I am reading the "Tao Te Ching", and I was asking myself two questions :

-Why Lao-Tzeu's style in "Tao Te Ching" is so difficult to interpret ?

-Is the Way (the Tao) like an inner will, a will incorrupted by no external consciousness and which guides the self in the World?

  • Cabalistic???... Jul 12, 2023 at 15:38
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    Might be a variant of "Kabbalah"/"Qabalah." If so, it would historically be more that de Leon's text hearkened back to Laozi's text, I suppose. Granted, de Leon claimed that the Zohar was carried over from an oral tradition going back to Moses, and IIRC there were Catholic officers called "figurists" or something who believed that Enoch might've been Laozi, no less. Jul 12, 2023 at 16:00
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    As for describing the Tao as an inner will, to confine it to such a description seems to fly in the face of the whole "the Tao that can be named is not the real Tao." But wu wei might comport with one's sense of a Tao-infused will, so there might not be too much distance between the notions. Jul 12, 2023 at 16:02
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    Wu wei, popularly translated as "doing nothing" is more accurately "being nothing" as in not-thinking (cutting mentation), not clinging to views (being like water), but still getting on with the necessary. This is the way. Jul 12, 2023 at 17:03
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    See Daoism. Jul 14, 2023 at 6:38

1 Answer 1


Just a note: the pinyin romanization of Chinese characters is the international standard, but the Wade-Giles system is still used in the West for a lot of early-translated major texts. I'll be using dao, daodejing, Laozi, and other pinyin forms instead of the older (W_G) Tao, Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, yadda yadda. Different English spellings of the same words; don't let it be confusing.

The essence of the daodejing is that we humans understand the world primarily in language, but that the world we live in cannot be adequately captured in language. We can think of language as a system for expressing relationships between objects, but the objects and relationships we carve out in language don't do justice to what actually exists in the world. I mean, I can say the phrase "John loves Amy", which is a relationship between two objects. But the words 'John' and 'Amy' aren't sufficient to specify two unique objects, and people write entire books on the word 'love' without quite grasping the full nature of that relation. To know what I mean by "John loves Amy" you need to be enmeshed in unspoken context — to have a sense of the world we live in beyond what I said — otherwise it's an empty phrase.

The dao is the way of the world, whether or not it can be expressed in language. We can't apply words to it — it isn't big or small, it isn't here or there, it isn't inside us or outside us — because words always miss its essence. If we say the dao is this then we also have to acknowledge that the dao is not-this. The dao is a whole, and our language only allows us to talk about parts and pieces.

The reason it seems like 'mysterious' language is that the text is trying to use language to talk about the idea that the world cannot properly be talked about in language. The proper approach to life — the 'de' part of daodejing, which translates as 'virtue' — is to know when one should stop trying to know, and know when one should stop trying to do. It's a way of listening to what the world is doing so that we know when to stop trying to impose our will, because the world - like water, which is the common analogy for the dao - is fundamentally unknowable, generously pliant, and ultimately unstoppable. It's a hard thing to talk about in the best case, and doubtless has gained confusions over a couple of millennia of recitation.

  • I can make some sense of that. What confuses me is what next? Is simply knowing that's the best approach to life is enough? Implausible. What should we do (or stop doing) in order to gain the necessary knowledge? Is the conclusion simply fatalism? Is the idea that once we've absorbed the knowledge, we'll just stop worrying about the issue?
    – Ludwig V
    Jul 16, 2023 at 10:21
  • @LudwigV: Daoism isn't exactly telling us what to do. Daoism is telling us how to approach the things we decide to do. There's a metaphor that the dao a is like shooting an arrow. We pull the bowstring back; the bottom of the bow comes up; the top of the bow comes down; that tension gives directed force for the arrow to fly true. But the dao goes on to say that humans tend to muck things up. Humans only want the bottom to come up, and never want the top to come down. That doesn't work; they shoot themselves in the foot or send a wild arrow who knows where... Jul 16, 2023 at 16:49
  • @LudwigV: when you understand how a bow works and stop fighting against its nature, you can shoot an arrow. When you understand how the dao works and stop fighting against its nature, you can accomplish what you aim for. You just need to understand what to do, and when to let go. Jul 16, 2023 at 16:51
  • A nice metaphor - and quite clear, in its way. I know enough to know that it isn't appropriate to go down the paths of Western philosophy. Indeed Daoism doesn't seem to be distinguishing itself from any philosophy, Western or Eastern. I mean, it seems to be distinguishing itself from common sense. But perhaps even that remark is a mistake.
    – Ludwig V
    Jul 17, 2023 at 8:33
  • But let me ask, whether reading the book is sufficient for understanding? (In the case of the bow and arrow, reading a book would never be sufficient). How do I know when I have understood? Zen will tell me many things, but always return to inviting me to sit down and shut up. In a way, that's not terribly helpful, but it is less unhelpful than nothing.
    – Ludwig V
    Jul 17, 2023 at 8:35

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