The Tao Theme of
Tao - the Way
The Themes of the Tao Te Ching
Tao, the Way, is the core and essence of Taoism, and the major theme of Tao Te Ching, the oldest and most important classic on Taoism. It can be described as the idea of the primordial natural law on which all of the universe has been given its shape and mechanics. Also, this law keeps on ruling how all things in the world behave.
Below are those chapters, out of the 81 in Tao Te Ching, which deal mainly with the theme of Tao, the Way, and how to understand it.
1 It's All Real
The Way that can be walked is not the eternal Way.
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 all things.
Free from desire you see the mystery.
Full of desire you see the manifestations.
These two have the same origin but differ in name.
That is the secret,
The secret of secrets,
The gate to all mysteries.
4 The Hidden Cause
The Way is empty, yet inexhaustible,
Like an abyss!
It seems to be the origin of all things.
It dulls the sharpness,
Unties the knots,
Dims the light,
Becomes one with the dust.
Deeply hidden, as if it only might exist.
I do not know whose child it is.
It seems to precede the ancestor of all.
6 The Womb
The valley spirit never dies.
It is called the mystical female.
The entrance to the mystical female
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth.
As if barely existing,
It is used but never spent.
14 Obscure Tao
Look, it cannot be seen,
So it is called invisible.
Listen, it cannot be heard,
So it is called soundless.
Touch, it cannot be caught,
So it is called elusive.
These three cannot be examined,
So they unite into one.
Above it there is no light,
Below it there is no darkness.
Endlessness beyond description.
It returns to non-existence.
It is called the shapeless shape,
The substance without form.
It is called obscurely evasive.
Meet it and you do not see its beginning,
Follow it and you do not see its end.
Hold on to the ancient Way to master the present,
And to learn the distant beginning.
This is called the unbroken strand of the Way.
21 The Clarity of Obscurity
The greatest virtue is to follow the Way utterly.
Its nature is utterly vague and evasive.
How evasive and vague!
Yet its center has form.
How vague and evasive!
Yet its center has substance.
How deep and obscure!
Yet its center has essence.
This essence is real,
So, its center can be trusted.
From now back to antiquity,
Its name has not been lost.
Thereby, see the origin of all.
How do I know it is the origin of all?
25 Four Greats
There was something that finished chaos,
Born before Heaven and Earth.
So silent and still!
So pure and deep!
It stands alone and immutable,
Ever-present and inexhaustible.
It can be called the mother of the whole world.
I do not know its name. I call it the Way.
For the lack of better words I call it great.
Great means constant flow.
Constant flow means far-reaching.
Far-reaching means returning.
That is how the Way is great.
Heaven is great,
Earth is great,
And the king is also great.
In the world there are four greats,
And the king is one of them.
Man is ruled by Earth.
Earth is ruled by Heaven.
Heaven is ruled by the Way.
The Way is ruled by itself.
32 All Follow Those Who Follow Tao
The Way is ever nameless.
Though simple and subtle,
The world cannot lead it.
If princes and kings could follow it,
All things would by themselves abide,
Heaven and Earth would unite
And sweet dew would fall.
People would by themselves find harmony,
Without being commanded.
As soon as rules were made, names were given.
There are already many names.
One must know when it is enough.
Those who know when it is enough will not perish.
What the Way is to the world,
The stream is to the river and the sea.
34 It's Great to Be Small
The great Way is all-pervading.
It reaches to the left and to the right.
All things depend on it with their existence.
Still it demands no obedience.
It demands no honor for what it accomplishes.
It clothes and feeds all things without ruling them.
It is eternally without desire.
So, it can be called small.
All things return to it,
Although it does not make itself their ruler.
So, it can be called great.
Therefore, the sage does not strive to be great.
Thereby he can accomplish the great.
35 Elusive, But Never Exhausted
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.
39 Unity with the One
These things of old obtained unity with the one.
Heaven obtained unity and became clear.
Earth obtained unity and became firm.
The spirits obtained unity and became deities.
The valleys obtained unity and became abundant.
All things obtained unity and became animate.
Princes and kings obtained unity and became rulers of the world.
They all obtained unity with the one.
If Heaven were not clear it might rend.
If Earth were not firm it might crumble.
If the spirits were not deities they might wither.
If the valleys were not abundant they might dry up.
If all things were not animate they might perish.
If princes and kings were not exalted they might be overthrown.
The noble must make humility his root.
The high must make the low its base.
That is why princes and kings call themselves orphaned, desolate, unworthy.
Is that not to make humility their root?
The separate parts make no carriage.
So, do not strive for the shine of jade,
But clatter like stone.
40 A Cyclic Universe
Returning is the movement of the Way.
Yielding is the manner of the Way.
All things in the world are born out of being.
Being is born out of non-being.
41 Laughing Out Loud
The superior student listens to the Way
And follows it closely.
The average student listens to the Way
And follows some and some not.
The lesser student listens to the Way
And laughs out loud.
If there were no laughter it would not be the Way.
So, it has been said:
The light of the Way seems dim.
The progress of the Way seems retreating.
The straightness of the Way seems curved.
The highest virtue seems as low as a valley.
The purest white seems stained.
The grandest virtue seems deficient.
The sturdiest virtue seems fragile.
The most fundamental seems fickle.
The perfect square lacks corners.
The greatest vessel takes long to complete.
The highest tone is hard to hear.
The great image lacks shape.
The Way is hidden and nameless.
Still only the Way nourishes and completes.
42 Violence Meets a Violent End
The Way gave birth to one.
One gave birth to two.
Two gave birth to three.
Three gave birth to all things.
All things carry yin and embrace yang.
They reach harmony by blending with the vital breath.
What people loathe the most
Is to be orphaned, desolate, unworthy.
But this is what princes and kings call themselves.
Sometimes gain comes from losing,
And sometimes loss comes from gaining.
What others have taught, I also teach:
The forceful and violent will not die from natural causes.
This will be my chief doctrine.
51 All Things Are Nurtured
The Way gives birth to them.
Virtue gives them nourishment.
Matter gives them shape.
Conditions make them whole.
Of all things,
None does not revere the Way and honor virtue.
Reverence of the Way and honoring virtue
Were not demanded of them,
But it is in their nature.
So, the Way gives birth to them,
Takes care of them.
It gives birth without seizing,
Helps without claim,
Fosters without ruling.
This is called the profound virtue.
My Taoism Books:
The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained.
The great Taoist philosophy classic by Lao Tzu translated, and each of the 81 chapters extensively commented. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.
The Ancient Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.
389 quotes from the foremost Taoist classic, divided into 51 prominent topics. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.
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I'm a Swedish author and aikido instructor. In addition to fiction, I've written books about Taoism and other East Asian traditions. I'm also an historian of ideas, researching ancient thought and mythology. Click the image to get to my personal website.