A student asked a Zen master, “How long will it take me to become enlightened?”
“Seven years,” the master answered.
“That’s too long,” the student replied. “How about if I try hard and put forth great effort?”
“Fourteen years,” the master said.
The point: We can act spontaneously and effectively in the world — without internal struggle or excessive effort.
On the spiritual path, we are meant to walk with ease and joy.
Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Even when working long days, Gandhi said he was always on vacation.
In the midst of activity, we can be at rest.
This is one of the core messages in the Tao te Ching. And it is one of many insights that make this book a manual for living serenely in the midst of chaos.
About the Tao te Ching
Both the date of composition and the name of the author of this text are matters of speculation.
Legend holds that Lao-tzu — a contemporary of Confucious — wrote it in the fifth century BCE. The occasion was his retirement from the position of archive keeper in one of China’s many kingdoms.
When Lao-tzu tried to leave the country, the gate keeper demanded that he first reveal the essence of what he’d learned.
In response, Lao-tzu sat down and composed 81 verses of poetry on the spot. Afterward, he mounted his horse, rode away, and disappeared forever. What he left behind was the seed of the Tao te Ching.
Actually, this book may have many authors. After all, it has passed through editors and translators for over two thousand years.
All we have, really, is the text itself. I agree with Stephen Mitchell, who created a superb translation of the Tao te Ching:
Like an Iroquois woodsman, he [Lao-tzu] left no traces. All he left us is his book: the classic manual on the art of living, written in a style of gemlike lucidity, radiant with humor and grace and largeheartedness and deep wisdom: one of the wonders of the world.
Where to start
If you decide to read the Tao te Ching, your first challenge is to choose a translation.
Oy! There are so many of them. And, they are so different.
Philosopher Jacob Needleman jokes that “the word Tao, and even the whole of the Tao Te Ching, is not readily translatable into any language, including Chinese!”
May I make a suggestion?
Start with Stephen Mitchell’s translation.
Then go deeper with Jonathan Star’s Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition. There you will find extensive commentary and word-by-word translations of the original Chinese characters.
Once you discover the riches of this ancient text, you may want to read it many times.
This is a text to study for a lifetime and live by every day.
Two aspects of the Tao
The Tao te Ching is rife with paradoxes that are stated and then transcended.
Verse 1 — widely regarded as the essence of the text — is a case in point. Following is Jonathan Star’s translation:
A way that can be walked
is not The Way
A name that can be named
is not The Name
Tao is both Named and Nameless
As Nameless, it is the origin of all things
As Named, it is the mother of all things
A mind free of thought,
merged within itself,
beholds the essence of Tao
A mind filled with thought,
identified with its own perceptions
beholds the mere forms of this world
Tao and this world seem different
but in truth they are one and the same
The only difference is in what we call them
How deep and mysterious is this unity
How profound, how great!
It is the truth beyond truth,
the hidden within the hidden
It is the path to all wonder,
the gate to the essence of everything!
Here the basic dualities in the Tao te Ching are laid out — the real and unreal, permanent and the impermanent, the one and the many.
Start with the term Tao itself. Tao is the unity beneath all differences — “the essence of everything.” It’s the enduring reality from which all seemingly separate things emerge. It has many names, including:
- Absolute Reality
- Supreme Reality
In this text, Tao is also called:
Keeping these synonyms in mind allows the Tao te Ching to slowly reveal itself to you.
Tao becomes te
Tao is impersonal. When it manifests in the form of human being, however, it becomes personal. It becomes te — a singular expression, form, or aspect of the underlying unity.
In many translations of the Tao te Ching, te is also called virtue. This refers not to morality but the power of the Tao to move — to find its perfect expression in all the separate persons and things in the world.
For the same reason, te is also called Being and the Mother of all things. It takes the One — Tao — and gives birth to the many.
What makes this expression so perfect is that Tao remains essentially unchanged — even as it manifests as countless changing objects.
As fire, Tao is hot. As water, Tao is cool. As a human being, Tao emerges at birth, grows older, and dies. But Tao itself never changes, ages, or disappears. It has no beginning and no end.
In his introduction to another fine translation of the Tao te Ching, Jacob Needleman sums up verse 1 beautifully:
The metaphysical doctrine now stands before us in outline: an unformed, ungraspable, pure conscious principle lies at the heart and origin of all things; it is referred to as the Tao. This principle moves, expands, descends into form, creating the hierarchically, organically ordered cascade of worlds and phenomena called “the ten thousand things,” or simply the great universe — and this movement, especially as it can move through humanity, is called Te, Virtue.
At the same time, there is a great tide of return to the source, back toward the undifferentiated, pure reality of the “uncarved block.” This movement is also termed Tao. Finally, the supreme whole composed of both movements is also given the designation Tao.
Seeing the world before words
The Tao te Ching reveals that separations and dualities exist only when we use language to name things and make distinctions. This is the difference between the named and the Nameless.
Tao and te are “are one and the same/The only difference is in what we call them.”
To see this and feel it at a gut level is enlightenment, which I describe as the world before words.
In his scientific research of the nature of enlightenment, Jeffery Martin describes it as non-symbolic experience. This means perceiving the world without symbols, including language and images.
Does all this seem too abstract? Then discover the Tao for yourself. Meditate or do any spiritual practice that stills the mind and stops the constant chatter inside your skull.
Words carve up reality into the “ten thousand things.” When we let them go, what we glimpse is the underlying unity — Tao.
Spiritual practices offer direct paths to the Nameless hidden behind the named. Through such practices, as Eckhart Tolle says, you discover that God is as real as your hands and feet.
The end of suffering
And why care about discovering the Tao in the first? Because it relieves you of the fear of death and every other kind of suffering. It is Nirvana, the “peace that passeth all understanding.”
This is what’s described in verse 13 of the Tao te Ching (Jonathan Star’s translation):
Man’s true self is eternal,
yet he thinks, “I am this body, I will soon die”
This false sense of self
is the cause of all his sorrow
When a person does not identify himself with the body
tell me, what troubles could touch him?
Just remember that anything you can name is te, not Tao. The Nameless cannot be contained in any word.
“Just as you cannot fit the ocean into a cup” Star writes, “you cannot fit the limitless universe into your mind.”
Living in harmony with Tao
Many verses in the Tao te Ching point to the virtue of living in harmony with Tao.
Our job is not to conquer nature or have “dominion” over it as described in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Instead, we prosper by finding our place in the world rather than trying to change it.
A key term here is wu wei — “non-doing.” This kind of behavior is spontaneous, effortless, and selfless. Stephen Mitchells renders one description of it in verse 23 of the Tao te Ching:
Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.
Wu wei happens when we allow feelings to rise and pass without attachment or aversion. Resisting unpleasant feelings and grasping at pleasant feelings takes a lot of energy. When we let go of that constant struggle, we gain emotional balance. And as we release negative emotions, we can act with natural compassion.
In Buddhism Plain and Simple, Steve Hagen gives an example related to Buddha’s teaching about “right speech”: Before you speak, notice your emotional state. If you’re feeling angry in the moment, then refrain from speaking:
If you would awaken, the point is not so much to be concerned with the actual words you speak, or even the tone. Instead, be concerned with observing your own heart and mind. Then speak out of your awareness of what you observe — in your heart, mind, and situation. The words you select, and their tone, will follow appropriately. And you will be speaking and listening out of wisdom and compassion.
One misconception about wu wei is that it leads to laziness and passivity. Actually, people who cultivate this virtue can get a lot done. They can even disappear into flow states — also called “being in the zone.”
As Stephen Mitchell notes:
A good athlete can enter a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke or the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance.
Freedom from strategy
When we live according to wu wei, we don’t have to plan as much. We can relax into action.
We can also free ourselves from acquiring and trying to remember so many of the techniques, strategies, and “life hacks” presented in our self-help books.
After all, strategies are often ways that people acted in the past. They are moments frozen in time — what people once did spontaneously when they were being conscious.
Instead of mechanically imitating someone else’s past behavior, we can simply act with clear attention to the current situation.
Rather than following a formula, we can let our behavior arise naturally, paying careful attention to the unique forces at work in the present moment.
To do this is to live with ease, taking the Tao te Ching as our guide and fellow traveler.