Thursday, May 04, 2006


The way that can be spoken of is not the eternal Way.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.

Nonbeing is the origin of Heaven and Earth
Being is the mother of worldly things.

Therefore, be free of desire so you can see the true essence of things.
Having desire, all you can see are its outer manifestations.

Both come from the same source, yet they are called by different names.
What they have in common is their mystery,
Mystery upon mystery.
Mystery is the door to understanding everything.

Commentary: The first, and most famous, verse in the Tao Te Ching. The first two lines have a symmetry that's lost when they're translated. Basically, the character [tao] that means "Way" can also signify the action of talking about something, as well as the action of walking or following a path. So in the original Chinese the first line actually looks like this: "The [tao] that can be [tao]'ed is not the eternal [tao]." So it has an ambiguous meaning: either "The Way that can be followed is the not the eternal Way" or "The Way that can be spoken of is not the eternal Way." This ambiguity is lost in translation because the translator has to choose either "followed" or "spoken of," there's no word in English that means both. Was the ambiguity in the original intended? It was probably partly intended for poetic effect, but I think the intended meaning is probably closer to "spoken of." The idea that the Way is difficult to follow is not supported anywhere else in the Tao Te Ching. In fact, many passages speak of the TTC's Way as being very easy to follow, in particular 53 and 70, although both add that despite its easiness, most people don't have the good sense to follow it. Indeed, that's the whole essence of the TTC's Way: it's easy to follow, but impossible to describe.


Laoist said...

Love your translation and comments. A job well done indeed. I'll come back to follow your progress. This is one of best blogs I have encounterred so far.

John Gathercole said...

Thanks, Laoist! I'm glad you like the translations and commentary. I look forward to hearing your opinion on future verses.

Ashuro said...

Hi John, I am in the process of awakening. and learning how to love myself, My intention is to spread this love and I know I have a huge capacity. My intention is to heal myself and heal the world, letting light energy flow and ever increase. I am, at my own pace, letting go of and clearing blocks and letting the life light flow through me. For myself, for I am aware that there are many ways and paths, my path at the moment is via Celestine Vision, a shaman called Ziggy who gives freely of his love and guidance, and other things which are both given and found at the right moment, if I trust in love itself and my own self via self-love. I was guided to your site via a yogi tea bag :-) tag which read 'learn to be noble, courteous and committed'. I paused for breath and thought and mused upon these words and there correlation with my progress along my path then sought further guidance on them and found myself here. Thank you very much for your layman's terms interpretation which I am sure are going to be very helpful to me. They have already. Thus far, I have read your intro and the First verse and upon reading your translation this popped into my head and I thought I would share it with you:
As I awaken, and 'light'bulbs switch on all over the place giving me quite a buzz, it is all so excited that I want to race around telling people of the insights I am now receptive to, and it is easy to fall into talking at them and not letting it just happen for them, at their own pace, when they are ready. And it came to me that this is what the First is trying to say. To quietly go about loving ourselves and letting the light of life flow through us, breathing it in and out, love increasing all the while, and others will tend feel this and follow if they wish and at their own pace when they are ready. There is no point in talking at them for they will only hear what they are ready to hear.
How am I doing, John? LOL! *gives you a soft smile across the ether that bubbles over into giggles as she feels the love increase...* I let that feeling be my guide to when I am doing well. :-) Looking forward to talking with you and to reading over time more of the good loving work you have placed here.
Ashuro xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx