Verses from the Tao Te Ching-Mo





“ Yet mystery and imagination arise from the same source. This source is called darkness. Darkness within darkness, the gateway to all understanding. ”

Lao Tzu



Lao Tzu or otherwise known as Laozi is said to have written the Tao Te Ching. The oldest manuscripts in a complete form were discovered early in the 2nd Century, in a tomb that was sealed in 168 BC. The oldest text containing quotes from the Tao Te Ching dates back to the late 14th Century and there is doubt amongst scholars whether the Tao Te Ching was written by Lao Tzu or a compilation of Taoist sayings by many different hands. There are many English translations of the Tao Te Ching and I have chosen three translations of Chapter 1. ‘The Way’.

The first, below, is the earliest written in 1868, followed by another from 1972 and finally one from 1995. In reading these differing versions, I related to the language used in each, in different ways. I wondered how the authors’ spiritual beliefs and background may affect their understanding and how much is lost, because words may not accurately translate the true meaning from the original. Still, this is how it is and I’m grateful for the many attempts to relay understanding. Although the Tao Te Ching preceded Buddhism, there are many similarities.


The tau (reason) which can be tau-ed (reasoned) is not the Eternal Tau (Reason). The name which can be named is not the Eternal Name.

Non-existence is named the Antecedent of heaven and earth, and Existence is named the Mother of all things.

In eternal non-existence, therefore, man seeks to pierce the primordial mystery; and, in eternal existence, to behold the issues of the Universe. But these two are one and the same and differ only in name.

This sameness (or existence and non-existence) I call the abyss — the abyss of abysses — the gate of all mystery.

Translated by John Chalmers (1868)


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

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

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.

The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.

Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.

These two spring from the same source but differ in name; 
this appears as darkness. 
Darkness within darkness. 
The gate to all mystery.

Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English 1972


The Tao that can be told
 is not the eternal Tao

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

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin
 of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding.

(translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1995)


7 Replies to “Verses from the Tao Te Ching-Mo”

  1. I find the subtle differences, between these three translatuons, fascinating. Mo, thank you so much for posting this. It has been years since I read the Tao Te Ching and I cannot remember which translation it was, but I feel prompted to revist it.
    1. Thank you Karen, I think there are currently around 175 translations of the Tao Te Ching, I find them fascinating too, it is interesting how, with some, I instantly have a heartfelt connection with the free flowing prose.
  2. Wow, Mo, I didn’t know Ursurla Le Guin’s interest and translation. No doubt you also remember Rev M Hakuun’s commentary, comparing the Tao to the Unborn? (Perhaps you missed those sessions?)
    1. Thanks Eric, No I have not forgotten Rev Hakuun’s translations of the Tao Te Ching. I love her translations and did attend most of her Tao Te Ching Thursday sessions.
  3. Thank you for shining the spotlight on this essential teaching Mo.
    I find the Truth shining in the different wordings equally bright, even though some wordings flow effortlessly and are more evocative than others. This short verse encapsulates the very core of the teaching; Undivided Being i.e. eternal Tao IS; the world i.e. the ten thousand things is the manifestation of that single reality. Being can be experienced but cannot be conceptualized i.e. cannot be named. Anything that can be defined as name and form is a temporary and limited manifestation of Being, not the totality of it.
    Of course, all teachings conceptualize and use concepts as a roadmap to point to the Truth, there is nothing wrong with that provided you don’t mistake the map for the territory i.e. mistake the finger for the moon.

    Beautiful the mysterious ways the Truth gets transmitted and shines brightly through the ages.

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