Artistic and Philosophical Foundations: The Dao De Jing: Chapter One


The Dao De Jing: Chapter One

道 德 經: 第 一 章
道 可 道 ,非 常 道。
名 可 名, 非 常 名。
無 名, 天 地 之 始;
有 名, 萬 物 之 母。
故 常 無, 欲 以 觀 其 妙;
常 有, 欲 以 觀 其 徼。
此 兩 者, 同 出 而 異 名
同 謂 之 玄。
玄 之 又 玄, 眾 妙 之 門。
Dao De Jing: Di Yi Zhang

Dao ke dao, fei chang dao.
Ming ke ming, fei chang ming.

Wu ming, tian di zhi shi;
You ming, wan wu zhi mu.
Gu chang wu, you yi guan qi miao;
Chang you, you yi guan qi jiao.

Ci liang zhe, tong chu er yi ming
Tong wei zhi xuan.
Xuan zhi you xuan, zhong miao zhe men.

Dao De Jing: Chapter One

There are so many different translation and interpretation possibilities. The first character dao () can be translated as the road, the way, the path, the truth, orientation, course, doctrine, set of moral principles, among some others. ?De () means morality, virtue, moral character, mind and heart. Jing () means scripture or canon. Some people say that the Dao De Jing cannot be translated at all into English. But I will try.

Moving along, in the first line, ke () means can, may, the ability to. Fei () can be translated as not, while chang () in this context means constant, invariable. Therefore some possible translations could be:

The Dao that can be Dao-ed is not the constant and invariable Dao…or
The Way that can be weighed is not the constant and invariable Way…or
The Way that can be weighed is the impermanent Way…or
The Road that can be rode is not the constant invariable Road…or
The Road that can be rode is the impermanent Road…or
The Doctrine that can be indoctrinated is not the constant invariable Doctrine…or
The Truth that can be expressed is not the constant invariable Truth.

I believe Laozi’s intention here is to state that there is a lot of reality that is beyond the reach of language, reason, conventional wisdom, and the human mind. This seems to parallel the story when Buddha during one sermon simply presented to his assembled followers a single flower, without the words of a sermon or lecture.

The second line almost repeats the first, except that instead of the Dao, it is the ming (). Ming can be translated as name, or even label. So the second line can be rendered as:

The Name that can be named is not the constant invariable Name
The Label that can be labeled is not the constant invariable Label

In the third and fourth lines Laozi introduces two characters (words) that he will use over and over again throughout the Dao De Jing. They are central to the core understanding of this text, Daoism, and the Chinese world view in general. The two characters are wu () and you ().

Wu literally means without. So the question could arise: without what? In this context it means without form. It is being, or existence, that is without form. I do not believe that it means “non-being” as so often translated. It is being, it is existence, only without having form. It can also mean that which is without substance, or without being manifested.

You, on the other hand, means to have. To have being or existence within form. To have substance, and to be in a state of manifestation.

In line three, the first two characters wu and ming can mean that which is without a name, or taken together as a compound word, the Nameless. Tian () means sky or Heaven, and di () means earth. But if taken together as a compound word tiandi, it means the Universe. Zhi () means this, and shi () means the beginning or start of something.

So line three can be translated as:
That without a name is the beginning of Heaven and Earth
The Nameless is the origin of the Universe.

Line four completes the couplet and is the complementary contrast, or parallel, to line three. You ming means to have a name. Wan wu (萬物) together literally means the ten thousand things, or all the myriad, innumerable, worldly things. The last character is the line is mu (), which means mother, or the origin. So line four can be interpreted as:

That which has a name is the mother of ten thousand things
The Named is the origin of all the innumerable things of the world

Laozi has set out a worldview where there is a reality, a truth, or a Way which can be named and described with language, and also a reality which cannot. There are two modes of existence: one without form and the other within form.

For Hamlet, William Shakespeare, and Western civilization as a whole, “To be, or not to be. That is the question.” But for Laozi and Eastern civilizations, to be or not to be is not the question. The question is, you or wu. Is this particular example of existence within form, and therefore manifest, or is it without form and therefore not-manifested?

The second half of this chapter moves into how, and what happens when a person experiences these states of being: wu and you. Line five begins with gu (), which means therefore. Yu () can mean desires, wants and needs, or it can mean about to, or on the verge of. Yi guan qi (以觀其) means: can see this. The final character miao () will appear often in Laozi as well as in many Tang Dynasty poems. It means bright, brilliant, wondrous, and even mysterious. So line five can be:

Therefore, from the viewpoint of being-without-form, one can see the wondrous Mystery
Therefore, when on the verge of experiencing being-without-form, one can experience the wondrous Mystery

Once again, as with lines one and two, lines three and four, line six completes a couplet started by line five. Here the last character jiao () can literally be translated as the boundary, or perhaps as the beginning of manifestation, or the fog line. In the northern California’s rice country, during the winter, there is often the phenomena of a clear line between a bank of fog and the sunny blue sky. It is known as the fog line. It is the opposite, or complement to miao. So line six can be:

From the viewpoint of being-within-form, one can seen the boundary(s) of manifestations
When on the verge of experiencing being-within-form, one can see the boundaries of the innumerable worldly things.

Ci liang zhe (此兩者) means “these two things”, and is referring to the two things (wu and you). Tong chu (同出) literally means the same thing that comes out, or emerges. Yi () means different. Xuan () is kind of like miao, except it is a mystery that is hidden, dark, incredible, yin ()-like, and not bright, brilliant, or yang?()-like. Wei () means to say. So although these two things (wu and you) have different names, they both express xuan. This you () means also, or in addition to. So the final four characters are set up with: although this mystery is often hidden.

So the next couplet can be rendered as:

These two things emerge with one name
Yet they both express the hidden and incredible mystery.
These two things emerge as the same, but with different names
They mean the same incredible and profound mystery.

In the last line, zhong () can be translated as many, while men () is door, doorway, gate, or gateway. So zhong miao zhi men (眾妙之門) means that there are many doorways or gates to this wondrous mystery.
So the complete translation can be:

The Way that can be weighed is not the constant invariable Way
The Name that can be named is not the constant invariable Name.

The Nameless is the origin of the Universe
The Named is the mother of all the worldly things.

Therefore, when on the verge of experiencing Existence-Without-Form, one can see the brilliant and wondrous Mystery
When on the verge of experiencing Existence-Within-Form, one can experience the boundaries of worldly manifestations.

These two things, emerge as the same, but with different names
They mean the same incredible hidden and profound mystery.

As dark and hidden as the incredible profound is
There are many doorways to the brilliant and wondrous Mystery.

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