From the Introduction

“Unlike the idea of God, who oversees the world, or Heaven, which is always above, the Tao is always ‘below’. It is the source of all that is, the foundation upon which everything rests, the valley into which all waters flow, the beginning to which all living things return. It does not use its power to dominate or control the world. It uses its power to sustain the world. The desires of men and the ambitions of states are illusions destined to fail and fall, and when they fail they fall back to the source, for all forms of power that are not in accord with the Tao have no permanent foundation. Hence the Tao is described as weak, soft, yielding and, paradoxically, as empty but always full. These terms are the very opposite of the words we would normally associate with the idea of power.”

The Eternal and Unnameable Tao 

The way it is

that can be spoken of

is not the way

it really is.

The name that can be named

is not the name of it.


It was from the nameless

that heaven and earth

came into being.

It was by the naming of names

that the multiplicity of things

came to be.


Truly is it said that

only he who frees himself

from all desires

sees the secret heart of things.

He who never frees himself

from his desires

sees only their appearances.


These are two different things,

originating from one sameness,

one with a name

and one without a name.


I call this sameness a mystery,

the mystery of mysteries,

the door to the secret heart of things.


Notes and commentary

The Tao Te Ching opens by immediately making the distinction between the unnameable Tao, the essence of the working of the universe, and every attempt at defining or finding a name for it. As soon as we name it, define it, describe it, attribute it to some power or reason, we are not in fact speaking of the Tao but simply using words. The world came into being out of that namelessness, and in essence remains nameless – noumenal, to use the Kantian term, a thing in itself. The phenomenal world is a mental construct. We name things, therefore they are what we name them. Why do we name them? Because we have an interest in them, because they are useful to us, because we are attached to them, because they are the objects of our material desires as material beings. Our desires and the phenomenal world, the world of appearances, are intertwined. The Tao is indefinable and nameless, and also desireless. Therefore we can only get an understanding of the real nature of the world and our actions in the world by freeing ourselves from our desires and attachments. If we can do that, then the door to the secret heart of things, the Tao, is open. The named and the nameless are really one and the same, originating from one source. It is just that we have mistaken our own definition of the world, our names for things, for the world itself.