There are ways but the Way is uncharted; There are names but not nature in words; Nameless indeed is the source of creation But things have a mother and she has a name.
The secret waits for the insight Of eyes unclouded by longing; Those who are bound by desire See only the outward container.
These two come paired but distinct By their names. Of all things profound, Say that their pairing is deepest, The gate to the root of the world.
First poem of theDàodéjīng, ‘Tao k’o tao’, translated by R. B. Blakney.
The Dàodéjīng, or the Book of the Way and Virtue, is a Chinese classic originating in the sixth century before Christ, and widely attributed to the sage Lao Tzu, the “Old Master”. An oral tradition at first, the bundle as is was written down somewhere around the third century BC. The book, consisting out of eighty-one poems of varying length, is second only in its influence on Ancient Chinese civilization to the teachings of Kong Qiu, or K’ung Fu-tze, more widely known as Confucius.
These poems form the basis for the philosophical belief system we know as Taoism, or Dàojiā, and deals with the ontological and ethical aspects of daily life. In contrast with Confucianism, Taoism denies the existence of an omnipotent god or heavenly authority, instead pushing forward The Way, a transcendental ‘spirit’ which is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and which carries in it the entire universe.
The central ideas in the Dàodéjīng are the following of the Way, and something called wú wéi, which literally translates as ‘non-action’: it’s the concept of not doing those things that go against the nature of things. Wú wéi is about doing things without doing it, much like a tree grows without trying to grow. Beings in harmony with the Tao act in a natural and uncontrived way.
An example that is often given to illustrate this is the parable of the old man who went swimming. One day, a group of youngsters observed an old man on the bank of a fast-flowing river. As the man stepped in the water and was immediately whisked away, the youngsters worried that he might drown and ran down to the river. Surprised they were when the old man calmly and none the worse for wear got out of the water about a mile downstream, where the river had broadened and the current wasn’t as strong. Upon asked how he had managed not to drown, the man simply answered that he didn’t fight the current, but rather let it carry him wherever it wanted: he did this every day to practice his philosophy.
The interpretation of the Dàodéjīng is subject to the one doing the interpretation. Some say it is a handbook for rulers, while others claim that it is a handbook for the body, and the road to immortality. Because of the ambiguity and the mysticism of the classic, it was and is very popular among many different peoples. In ancient China itself, Taoism as a religious system was adhered to by many different peoples, sometimes even mixed with Confucianist and even Buddhist ideas.