What Is Tao Te Ching?

Describes the 2500 year old Tao Te Ching, or Book of the Way, possibly mankind's earliest surviving book, which forms the basis for the Taoist philosophy and religion.

"The way that can be walked is not The Way. The name that can be named is not The Name." Thus begins the 2500-year-old book of philosophy that forms the basis for much of Taoist thought.

Tao Te Ching translates as 'The Book of the Way (Tao) and its Power (Te)", and is attributed to Lao Tzu. According to the legend, Lao Tzu was a sage and philosopher who lived contemporaneously with Confucius, about 500 BC. He served as the court archivist to the Chinese state of Chou. In his eighties, disillusioned at the state of the world, he decided to retire and leave the country. He was stopped at the 'Western Gate' by a gatekeeper, who, unhappy that the state was losing a man of such wisdom, asked him to leave some of his teachings behind. At this request, Lao Tzu dismounted from his oxcart and sat down and composed the Tao Te Ching.

The entire book is eighty-one verses, composed in approximately five thousand Chinese characters. Modern scholars now believe that Lao Tzu was a mythological figure, or possibly a composite of several historical figures, and the Tao Te Ching was actually created over some 300-500 years by various Taoist philosophers. Because of the inherent ambiguity of the Chinese characters, the Tao Te Ching has confounded Western translators for years.



Taoism is both a philosophy and a religion; the Tao Te Ching is the earliest surviving articulation of this philosophy (some say the earliest surviving book in the world), which predates the writing by some centuries. Based on earlier Chinese shamanism, Taoism and Confucianism formed during the same period, but spoke to different human roles; Confucianism being concerned with man's place in society and interpersonal ethics, and Taoism being concerned with man's place in nature and how he can improve his own being, to gain longevity or even immortality.

Taoism describe a Way or Tao, from which everything comes and to which everything returns; all nature is cyclical and we should not attempt to deviate from the Way. The organizing principle of the universe, Tao is not a deity in the Western sense, but something more akin to the laws of physics - the way things are. The primary requirement of a follower of Tao is to do nothing that is against 'the Way' - this tenet is called 'wu-wei' or literally, 'do nothing'. This is understood to mean 'live your life in harmony with the way of all things in the universe', or 'live in harmony with nature'.

Thus, Tao is the 'laws of the universe', and Te is the power of the Way. This imbues all things - not just living things, but inanimate ones as well - with an energy, or ch'i (variously qi or ki). An understanding of the Tao will ultimately allow you to see and even use the energy in all things.

Taoism recognizes a wide variety of deities, incorporated from earlier religions or 'promoted' from the ranks of historical/mythical personages. They are usually personifications of some aspect of nature or the Way that might need to be propitiated. Lao Tzu is now considered a god, which might have surprised the ancient archivist if he had existed. Taoist deities function more like Catholic saints, performing ambassadorial functions between humans on Earth and the unknowable principle of the Tao.

Taoism (as with other Asian philosophies) is quite comfortable with the duality of nature; everything has two sides, a yin and yang (female/male) or light and dark. This is not seen in the same way as good versus evil in Western religions - the dual natures just are, with no judgment implied. In fact, without the one, you could not have the other: "Everyone recognizes beauty only because of ugliness; everyone recognizes virtue only because of sin." Without ugliness, beauty does not exist. Therefore you are enjoined: "Hold your male side with your female side; hold your bright side with your dull side; hold your high side with your low side; then you will be able to hold the whole world."

If Western readers find these principles strangely familiar, without having studied Asian thought, it's probably because of their familiarity with the Star Wars saga. George Lucas is widely thought to have based his "Force", with its dark and light sides that bind the universe together, on the principle of the Tao.

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