The Tao Te Ching
a brief and personal view



I first came across the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu fifteen years ago, by accident; a railway journey, a change of trains, a long wait, a walk round an unfamiliar town, a bookshop. I held the slender Penguin edition in my hand, and the first lines of D C Lau's limpid translation repeated itself in my mind:

The way that can be spoken of
is not the constant way;
the name that can be named
is not the constant name.

This beginning so fell in with my way of thinking that I felt myself to be in the writer's presence. Here is a writer who teaches the unimportance of words.

The age of the book is uncertain. Tradition ascribes authorship to an older contemporary of Confucius (551 - 479 BC) in a period of rapidly evolving thought. The division of the book into two parts totalling eighty-one short chapters may be more recent, and the juxtaposition of chapters and of sections within chapters may be accidental.
The work is an adumbration of the Tao, that which brings about the unity which allows and supports all creation:

As a thing the way is
Shadowy, indistinct.
Indistinct and shadowy,
Yet within it is an image;
Shadowy and indistinct,
Yet within it is a substance.
Dim and dark,
Yet within it is an essence.
This essence is quite genuine
And within it is something that can be tested.

The author evokes a picture of the Tao in terms of what it is not, and of the manner of its appearance to those who do not understand it; he uses parables drawn from everyday objects and from the elements of stone, water and air. He qualifies words, removing meaning from them, before applying them to a consideration of the Tao.

The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.

He uses negatives and opposites:

Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel. Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the use of the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room.

Much of the book discusses the living of a life in accordance with natural principles. In some places simple observations are made; in others there is a use of unusual imagery:

Who can be muddy and yet, settling, slowly become limpid?

The Tao Te Ching is probably the most translated of ancient Chinese texts. Its lapidary simplicity makes it seem familiar, but the underlying thought runs counter to many present-day ideas of how life should be lived. Fame and honour are seen as being disastrous. Political power is seen as being inescapably dangerous to the person who wields it. Received knowledge is said to be muddled; absorbed uncritically it will damage the mental eye.

Lao Tzu frequently refers to the jurisdiction of what is commonly translated as the empire, though it is clear that his words are applicable to any grouping of sentients: personhood can be seen as the empire of the senses and the mind as the empire of thought.


Lao Tzu's extraordinary exploration of language captivated me. The directness and apparent simplicity are partly due to the fact that ancient Chinese is concise, and Lao Tzu is succinct within its frame. He is keenly aware that to attempt a description is either to fall short or to make a hollow structure of self-supporting words: one of these two errors is inescapable, and he wisely decides to keep his words to a meaningful minimum. He sees that to speak or write on a subject is to transfer unknown limitations in addition to the intention; this cannot be guarded against:

Straightforward words seem paradoxical.

He finds that an idea put into a language-form cannot subsequently be extricated, to stand, languageless, in the reader's mind unless the reader is capable of experiencing the subject of this wrapping of words. However, in his eyes the universality of the Tao grants a wordless perception to anyone who considers it; this perception is, for him, at its clearest before language has been learnt.

The metaphor of the wisdom of the infant occurs repeatedly in the book. The infant recognises no name, and all its growing (and every line of its potential, realized or not) lies ahead of it.

Lao Tzu implies that communication is beyond language and even intention:

Teaching without resorting to words and working without resorting to doing are understood by very few.

He makes the claim that even something as apparently sovereign as personhood is the result of languaged interaction, saying

the wise man treats his person as though it were external to himself.

For Lao Tzu, that which lies beyond the limits of language gives an insight into the nature of language itself. Written two and a half millennia ago in a very troubled period of history, this book is an exploration of what we may now call consciousness.


[The Penguin edition is my choice. D C Lau's introduction is clear and thoughtful, and his translation is lucid. The Gower edition, a translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, is also good. Some other editions contain paraphrases which distract.]

David Wheldon, Bedford, 2001


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