The Tao Te Ching or Dao De Jing (Daodejing) literally means “the way” and was written in China around the 6th century BC by Lao Tsu approximately the same time as Buddha lived in India. The Tao Te Ching is a short text just over 5,000 Chinese characters in 81 brief chapters or sections. Translated more than any other text in history, only second to the Bible, it is considered the most influential Chinese book of all time and has provided many people a way to live in harmony with the nature of things by letting things take their course, not exerting themselves in opposition to it or trying to bend things to our will.
The title literally means:
tao (the way)
Tao or “The Way”", was variously used by other Chinese philosophers including Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, and Hanfeizi, and has special meaning within the context of Taoism, where it implies the essential, unnamable process of the universe. Te, which is mostly covered in the later chapters, basically means “virtue” in the sense of “personal character”, “inner strength” (virtuosity), or “integrity.” Ching as it is used here means “great book” or “classic”.
Our naming of things always falls short of the way things are, since things are not limited to the human language. Even the Tao which we are trying to talk about eludes our words. The original polarity is that of being and non-being, and it will be found to interplay throughout the world, with non-being (emptiness, what is not) having as much significance as does being (the fullness of things, what is). Thus the notion of the Tao recaptures the earlier Chinese concept of Yin and Yang, the polarities running through all things. Its poetic form teaches that there is a dynamic, cosmic structure underlying everything that happens in the world.
The ancient text is also central to Chinese religion, not only for Taoism, but Chinese Buddhism, which when first introduced into China was largely interpreted through the use of Taoist words and concepts. Artist including poets, calligraphers, painters, and even gardeners have used the Tao as a source of inspiration. Aided by hundreds of translations into Western languages, its influence has also spread widely outside East Asia. Some historians believe the text was the work of multiple authors and editors over hundreds of years, rather than the achievement of a single individual writing during the time of Confucius. An article from Columbia University references, an astonishing discovery in 1993 at the tomb in Guodian in Hubei province (east central China) and claims that the text was the work of multiple authors and editors over hundreds of years, rather than the achievement of a single individual writing during the time of Confucius. The truth may remain in the depths of history, but we like to envision Lao Tsu riding westward as we explore translations of the Tao Te Ching.
It is almost impossible to render an ancient Chinese text properly in English without losing some elements. The classical Chinese symbols do not stand for a single concrete idea, but evoke associations of different ideas and things. In order to understand the original text fully it is helpful to read various translations which you can find here and interpretations which we welcome from you.