The Tao Te Ching is at least 2500 years old, and is the basis for Chinese Taoism and is the conceptual language initially used in Chinese Buddhism. The text is steeped in Mystery, which gives rise to frequent new translations. Several in the English language are here, here, and here. Originally written by Lao Tzu (“grand old master”), the Tao Te Ching can be seen, on one hand, as the response to economic, social, and spiritual conditions in China over two millennia ago. On the oter hand, the contemplative truths within the text provide a contemplative feast for those of all faith traditions who are seeking enlightenment, further knowledge, or a simple set of triggers to abstract thinking.
I read it as a follower of Jesus. And, I think, I am a better follower of his because of it. This translation is a recent one by Stephen Mitchell.
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.
The Tao is the Way, the Path, the Journey itself..into that which is both mysterious and eternal. The Tao Te Ching enables the reader to begin to see the differences between that which is eternal and temporal, mundane and divine, real and not real. We are, according to the very first line, learning about something which if we can speak of it at all, is not the thing of which we speak.
It is Mystery. But it is Mystery we, if we’re honest, spend much of our time within. If we are unaware it is Mystery, we will flounder. If we know that it is Mystery- the Tao- through which we and everyone else are journeying, then it can be a revelatory, liberating, exciting and never-ending encounter.
Here’s a tiny part of what I know from the Tao Te Ching: What I call “God” is, by the very definitions of myself, “not God.” I am so limited in my ability to think about and explain God that, when I do, I am denigrating God by my words, no matter how extolling I might consider those words to be. My understandings of who God is represents (for instance) 1/1,000,000,000th of what God really is. If I tell you God is blue, I am unable to help you see that God is also chartreuse, magenta, gold, white, brown, and pink at the same time. And I am locking myself into a reality of God’s blueness.
It is imperative that I not stop at blue, or any other color, or any other attribute, in thinking about or describing God. That’s one “for instance.” Anything I can describe, or definitively name, is a particular thing, with measurable and predictable characteristics. That from which a particular thing arises, or is given form and substance by, is the Tao. It is not able to be described. It can only be talked around, in unfinished sentences, by groping for words that do not exist and definitions that are still unfound.
Go ahead, try to describe Love or Beauty or Justice. Take all the time you need- years if necessary. No matter what you describe, there will a five year old somewhere who will legitimately be able to ask, “What else is it?” And those three concepts are easier to describe than the Tao, because they have arisen from the Tao!
At this point, some might feel panicky about their impotency to capture or control the Tao. As soon as they release that panic (which is nothing more than their frustrated desire to hold onto and define the Tao), then they will have the opportunity to move further and deeper into it, where it becomes darker, and darker, even in the midst of the (en)light(enment) which has begun to fill their being.
Confused? Good! We’ve begun..
(There are 81 sections of the Tao Te Ching. Here is a flash forward to part of the last one, number 81:
True words aren’t eloquent;
eloquent words aren’t true.
Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.
So, you might ask, why bother trying to learn about the Tao?