What is Tao? What is Te? Over 2500 years later do the teachings of Taoism still have a place in our modern world? Welcome, and please join me on a journey.
Tao(道 Dao1) literally means “the way/path” in Chinese. Taoism is one of the most ancient philosophies in the world. Its holistic view has had a profound impact on the Chinese culture from governing a nation to interpersonal relationships. Taoism teaches about living a balanced life, by respecting all things in nature; achieving inner peace with one’s self; developing keen awareness from mindful observation; living in harmony with others via humility.
The concept of Tao came from the book Tao Te Ching(道德經 Dao De Jing2) by Lao Zi, written over 2500 years ago. The book was also known as Tao Te Zheng Ching(道德真經), Lao Zi(老子) and 5000 Characters(五千言). Tao Te Ching is considered as the main writing of Taoism, and Lao Zi as being the founder of the philosophy. The book has total of 81 chapters and is divided into two parts. The first part(chp1-37) is Tao Ching(道經), and the latter(chap38-81) is Te Ching(德經). 經 means “scripture” in Chinese. The title translates to “The Scripture of the Way and Virtue.”
Each chapter of Tao Te Ching is very brief, written in only a few verses. Despite its simplicity in form, it’s considered one of most difficult books to comprehend even for modern Chinese. The language of the book was written in ancient Chinese, lacked punctuation and often used ambiguous metaphors.
The exact birthday of the author Lao Zi is unknown. According to the historians, he lived around 462-302BC, in Henan province during the Spring and Autumn Period of Ancient China. China was divided into many feudal nations and was in constant warfare. It was an era of chaos and turmoil. It was during this time Lao Zi started his philosophy on rules of nature, people, governing and knowledge. Those aspects condensed into Tao Te Ching, a book on the way and virtue. Taoist teaching was carried on by Lao Zi’s student Zhuang Zi, who wrote several influential books of his own. “Zi” is a suffix given to accomplished men.
So what is Tao? Well, that’s hard to say. Taoism philosophy is lived, not described or overly studied. I cannot tell you what “true Tao” is, doing so would be an oxymoron. However, I do believe when one gets the essence of Tao, then everything will be clear.
I plan to translate all 81 chapters of Tao Te Ching on this site, in blog entry form. There are several English translations of the book out there already, so why would I bother? Well, I’ve read several of them. While some of the authors did a superb job of translating the original text literally, I feel the translation isn’t relatable to a modern day western audience. What do “ten thousand things” and “hay dogs” mean?
I had some reservations about starting this task. First of all, I think if Lao Zi were alive today, he wouldn’t approve the idea of over studying the text. After all, he was a man who didn’t care much for isms. He believed in label-lessness and free thinking. Secondly, Tao Te Ching is a very hard to read, even for a native Chinese such as myself. Even modern day Chinese scholars debate furiously over particular characters in the text.
What compelled me to write is because I feel even though the book was written over 2500 years ago, the principles of its teachings benefit the modern world we live in greatly. A lot of things have changed since Lao Zi’s days. Technology has made the world smaller, but are we more distant as a society in whole? There are more things money can buy, but are we easily content? There are more labels around, but do they truly make us different? There are less wars, but is the suffering any less? Can ego and inner peace co-exist?
Things change, human nature doesn’t. That’s why Lao Zi’s wisdom is timeless. Everything stems from “self” to “other.”
I’d like to note future chapters will be comprised of the original Chinese writing, and my English translation. Also, I’ll write how Taoist living affects me personally. It will be “MY” understanding of Tao. The Tao of Tao Te Ching is a way of life, not a religion. There is however a religious Taoism, which I will not talk about here.