"In the Confucian writings Tao usually means either a road or a way of life. It means that in the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching, “The way that can be followed (or the road that can be traced or charted) is not the true way. The word that can be spoken is not the true word.” Very quickly the text drives home the numinous significance of both Tao and Te. Tao is described by paradox and contradiction — the Absolute in a worldview where absolutes are impossible, the ultimate reality which is neither being nor not being, the hidden meaning behind all meaning, the pure act which acts without action and yet the reason and order of the simplest physical occurrence.
It is quite possible — in fact Joseph Needham in his great Science and Civilization in China does so — to interpret the Tao Te Ching as a treatise of elementary primitive scientific empiricism; certainly it is that. Over and over it says, “learn the way of nature”; “do not try to overcome the forces of nature but use them.” On the other hand, Fr. Leo Weiger, S.J., called the Tao Te Ching a restatement of the philosophy of the Upanishads in Chinese terms. Buddhists, especially Zen Buddhists in Japan and America, have understood and translated the book as a pure statement of Zen doctrine. Even more remarkable, contemporary Chinese, and not all of them Marxists, have interpreted it as an attack on private property and feudal oppression, and as propaganda for communist anarchism. Others have interpreted it as a cryptic work of erotic mysticism and yoga exercises. It is all of these things and more, and not just because of the ambiguity of the ideograms in a highly compressed classical Chinese text; it really is many things to many men — like the Tao itself.
Perhaps the best way to get at the foundations of the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching is by means of a historical, anthropological approach which in itself may be mythical. There is little doubt that the organized Taoist religion, which came long after the Tao Te Ching but which still was based on it, swept up into an occultist system much of the folk religion of the Chinese culture area, much as Japanese Shinto (which means the Tao of the Gods) did in Japan. If the later complicated Taoist religion developed from the local cults, ceremonies and superstitions of the precivilized folk religion, how could it also develop from the Tao Te Ching or from the early Taoist philosophers whose works are collected under the names of Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu and who are about as unsuperstitious and antiritualistic as any thinkers in history? The connection is to be found I feel in the shamans and shamanesses of a pan-Asiatic culture which stretches from the Baltic far into America, and to the forest philosophers and hermits who appear at the beginnings of history and literature in both India and China and whose prehistoric existence is testified by the yogi in the lotus position on a Mohenjo-Daro seal. The Tao Te Ching describes the experiential or existential core of the transcendental experience shared by the visionaries of primitive cultures. The informants of Paul Radin’s classic Primitive Man as Philosopher say much the same things. It is this which gives it its air of immemorial wisdom, although many passages are demonstrably later than Confucius, and may be later than the “later” Taoists, Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu.
There are two kinds of esotericism in Oriental religion: the proliferation of spells, chants, rituals, mystical diagrams, cosmologies and cosmogonies, trials of the soul, number mysticism, astrology, and alchemy, all of which go to form the corpus of a kind of pan-Gnosticism. Its remarkable similarities are shared by early Christian heretics, Jewish Kabbalists, Tantric worshipers of Shiva, Japanese Shingon Buddhists, and Tibetan lamas. The other occultism (held strangely enough by the most highly developed minds amongst some people) is the exact opposite, a stark religious empiricism shorn of all dogma or cult, an attitude toward life based upon realization of the unqualified religious experience as such. What does the contemplator contemplate? What does the life of illumination illuminate? To these questions there can be no answer — the experience is beyond qualification. So say the Zen documents, a form of late Buddhism originating in China, but so say the Hinayana texts, which are assumed to be as near as we can get to the utterances of the historic Buddha Sakyamuni, but so say also the Upanishads — “not this, not this, not that, not that,” but so also say some of the highly literate and sophisticated technical philosophers (in our sense of the word) of Sung Dynasty Neo-Confucianism. So says the Tao Te Ching.
In terms of Western epistemology, a subject Classical Chinese thought does not even grant existence, the beginning and end of knowledge are the same thing — the intuitive apprehension of reality as a totality, before and behind the data of sense or the constructions of experience and reason. The Tao Te Ching insists over and over that this is both a personal, psychological and a social, moral, even political first principle. At the core of life is a tiny, steady flame of contemplation. If this goes out the person perishes, although the body and its brain may stumble on, and civilization goes rapidly to ruin. The source of life, the source of the order of nature, the source of knowledge, and the source of social order are all identical — the immediate comprehension of the reality beyond being and not being; existence and essence; being and becoming. Contact with this reality is the only kind of power there is. Against that effortless power all self-willed acts and violent attempts to rule self, man, or natural process are delusion and end only in disaster.
The lesson is simple, and once learned, easy to paraphrase. The Tao is like water. Striving is like smoke. The forces of Nature are infinitely more powerful than the strength of men. Toil to the top of the highest peak and you will be swept away in the first storm. Seek the lowest possible point and eventually the whole mountain will descend to you. There are two ways of knowing, under standing and over bearing. The first is called wisdom. The second is called winning arguments. Being, as power, comes from the still void behind being and not being. The enduring and effective power of the individual, whether hermit or king or householder, comes from the still void at the heart of the contemplative. The wise statesman conquers by the quiet use of his opponents’ violence, like the judo and jujitsu experts.
The Tao Te Ching is a most remarkable document, but the most remarkable thing about it is that it has not long since converted all men to its self-evident philosophy. It was called mysterious at the beginning of this essay. It is really simple and obvious; what is mysterious is the complex ignorance and complicated morality of mankind that reject its wisdom.- Kenneth Rexroth, Classics Revisited, 1968
A typical webpage created by Mike Garofalo for each one of the 81 Chapters (Verses, Sections) of the Tao Te Ching (Daodejing) by Lao Tzu (Laozi) includes over 25 different English language translations or interpolations for that Chapter, 5 Spanish language translations for that Chapter, the Chinese characters for that Chapter, the Wade-Giles and Hanyu Pinyin transliterations (Romanization) of the Mandarin Chinese words for that Chapter, and 2 German and 1 French translation of that Chapter. Each webpage for each one of the 81 Chapters of the Tao Te Ching includes extensive indexing by key words, phrases, and terms for that Chapter in English, Spanish, and the Wade-Giles Romanization. Each webpage on a Chapter of the Daodejing includes recommended reading in books and websites, a detailed bibliography, some commentary, research leads, translation sources, a Google Translate drop down menu, and other resources for that Chapter.
Chapter 81, Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Chapter and Thematic Index (Concordance) to the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
English Language Daodejing Translators' Source Index
Spanish Language Daodejing Translators' Source Index
Ripening Peaches: Taoist Studies and Practices
Taoism: A Selected Reading List