from’s Language Pages Dao-9 project:


Approaching the Dao-1, page 3


We now come to the last lines of the first book of the Dao, and is it not amazing how much goes into figuring out a mere 75 characters or so?  Fear not, it gets easier as you go.  Here’s our second to last line:












First, a look at, which makes adjectives and verbal phrases into nouns, among other things.  What it does here is allow the “pair” to stay without specifying what it is a pair of.  In my view, this “pair” refers to all the pairs we’ve met:  the speakable and unutterable Daos, the nameable and unnameable names, the named and nameless variants of the 10,000 things’ origins, and the contradictory results of the two sides of desire.  Continuing this thought process, we see that all of these are two sides of the same coin:  The existence of one implies the existence of the other, else the first would not have to be distinguished.  Consequently, they come into existence simultaneously, they spring forth together. 


At the end of the line, we see that whatever things it is that compromise our pair, together they are called profound.  So what’s the business with “differently named” or “of different names”?  When we get to the last line, we will see that it’s the logical conclusion to where this passage has been going.  What the Dao offers us is either dualities or multiplicities.  As I noted on page 1, we can read the first line as “The way that can be spoken is not the lasting way,” but there are also theoretical grounds for reading it as “Ways that can be spoken are not lasting ways.”  I believe that the second is truer to the nature of the quest for Dao – surely Lao Tzu would not have prescribed one way of living, even if it were an imprescribable one.  But at issue here is the duality of perception – perceptible things fall short and imperceptible things cannot be perceived.  In other words, once you put a name or a description on something, it isn’t that anymore.  Here we are learning, from a sage who lived millenia ago, that observation changes the observed, that once you know the Dao – or anything else worth knowing – you don’t.  Hence our pair, with two names.  What are their names?  The nameable name and the unnameable name.  They are both profound, but once you apply the name, it ceases to apply and so you get the useless part of the profundity that we comprehend and the essential part that we don’t ad infinitum.


You’re no doubt ready to just move on to the last line by now, so here it is:










Let’s translate that, “Profoundness beyond profound [defines] the gateway to the many essences.”


That “profoundness beyond profound” marks a new duality or multiplicity – it captures (but surely fails to capture) the unnameably profound that goes with the true mystery of the true way or ways.  It is the evocation of “many essences” which makes me think the Dao exists as multiplicities rather than as a duality, but that is just one opinion.


We have now made it through the first book, and with luck you’ve gotten a little look at how this text works.  You should now go take a look at the whole thing put together on the Dao, book 1.  You’ll notice there is a slightly different approach to the text there along with two slightly different interpretations.  The Dao is a text which lends itself to multiple approaches and understandings and I hope that by providing several possible understandings instead of one, I’ve given you a way not merely to see how I understand this first book of the Dao but to form an understanding of your own.


Copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003.


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