The Tao Te Ching       by Lao Tzu

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TAO-TEH-KING

An Interpretation of Lao Tse’s Book of the Way and of Righteousness

Charles Johnston

1. The way that can be told is not the eternal Way. The word that can be spoken is not the eternal Word.

Unnamed, It is the source of heaven and earth. Named, It is the Mother of all things.

He who is ever without desires sees Its spiritual essence. He who is ever under desire sees only Its limits.

These two, differing in name, are the same in origin. They are the mystery of mysteries. This is the door of spiritual life.

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This is one of my favorite sacred texts. Used to carry Stephen Mitchell's translation with me everywhere on my travels.

The way the text opens is so powerful. Right away we have the idea of that Principle of all Principles that is beyond any speculation. The source of all that is (heaven and earth) is one and is unnamed. Such a powerful idea to begin with!

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Mystery and manifestation.  The Tao, for me, is about the underlying Mystery, and the subtle method of manifestation.

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Why is it one of your favorites?

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I studied the Tao te Ching when I was younger, but a turning point occurred when I read what HPB had to say about it, that "It is a kind of cosmogony which contains all the fundamental tenets of Esoteric Cosmo genesis." It sure didn't seem to be that kind of book, so I thought her comment was very odd. I thought it was just a kind of ethical or practical text. So I started looking into it and began discovering it's incredible depth. It has several layers of meaning, depending on how we read it, and for that reason I find it to be one of the most fascinating texts I've ever come across. I've been playing with my owntranslation, to reveal that cosmogony, and as I do I find that the text has so much more to reveal than we commonly see. Such a wonderful example of the esoteric within the exoteric!

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I love the way the Tao te Ching says so much with so few words.  You get the idea that it may never have been adequately translated into English. It would be wonderful to have a rendition from a theosophical student.

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Yeah, definitely. I think Charles Johnston's translation is the best we have to date. He went through it from a theosophical perspective, linking Tao to the idea of the Logos, etc. But there's so much depth to the text, I think there's a lot of room to go further in translations.

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Ultimately this is the work of a sage.  Perhaps there is value to interpretations and language differences.  It forces us to keep an open ended and open textured approach to the text.  The lower mind always wants to nail things to the wall in bitter certainty. 

And of course I appreciate being reminded that the Charles Johnston  rendition is exactly that, the work of a theosophical student.  It is the one we are using in this discussion group.

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I wonder.... what is the essential difference between that which is "unnamed" and that which is "named", in the second verse? What does it mean to "name" something?

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Doesn't it seem that the distinction being made here (of which H.P.B. was careful to point out in the S.D. and elsewhere) is that between the Absolute ("Eternal, Boundless and Immutable...dwarfed by any human conception or similitude," unchanging "whether there is a universe or not"), and the Logos, or demiurgos, the creative Diety, "the Manifested?"

At another level, H.P.B. also says that knowledge of "ideal laws" cannot be properly conveyed by one mind to another, but must be known and grasped through that the development of the intuitive powers of the soul. This suggests that spiritual knowledge is not something that can ever be fully articualted or "named." Once we have "named" something, we have limited it's richness, it's magnificence and dwarfed it's essence. Buddhas can but point the way.

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We have this from the Rig Veda:

"When , O Lord of the Word, the Wise established

Name-giving, the first principle of language,

Their inmost excellence, pristine and pure,

Hidden deep within, was brought to light through love."

Now that sheds  a different light on the matter, at least for me. Like a painting or a song or picture attempts to convey the magnificence of life itself, it is still not the real thing. But it is a sacrificial act to point in its direction. 

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Love that reply!

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on June 8, 2016 at 8:59am
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In simple terms I wonder if the distinction is largely this: manifest vs. unmanifest, conditioned vs. unconditioned, form vs. formless?

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on June 9, 2016 at 7:34pm
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I wonder what the connection is between this "named"/"unnamed" and the idea of "nama" or "namarupa" in old Sanskrit texts like the Upanishads. To "name" something seems to relate to giving it a form, but it must also relate to the idea of "speech" or "the word" or "Logos".

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on June 10, 2016 at 10:35am
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It might be interesting to consider the perspective of ideas and forces.  Form and formless may too physical or sense oriented manner of consideration to spell out the whole story here.  We have names for ideas and forces but they are naturally greater than the name because the name solicits different magnitudes of understanding based on the state of consciousness of the perceiver. Everything in Nature has an underlying vibration at its core, that creates a force.  An idea solicits a vibration, summon a vibration perhaps. There is no form or manifestation without an underlying idea or force.  That is one connection.  One is integral to the other but not the other way around. What do you and others think of that line of reasoning?

Permalink Reply by Kirk Marzulo on June 12, 2016 at 10:27am
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Great question John. It seems to point to both the "mystery of all mysteries." of how the One becomes Many, the doctrine of emanation, to cosmic birth or manifestation and to the sacred power of sound and speech in human nature.

 In Sufism (as explained in the writings of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, prof of Islamic studies at George Washington University) the mystery of how the One becomes Many is described as the "Sigh of Compassion,” (Nafas Ramani.)  This “Sigh” is said to release from eternal non-being, the multitude of the Names, the primary differentiations, or attributes of the Divine Essence in its creative, revealed aspect.   In Islam, though there are ninety-nine Names of Allah, these are reduced in some commentaries on the Koran to three, that of "Mercy, Law and Wisdom." It seems imperative in these times when we are seeing the violence which the radical arm of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism is capturing world attention, that Islam too is included as one of those great world traditions which carries the lineaments of the perennial philosophy.

We can also turn to Hinduism, in which the goddess Vach, a Sanskrit word meaning “speech,” is the female energy or counterpart of Brahma, the deity of cosmic creativity.  But Vach is also that mystic speech, the “Mother of the Vedas,” who "entered into the Rishis and inspired them by her revelations." In this aspect Vach corresponds, in the Jewish mysticism of the Kabala, to the Hebrew Bath-Kol, literally “the Daughter of the Voice” who "inspired the prophets of Israel and the Jewish High-Priests." Elsewhere, Vach is also referred to “the voice of conscience that speaks audibly to the Initiate.” Here we are reminded of what Gandhi called “the Voice of God,” which he could hear as clearly as one sitting next to him and which (according to his autobiographical notes) infallibly guided him in times of greatest trial. In the Secret Doctrine, all of this is linked with Kwan-Yin Tien, in the Stanzas of Dzyan, the “melodious heaven of Sound.” This is the abode of Kwan-Yin, “she who hears the cries of the world,” the goddess of both Mercy and Knowledge, and which literally means the “Divine Voice” — which calls forth “the illusive form of the Universe out of Chaos and the Seven Elements.” This says H. P. B, is a reference to the androgyne origin and synthesis of the seven fold active powers in Nature, the logoic heart of Mahat or Maha-Buddhi. It would seem that reunion with this universal, spiritual source of all sound, light and life, also called ‘Compassion Absolute’ in the Voice of the Silence, that constitutes the culmination of the path of renunciation as described therein.

“Behold! thou has become the Light, thou has become the Sound, thou art thy Master and thy God. Thou art THYSELF the object of thy search: the VOICE unbroken, that resounds throughout eternities, exempt from change, from sin exempt, the Seven Sounds in one, THE VOICE OF THE SILENCE.

OM TAT SAT.”

                                                            -p 23,24

 When words are shared that compassionately arise from the untapped depths of the human spirit, they can become transmitters of spiritual ideas and realities far beyond any objects or influences of the physical senses.

Permalink Reply by Kirk Marzulo on June 12, 2016 at 11:28am
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In case it was not clear, except for the comment regarding Gandhi, almost the entirety of the second paragraph above is taken from the S.D.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on May 5, 2016 at 12:15am
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2. When all men have learned the beauty of righteousness, the ugliness of sin is understood.

When all men recognize goodness, then evil is understood.

In the same way, the manifest and the unmanifest define each other.

Difficult and easy define each other.

Long and short reveal each other.

Height and depth manifest each other.

Musical notes and the tones of the voice determine each other.

Former and latter define each other.

Therefore the Master works without working.

He teaches in silence.

Then all things come into being, and he gives them fruition.

He brings them into being, yet seeks not to possess them.

He perfects them, yet seeks no reward.

When his work is accomplished, he remains detached from it.

He seeks no glory, and is therefore glorious.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on May 6, 2016 at 2:48pm
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The best form of leadership is when someone works hard towards a common good and claims no credit when it is accomplished.

Permalink Reply by Tamiko Yamada on May 9, 2016 at 5:07pm
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The Tao reminds me of Zen, it is full of paradoxes.  Students are forced out of their normal patterns of thought and required to re-examine old modes of thinking.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on May 31, 2016 at 1:43pm
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3. The seclusion of the Masters keeps the world from strife.

A low esteem of wealth keeps the world from covetousness.

When objects of desire are hidden, men’s hearts are undisturbed.

Therefore, where the Master rules, he empties the heart of desires. He fills the inner nature. He strengthens its bones.

He constantly stills the mind and abates desires.

Those who have knowledge, he restrains from bondage to action.

He himself stands free from bondage to action; therefore all whom he rules abide in quietude.

4. The Way seems empty. As it is tried, it is found inexhaustible.

Oh, how profound it is! It seems to be the Forefather of all beings.

It quiets impetuosity. It looses bonds. It tempers its splendour. It follows lowliness.

Oh, how pure it is! It seems to abide for ever.

It is the Son of I-know-not. It seems to have been before the Lord of Heaven.

Permalink Reply by Tamiko Yamada on June 2, 2016 at 12:29am
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Is the concept of the "Wu-wei" (translated often as inaction) another reference to what we in theosophy call "The Path"?

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on June 8, 2016 at 9:04am
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I wonder if what is translated as "inaction" might be better thought of as submission of the mortal man to the immortal man.  The personality ceases to assert itself. The man in the world is often following limited desires, trapped in the pleasure pain squirrel cage, and becomes "inactive" allowing the higher man (universal principles) to take over the reins, to harmonize with the whole of existence rather than fight and scratch based on attachments.

Permalink Reply by Kirk Marzulo on June 9, 2016 at 10:33pm
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"Both action and in-action may find room in thee;

Thy body agitated, thy mind tranquil, thy soul as limpid as a mountain lake."

-The Voice of the Silence

"Even sages have been deluded as to what is action and what inaction...The path of action is obscure. That man who sees inaction in action and action inaction is wise among men; he is a true devotee and a perfect performer of action."

"Those who have spiritual discrimination call him wise whose undertakings are all free from desire, for his actions are consumed in the fire of knowledge. He abandons all desire to see a reward for his actions, is free, contented, and upon nothing depends, and although engaged in action he really doeth nothing..."

-The Bhagavad-Gita, ch. 4

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on June 10, 2016 at 10:16am
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This is a good reference Kirk.  It leads me to believe that true inaction, when looked at this way is really another way of saying "selfless".  The lower self has been conquered and no longer acts independent of the universal imperative.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on June 19, 2016 at 12:32pm
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Continuing On:

3. The seclusion of the Masters keeps the world from strife.

A low esteem of wealth keeps the world from covetousness.

When objects of desire are hidden, men’s hearts are undisturbed.

Therefore, where the Master rules, he empties the heart of desires. He fills the inner nature. He strengthens its bones.

He constantly stills the mind and abates desires.

Those who have knowledge, he restrains from bondage to action.

He himself stands free from bondage to action; therefore all whom he rules abide in quietude.

4. The Way seems empty. As it is tried, it is found inexhaustible.

Oh, how profound it is! It seems to be the Forefather of all beings.

It quiets impetuosity. It looses bonds. It tempers its splendour. It follows lowliness.

Oh, how pure it is! It seems to abide for ever.

It is the Son of I-know-not. It seems to have been before the Lord of Heaven.

Permalink Reply by Alex Papandakis on June 20, 2016 at 9:48pm
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What is unmanifest is causal to what is manifest.  The wiseman works on subtle and invisible planes.  The Sages work on the plane of ideation, "the seclusion of the Masters keeps the world from strife."

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on June 23, 2016 at 8:12am
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It sure does point to the importance of meditation, contemplation and clear thinking. You also get the feeling that the Tao Te Ching emphasizes working with nature, not rushing, being adept at timing.  The wise man works with the powerful cycles of nature.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on June 23, 2016 at 8:14am
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I love this line:

"Therefore, where the Master rules, he empties the heart of desires. He fills the inner nature. He strengthens its bones.

He constantly stills the mind and abates desires."

How does stilling the mind help to abate desire?