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?

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

25 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? :)


      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.


    1. I take the opening lines to mean that my Tao is not the same as YOUR Tao. If it is explained to you, it is not yours. You experience yours as I experience mine. No one can tell your Tao. If you are told it means nothing. You have your own and it’s yours alone. This takes a few months to think about before reading on. You see that there are more pages, but they are not your journey.
      There may only be 81 verses, but reading them in 2-3 hours will teach you nothing but words. Each verse requires thought and meditation and changes in you before going on to the next one. Each verse can take months to understand, but you’ll know when you do. Like catching smoke in your hand, it cannot be taught.


  2. I’ve never really come across it before, but my first impression was that the style of that first translation is very similar to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets… “In my end isy beginning” etc.


      1. Tao from what understand existed before god.. I’m just going by what I read.. but I’m open to the idea of existence of nature before creation


  3. 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.


  4. 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

  5. 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


  6. 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

  7. The Ying and Yang symbol is as good as it gets to simplify the inexpressible. Those who’ve experienced the Dao quickly arrive at a paradox when trying to speak about their own experience. The Dao encapsulates an ever expanding everything that can only be experienced. This is why people never speak about it, because there are no words to even to begin to express it in any way the mind can understand. But I feel a duty to tell what I know as fact. so here goes…One experiences the Dao instantaneously, and in that moment one experiences a bliss, a silence, a stillness, a oneness, an incredibly deep understanding all within infinite expanding emptiness…Yet somehow this emptiness is full. Full of infinite possibility all happening in the present moment. Everything arises from a single source which has many names…God, Consciousness, Brahman, Shiva and of course the Dao and many others…including you and I. There is nothing separate from anything else. You are everything, good, bad, black, white , male,female,physical and non physical, permanent and impermanent. There is no such thing as death, there is no such thing as time, you and everything are immortal, and so for one who has experienced the Dao almost all questions can be answered by Yes,No and everything in between which in this present existence that we think of as reality, the answers to any questions quickly arrive at the paradox leaving the questioners scratching their heads. Here I have given you just the first paragraph in an ever expanding infinitely thick book full of absolute wonder and mystery, and before this life is through you too will experience the Dao.


  8. What more noble pursuit than to know thy Self in the deepest, most expansive way possible ?

    Shanti, Peace, Shalom.

    Wisdom traditions and teaching of the highest truths …all useful until they accomplish their mission. Then they can been seen as what they are…as thorns used to remove thorns. No longer needed.


  9. When we enter linguistic consciousness in early childhood, a veil of language — a symbolic and conceptual system — separates us from the direct experience of ourselves, nature, Dao — the mystery/unity beyond words. The name that can be named — a name like “tree” — gives us a false sense of knowledge and power — “Oh that’s a tree” — we feel like we know something — but the specific living being we call a “tree” is deeper and wider in its spiritual, genetic and evolutionary being than the label “tree” can suggest or encompass. Same with “God” — the label allows us to talk about something and create religions — but the direct experience of a higher being shatters all concepts. The everything-at-onceness of energy-space-time generating creation from moment to moment — can’t be summed up in a word, but because we must use words, we call it “Dao”.


  10. Hi there. I’ll just like to share that I’ve figured the answer of Tao. I had a few factors that helped out. First I speak Mandarin so i could read the quote in its true form and second my background in Chaos theory mathematics so suited the Ying Yang idea proposed by Dao.

    The closest translation is “The way that is known is not the true way.”

    This is the concept of reflexity. In real simplicity imagine seeing $10 on the ground. If you believe there is $10 on the ground then someone will take it and there will not be $10 on the ground. But if we all do not believe there is $10 on the ground then there will be $10 since we all left it alone. The universe is reflextive. So answer the question is there a meaning to life, if yes there won’t be but if not there will be. Its in a state of constant flux. This flux or flow is known as the way or the Dao. Thats why when you exit the Dao you are still in the Dao.


  11. My interest in this follows from Patrick Macdonald a teacher of the Alexander Technique, himself taught by FM Alexander, the originator. The technique is often mis understood as something to do with posture which is indirectly true although poise is a better word, but the real principles are getting out of the way of ourselves with a particular interest in the force of habit.

    Patrick Macdonald re-paraphrased this as follows “The way that can be told is not the real way” – a simple interpretation of this is that our habits shape our comprehension, words are understood in terms of what is already known to the listener or reader and so shaped by the force of habit.

    It’s not easy to unlearn the familiar or to comprehend something new and unfamiliar without reference to or influence by what is already known and habitual – genuine change is very difficult to achieve, our habits are faster than our conscious thought and impede our attempts to change and our wish to have genuine free will. In addition habits being familiar are easily confused for our preferred choice which enforces their persistence.

    People who have had Alexander lessons will testify just how difficult it can be to step into the moment between stimulus and habitual response in order to find that briefest fleeting opportunity for a fresh, non-habitual response.



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