Tao Te Ching Intro

A friend of mine, Louis, has in his words “irregularly studied the Tao Te Ching for nearly 50 years.” He seems to be none the worse for it. Truth be told, I suspect he is much the better for it…

Recently Louis sent me a heads up that a writer named Amy Putkonen  had invited him to participate in a project commenting on one chapter of the Tao Te Ching each week.  The blog is entitled Tao Te Ching Daily and the “challenge” can be found at:  http://taotechingdaily.com/a-new-challenge/.

Louis is more than up to the task, having just recently faithfully completed his commitment to complete 65 posts in 65 days on his blog, one post for each year of his life. Louis’s own blog is at http://ralstoncreekreview.com/

I actively participated during “65 in 65”, and enjoyed it. If you decide to explore the blog, you will also find a moving and life-affirming account of the experience Louis, his brother Lonny, and their families shared after Lonny was diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disorder known as myelofibrosis. It’s a remarkable account, inspiring and well worth reading.

I have committed myself to at least one post to the Tao Te Ching Challenge. I am a lazy fellow, I wander a lot and am easily distracted as well, so I can’t in good conscience commit to more than that.

Here, then, is my contribution to the cause, and Week One.


Chapter One of the Tao Te Ching

The Tao that can  be told is not the Eternal Tao.

The name that can be named is not the Eternal Name.

Nothingness is the Origin of Heaven and Earth.
Beingness is the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things.

When you are free of desire, you will understand the Essence of your life.
When you identify with your desires, you will observe the manifestations of your life.

Both contain the deepest secrets arising from the dark unknown, the Doorway to the Mysteries of Life.


             When I read ancient texts I find it helpful to first restate them in my own idiom, according to my own understanding. It brings the lesson closer to me. I’ve found that, over time and across cultures, translation and interpretation can obscure and complicate the message.

In so far as I am able I prefer to work within the scope of my own experience and understanding. In order to do that it’s helpful to start at the beginning of the conversation and reflect back what I have heard, so I do.


Chapter One of the Tao Te Ching (Reflected)

No-Thing. The sum of No-Thing is less than One and more than infinite. Mind can not locate it, eye can not see it, voice can not speak or name it. No-Thing is nowhere, before the beginning and now and after the end.

 Can the mind think of something so complete and whole that the total sum of it is not even One?

 No-Thing is the Origin and Essence. Here is the end of saying that which can not be said.


Here is the beginning of saying that which can be said.

In the Beginning is One. And One creates Being, and in Being there is Two, and Two holds Ten Thousand Things.

In the beginning was God. And God created Heaven and Earth and Being and Light and Darkness and Ten Thousand shades of gray.

Now you are here, where Desire and Self separate and join and separate again and rejoin again and again in the Tao, the Path of One to Two to Ten Thousand to One.


When you are One, you understand. When you are Ten Thousand you are One, yet you do not understand.

When you are one of Ten Thousand Things you have Identity, and Self, and Desire.  When you are Self you will walk the Tao. Manifestations of Self will go out from the Self and return to the Self.


In the Tao deep secrets rise from the unknown dark. In the Tao you find the Doorway into the Mystery of Life.


And then you Live, Understanding the Essence of your Life.


              Another thing I do for my own understanding is to reflect what I have heard as if it were being explained by a contemporary, anonymous, lazy sage who I would marginalize and ignore if it weren’t for the fact that I know he is a sage, and my Master. This imaginary Teacher might say it something like this:

“Look. There’s something you’re never going to find standing where you are. It’s everything, and so much everything that the mind you’re thinking with can’t begin to get a grip on it, because it’s so much everything there’s nothing left to grab hold of it with.

“So forget about that something. Work with what you’ve got. What you’ve got here is a predicament. A place full of a bunch of stuff spread across time where your mind tells you, yeah, there’s all that, but somehow your mind is thinking that it all must just be the parts of something bigger that’s not so fractured. So your mind wants to spend some time figuring out what that bigger thing is. You start thinking it’s not a place, and there’s not a bunch of stuff in it, and there’s not even any time in it.

“Let me repeat myself. Forget about what that big thing is and work with what you’ve got.”

7 Responses to Tao Te Ching Intro

  1. Amy Putkonen says:

    I love that – “No-thing is nowhere, before the beginning and now and after the end.” That is brilliant. How fun to see the snowball taking shape.

    • bobgriffith says:

      Thank you, Amy! Yes, let’s all snowball down the hill together until we get to the top of the mountain… 😉

  2. Louis W. says:

    Bob, It is good to see this web site. I always take your insights very seriously. Now I know where to find them.

    I completely agree with your observation about the obscurity of ancient texts. There are so many translations of Lao Tzu, and even so many different transliterations of his name, that the meaning of any chapter can change drastically based on the words chosen by the translator.

    The translation here says “Nothingness is the Origin of Heaven and Earth./ Beingness is the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things.” Many other translations use words like “The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth./The named is the mother of all things.” When I think of those words, I am reminded of a song by Leonard Cohen, who I have written about previously (here: http://ralstoncreekreview.com/?s=Leonard) . The song is “Love Itself” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxyqhyhSEXc) , and the lyrics that come to mind are:

    In streams of light I clearly saw
    The dust you seldom see
    Out of which the nameless makes
    A name for one like me

    I’ll try to say a little more
    Love went on and on
    Until it reached an open door
    Then Love itself, Love itself was gone

    All busy in the sunlight
    The flecks did float and dance
    And I was tumbled up with them
    In formless circumstance

    I’ll try to say a little more
    Love went on and on
    Until it reached an open door
    Then Love itself, Love itself was gone

    When I came back from where I’d been
    My room, it looked the same
    But there was nothing left between
    The nameless and the name

    All busy in the sunlight
    The flecks did float and dance
    And I was tumbled up with them
    In formless circumstance

    • bobgriffith says:

      This is an excellent share, Louis. Yes, “here” we are cyclically experiencing sense and essence, meaning and nuance, separation and union, the ten thousand petals and the lotus. It’s the predicament of fitful sleep where we wake and fall, wake and fall, until we awake. Cohen’s lyrics are an excellent view with a broad perspective. The place he is looking at it from is far enough away from the fence and the knothole, and high enough above it, to see the whole thing. The further away we are, the closer we are – a hint about the illusion of time and space and the dualistic arbitrariness of concepts like near and far, sooner and later. I was especially drawn to Cohen’s juxtaposition of contradictory terms, “formless circumstance”. And of course there is the exquisite account here of another arahant who has passed through the Door. It is not so rare or special or esoteric an occurrence as the deeply attached seeker, attached to seeking, thinks. Cohen came back, came through, speak it and name it as we will. The essence is simple: “…it looked the same / But there was nothing left between / The nameless and the name.”

      • bobgriffith says:

        Your sharing certainly does bring things forward for me. A bit more to share about this post, and then I must go clean out my garage, which has an unfinished bird house in it, boards, limbs, sawdust and all the implements I have used to reduce the forest to this state of affairs…

        If Leonard Cohen is a being of pure light, and we see points of light leaking out of him, what is it we see in the places where light is not leaking out of him? Is it Leonard, or is it us? This is a good thing to consider on the dharma path. It reveals the isolation we experience by our perception and dualistic judgments. The separation we experience from others and All.

        Arahants are everywhere. The Buddha is in each, and on every path. Mongrels defy orderly classification, yet they too are the Buddha. If Leonard is a mongrel in terms of classification – i.e., he is not rigidly Taoist or Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu, Christian or Jew – this does not discorporate him from the universe. The Essence proceeds through and applies to the etymologies and identities of every religion. Leonard is Samyak and Pratyeka, and is not Savakabuddha, yet still he is the Buddha dwelling in the pure Tao.

        As are you.

        Random thoughts:

        If you pray for Enlightenment, do not pray for yourself. Pray for someone else.
        Enlightenment does not usually appear with a pop or ping or flash of light prompted by the perfect koan or the extended digit of a master touching the third eye. It’s just there. Afterward, you would be hard put to say when, or where, or how, and the invitation to disbelieve yourself would still be there. Yet you would know that for what it is: simply an invitation to disbelieve.
        If you give yourself over to being where God would have you be even once, you will never be able to take yourself back. You will only be able to think you have done that.
        Consider the Eight Beatitudes and the Noble Eightfold Path. Is the ground different because the path seems to be? All paths instruct dualistically. It is good to be led until samsara is eased in our individual actions and thoughts. To this end, many instructions are given. The Tao Te Ching offers 81. Here is another:

        “… whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” Phillipians 4:8
        I Am That which Knows Not That It Knows. Therefore,
        I Am That Which Knows.

        No need to choose. The overlay of the logic of “therefore” does not separate what can not be separated. Both conditions apply simultaneously, and without conflict. I feel fear. I see fear. I know what that is. It is not fear. It is seeing and feeling.

        End of “random” thoughts.

  3. Louis W. says:

    Just a real quick thought on Leonard Cohen. I don’t know how familiar you are with his work – being American and not Canadian or European, where he is most popular. You write of light leaking out of the poet. Cohen has another song (written about the same time, when he was studying with Joshu Roshi Sasaki, a Japanese Rinzai Zen teacher) in which he says “there is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in.”

    I guess there are holes and cracks going both ways. How many does it take to fill the Albert Hall?

    • bobgriffith says:

      0.) None. It’s already full of light.
      1.) One. Just one, and light would leak in and fill it completely.
      2 – 10,000.) Danged if I know. But I could probably figure out how big a hole the Albert Hall would fill.

      Yes, holes and cracks going both ways, and Light everywhere.

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