The Tao Te Ching is today the second most widely translated book in human history. It forms the fundamental core of modern Taoist philosophy and has informed the beliefs and mode of life of the people of China for millenia. While H. P. Blavatsky remarks that this work is “a kind of cosmogony which contains all the fundamental tenets of Esoteric Cosmo genesis.” 1 it is most commonly read in its role as a work of morality and ethics, of psychology, health, social and political life, and overall for its profound instructions on our approach to daily living. It is immediately apparent upon first opening The Tao Te Ching that it is an exceedingly practical book.
The Tao Te Ching was initially known simply as the Lao Tzu, being, in a sense, a nameless work of its composer. Only centuries later was it given a formal name. This title may be roughly translated as Tao (way), Te (virtue) and Ching, or jing (classic—a term denoting its position as a classic Chinese text). But we may see more in these terms than at first meets the eye. On one level we can see Tao and Te as the complimentary sides of darkness and light, respectively, and we may thus see the relation between these and the Chinese concept of Ying and Yang. In a related sense we can see Tao as the unimanifest and Te as the manifest, or as Han Fei put it: “Te is the Tao at work.”
As one modern translator aptly notes:
“These are the two poles around which the Taoteching turns: the Tao, the dark, the body, the essence, the Way; and Te, the light, the function, the spirit, Virtue. In terms of origin, the Tao comes first. In terms of practice, Te comes first. The dark gives the light a place to shine. The light allows us to see the dark.” 2
We may say that the Te is the Virtue or the Moral Character of one who is rooted in and aligned with the Tao; we may also say that the Te is that way of action which ultimately leads the practitioner to the Tao, or rather, to a recognition or realization of oneness with the Tao. H.P. Blavatsky translated the title in a similar way, as: “The Book [ching] of the Perfectibility [te] of Nature [tao]”1
What that Tao is cannot be said, cannot be put into words, for words (or concepts or thoughts) merely limit That. All that can be said is said in order to point towards the Tao, and this is what we find throughout the Tao Te Ching.
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. (Taoteching, 1) 3
These opening verses of the Tao Te Ching encompass the essence of the work. Indeed, in a certain sense we may see the remainder of the work as but an elucidation of these opening lines.
There is a central injunction in the Tao Te Ching to let go of one’s limitations, to surrender one’s restrictive concepts, beliefs, personal desires and one’s assumed role as the instigator of action. It is a giving up of all that belittles the true nature of the Tao—which is our eternal essence—and thus it is a surrendering of that which keeps us bound to our small sense of “I” which leads inevitably to alignment with the Tao.
“The Tao is the motionless center of all the wheels of cyclic change. It is the center which is everywhere, in every point of space, in every moment of time. Yet no boundaries can ever be drawn to contain it.”
It is this center that the true Sage resides within, wherein the illusion that “I” myself am causing the wheel to spin gives way to a selflessly detached calmness wherein, recognizing the truth of our oneness with the Tao, one simply allows the wheel to turn.
“Hold on to the center.” Lao Tzu instructs. And time and time again he reminds us. If one gains nothing else from a study of his masterwork, they will have learned enough if they can remember to practice this one simple thing: remain centered—in oneself, in one’s mind, to one’s heart, to the Tao.
The Tao is the center of the universe,
the good man’s treasure,
the bad man’s refuge. (Taoteching, 62)
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move. (Taoteching, 11)
just stay at the center of the circle
and let all things take their course. (Taoteching, 19)
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle. (Taoteching, 29)
If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts. (Taoteching, 32)
She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart. (Taoteching, 35)
The great Way is easy,
yet people prefer the side paths.
Be aware when things are out of balance.
Stay centered within the Tao. (Taoteching, 53) 3
There is much depth and many layers upon which we may study the Tao Te Ching, but as is most often the case, it is the simplest truths that speak directly to our hearts. When one studies the Tao with a calm mind and a centered heart its profound depths begin to arise effortlessly within us, flowing as a bankless river through the entirety of our being. The Tao moves of its own; it does not need us to move it. It arises in our hearts of its own; all we must do is step out of its way.
1. Theosophical Glossary, H. P. Blavatsky, 1892
2. Lao-Tzu’s Taoteching: With Selected Commentaries from the Past 2,000 Years, tr. Red Pine (see Introduction)
3. Tao Te Ching, tr. Stephen Mitchell
We have put together a selection of translations of the Tao Te Ching, each with their own peculiarities. We invite you to read them online here: https://www.universaltheosophy.com/legacy/movements/ancient-east/taoism/lao-tzu/tao-te-ching/
See also our section on Taoism for articles that expand on the teachings of the Tao.