for the western audience and the christian church. All day long christians argue about whose god is the true god, and what the thoughts/ideas/teachings/laws/commandments of that true god really are. This is the cause of numerous schisms and worse.

    The Taoist author understood the futility of this way of thinking and these types of arguments. The Taoist allows for the mystery and unknowns of life to remain unknown. That’s cool.

    When you are arguing about who god is, you are just arguing about some limited idea of something in your head, not the true god.

    Liked by 1 person

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