Chapter 1 – I’m Sorry; You Must Be Out of Your Mind

The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the Eternal Name.

Nothingness is the Origin of Heaven and Earth.
Beingness is the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things.

When you are free of desire, you will understand the Essence of your life.
When you identify with your desires, you will observe the manifestations of your life.

Both contain the deepest secrets arising from the dark unknown, the Doorway to the Mysteries of Life.

A writer named Amy Putkonen invited me to participate in a project commenting on one chapter of the Tao Te Ching each week.  Although others have engaged in similar considerations of this Chinese classic – in popular culture, Wayne Dyer is the best known – the work lends itself to so many interpretations that it should be interesting to see what may be said now by folks like me who are not Chinese scholars.

As a Taoist dilettante, I have irregularly studied the Tao Te Ching for nearly 50 years.  Perhaps this project will allow me to bring together some of my subconscious thoughts concerning the Tao, or “the Way.”  With another 80 weeks to go, and with opportunity ahead to read what others say, I will defer more general comments about the Way and look briefly at the first chapter.

On one level, these few words are a philosophically profound, poetic statement of the nature of life, the Universe and everything.  Most commentators have tried to analyze them on that level.  Since that has been done many times by those smarter and more knowledgeable than me, I would like to take a different approach.

The level on which I would like to begin recognizes that Chapter 1 is also an apology in advance by Lao Tzu (and we are assuming here that he was a real person).  He is telling us right up front that we may be disappointed with his book.  Although we want to learn the true nature of existence and of all that is, those things are beyond words and the book is comprised only of words.  The secrets of the Universe are hidden in words, but the words can only take you to the doorway through which the mysteries may be known.  Something more than words is required to cross the threshold.

As wonderful and complex as humans are, we have developed only those physical and mental faculties that are necessary for our survival.  We know there are waves of infrared and ultraviolet light all around us which we cannot perceive with our eyes.  Throughout our past, those frequencies did not contain information that would help us find sustenance or protect us from danger.  Perhaps that is changing now that we are treading through a sea of wireless communication devices, microwaves and other electromagnetic phenomena that did not exist even a few years ago.  If those frequencies are dangerous, we are in trouble because we are not able to see the danger.

Similarly, there are frequencies of sound that we are not able to hear, though they are easily heard by our dogs or bats or dolphins.  We hear the range of sounds that are most important to our physical survival.

Our brains and minds and intelligence have developed with the same limitations.  We are able to think and understand only those things necessary to preserve our physical being.

For our mind, the initial step is always to make distinctions.  First, the mind must distinguish itself and its physical body from the rest of the world.  Next, it must distinguish those things in the physical world that are harmful from those that are beneficial.  All those things must then be categorized and labeled so they can be readily identified, and words are used to give them names.  The Bible even says that God told us to name what we find in our environment (Genesis 2:20).

Once the facility for making distinctions was realized, it was a simple step to recognize even finer ways to categorize the world – this rock is sharper than that one; this berry tastes better than the other one; this predator runs faster than the others. And from there, it became natural to judge the things that were distinguished – this is good, that is bad; this is pretty, that is ugly.  Almost always, the judgment went back to the survival of the individual, viewing things that are pleasurable and nourishing as positive and those that are dangerous and displeasing as negative.

Making these various distinctions and judgments required ever more words.  We now possess linguistic abilities that permit us to describe our physical world, and even our individual mental, emotional and spiritual existence.  Many of us believe that we now have the ability to understand all that is.

Lao Tzu is telling us we are wrong.  He says that the ultimate Way cannot be named or described in words.  Consequently, he has to begin this work by apologizing to the reader because his hands are tied by the inherent limitations of language.

The Old Sage goes beyond that, however, and lets us know that he can help us to overcome those limitations.  “Nothingness,” he says, “is the origin of Heaven and Earth.”  Because the mind is built to distinguish and identify things or concepts, it cannot grasp or understand No-thing.  In order to do that, it is necessary to stop the mind, to leave it and be literally out of your mind.  Reaching that state is the goal of many forms of meditation.  More will be written on the subject as this series continues.

I am reminded of time in the Spring of 1997 when I attended a talk given by Huston Smith, the author of the multi-million selling book, The World’s Religions.  He was actually the warm-up act for the Dalai Lama, but that is a different story.  I was backstage shortly before he was to lecture – using only words – to a large crowd on matters concerning Heaven and Earth.  Although there was a great deal of activity, Smith retreated to a dark corner (this was outside in the evening) and sat silently, meditating, for perhaps 20 minutes.  It seemed that as an acknowledged intellectual and rational thinker, he had to go out of his mind to prepare to discuss some of the same concepts that come later in the Tao Te Ching.

The idea that words are limited and that concepts themselves are limited by words is not new, of course.  It can be traced all the way back to 1968 and the pre-disco Bee Gees.*


*That was an attempt at humor, in case you may have missed it.


  1. Cool, Louis. I love your line about words taking you to the doorway. Yeah. Indescribable and yet incredibly beautiful and tempting to try. Thanks for participating!


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