Tao Te Ching — Chapter 1

Where I’m At

Fives years ago, I was introduced to the Tao. My understanding of Taoism is equivalent to a baby’s understanding of black holes. Throughout the years and the day-to-days, I constantly revisit the Tao and the ideas inside the Tao Te Ching. Each time, I arrive at a brief moment of enlightenment followed by a intense feeling of I have no idea what’s going on.

The embodiment of the Tao is hard. It’s the personal part — the part we figure out for ourselves. Luckily, the concepts of the Tao can be explained with words. My words maybe? Random ideas float around in my head and it’s time to download some of them.

What is Tao?

The literal translation of the Tao is “the path” or “the way”. It’s extremely difficult to explain. When I have time to sit and think, I struggle. If I ever talk about the Tao socially, I bomb.

The Tao is indefinable. If you’re looking for concrete lessons, or well-defined dogmas, you’ll find none here. It is a universal principle that underlies everything. It is eternal. The Tao is a part of every human interaction, every piece of nature, and every dream we pursue.

We won’t waste time concentrating on a definition. There are no words that can do this question justice. This idea in itself is the first part of understanding the Tao.

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 1

When studying the Tao, the Tao Te Ching is the source.  It includes 81 chapters, each with an absurd amount of depth captured in very few words. Listening through an audio playback of the Tao Te Ching takes less than an hour and a half.

Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching introduces the Tao and its basic truths. I’ve read through these lines many times and I’ll never truly understand them. Dense engineering material is easy-mode compared to this. The purpose of this post is to focus on Chapter 1.

The Walkthrough

The translations I’m using are from Derek Lin. I like Derek for two reasons: he’s straight up Chinese and he also talks smack about popular Western translations. The smack talk creates that subtle aura of credibility and it also makes him a f@#%ing boss.

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name

The true Tao is beyond the spoken word. There is no text or verbal explanation that can define it. We’re already messing up by trying to explain it!

The second line flows similarly and pushes on the same point. There is no name that can be assigned to the Tao. For me, the word eternal is heavy because it means that the Tao has existed before everything, exists now, and will exist forever after our life. It has existed before there was any concept of naming.

Even though the Tao is indefinable, we should still talk about it. It’s something that must be experienced — kind of like drinking. Do you think someone explained tequila and its reprecussions to you so well that you became a grandmaster drinker? No. You took that first shot, drank that first beer, and vomited in many bathrooms to become the master drinker you are today.

I just made a drinking analogy to the Tao.

The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things

There are two equally important parts of the Tao: the nameless Tao and the named Tao. Let’s talk about the nameless first.

The concept of naming things did not exist when Heaven and Earth were created. The nameless Tao is the essence of Tao. This essence is very abstract and difficult to describe. The nameless Tao has no physical manifestations. This is Bruce Lee’s flow.

This is also the first introduction to Yin and Yang. You know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s the most stereotypical Chinese symbol, usually found tattooed on the shoulder of a white male. The Yin and Yang represent everything. It represents the constant opposite, but complementary, forces that exist in our universe. Two sides of the same coin.

If the nameless is one side of the coin, the named is the other side. The named Tao is the mother to everything physical, conscious, and organic in our world. It’s you and me. It’s the rocks in the backyard. It’s all animals. It’s any manifestation of the physical universe. Once the Tao manifests itself in the physical, we can talk about it, or give it a name.

The mother concept represents the creator of all physical things. The physical Tao is feminine to reiterate birth. We can all refer to the same one and call it Mom.

Your mother will always be your mother. The physical Tao is like a meta-mother we all share.

The nameless Tao is the essence. We can’t physically observe the essence, but we can connect with it.

The named Tao represents the manifestations and is mother to us all.

Getting a little crazy now.

Thus, constantly free of desire
One observes its essence

These lines show us how to connect with the nameless Tao — the essence. When we become truly objective without self-serving desires, we observe the essence.

When used in real life, this essence allows us to arrive at intuitive and thoughtful insights about life’s difficult situations. Your mental state must be detached to objectively evaluate anything. No fears, sinister motives, or wishful thinking. This is where we read between the lines and figure out people’s hidden agendas.

The essence is the flow. Flow like water.

Constantly filled with desire
One observes its manifestations

We can’t always be mentally detached. That is some monk-level stuff that is probably unreasonable for most of us. We don’t live in a world where pure observation and detachment is practical. The Tao recognizes this. If detachment is the Yin, being of desire is the Yang.

Being with desire is good. These desires are the things you want. These are our goals and dreams we set. The manifestations are the steps we take to get there and the fruits of our labor once we finish. This is the skinny pair of jeans you’ll buy after you lose 40 pounds. It’s the job offer you’ll receive after burning the candle at college.

The desire does not have a bad connotation. When we are free of desire, we observe and produce nothing. When we are of desire, we dream and make shit happen.

These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders

The first line here is amazing. Our desiring state and detached state are actually one in the same. It’s all a part of the Tao. Both sound so contradictory, but they exist to balance each other. The Tao has an essence and it also has physical manifestations.

While detached, you flow like water and observe objectively. You gain insights quickly and thoroughly understand what’s going on. Filled with desire, you produce real, physical things. You need both. Yin and Yang!

The last two lines use mystery which is a little confusing. I believe the word mystery represents the north star for us. The unity, or mystery, is the combination of both states of the Tao. The Chinese character translates to mysterious because this ultimate state is very difficult to comprehend. We are all trying to figure this out for ourselves.

We must learn when to use desire and when to use detachment to unlock this mystery. If you’ve ever come across the term oneness, it’s the same concept.

We must balance both states to be spiritually, mentally, and physically happy.

The word mystery is repeated in the last line. It’s a little strange in English, but the line is a result of direct Chinese character translation. It means that understanding the oneness is the ultimate mystery. Mystery of mysteries. It’s not your average puzzle or small fight you just had with your friend. With true understanding of the unity and the Tao, we unlock any mystery.

After that, the “door to all wonders” opens up — no explanation needed.

Conclusion

Chapter 1 introduces and explains the Tao.

It’s so concise and it expresses so much —a true piece of mastery.

Let us all flow like water and work hard towards our dreams.

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In its entirety, here is Tao Te Ching Chapter 1 translated by Derek Lin:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things

Thus, constantly free of desire
One observes its essence
Constantly filled with desire
One observes its manifestations

These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders

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