Main Themes

Lao-tzu’s book is about Tao, ‘the Way’, but it states at the outset that Tao cannot be spoken of. It is the paradox of all mystics. They cannot but try to share with their fellow humans the vastness they have experienced, knowing full well that no words can capture it, no philosophy can embrace it. Mystical teachings are, according to the traditional metaphor, fingers pointing to the moon. It is essential to remember that the finger is not the moon. The map is not the territory, and a walk on the map is not the journey. In order to understand Lao-tzu, we have to become Lao-tzu. That is the paradox and the treasure of the Tao Te Ching. The book is an invitation to embark on a journey. If we want to try to somehow describe this journey, we can call it a return:

Returning is Tao’s motion.

The way of wisdom is a return to the origin of things. It is a return to the primal chaotic condition that precedes the logos’ ordering action, precedes even manifest reality:

There is a being chaotically complete in itself
before heaven and earth were born…
Not knowing its name, I call it Tao.

In this chaotic primal wholeness the movement of differentiation and manifestation takes place: it is the ‘mother of the world’, ‘a bottomless abyss’, the ‘ancestor of the myriad beings’. It is a valley, an emptiness, it is the feminine:

The valley’s spirit never dies.
It is the hidden feminine.
The hidden feminine’s door
is the source of heaven and earth.
Gossamer-like, it seems to barely exist.
Use it, it is never exhausted.

To this emptiness the sage returns, reversing the process of manifestation:

Attain the ultimate void,
abide in absolute stillness.
Stillness is returning to one’s destiny,
returning to one’s destiny is the eternal,
knowing the eternal is enlightenment…

When he/she has become this emptiness, this feminine, this fecund chaos, the sage has nothing to protect, nothing to identify with, nothing to claim for herself. Free from past and future, she has reverted to the condition of the ‘newborn’, to the simplicity of the ‘uncarved block’. From this space she spontaneously responds to whatever presents itself. Her action is naturally appropriate, without conforming to any ethical norm. She has become a hollow bamboo, and through her existence plays its tunes:

Therefore the sage acts through non-action
and teaches without words.
The myriad beings arise
and he does not reject them.
He rears them and does not possess them.
He acts and claims no reward.
He accomplishes his task and does not dwell on it.
Because he does not dwell on it, it is never lost.

Such a person is incomprehensible to the ordinary mind:

The well-versed masters of old
were subtle and mysterious,
profound and penetrating,
too deep for the mind to understand.

The ordinary person may even see her/him as a fool:

My mind is the mind of a fool!
Turbid and chaotic!
Ordinary people are clear and bright,
I alone am dim and confused!
Ordinary people are smart and self-assured,
I alone am dull and withdrawn!

But this ‘fool’ knows a priceless secret:

I alone differ from others
because I treasure the nourishment coming from the Mother.

Knowing this secret is holding ‘the great symbol’, or ‘the great image’ – and to the person who holds the great image

all the world comes and suffers no harm,
but finds contentment and peace.
Music and fine food
make travelers want to stop.

The sage becomes like a big tree whose rich foliage provides shelter for many beings. He becomes like water, which

benefits the myriad beings without striving
and dwell in places all people disdain.

He becomes like a river ‘overflowing in all directions’ – and his ‘virtue’ is simple spontaneity:

The highest virtue is not conscious of virtue,
therefore it has virtue.
The inferior virtue never loses sight of virtue,
therefore it has no virtue.

The Tao Te Ching has inspired the philosophical and mystical school of Taoism and has exerted a subtle influence on much of Chinese culture, also by seeping into the mainstream Confucian philosophy. Religious Taoism, on the other hand, in spite of worshipping Lao-tzu as a god, has little to do with his teachings and is much closer to the ancient animist cults of popular Chinese religion. But, if traditional Chinese culture is shaped much more by Confucius than by Lao-tzu, the ‘old master’ has made a comeback in recent years in the West. The Tao Te Ching is high on the list the most popular and most widely translated philosophical and mystical writings of all times:

Tao is an empty vessel,
yet its use is inexhaustible…

textual issues