Feb 19, 2024

Tao Te Ching: The World’s Oldest Zen Poem

Bodhidharma taught a Taoistic version of Zen. Alan Watts, a student of D.T.Suzuki, called The Tao Te Ching “the world's oldest poem”. As fortune would have it, celebrated Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki’s translation of the Tao Te Ching is in the public domain. This means I am free to analyze it as I will. So I decided to do a commentary on the Tao Te Ching. This post represents some of my preliminary analysis of this ancient Zen poem, and the next post is some additional analysis of chapters related to war that I did to show that the Tao Te Ching accepted all aspects of life, from sage to warrior. 

Zen translation by DTS (D.T. Suzuki);

1. Reason’s Realization.

1. The Reason that can be reasoned is not the eternal Reason. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The Unnamable is of heaven and earth the beginning. The Namable becomes of the ten thousand things the mother.

Therefore it is said:

2. "He who desireless is found

The spiritual of the world will sound.

But he who by desire is bound

Sees the mere shell of things around."

3. These two things are the same in source but different in name. Their sameness is called a mystery. Indeed, it is the mystery of mysteries. Of all spirituality it is the door.


1. D.T. Suzuki translates “Tao” as Reason (Reason being another way of saying “Zen”). The idea here is that if you can think about reason then you are using the mind to think about the mind and thus you aren't living directly from your mind. In other words, using your reasoning faculty to think about reasoning means you aren't living directly from your reasoning part of your (mind).

Said another way, ‘The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.’ or the reasoning ability that you can think about isn’t your true direct experiencing faculty of Reason that is the direct perception of the mind without any sort of introspection.

If the mind can be used to describe the mind then you are not in unitive consciousness (the zen state). So if you can name something then you are living out of your thinking ability and are not in the zen state of direct experience. Thus, ‘The name that can be named is not the eternal Name’ 

Finally, since naming something puts a person in a mental state of categorizing the world around you so you can describe it, i.e. not naming something means everything just is as it is while naming it you separate an object from everything else by giving it a category or label for the object to fit in. Thus a tree that was just an object connected to earth and air can now be separated into 3 different things, i.e. tree, earth and air.

So by naming things and putting them in categories you have created knowledge or language. In other words, ‘The Namable becomes of the ten thousand things the mother.’

Note: The 10,000 things is the buddhist way of saying the infinite number of objects and categories that exist once you start naming stuff.

2. Within the poem like chapter there is a rhyming verse set which explains the basic yogic and zen idea of dhayana or learning to maintain your awareness free of attachment to things around you.

Literally its; The person who can maintain a desireless state of non-attachment will reach the height of spirituality (as defined by ancient zen and taoist masters). On the flip side, if you are attached to the world around you you will see the world in a superficial way i.e. you will see only it’s “shell” or outer appearance.

The idea here is expressed by this story;

There was a farmer whose horse ran away. All his neighbors came by to say how sorry they were at his misfortune. All he said was, "We shall see". Next, his horse returns fallen by a group of wild horses. His neighbors congratulate on his good fortune and the farmer once again says, "We shall see". Then his son falls off the same horse and breaks his leg. The neighbors once again exclaim at his misfortune and once again he says, "We shall see". In a few days the army comes by collecting young men for a war. The farmer's son was ignored as his leg was broken. His neighbors congratulate him and all he says is, "We shall see".

Notice that in this story every event of the day or week did not make the farmer giddy with happiness or depressed at having a bad day because he wasn’t attached to the world through desire, i.e. he existed in a state of non-attachment.

3. Here is the most amazing statement, i.e. that both of the statements (1 & 2) are two different techniques for the same goal.

In the first statement Lao Tzu described the simple zen way of seeing things as I outlined in my voluminous introduction to zen, i.e. simply by shutting of conception you can see beyond conception and without self-reflexive thought (unitve consciousness). In the second statement he explains that to see beyond the distractions which can take you away from unitive consciousness as described in the simple first technique it to learn and practice non-attachment (as is at the foundation of zen buddhism and yoga itself).

So, together, these two techniques open the door to the zen state of being, i.e. ‘of all spirituality it is the door’.

Standard translation by James Legge;

1. The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name. (Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things.

2. Always without desire we must be found,

If its deep mystery we would sound;

But if desire always within us be,

Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.

3. Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.

2. Self-Culture.

1. Everywhere it is obvious that if beauty makes a display of beauty, it is sheer ugliness. It is obvious that if goodness makes a display of goodness, it is sheer badness. For;

2. "To be and not to be are mutually conditioned.

The difficult, the easy, are mutually definitioned.

The long, the short, are mutually exhibitioned.

Above, below, are mutually cognitioned.

The sound, the voice, are mutually coalitioned.

Before and after are mutually positioned."

3. Therefore

The holy man abides by non-assertion in his affairs and conveys by silence his instruction. When the ten thousand things arise, verily, he refuses them not. He quickens but owns not. He acts but claims not. Merit he accomplishes, but he does not dwell on it.

"Since he does not dwell on it

It will never leave him."


1. The idea here is that pride of showing off can turn something beautiful into something ugly. For example; A girl who knows she is beautiful and makes a display of her beauty displays ugliness in the pride she displays. (An example that I think applies to the culture the Tao te Ching was written in if not ours). Seen from another angle, if you know what beauty is then you have an idea of what ugliness is as well as you wouldn’t be able to know something is beautiful without being able to label something else as ugly.

This same idea also applies to being good or acts of goodness which is probably more understandable to western/abrahamic cultures. If someone pretends to be humble then it isn’t humbleness but pride. If someone pretends to be good when they are not they are hypocrites. Conversely, it can be seen as ‘if you can perceive good then you already have an understanding of what evil is or you wouldn’t have even been able to perceive good in the first place’.

2. This part is rhyming poetry and goes something like this;

You know that something exists by having an idea of what non-existence might be like. You know something is difficult because you know what easy is. You know something is long because you know what short is. That fact that you can define something as “up” or “down” means you have these opposite concepts in your head to begin with. Even music attains the ability to sound good by the contrast between the different notes thereby, together, creating a melody. You know what is before you by defining something as being after the said conception.

In other words, this sounds very much like one of Socrates dialogues in its content. The idea that one can only know something is long relative to something that is short and these are all ideas one has in their heads to define absolutes which don’t exist in nature without our additional labeling. Ideas from Plato’s dialogues in the Tao Te Ching written roughly the same time? Doesn’t seem that far fetched to me. The people in the ancient world seemed to travel quite a bit.

3. Since the world doesn’t exist in absolutes, the Sage is content with a non-authoritative (or more maternal) approach to dealing with daily affairs. Allowing people to go about their business and leading by example where he/she can.

When the many distractions of the world arise the Sage doesn’t refuse or ignore them nor does he seek them out. He does what needs to be done without laying claim to the fruits of his actions. He does “good” deeds but he doesn’t care about that as it was just something that had to be done. Since he doesn't try and own it, or hold on to it, whatever he did is with him always and just adds to his skill set.

The idea here is that the Sage learns to be IN the world but not OF it and can thus flow with the ways of the world in his culture.

Standard translation;

1. All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing

this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is; they all know the skill of the skilful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the want of skill is.

2. So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to

(the idea of) the other; that difficulty and ease produce the one (the idea of) the other; that length and shortness fashion out the one the figure of the other; that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.

3. Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything, and conveys his instructions without the use of speech.

All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show

itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership;

they go through their processes, and there is no expectation (of a

reward for the results). The work is accomplished, and there is no

resting in it (as an achievement).

The work is done, but how no one can see;

'Tis this that makes the power not cease to be.

3. Keeping The People Quiet

1. Not boasting of one's worth forestalls people's envy.

Not prizing treasures difficult to obtain keeps people from committing theft.

2. Not contemplating what kindles desire keeps the heart unconfused.

3. Therefore the holy man when he governs empties the people's hearts but fills their stomachs. He weakens their ambition but strengthens their bones. Always he keeps the people unsophisticated and without desire. He causes that the crafty do not dare to act. When he acts with non-assertion there is nothing ungoverned.


Here is a psychological theory of how to manage a society. You may notice the very tribal like values the poet advocates. Makes me think of this as a philosophical and poetical treatise on living in a world of zen like the ancestors who lived in the tribal and feudal days when society was less violent and corrupt as the hierarchical structures that emerge in an agricultural society of monarchy hadn’t yet emerged. In Lao Tzu’s day the agricultural town and it’s resulting ownership of land and accumulation of wealth amongst a few people led to a society fueled by greed and the whims of a few people at the very top of society. As a result people would often reminisce about the old ways. In some ways that’s what this treatise is beginning to remind me of. To get an idea of how things were in a tribal community and how things are in an agricultural community, consider this table;

The following table shows the basic differences in behavior between Takers (agriculturists) and Leavers (Tribal/Primitive societies) as described in Daniel Quinn’s book My Ishmael.

Takers (Agriculturists)

Leavers(Tribal Societies)

Believe only their way is right

Don't believe only their way is right - it's right for them

The world would be better if people were better

You don't need to improve people to make their system work.

Can't develop a lifestyle that works (sustainable and inherited)

Lived in a working lifestyle for 100's of thousands of years

Everything is based on utopian ideals (government, school etc. assumes a type of person which is evolved)

Based on human nature and tradition with years of evolution of their particular tribal law.

Force others to follow their way - believe their way is best

Believe their way is best for them, others can live their own way

Annihilate others in war

Fight to show their metal and be unpredictable - not to annihilate

Get products and give products

Get support and give support

Specialization; smaller and smaller family units till the breakup of nuclear family is complete

Complete cradle to grave support

Laws prohibiting stuff - people know laws will be broken and this divided society into law breakers and upright citizens

No laws prohibiting as it doesn't take into account that humans will break laws - so the laws are to minimize the effects of damage to society

Tribal security exchanged for money - a kind of substitute for the sense of tribal community that our species evolved with for 10,000s of thousands of years.

So when looking at what Lao Tzu is talking about when he starts outlining his ideas of how to manage a society you have to keep in mind that this is his theory of how to return to a more human friendly tribal type culture where people are just people. The poet is getting poetic.

With that introduction, let's look at the verses again;

1.  By not placing one person above another person you can’t create society crippling envy. Not placing too much value on objects keeps them from being seen as so valuable that they bestow status of wealth on someone thus making it an object of envy or jealousy which can lead to theft.

2. Not thinking about the 10 thousand things (distractions) you keep the head clear.

3. Thus the Sage ruler (or “Philosopher King” if looking at it using Plato’s words) governs the people by keeping them satisfied equally. He discourages competition that would result in the perception of any person being better than anyone else but keep the population healthy and strong. He guides the people to practice non-attachment so that they can control thier desires and not be led by them. All the while helping people live fully engaged in daily life with full stomachs and happy hearts. Thus there is no reason for people to be clever or crafty in deception as it wouldn’t be needed in such an environment (though there would probably always be trouble makers of some sort, but by this logic the trouble makers would be a part of the tao and thus good/normal).

The key to a well functioning society is to have a governor so skilled at government that through a non-assertive (maternal) approach, everything that needs to get done, gets done without the governor having appeared to have done anything.

Standard translation;

1. Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to

keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is the way to keep their minds from disorder.

2. Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens their bones.

3. He constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them from presuming to act (on it). When there is this abstinence from action, good order is universal.

4. Sourceless.

1. Reason is empty, but its use is inexhaustible. In its profundity, verily, it resembleth the arch-father of the ten thousand things.

2. "It will blunt its own sharpness,

Will its tangles adjust;

It will dim its own radiance

And be one with its dust."

3. Oh, how calm it seems to remain! I know not whose son it is. Apparently even the Lord it precedes.


1. Reason or the Original Mind is obviously empty. It doesn’t contain anything yet it can perceive everything and name everything thereby creating the ‘10,000 things’. From the mind all concepts are created and all things are defined. Since Tao is defined as the Path of Zen, the poet is saying, ‘like the Mind, the Tao (path of the mind,) is empty as it’s not matter but it can define matter into categories making it useful and explainable thus it can be seen as the source of all conceptions and things. The idea being that if you have no conceptions or ideas of things then everything just exists as it is without definition. That is the Tao, i.e. everything just flowing with life with no definition attached to it.

2. This verse describes the Mind (Reason) as something which dims (becomes less sharp with age) and then it dissolves into nothingness at death.

3. The Original Mind by itself is peaceful and calm and since all conceptions arise from the mind itself the Mind precedes everything (God and the angels etc. are seen as mentally created things i.e. fantasy or imagination at work).

This chapter seems to try and define the Mind/Tao as other zen practitioners do in their explanations to prepare a person to understand and practice zen. Only here it’s done in poetic form and long before the word zen even came into use.

What the poet seems to be doing is describing Samadhi as an aspect of the Tao,  i.e. the result of practicing the meditation technique called dhayana in yoga where are definitions are dissolved to keep the mind silent and focused (or unfocused) and empty of all thought. After being empty of all thought to think again and to define things into categories is like creating the world from scratch. In other words, it’s like ‘creating the 10,000 things’.

Standard translation;

1. The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel; and in our

employment of it we must be on our guard against all fullness. How deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were the Honoured Ancestor of all things!

2. We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things; we should attemper our brightness, and bring ourselves into agreement with the obscurity of others. How pure and still the Tao is, as if it would ever so continue!

3. I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God.

This analysis should be enough to show that The Tao Te Ching is the world's oldest Zen poem explaining what it’s like to be a sage.


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