Entering into the Tao


Entering into the Tao

A Sermon by the Rev. Peter Connolly

Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, Kentucky, on October 10, 2010

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
This appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

This that you have just heard is the translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English of the first chapter of the book known as the Tao Te Ch’ing.

The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Nothing is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
Arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

This that you have just heard is the translation by Stephen Mitchell of the first chapter of the book known as the Tao Te Ch’ing. Line for line the translations march, one a shadow of the other or a paraphrase, different in cadence and phraseology, but not in meaning. Until the last line: The gate to all mystery is translated also as the gateway to all understanding. And so we enter into the Tao.

There may be no adequate translation of the title “Tao Te Ch’ing.” Each of the words has an English equivalent, more or less. Together, they may be translated as something like “the classic way of virtue.” These are words that point the way towards an understanding, rather than name that way. Otherwise, how could the central teaching itself be maintained? The way that can be named is not the way.

It is generally agreed that this work was written in the 6th century BCE, 2700 years ago or so. Authorship is less certain, but according to tradition (and certainly, it may be fact), the text was composed by a gentleman named Lao Tse, described as a “sage.” The name translates to “old sage,” so you see why it, itself, may be descriptive, rather than an accurate naming. How appropriately that echoes the philosophy. When Buddhism entered China, its teachings were interpreted through the Taoist teachings and principles which preceded it (“Tao Te Ching” in Wikipedia). In this way, it greatly influenced the development of Chinese Buddhism.

In a similar way, English translations of the Tao have been layered over the decades and centuries. English translations come to us through transliterations which, themselves are features of transliteration systems.

A Romanization system called the Nanjing was used up till the 19th century, at which time the Wade-Giles transliteration system took root. Now that system is being replaced by the pinyin system, developed by the Chinese government and approved in 1958 (Wikipedia).

The Tao Te Ching attempts to point the way to the ultimate nature of reality and to offer the wisest course to proceed through life in accordance with that reality, but understands that the nature of reality and the words we use to describe that reality are different things, not only in meaning, but in nature. So if the word “spiritual” seems to name a slippery reality, perhaps the language of the Tao can be seen as a slippery means to get at a slippery reality.

Lao Tse may or may not be an historical figure. The date of composition of the Tao Te Ching may not be verifiable. Scholars are still working to arrive at a definitive answer. If it is helpful to you, Wikipedia tells us that “Linguistic studies of the text’s vocabulary and rhyme scheme point to a date of composition after the Shi Jing yet before the Zhuangzi (dynasties)– around the late 4th or early 3rd centuries BCE.” “Chinese scholars by and large accept Laozi as a historical figure” (W.). Some Western scholars claim that the Tao Te Ching is a collection of the work of various authors.


The Tao is forever undefined.
Small though it is in the unformed state, it cannot be grasped.
If kings and lords could harness it,
The ten thousand things would naturally obey.
Heaven and earth would come together
And gentle rain fall.
Men would need no more instruction
And all things would take their course.

Once the whole is divided, the parts need names.
There are already enough names.
One must know when to stop.
Knowing when to stop averts trouble.
Tao in the world is like a river flowing home to the sea.

(Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation)

Rowena Pattee Kryder is the founder of the Creative Harmonics Institute in Mount Shasta, California, a center for meditation, shamanism, and sacred sciences and arts. She provided an introductory essay to an English version of the Tao published in 1972. In it, she claims that there are four basic tenets of traditional Taoism:

  1. that the Way of Tao underlies all things
  2. that human action that is harmonious with Tao is spontaneous, effortless, and inexhaustible
  3. that the perfected individual is a sage, free from desire and strife, and
  4. that the sage conducts government by guiding his people back to a state of harmony with the Tao. “For the Taoist, nature and spirit interpenetrate. In spirit there is nature and in nature there is spirit.”

Why is the sea king of a hundred streams?
Because it lies below them.
Therefore it is the king of a hundred streams.

If the sage would guide the people, he must serve with humility.
If he would lead them, he must follow behind.
In this way when the sage rules, the people will not feel oppressed;
When he stands before them, they will not be harmed.
The whole world will support him and will not tire of him.

Because he does not compete,
He does not meet competition.

(Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation)

Deng Ming-Dao has written a beautiful book called Everyday Tao in which he compiles 255 Chinese ideograms, each one of which provides the starting point for a Taoist lesson. Here is his page on the ideogram for the word Tao:

The ancients who first taught of Tao were simple, rustic people. They formed their view by walking in granite-bladed mountains, digging in grainy soil, and sailing down wide rivers. As they worked and traveled, they slowly discerned a grand order to life. They noticed the regular phases of the sun, moon, earth, and tides. They followed the seasons. They watched the births, lives, and deaths of people, as well as the rise and fall of kingdoms.

In the nights, the ancients sat beside open fires and spoke to those that wanted to learn. As illustrations of their ideas, and to aid their students’ memories, they drew pictographs in the dirt. They taught their lessons from what they had experienced: life was a movement supreme– greater than humans, greater than heaven and earth. Nothing was fixed for everything– from the cycles of the sun and moon to the making and destroying of empires– showed endless, cyclical transformation. All this they summed up by drawing a picture of Tao: a person running along a path.

Those who want to study Tao can gain much from that simple image.

It represents the organic movement of the cosmos as a great balanced, and dynamic body in motion, just as it represents the path each of us follows through life. Sometimes intellectual definitions of Tao can be challenging. Returning to the image of Tao centers our contemplations (p. 2).

I began this talk with two translations of the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching. Joe Van Wye has a third translation for us, this one by Ron Hogan:

If you can talk about it,
It ain’t Tao.
If it has a name,
It’s just another thing.

Tao doesn’t have a name.
Names are for ordinary things.

Stop wanting stuff;
It keeps you from seeing what’s real.
When you want stuff,
All you see are things.

Those two sentences
Mean the same thing.
Figure them out,
And you’ve got it made.

In whatever translation we choose, the point of the first chapter of the Tao is the essence of the teaching: the nature of reality is the nature of the ineffable. This is the essence of the understanding of God expressed– or experienced– by the mystics, including the Christian mystics. In the mystical tradition, there is the search for a mystical union with the ineffable, which is understood as the nature of God.

In the Taoist tradition, the ineffable is not separated out from the tangible as the Christian tradition separates out the spiritual from the mundane, so there is no need to experience a spiritual union with divinity that is different from the experience of life in the world. What the mystics experience as awe and wonder, the Taoist experiences as the nature of reality. The state of ecstasy that the mystics describe, the Taoist, I think, would understand as a fevered emotionalism: the way of the Tao is to walk between heaven and earth, aware of both, embedded in both, but captured by neither. It corresponds in this way to what the Buddha refers to as the “middle path.”

The Tao doesn’t take sides;
It gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn’t take sides;
She welcomes both saints and sinners.The Tao is like a bellows:
It is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
The more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the center.

(S. Mitchell translation)

Or, in the Ron Hogan version as interpreted by Alyssa:

Tao’s neutral:
It doesn’t worry about good or evil.
The Masters are neutral:
They treat everyone the same.Lao Tzu said Tao is like a bellows:
It’s empty,
But it could set the world on fire.
If you keep using Tao, it works better.
If you keep talking about it,
It won’t make any sense.

Be cool.

{Striking of the bell of mindfulness}

We return again to the words of Rowena Pattee Kryder in her essay “A Modern Way of the Eternal Tao”: The Islamic, Judaic, and Christian traditions tend to emphasize a greater separation of spirit and nature than cultures that are closer to shamanism, the aboriginal root of all religions. Cultures that have a closer connection with shamanism include Taoism, Japanese Shinto and Zen, Amerindian “religions,” and some forms of Tibetan Buddhism. With shamanic cultures, as with Taoism, spirit and nature, or God and creation, are inherently bound up with one another. The kabbalistic, Sufi, and mystical traditions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity also have aspects of the awareness of the interpenetration of spirit and nature.

The separation of spirit and nature is based on the subject-object split, the great divide in consciousness that says sense perception and logical thought are objective whereas feeling and intuitive thought are subjective. In our scientifically oriented Western culture, objectivity is seen as the main criterion of truth, and subjectivity is considered personal and relative. But an insight, vision, or intuition may be more true than logic and description of objects. The test is the effectiveness of living the vision.

{Sounding of the bell of mindfulness}

Nothing is softer
Or more yielding
than water.
Yet, given time,
It can erode even the hardest stone.
That’s how the weak
Can defeat the strong,
And the supple
Can win out over the stiff.

Everybody knows it.
So why don’t we apply it to our own lives?

Lao Tzu used to say:

Take on people’s problems,
And you can be their leader.

Deal with the world’s problems,
And you’ll be a Master.

Sometimes the truth makes no sense.

(Ron Hogan translation)

When something is true and yet seems to make no sense, we call it a paradox. The Tao Te Ching tells us that in order to follow the Way of reality, we must behave in paradoxical fashion. We accomplish things by doing nothing. We just have to do our nothing in the fullness of mindfulness, in the clarity of full awareness.

This is a challenge, of course, because it takes a great discipline of the imagination to remember to live in the midst of paradox; a challenge because we want life to be easy and we want to be happy and we don’t want the achievement of happiness to require much effort. This is further complicated by the fact that we live in a culture that tells us that this is achievable– even as the standard-bearers of this supposed ease of achievement keep getting arrested because their packets of cocaine fall out of their handbags as they reach for their lip gloss while responding to a policeman’s questioning during a traffic stop. Or as another perfect marriage of glamour and celebrity crashes and burns.

What would it look like to do nothing and yet live in the fullness of our awareness as agents of change?One last time we return to the words of Rowena Pattee Kryder:

Once we lose the “Way” in this subject-object abyss, innumerable are the ills that grow out of it. The abuse of nature for technological exploitation, the resultant pollution, illnesses, and lack of wholesome food, water, and air and life are extreme signs of losing the “Way.” God and the world seem to be antithetical because humans create culture in ignorance of spiritual and natural laws. Then supreme effort is required to return us to the “Way.”

I don’t think my message to you today would be complete without a call to action. And in the spirit of the Tao it is a call to action by virtual inaction. Many of you know of an area of natural beauty about 15 miles north of here called Shanty Hollow Lake. The lake itself is a peaceful place of 80 acres located on 421 acres of old growth forest tucked into the northernmost corner of Warren County. Coves back into deep hollows. Residents of the area know it for its recreational fishing, canoeing and kayaking. It’s the county’s last sizable lake whose shoreline is enveloped. (Editorial, Bowling Green Daily News, August 5, 2010).

And many of you know that this beautiful area is threatened by irresponsible development as a group called the Shanty Hollow Property and Shooting Complex Committee wants to push forward with a plan in the face of opposition from neighbors for a shooting range with 100 firing points, a 20,000-square-foot restaurant, gift shops, a ticket and entrance plaza, 800 parking places, bus drop-off areas and perimeter security fencing. A shooting facility that already exists at Park Mammoth Resort just a few miles away is described by the “Daily News” as “first-class.”

Our church, as a member of the Bowling Green Interfaith Coalition for Earth Care, will be celebrating Shanty Hollow Appreciation Day a week from Saturday on October 23. This will be an opportunity for us all to spend a few hours in the woods by the lake, hiking and picnicking and boating for those who have boats to bring. We have a sign-up sheet to organize car-pooling. We’ll meet here at the church at 10:30 a.m. or so for an 11 a.m. rendezvous at Shanty Hollow. We’ll inform the Daily News of our plans. And we’ll do the good work of making a difference in the world by doing nothing– nothing other than living in the moment in the natural world between heaven and earth– living in a way that is nameless, but living in the Way.


Achieve results,
But never glory in them.
Achieve results,
But never boast.
Achieve results,
But never be proud.
Achieve results,
Because this is the natural way.

Achieve results,
But not through violence.

Force is followed by loss of strength.
This is not the way of the Tao.
That which goes against the Tao
Comes to an early end.



  • Lao Tsu, 1996. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Random House (Vintage Books).
  • Wikipedia. Articles on Tao Te Ching and Wade-Giles.
  • Lao-Tzu, 1995. Tao Te Ching. Trans. by Stephen Mitchell.
  • Hogan, R., 2002, 2004. Getting Right with Tao: Ron Hogan’s paraphrase of the Tao Te Ching.
  • Deng Ming-Dao, Everyday Tao. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
  • “Shanty Hollow development a horrible idea,” Bowling Green Daily News, August 5, 2010, p. 4A

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