The Tao Te Ching – An Overview

David James Lees, Guest Writer
Waking Times 

The Tao Te Ching is a wonderful inspiring book that can be used for meditation purposes, light or deeper reading, intense philosophical debate or Taoist teaching.

I personally try and read the Tao Te Ching every day and often recite a chapter at the end of my Qi Gong classes.

The Tao Te Ching has a long and complex textual history. There are translated versions and commentaries that date back two millennia and ancient bamboos, silk, and paper manuscripts that archaeologists discovered in the last century.

There are many possible translations of the book’s title:

  • Dào/Tao can literally be translated as “way”, or one of its synonyms, but was extended to mean “the Way”. This term, which was variously used by other Chinese philosophers (including Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, and Hanfeizi), has special meaning within the context of Taoism, where it implies the essential, unnameable process of nature and the Universe.
  • Dé/Te basically means “virtue” in the sense of “personal character”, “inner strength”, or “integrity.” The semantics of this Chinese word resemble English virtue, to the modern meaning of “moral excellence” or “goodness”.
  • Jīng/Ching as it is used here means “canon”, “great book”, or “classic”.

Thus, the Tao Te Ching can be translated as “The Classic/Canon of the Way/Path and the Power/Virtue”, etc.

  • Structure of the book

    The Tao Te Ching is a short text of 81 brief chapters or verses. There is some evidence that the chapter divisions were later additions and that the original text was more fluidly organized and read.

    It has two parts: The Tao Ching (chaps. 1–37), and the Te Ching (chaps. 38–81), which may have been edited together into the text we know today, it is thought that this possibly reversed from an original “Te Tao Ching”.

    The style of writing encourages varied, even contradictory interpretations. The ideas are complex; the style poetic.

    The Chinese characters in the original versions were probably written in zhuànshū (seal script), while later versions were written in lìshū (clerical script) and kǎishū (regular script) styles.

    Historical background

    The Tao Te Ching is ascribed to Laozi, whose historical existence has been a matter of scholastic debate. His name, which means “Old Master” or “old masters” has only fuelled controversy.

    The first reliable reference to Laozi is his “biography” by Chinese historian Sima Qian (ca. 145–86 BC), which combines three stories: First, Laozi was a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 BC). His surname was Li (“plum”), and his personal name was Er (“ear”) or Dan (“long ear”). He was an official in the imperial archives, and wrote a book in two parts before departing to the West. Second, Laozi was Lao Laizi (“Old Come Master”), also a contemporary of Confucius, who wrote a book in 15 parts. Third, Laozi was the Grand Historian and astrologer Lao Dan (“Old Long-ears”), who lived during the reign (384-362 BC) of Duke Xian Qin).

    Generations of scholars have debated the historicity of Laozi and the dating of the Tao Te Ching. Linguistic studies of the text’s vocabulary and rhyme scheme point to a date of composition around the late 4th or early 3rd centuries BC.

    Legends claim variously that Laozi was “born old”; that he lived for 996 years, with twelve previous incarnations starting around the time of the Three Sovereigns before the thirteen as Laozi. Some Western scholars have expressed doubts over Laozi’s historical existence, claiming that the Tao Te Ching is actually a collection of the work of various authors. Chinese scholars by and large accept Laozi as a historical figure, while dismissing exaggerated folkloric claims as superstitious legend.

    Taoists venerate Laozi as Taotsu the founder of the school of Tao, the Taode Tianjun in the Three Pure Ones, one of the eight elders transformed from Taiji in the Chinese creation myth.

    Principal versions

    Tao Te Ching has lately advanced from archaeological discoveries of manuscripts and beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, Marc Aurel Stein and others found thousands of scrolls in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang. They included more than 50 partial and complete Tao Te Ching manuscripts. In 1973, archaeologists discovered copies of early Chinese books, known as the ‘Mawangdui Silk Texts’, in a tomb dating from 168 BC. They included two nearly complete copies of the Laozi, referred to as Text A and Text B both of which reverse the traditional ordering and put the Te Ching section before the Tao Ching. Based on calligraphic styles and imperial naming taboo avoidances, scholars believe that A and B can be dated, respectively, to about the first and third decades of the 2nd century BC.

    In 1993, the oldest known version of the text, written on bamboo tablets, was found in a tomb near the town of Guodian in Jingmen, Hubei, and dated prior to 300 BC. The Guodian Chu Slips comprise about 800 slips of bamboo with a total of over 13,000 characters, about 2,000 of which correspond with the Tao Te Ching, including 14 previously unknown verses.


    Most translations are written by people with a foundation in Chinese language and philosophy who are trying to render the original meaning of the text as faithfully as possible into English.

    Some of the more popular translations are written from a less scholarly perspective, giving an individual author’s interpretation. Critics of these versions claim that translators like Stephen Mitchell produce readings of the Tao Te Ching that deviate from the text and are incompatible with the history of Chinese thought, and some even argue that such versions are based on Western Orientalist fantasies, and represent the colonial appropriation of Chinese culture. Others say that Laozi communicated colloquially and simply, and a true translation will do the same in its place and time. If Laozi attempted to communicate eternal truths, it is the translator’s work to do so as well.

    The Tao Te Ching is written in classical Chinese, which can be difficult to understand completely, even for well-educated native speakers of modern Chinese. In fact, in learning classical Chinese, native speakers can be at a disadvantage relative to non-native speakers, as native speakers often have difficulty with Chinese characters whose older meaning differs from the modern language.

    Furthermore, many of the words that the Tao Te Ching uses are deliberately vague and ambiguous and since there are no punctuation marks in classical Chinese, it can be difficult to conclusively determine where one sentence ends and the next begins. Moving a full-stop a few words forward or back or inserting a comma can profoundly alter the meaning of many passages, and such divisions and meanings must be determined by the translator.

    Some editors and translators argue that the received text is so corrupted (from originally being written on one-line bamboo strips linked with silk threads) that it is impossible to understand some chapters without moving sequences of characters from one place to another. But whatever the difficulties that may surround the book, just try reading it over a few days and its wonderful insight can change your view of the world!

    This is my interpretation of verse one of the Tao Te Ching, which may give you a flavour  of the depth and beauty that lie within the words:

    Verse 1 Tao Te Ching,

    Translation by David James Lees

    The Tao that can be named, is not the eternal Tao,
    the name can be named, is not the eternal name.

    The Tao is everything and nothing,
    it comes from emptiness yet fills the universe.

    From the void comes creation,
    the mother of a myriad things.

    So trust nothingness,
    to know abundance.

    Embrace opposites,
    to hold the centre.

    The mysterious and wonderment,
    enter through same gateway.

    And the Tao just is.
    Commentary of Verse 1 by David James Lees

    The Tao that can be named, is not the eternal Tao,
    the name can be named, is not the eternal name.

    These opening lines of verse one of the Tao Te Ching are perhaps the most commonly quoted and although they seem to be enigmatic, they somehow strike a chord deep within us. So what is Lao Tzu teaching? I believe the message he is transmitting is that the verses in this book go deeper than just spoken or written words, in fact deeper than just a mere book of poetry or verse.

    When we encounter these sacred Texts sometimes words just are not enough to give these profound teachings full justice. We are considering fundamental human concepts of; who we are, how we got here and the laws of the Universe we live in are all explored in within these lines and verses.

    These questions have intrigued great philosophers throughout time, so although words are the ‘delivery vessel’ and important to inspire our thoughts and minds perhaps sometimes they’re not enough and a deeper understanding of the human psyche and the universal rhythms which are conveyed in the imagery of the lines is equally as important so the impact they have on you personally is the most profound inspiring aspect that Lao Tzu is trying to achieve.

    I believe that this is one of the reasons why this book has been so intriguing for centuries, the ability to reach beyond and inspire our own personal journeys.

    For the Tao Te Ching to be completely understood and absorbed it has to be looked on as more than just a read, it almost has to be inwardly digested and strike a chord at your deepest level. I believe that is what the opening two lines do, the paradoxical nature makes us stop and think whilst at the same time there is a deeper connection and harmonizing with the Tao meaning found in the paradoxical nature of these lines which you will find repeated time and time again.

    So the statement of the eternal Tao is insight to a phenomenon with no beginning and no end.

    Perhaps there are no words in our language that adequately describes this. Something without a beginning or end goes against a belief system of a linear progression, and so trying to find a single word to describe this phenomenon would never be enough.

    An analogy to describe this could be; on the surface of a ball where does the start begin and the end finish?

    We are talking about our full range of feelings, thoughts, experiences, and a deep inner knowing. So any words you used to describe could never give the Tao its full majesty; ponder for a moment how does one describe the indescribable?

    For many centuries people have tried to describe something as human as the feeling of love, many songs and numerous books, verse and poems have been written on the subject, but has anyone described accurately what the feeling has been like for you personally? I believe the same applies to the Tao.

    So this is one of the uses of the Tao Te Ching to inspire, challenge, lead, support, encourage, align and give us insight on our personal journey.
    This journey has to be undertaken not only with our minds but with our feelings, emotions, intuition, spirits, in fact everything that makes us authentic unique human being.

    What words could describe and inspire that unique journey for you?

    The Tao is everything and nothing,
    it comes from emptiness yet fills the universe.

    So here again we are confronted with the paradoxical nature of the Tao Te Ching. When trying to explain this phenomena you could consider the Tao similar to the air that we breathe, it is all around us we need it for our very life but we can’t see it or touch it, it can be felt but can’t be held and yet without it life could not exist.

    Oxygen arises from a complex integrated balanced fundamental network and yet from this mysterious dependency we survive and function, never doubting or worrying that the next breath will be there for us. The comparison to the Tao is very interesting; you cannot see the Tao it is in everything around us and the foundation of our very survival. Yet it arises from emptiness, and is the harmonious balance of the universe and our place within that universe depends on our harmonising with the Tao.

    From the void comes creation,
    the mother of a myriad things.

    So as a mother creates life and gives birth from the emptiness of her womb, nature and the Universe works in exactly the same way. We are a mirror image of the Universe, as it is with us and from the void of emptiness comes creation, and that creation is the mother of everything. So never fill up all the empty spaces in your life or your mind, sometimes we need space to create new ideas, new creative ways of looking at old situations or problems, encourage the space within and around you for new beginnings from sometimes unimaginable sources and roots. Do not fear change, because it is the way of the Universe and within it lies new hope and inspiration.

    It seems sometimes that we strive very hard to keep ourselves busy and always doing, perhaps these lines of the Tao Te Ching are reminding us to step back, pause and be creative. New ideas never come from old thinking; embrace the myriad of things and the abundance of the universe. I read once that true insanity is: continually doing the same things whilst expecting different results! So be mindful about being a human ‘being’ not a human ‘doing’.

    So trust nothingness,
    to know abundance.

    These lines seem to be an encouragement from 3000 years in our history, when we learn to trust, really trust that everything is possible. This trusting is one of the most difficult things that I encounter daily with my clients. The fear of failure restricts the abundance of trust! So people are constantly in negative circle of mistrust and failure, this becomes their habit which seems almost impossible to break. The idea of trusting is so alien they do not even consider it to be a possibility and so therefore never moved into abundance.

  • Here we have the roots of an ancient Chinese teaching of what is thought to be a modern concept called ‘the Secret’ or the ‘Law of Attraction’. Maybe we cannot predict the future in all its detail and possible outcomes, perhaps it is even arrogant of us to presume we could, better to presume that the Universe will deliver help when needed in every situation, as it has always done and will always do by its nature, all we have to do is trust the Tao way.

    Embrace opposites,
    to hold the centre.

    The simplicity of these two lines explains more gracefully than I can about embracing opposites you see all around you, try not respond to extremes it is not the way of nature to swing from one extreme to the other when it is balance and harmony, instead be interested and intrigued at the paradoxical nature of the universe.

    Pause for a moment, when confronted with seemingly impossible dilemmas, try not to panic or be fearful instead look for the centre, for the ‘Tao Way’. Consider without knowing the opposites it would be impossible to find a loving embracing centre, not only with the situation you are confronted with, but also with you, understand that it is nature’s way (Wu Wei) to flow harmoniously through the opposites or what Taoism calls Yin and Yang, so instead of being fearful, be open, balanced generally interested and embrace your journey. Remember the value of your journey is not to arrive, but to travel.

    The mysterious and wonderment,
    enter through the same gateway.

    Everything in the Universe comes from the source and returns to the source, so we are all connected we have come from the same and will return back to the same. Bear this in mind when being judgmental, criticising or passing comments on others, good and bad have the same origin they could be opposite ends of the same spectrum.

    Try this technique when someone frustrates or angers you, consider them as an extension of yourself, a mirror image, maybe a distorted image at the moment, but nevertheless a reflection. Then consider how you could harmonise with the distortion to make the image more reflective and understanding.

    So sometimes if you cannot understand the actions of others or mystified by their words or emotions, remember wonderment and awe comes from the same source. So instead of focusing on your dis-ease and un-comfortableness, focus on the opportunity the situation has presented you with to learn and grow. It will either underline that you are in fact harmonious and aligned with your thoughts and emotions or there is something new to learn from the situation you are being presented with. In either case it is a win, win situation.

    And the Tao just is.

    And so Taoism is as simple as that, just being in the moment, keep it simple, keep it authentic, and do not over complicate matters, remember the Ego loves complications, just like nature be natural and follow your authentic flow.


    This challenging first verse of the Tao Te Ching makes me smile a little, it seems very Taoist and paradoxical not to make the first introduction verse easy and accessible to first time readers. But nevertheless despite this obstacle it seems to be one of the most quoted verses, perhaps it’s the paradoxical wording that intrigues our Western minds?

    But the lines within this first verse cover fundamental Taoist thinking and offer profound insights to the Taoist perception of how the universe flows and the concept of aligning ourselves to that natural flow. One of the intriguing things about this philosophy is the challenge of exploring deep authentic ‘feelings’ of love, balance and harmony through the written word. Some critics see the different translations of these ancient Chinese teachings as a disadvantage, I take the opposite view, I believe that the teaching of Taoism is a work that benefits from interpretation, debate and different points of view, and it should be changing, transforming, relevant and applicable to the current situation.
    In fact this concept of paradoxical opposites being part of the whole is one of the subjects explored in detail this first verse; exploring the continuum between two extreme points of view can be very enlightening and helpful, especially when confronted with a situation or person that highlights to extreme views, or personally feeling pulled apart with the dilemma of two outcomes.

    So next the time you are in a stressful situation of facing the ‘feeling of fear’ why not consider the possibility that you are at one extreme of a pendulum? The most common pendulum that I encounter in my work is as follows: one extreme of the pendulum would be; Yin [passive] which normally involves some kind of avoidance of the situation. The opposite paradoxical extreme would be; Yang [aggressive] that would involve being confrontational. Being confrontational or dealing with a confrontational situation may seem impossible, so that person may swing to the opposite side of the pendulum and avoid the situation completely and then swing back to the confrontation.
    So my suggestion would be to consider the middle, neutral, rational position of just confronting. Resisting the temptation to swing to either extreme instead finding the ‘Tao Way’ of lovingly, calmly and maturely addressing the ‘feeling of fear’ and returning to your authentic path.

    Slowly bring yourself into a calm meditative state, and just take a moment to observe the movements of your body as the breath entering and leaves, try and resist any temptation to control the natural movement as your body settles into a rhythm.

    Be aware of the balance and harmony as seemingly two paradoxical elements of breath and your physical body begin to harmonise. Try not to get involved in this process just observe from a neutral balance position. Be mindful when this process is happening of any other feelings or sensations that develop, consider non-action, just suspending yourself in the middle of the pendulum refusing the temptation to swing to Yin or Yang.

    Observe your body and mind noticing if any resistance is offered, refuse to engage just stay neutral and as feelings arise just let them pass, be observant where they arise from and where they go to, just be an interesting onlooker.

    Consider avoidance and confrontational as just two extremes of the same pendulum swinging out of balance, does it feel natural and harmonious to be swinging from one extreme to the other. Now from deep within your authentic self-know that you have all of the answers you require and from this calm place of love and peace and emptiness the answer will arrive from the void, magically. Practice this simple exercise and learnt trust the process of just being, letting go and aligning yourself to the Universe.

    Observe how difficult it can be to put these experiences into the form of words, and be happy and content to be part of the mysterious emptiness without any beginning or end.

    Not try and stay in this calm peaceful place for five minutes before you bring yourself back into your normal state of being.

    With love.

    About the Author

    David James Lees is a spirituality and wellness author, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner, counsellor, hypnotherapist, NLP Master, and a Member of the British Acupuncture Council. David has a lifelong interest in Taoism, Taoist philosophy and Qigong, and was first taught meditation by Chinese Tibetan Buddhist monks when he was 16 years old, which helped him tackle a profound stutter. After qualifying as a TCM practitioner in the UK, David trained for a number of years as a Qigong instructor with Doctor Shen in London and Master Wan Su Jain in Beijing, and was later ordained as a Taoist Master in the sacred Wudang Mountains in China. Today, David is a trusted advisor and broadcaster on emotional health issues and alternative therapies in the UK. You can follow David on his blog: www.WuWeiWisdom.comFacebookTwitterPinterest and Soundcloud.  For the latest information on David’s therapies, classes, workshops and special events visit Peak House Practice.

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