Chapter One Commentary

Chapter One of the Tao Te Ching describes the whole project of all 81 chapters. To explain the entire first chapter would be to explain the entire text. Therefore, it is best to focus on the establishment of the core direction of the text stemming from this chapter. This chapter describes the nature of the Tao and how Tao moves and evolves in the world and in our lives. The idea is that the Tao can be found in all outward manifestations, but these manifestations are not the Tao in and of themselves. Also, on the other hand, what is most important in this chapter is that it makes clear that if you begin to think of the Tao as something outside of these things that too is not the Tao. Tao is seen as the order of things or the way that things are. It is not a thing in and of itself. It is the same way that Buddhism uses the word Dharma and dharma. Dharma is very close to this idea of Tao or the way of the universe and dharmas are the “ten thousand things.”

This chapter also points out the limitations of language in communicating the nature of the universe. Just as the Zen tradition is known for saying that the nature of the universe is beyond words and ideas, this chapter cautions that the ceaseless function of the Tao and its transcendent nature cannot be named. This is kind of ironic since that which cannot be named or spoken is still spoken of in 81 chapters of the Tao Te Ching. In many religions, the idea of a transcendent thing or being is meant to convey that nothing greater can be comprehended. However, in Taoism, this idea of the transcendent highlights that the Tao cannot be spoken of not because it is beyond comprehension per se, but because it is in a constant state of becoming this, that and the other thing. In this way, Tao is seen as a verb rather than a noun.  It is the fluctuation of being and non-being, particle and wave, 1 and 0, yes and no, dark and light, etc. that can highlight the activity and nature of the Tao. Tao has the potential to be anything. It is like looking at a string of Christmas tree lights of varying colors. We may see red, white, blue, yellow, or green, but what is powering these lights are all of the same hidden source that can only bee seen in its manifestations.

When this chapter speaks of the Tao as being something that cannot be named and as manifesting as all things, it is speaking of both the limitations of language to describe it and at the same time speaking of its nature. Not only is Tao nameless, but it is also without longing or desires. In other words, it is without any specific action. It does by not doing. This is to say that it is impartial (as will be quickly discovered in Chapter 5) and has no ego-gaining ideas. In Zen it is said that this process is like spring coming and the grass growing by itself. Tao is therefore the origin of all things and at the same time, its manifestations (te). However, it is not one thing and not two things nor is it not completely void either. It may be best expressed as "not-two."

Looking at Tao from the practice of mindfulness, this chapter speaks about seeing things clearly as they are. In mindfulness we talk about reacting versus responding. Reaction comes from our habitual patterns of interacting with the world. When we cannot see clearly, we have an inaccurate appraisal of our surroundings. and our situations. When we can more accurately see what is happening around us, we can see things, as they actually are – the true nature of things, which is the Tao. In mindfulness practice we have a saying, “thoughts are simply mental events which may or may not be true.” This means that our mental constructions may have a certain perceived reality and may even possess a conventional function, but they are not the reality itself. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” Zen Master Seung Sahn used to always say, Yeah, but if I am not thinking, then what?” This means who are you right now, in this moment without thinking about it?


Looking at Tao from the perspective of Tai Chi practice, the Tao is the complete unity of heaven, earth, and the human being. When we start the form, we are in a united posture where the apparent opposites of yin and yang are united into the unified Tao or Taiji. Then, when we begin the form and move through it, we are then moving the yin and the yang through all of its manifestations in the form. In Chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching it states that the Tao gives birth to the one and the one gives birth to two and the two gives birth to three and the three gives birth to the ten thousand things. This is a description of the Taiji (the unified symbol of both yin and yang).



The Tao gives birth to the Taiji and the Taji gives birth to yin and yang and all of these together is the movement and manifestations of all things. This process is what we both emulate and embody when practicing Tai Chi.


The rest of Chapter One speaks of this unifying mystery of the Tao. It is easy to see its manifestations, but the process behind it remains hidden and mysterious. Looked for and it cannot be seen. It is like the eye that cannot see itself or the knife that cannot cut itself. To “see” it, you must be it. No one can see their own eye just as someone cannot grasp the Tao, but the eye can see and the human can follow the way or Tao.


This is the direction of Chapter One.


See you soon for the next installment for Chapter Two.