Skip to content

Dao De Jing, verse 1 with commentary

August 3, 2011

Dao De jing: 1

We use the version available for free at When referring to this translation we use the abbreviation MC (from McCarroll). We also refer to RJL (Richard John Lynn’s excellent translation) and also RP (Red Pine’s also-excellent translation). Line numbering added by Me, the source being quoted explicitly so that the reader can see which number points to which line, since translations do not adhere to a single standard in how they apportion line breaks and I do not wish readers to be forced to flip between windows and count down the lines each time I refer to one.

The Verse

  1. The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.
  2. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
  3. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
  4. The name is the mother of the ten thousand things.
  5. Send your desires away and you will see the mystery.
  6. Be filled with desire and you will see only the manifestation.
  7. As these two come forth they differ in name.
  8. Yet at their source they are the same.
  9. This source is called a mystery.
  10. Darkness within darkness, the gateway to all mystery.

DDJ 1:1–4

These four lines speak of the facility to give something a Name. A Name names something, usually an Object, which may be real or else abstract. An Object is Pure abstract if it has no connection with reality, otherwise it is partially abstract. In naming an object, or having an object named for us, we attach a Name to the object in our minds.

These four lines indicate that, while we may name the Dao, what we have named is actually not the true Dao, but a Concept of it. In this much, it is similar to a concept of God, both God and the Dao being in a certain sense Absolute.

‘The nameless’ (‘no-name’ in RP) refers to that state before a name has arisen. A name divides the mind into two parts: that which is recognised as being what has been named and everything else. Thus by having too many names at once, we confine our minds too much. But this self-confining can be used creatively, and we can learn to partially un-name things if we so choose, thus recovering the essence of the state before the name was given.

The concept of ‘Heaven and Earth’ (HnE) describes a split between where we are, Earth, and somewhere else, Heaven. It is usually implied in HnE concepts that Heaven is some kind of place of blissful existence. RJL says ‘Nameless, it is the origin of the myriad things’, following the commentary of Wang Bi, though he indicates that ‘Heaven and Earth’ appears in the base text.

The next line says ‘The name is the mother of the ten thousand things’ (MC) or ‘of the myriad things’ (RJL). It is well known that ‘ten thousand’ was often used in ancient China to mean ‘myriad’.

It is not clear exactly what is meant by ‘thing’, so I have an educated guess. I take this to mean that by ‘thing’ is meant object of mind or possibly even thing perceived and/or recognised. I am not sure, but this is what I read in this.

DDJ 1:5–6

These two lines are more of an advisory nature. One should free themselves of desire in order to behold the majesty of Creation (by which I mean ‘all that is created’, and clearly in DDJ 1:4 we see that Lao Tzu sides with those who view the world as created rather than pre-existing). Desire forces us to see only the Superficial, that is, only the surface details devoid of their internal structure and meaning.

DDJ 1:7–10

According to RJL, ‘these two’ refers to origin and mother. Their names set them apart. This shows us the use of names as a method of division, yet all that is divided is ultimatey One. Realising the Oneness of all phenomena and all beings is a major step on the spiritual path. Calling their source ‘a mystery’, Lao Tzu indicates the inaccessibility of the ultimate origin to the mind: we can only go back so far, not all the way.

RJL concludes this verse with ‘mystery upon mystery’, giving justification in his notes on his choice of translation here, and I would tend to side with him: the modern conception of darkness is probably too far from what Lao Tzu intended in writing this verse.


I give mind its own existence, and call the space in which it resides Mind-Space. The first few lines of this verse seem to indicate that naming is a method of dividing Mind-Space, but by using this method we restrict ourselves to Mind-Space, and then only a subset of it. Say the region of Mind-Space demarcated by the name is the Inside of the name and the region beyond the Boundary of the Inside is the Remainder. So named, a region of Mind-Space may have its own internal structure, also consrtructed by names. We could consider Mind-Space as topologised with names being mappings from our Word-Space to the family of open sets in Mind-Space.

One Comment

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Way of Tao | TRADEWINDGAZETTE

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: