Discovering the Tao Teh Ching

By Mark Davidson

Lao-tzu's Tao Teh Ching sat on the bookshelf for many years before it was finally dusted off and read. After only the first chapter I began chastising myself for not having done so sooner. The poetic blend of inspiring spiritual ideas and everyday practical philosophy quickly moved me to a more serious study of this great work.

Tao that can be expressed is not Everlasting Tao. / The Name that can be named is not the Everlasting Name. / The Name, in Its inner aspect, is Life-spring of Heaven and Earth. / The Name, in its outer aspect, is Mother of all created things. / Therefore: --
To perceive the mystery of Life, desire always to reach the innermost. / To perceive the limitations of things, desire always to possess them. / These two aspects of Life are One. / In their out-come they become different in Name but in their depth they are One. / In a depth, still deeper yet, is the Door of many mysteries.
(All quotations are from Tao Teh King, Isabella Mears' translation)

Embodied within these stanzas of the opening chapter are three concepts which are expressed throughout the remainder of the Tao The Ching's 81 brief chapters. They are Tao, Teh, and Wu.

There is an interplay between these ideas, infilling the pages with the activity of life: its coming forth, a blossoming into full activity, and a return to its root. The relationship of these themes with one another gives the Tao Teh Ching its scope and breadth, and in order to better understand the work as a whole I found it helpful to consider these three concepts independently.

The Chinese language lends itself to philosophical expression quite effortlessly in that it does not rigidly define its terms in any restricted fashion. Chinese writing has evolved from a pictographic, as opposed to an alphabetic, origin. All the characters, or words, are structured upon 214 fundamental elements known as radicals, and used somewhat similarly to letters. These radicals can stand alone as ideas in and of themselves. Therefore, if we disassemble a complex character into its component parts, we can sometimes find a very interesting collection of ideas that can help us appreciate the concept as a whole. The character Tao is made up of two basic parts; one, which means going on, moving, or progression, and the other, understood as head or intelligence. Combined, this character could be read, "progressive intelligence." Tao is popularly translated as the Way, which as an English word appropriately has the double meaning of "path" and "method." Most often, however, it is left in the untranslated form of Tao.

While Tao is comparable to the highest deities of the world's great religions and mythologies, it is especially unlike the Christian concept of God. There is no anthropomorphizing of Tao in the text, yet it is an entirely approachable, comforting, and universal idea.

Great Tao flows everywhere, / It extends to the left and to the right. / All beings receive It in order to live and to be free. / It works out perfectness in them although It possesses not a Name. / It protects them with love and sustains them, but does not claim to be Ruler of their actions. -- ch. 34

One very good method for furthering our understanding of any philosophy is to compare new findings with ideas that are already familiar to us. Students of religious texts or philosophies will recognize some quite striking parallels between these verses and those found in other traditions. One of particular interest has to do with Tao, which creates yet remains apart from its creation or, as mentioned above, "sustains them but is not ruler of their actions." We can find this idea practically verbatim in the ninth chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita; likewise in the Vishnu Purana; "He, though one with all beings, is beyond and separate from material nature (Prakriti), from its products, from proper ties, from imperfections" (Bk. 6, ch. 5).

Taken independently, any of these sources of ancient truth expresses itself profoundly and suggestively, but when they are coalesced into one study, our comprehension is greatly increased. The nature and method of creation, the purpose of being, and a sense of divine impersonality, are just a few thoughts that arise in our minds as a result of this single inquiry into the nature of Tao. In chapter 51 we read: "It gives them Life, but does not possess them. / It gives them activity, but does not depend on them. / It urges them to grow, but does not rule them." Tao governs its creations not with threats and fear, but with the knowledge that all life is infused with its life, and that the expression of life is mutually beneficial for the enlightened and unenlightened alike.

It is a common feature of philosophical terms to represent more than a single idea. Such is the case with the concept of Teh. Teh is usually translated as "virtue," often, however, with apologies because the word seems inadequate to convey the richness of ideas embodied within this concept. One of the radicals which make up the character is transliterated as hsin. It represents a variety of ideas, all interesting and pertinent to our subject. It can stand for the "physical heart, also, the seat of the mind, therefore intelligence," and is understood metaphorically as "the moral heart or nature" (Herbert A. Giles, Chinese-English Dictionary). In chapter 38 we find a distinction made between "high Teh" and "low Teh," (Ellen M. Chen, The Tao Te Ching, Paragon House, 1989, pp. 145-9) which lends a clue to the broader meaning of this term. High Teh, as we read it in the text, would seem to represent that pure, harmonious spiritual quality present in both man and nature, similar to the principle of buddhi in the Hindu philosophy, while low Teh is that which is understood as virtue on the human level. The one connotes true knowing and wisdom, while the other depicts the qualities of faith, goodness, and the living of a moral life. Through the activities of low Teh then, we grow to the wisdom of high Teh and from there onwards to the perfect knowledge and pure spirit of Tao. This transcendence is not an uncommon theme in philosophic and religious thought. The pathway of evolution, from our material towards our spiritual natures, works conversely, however, during the process of involution or creation.

The Tao Teh Ching, in its terse style, gives its account of this process of manifestation in the first lines of the opening chapter. Teh, "the moral heart or nature," is here presented as "the Name in its outer aspect, Mother of all created things." Teh is the extension of Tao and functions as intermediary between that generative pure spirit and those beings who have need of existence in the material realms. In chapter 42 the phenomenon of duality from unity speaks to the emergence of the Teh principle and depicts its role in this process of creation.

In Tao is Unity of Life, / In Unity is Duality of Life, / In Duality is Trinity of Life, / In Trinity all beings have Life.

The relationship of Tao and Teh is one of the most popular themes in religious and mythological traditions. Their qualities are usually portrayed through the roles of the masculine and feminine principles in nature. There are many examples to be found of this Father Time (eternity) and Mother Nature (manifestation) pairing: Brahma and Prakriti in the Hindu, Odin and Frigga in Norse mythology, and the Egyptian Osiris and Isis, to name a few. It is interesting to see how the one idea of Teh, that of virtue, derives its meaning from the other aspect of Teh: that of a nurturing mother giving birth and life to her children has always been representative of moral values.

The meaning of Wu is undeniably a pivotal theme in this philosophy and perhaps the most misunderstood. Wu is defined as "not," in the sense of "without," but there is no doubt that when it is used in the Tao Teh Ching its meaning is far more significant. There are many other terms in Chinese that express the negative, and interestingly, with each word there is listed a character giving the opposite meaning, similar to an antonym. The opposite idea for Wu is Yu, "to have, to possess." We find the word Yu in the Tao Teh Ching representing a desire for earthly possessions, ignorance, and the least noble of human traits. With this thought in mind our definition of Wu has now developed from simply "not," as "without," to, in its philosophic sense, "to possess not earthly desires," or be unaffected by the attributes of the lower self. If we break down the character into its component parts, further insights are unveiled as we define each of the radicals. The radicals of the character for Wu mean respectively:

Wu, while most often used in connection with another word in order to color its meaning, is also used alone as an idea in its own right. A profound example is given in chapter eleven (italics added):

Thirty spokes surround one nave, the usefulness of the wheel is always in that empty innermost [wu].
You fashion clay to make a bowl, the usefulness of the bowl is always in that empty innermost [wu].
You cut out doors and windows to make a house, their usefulness to a house is always in their empty space [wu].
Therefore profit comes from external form, but usefulness comes from the empty innermost.

Wu is most popularly known in its relation to the word Wei. The phrase Wu Wei has unfortunately been interpreted literally as taking no action, with overtones of taking no responsibility. The deeper meaning, however, as it is used in its philosophical context, could not be more contrary to this. The character Wei means "to do, to make, or to cause," often translated "to act." If we incorporate our expanded definition of Wu together with Wei, the phrase takes on the more meaningful message, "possess not the action." In chapters 3 and 63 we read Wei Wu Wei, act but do not possess the act, or "act through the activity of the inner life." However stated, the emphasis is clearly on taking action:

That is why the self-controlled man makes it his business to dwell in the Inner Life; / he teaches, not by words, but by actions; / he brings all beings into action, he does not refuse them; / he gives them life, but does not possess them; / he acts, but looks not for reward; / he works out perfectness, but claims no credit. -- ch.2

This principle of Wu Wei permeates all strata of life. Even Tao manifests through Wu Wei, acting yet remaining unattached to the fruits of action. Just as we should perform our duties without attachment to the outcome, so too does the great all-pervading force conduct its miracle of life. If Tao were to take no action the universe and all life would not be. Tao, happily however, does take action, giving all life evolutionary purpose, free will, and the responsibility of self-determination.

In the third chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita we find this simple line: "All creatures act according to their natures; what, then, will restraint effect?" The great sages have always exhorted us to act, but to take action based on the most benevolent and unselfish of motives, for just as a dam can retard the flow of a mighty river, we can subdue the impetus of our evolution by the practice of no-action.

It is a rare thing to find an entire philosophy expressed in so few words. The Chinese language being a very concise one, especially as applied in the Tao Teh Ching, has the dual quality of being refreshingly direct and profoundly subtle. Because of its economy of words, this ancient classic has maintained its integrity down through the ages, rendering itself to us in an inspiringly modern way. In the end we perceive Lao-tzu's message as a highly mystical one. It is perhaps on this level that we can best identify with it, for it reaches us out of our shared antiquity, that timeless past of ageless being.

  • (Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, October/November 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Theosophical University Press)

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