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In the Chapter 1 of the book Tao Te Ching, part 1, 3rd (section) the following quote is present

Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;  
But if desire always within us be,  
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.

Now, when in the very next section the author defines mystery as

Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development takes place, it receives the different names

I'm perplexed as to what the author is trying to say in the aforementioned poem.

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    The Tao that can be explained on Stackexchange is not the Tao.
    – user4894
    Aug 10 '19 at 18:06
  • the coded example seems, to me, to be saying -- in poetic phrasing -- that we won't understand the mystery of the tao if we have desire (perhaps if we have a desire to understand the tao). the only difficulty is what sense 'would' is meant, as there is the suggestion -- in the english phrasing -- that we need to have the desire to understand the tao to lack that desire. i have read the tao-te ching, and in its english translation it seemed fairly simple compared to something like the confucian analects
    – user38026
    Aug 10 '19 at 18:15
  • A useful thought to the Tao is to think of non-action action. It is to proceed without necessary proceeding, not to contrive experience. If you seek (desire) to find Tao then already there you contrive how to experience; It is not real experience as it is contrived. Hence if desire is within you, all that is to see is that which is contrived.
    – Panda
    Aug 10 '19 at 20:30
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The quoted translation appears to be the James Legge translation. Here is Legge's translation of Chapter 1 of The Tao-te Ching:

  1. The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.

  2. (Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things.

  3. Always without desire we must be found,
    If its deep mystery we would sound;
    But if desire always within us be,
    Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.

  4. Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.

It may be useful to compare that translation to other translations. Here is Derek Lin's translation with my emphasis on the part that appears to correspond with the quote in question:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations

These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders

Using these two translations it appears that Lao-tzu is trying to say that we can observe the Tao in two different ways, with desire and without desire. However, what we observe in these two ways should not be viewed as opposites. Rather what we observe have similar aspects and emerge together. Together, what we observe is a unity and can be called "mystery".

If we relate with desire we will only see the surface manifestations of the Tao. If we relate without desire we may see the essence of the Tao. Either way of observing, it is still the Tao.


Lao-tzu. Derek Lin, translator. Tao Te Ching Online Translation. Retrieved on August 10, 2019, from https://taoism.net/tao/tao-te-ching-online-translation/

Lao-tzu. James Legge, translator. The Tao Te Ching. Retrieved on August 10, 2019, from http://classics.mit.edu/Lao/taote.1.1.html

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  • I kept thinking that one ought to be without desires and at the same time full of desires to realise the Dao...... Thanks for the explanation Aug 12 '19 at 4:27

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