Tao Te Ching Verse 1

After listening to a conversation between Oprah Winfrey and Wayne Dyer, discussing the Tao Te Ching, I became interested in exploring its hidden depths.

The Tao encourages returning to a simple way of life. Its aim is to provide insight that can be used in everyday life to bring peace and harmony to ourselves and others. As simple as this sounds, applying the wisdom contained in the Tao requires discipline and commitment and often the ego gets in the way of good intentions.

There are many translations of Lan Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. I have used a translation by John McDonald


Verse 1

The Tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be spoken is not the eternal Name.

The nameless is the boundary of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of creation.

Freed from desire, you can see the hidden mystery
By having desire, you can only see what is visibly real.

Yet mystery and reality emerge from the same source
This source is called darkness.

Darkness born from darkness,
The beginning of all understanding.

To those new to the Tao Te Ching this paradoxical first verse may give the impression that much of the Tao is beyond our understanding; that trying to unravel its meaning is far beyond our capabilities. While some verses require deep reflection, however, others are easier to digest so do not be deterred by the challenge some of the more difficult verses offer.

The first two lines of Verse 1 say that there are no words in our vocabulary that can describe the hidden depths of our existence. It cannot be named; it cannot be labelled.

David James Lees says:

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.

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 ruminated on so that it may strike a chord at our deepest level. I believe that is what the opening two lines do

Have you ever tried to describe a work of art, a beautiful sunset or an emotion that has moved you? It is very difficult. Words cannot always express how you feel and I believe this is what the first part of the verse means.

When it comes to unravelling the mysteries of life we seek definitive answers but they usually remain elusive. Lines 5 & 6 suggest that it is only when we let go of the desire for definitive answers that the truth reveals itself.

How often have you sought an answer to something only to find that as soon as the mind becomes quiet – often just before you drift off to sleep – that the answer miraculously appears? The answer is there all the time but the constant chattering of the mind obscures it.

Searching for the truth to existence and chasing the desire for spiritual knowledge can sometimes impede progress. Too much thinking with the physical brain leaves no room for the answers, that lie deep within, to emerge. It is only when the mind becomes quiet and reflective that the mysteries are revealed to us.

Charlie Amber says:

You think the wisdom and happiness you need is out in the world somewhere to be discovered by you. So you wander around desperately grasping at whatever you can to fill the void…(but) there is nothing to seek and nothing to find. The only thing lacking is your own awareness of what you already have, what already exists.

Verse 1 is simple yet profound. What I take from it is that everything – whether it’s the physical world we can perceive with our five senses, or the spiritual world which we cannot access with our physical senses alone – comes from the same source. (darkness born from darkness). That source is consciousness and is beyond explanation with words.

In our efforts to understand the mystery of life – which we all see through the filter of our own experiences – we seek a definitive explanation from the outside world. Our desire for an answer forces us to seek outside of ourselves. The Tao is saying that if we let go of this desire and let the world unfold as we seek for the truth within ourselves, that is the beginning of understanding.

For those on the spiritual path the goal is generally enlightenment. It is perceived as a target to be reached in order to be at peace; to achieve Nirvana. The spiritual path will unfold, however, if we let go of the need to control what happens ‘out there’. Things will happen. Life will be difficult at times and during these times it is ok to feel sad or angry but once the event has passed try to let it go. When life is more enjoyable, enjoy it rather than hanging on to – and constantly reliving –  the more difficult times.

The desire to find answers keeps us bound to the limits of what we can physically perceive whereas acceptance of ‘what is’ will reveal the hidden mysteries.