"How do I know it is the origin of all? By this."
Tao Te Ching — Chapter 21
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
The greatest virtue is to follow the Way utterly.
Its nature is utterly vague and evasive.
How evasive and vague!
Yet its center has form.
How vague and evasive!
Yet its center has substance.
How deep and obscure!
Yet its center has essence.
This essence is real,
So, its center can be trusted.
From now back to antiquity,
Its name has not been lost.
Thereby, see the origin of all.
How do I know it is the origin of all?
The Clarity of Obscurity
This is an outburst of the poet in Lao Tzu. Here and in
many other chapters of the book, he suddenly marvels at the
magnificent mystery of it all. But it's not a mystery in which
he is lost or blinded. Quite the opposite.
Because he dares to face the mystery in all its
obscurity, it becomes clear to him.
He doesn't mind the darkness, since he is quite aware
of what it hides. The evasiveness doesn't make him
doubt, since he has already understood. Instead, he sees this
evasiveness and darkness as evidence of the profundity.
Anything less profound would be easier to perceive and to
Tao, the Way, is primordial. Not only was it present
at the very birth of the world, but it was the actual origin
out of which the world emerged. Its own origin, if there is
one, is the most distant of all.
So, Tao must be obscure, evasive, and vague.
Anything by which to describe Tao is of later date and lesser
significance, so Tao remains forever impenetrable. Its nature
may be grasped intuitively, but not explained.
That's the elusive character of many truly
profound things in life, in art, and in science. What we easily
express in a few sentences is unlikely to penetrate the surface.
Once we really dig deep into what we examine, the truth
becomes more and more absurd, and less possible to convey to
those who remain on the surface.
During the 20th century, natural science revealed a lot
of such absurdities, and found them to be core components
of the whole universe.
Astronomy has taught us that the cosmos is not
eternal in its width, but still impossible to exit, and its vastness
was born out of a single point, a center with minimal volume
but unfathomable density.
Einstein proved that time is not a constant. Much to
his frustration, quantum physics discovered that the
smallest pieces of matter refuse inspection, since they are affected
by our scrutiny.
Not to mention string theory, yet to be accepted,
where the building blocks of the universe seem to be dancing.
The universe appears to be described quite
accurately, although obscurely, by the words of Lao Tzu.
The Center of Tao
Lao Tzu speaks repeatedly about the center of Tao, as if
it would differ from its periphery or anything in between.
But Tao is the very law of nature, so it contains no differences
or discrepancies. Otherwise there would be anomalies and
exceptions in the way the universe works. It would
collapse, as would Tao.
What Lao Tzu refers to is the difference between
the outside view, when Tao is observed by those who
don't comprehend it, and what its true nature really is.
The latter can be called its center. The actual word
used also means middle, as in the Chinese name of the
country: the Middle Kingdom. That name stems from an old belief
_ or aspiration – of being the country in the middle of
the world, as if China were its very axis.
Lao Tzu expresses no such belief about the country
he served before leaving to write his book, but when he
points to the origin of all, he has to go to the middle. Neither in
his understanding of the world, nor in modern
astronomical theory, is it possible for a universe to appear from
anywhere else than its middle, its center. Nothing can appear from
its own periphery.
So, when Lao Tzu speaks of the center of Tao, he
speaks of that which was the origin of the whole world.
In that way, Tao has form because of all the forms
being born out of it, and it has substance through all the
matter that came out of it, filling the world. It also has
essence, which is its creative force, its active presence. Without
that essence, no world would have emerged. Tao would
only have been an eternal possibility, resting in its own
The essence of Tao is similar to the expressed will of
the Bible's God, uttering: "Let there be..." Tao may have no
similarly traceable intention, but the result is the same. The
universe was born, because that event was in the nature of Tao.
The chapter ends with a mysterious remark: "By
this." Surely, this is Lao Tzu's humor at play. How else to end
a chapter about the mysterious nature of Tao?
The word Tao was known long before the days of
Lao Tzu, and this he was certainly aware of. So were his
expected readers. Tao and its complex meaning can be seen
in texts and traditions dating so far back from the days of
Lao Tzu that he would probably have had no idea of their
origin in time. So, on that very concrete level, he uses the
well-known antiquity of the word Tao as an argument for why
it must describe the very origin of all.
Tao was known in cosmological speculations of
Lao Tzu's time, and the time before his. T'ien chih
Tao, Heaven's Way, was used in descriptions of the divine and other
things beyond human understanding. Lao Tzu would not
have caused any uproar in the Chinese minds of his time,
when stating that the great antiquity of the word Tao was
evidence of its cosmic significance.
But his comment has several levels. He is also likely
to refer to the elusive obscurity of Tao. Something as
vague and incomprehensible must be of fundamental
importance and dignity. What man cannot comprehend is of divine
nature. If it were easier to grasp, it would not be as
elevated. In that way, the mystery of Tao is a sign of its greatness.
In all cultures of old, what was not understood was
regarded as divine or Heavenly, belonging to a greater
realm than that of human existence. The many wonders in
nature were seen as indications of a great order of things,
governed elsewhere by other forces than those that humans and
animals had at their disposal. Whether those forces were in
the hands of gods of some sort or not, they were definitely
out of human reach.
Not only were humans unable to copy those feats,
but also to understand them. Ancient man made little
difference between the two. These inabilities were the two sides of
the same coin. What could not be understood could not
be done, and what could not be done could not be understood.
In a way, this is still true, although we have all kinds
of explanations – but not to the very core, the center of
the workings of the universe. Some natural laws we can
utilize to our advantage, and some processes in nature we can
copy for our own benefit. But we lack certainty as to what
really makes everything work, at the very bottom – what Lao
Tzu calls the center. Our sciences are sketch works, where
closer inspection shows that many details are still missing.
Our lines have not connected all the dots.
Mostly, we lack the knowledge that makes sense to it
all. The unified field theory that Einstein dreamed about is
still outside our grasp. So is the exact state the universe was
in, before its Big Bang. Like Lao Tzu, when we look at the
beginning we see the mystery. It can be named, but not
We know that it has to be there, since we can observe
its surroundings, to which we do ourselves belong. But
we have yet to reach it.
© Stefan Stenudd.
Tao Te Ching Explained
The 81 Chapters of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
translated and explained by Stefan Stenudd.
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