The Tao Te Ching was allegedly written by a Chinese writer, Lao-Tzu, some time around the 4th or 5th Century BCE. We know almost nothing about him – all that we have is this brief book of 81 verses. Lao-Tzu himself could even be a fiction – certainly we don’t even really have a good translation of his name. “The Old Master”, or even “The Old Boy” perhaps. So even the author is ephemeral, difficult to grasp, impossible to see. And it feels like that’s what Lao-Tzu himself would have wanted – to disappear so thoroughly that the wisdom of The Way could be more clearly seen. Even the book’s title is cryptic “The Book of The Way”. It seems to almost beg to be treated as immaterial, ephemeral: Lao-Tzu writes with confidence and certainty about something that cannot be described, labelled, explained. And yet there is clarity and deep truth woven throughout these simple verses.
Tao Te Ching loosely translates to ‘The Book of the Way’s Virtues’
Dào/tao meaning ‘way’ or ‘the Way’ – the essence of the Universe, the Oneness, the Infinite
Dé/te meaning ‘integrity’, ‘inner character’, ‘virtue’ or ‘divine power’
Jīng/ching meaning, simply, ‘great book’.
It is of course written in Chinese character form, where each character is not just a word, but also a concept, a thought, an entire raft of meaning which needs to be factored in to any attempt to provide a translation. And equally, it has changed its source and its script over the years from its origins probably in zhuànshū script and later in kǎishū. We have no way to tell whether the version we have is in any way close to what Lao-Tzu originally penned… but I like to believe that it is, and that when we study it with an open mind and a willing heart that we find truth within its pages.
Exploring the Tao Te Ching is not like reading a book, but more a process of meditation: almost a conversation between the book and the reader where meaning is discovered not just in the reading, but in the living, and in the way that the book sheds light on other aspects of our own journey.
The Tao is full of paradox, riddles, contrasts. At times it seems that the meaning of the words is becoming clear – and then it slides off into an inscrutable mystery that hints at an answer, yet refuses to be pinned down. To me, there really is no one way to interpret the book. It demands to be read, and pondered, and reread. It demands us to consider its paradoxical thought, and perhaps then to be happy with unanswered questions – if it has caused us to think more deeply, then it has done its work. Even if it allows us to be comfortable with the idea that truth may not be absolute, that we have to live within the paradox, then it will have taught us well. Each of us will have our own insights into the book, our own interpretations – and that’s as it should be. For Lao-Tzu, truth is not rigid, or easily defined. It cannot be written down, it can only be discovered and experienced for each one of us personally – yet if we choose to hear, it will transform us.
One of the beauties of the Tao is that it doesn’t require a belief in any form of God or Supreme Being – yet equally its truth can equally be applied whether you are a theist, atheist or agnostic.
For some reason study of the Tao Te Ching eluded me for many years – popping up in various quotes and commentaries, making a brief appearance then diving down below the surface again. My journey with the Tao Te Ching really began when I started studying with the Interfaith Foundation – one of our required reading books on the course was a translation by fantasy author Ursula K Le Guin – a translation that seemed both true to the original yet shaded and textured by the author’s own search for meaning. I was also deeply inspired by spiritual author Wayne Dyer, who took a year out to meditate on the Tao verse by verse, a year of insight that became the book “Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life” – and I followed in his footsteps by embarking on a journey into the Tao that took me deep into one verse every week. This year I’m restarting that journey with the intention of publishing my own personal thoughts on the Tao each week here on this web site.
I believe that studying the Tao Te Ching has opened me up to a new way of looking at the mystery of Life, at my own spiritual journey, at my beliefs, behaviours and truth as I see it. I do not for one minute claim to be a definitive scholar of the Tao, if such a thing exists. But I hope that my thoughts will maybe help inspire you to look more deeply, to see perhaps way beyond my own insights and come to your own conclusions.
Find out more at www.timhodgson.org
For those of you who are interested, I’ve used translations from Ursula K Le Guin, Stephen Mitchell, Jonathan Star, Jane English and Wayne Dyer’s own paraphrase version. I’d say Stephen Mitchell’s is the version I like the best.