"Hold on to the great image."
Tao Te Ching 35
The Lao Tzu Taoist Classic
Translated and Explained
Hold on to the great image,
And the whole world follows,
Content and completely at peace.
Music and food make the traveler halt.
But words spoken about the Way have no taste.
When looked at, there's not enough to see.
When listened to, there's not enough to hear.
When used, it is never exhausted.
Elusive, But Never Exhausted
The image that Lao Tzu refers to is Tao, the Way. The
word he uses also means appearance, similarity, and likeness.
One might call it an impression or a symbol. He wants to
make clear that the elusive Tao is more than its image. What
we see of it is much less than what it is.
Still, what we perceive is what we see and hear, so
we need to go in the direction pointed out by our senses –
yet, constantly reminding ourselves that there is more to it
and that the Way reaches farther than we are able to detect. If
we hold on to it and go where it leads, we will find that
the whole world complies and benefits as well.
Although Tao is hard to see or hear, and words to
describe it become far from spectacular, it's
inexhaustible. That's because it's not a thing or a creature, but a
principle, a natural law that governs the universe. Tao is the way
the universe works. The whole universe may dissolve
without the law of its fate doing so. Like a formula it can be
used over and over and over, without suddenly ceasing to
This is more evident to us than to people of
antiquity. They saw everything in the world as expressions of
struggling powers, whether those were divinities or other
forces. Therefore, they could imagine the sun one morning
refusing to rise, or crops one year failing completely to grow.
They had little idea of irresistible natural laws that Heaven
and Earth and all things therein could but obey.
Nowadays, we imagine the universe completely
controlled by nothing but natural laws, without any will of
its own or any will beyond it. We regard it all as
machinery. This image comes closer to Lao Tzu's idea of Tao, but it
lacks some of the poetry and beauty of the latter.
Strangely, the word for image,
hsiang, also means elephant. This probably stems from a time when
elephants could only be seen on pictures from other parts of the world.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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