The Theosophy of the Tao Te Ching, Part One

Originally printed in the January - February  2001 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation:Brooks, Richard W. "xxx." Quest  89.1 (JANUARY - FEBRUARY  2001): 18-21.

By Richard W. Brooks

Theosophical Society - Richard Brooks, PhD, is a retired professor from Oakland University in Michigan, where he taught Asian philosophy. A member of the Theosophical Society for forty-seven years, he currently serves on the National Board of Directors. Many Theosophists have fallen in love with the little Chinese classic known as the Tao Te Ching and ascribed to the sage Lao Tzu. We see in it an echo of many familiar Theosophical ideas. Others share our enthusiasm, however, since it has been translated into English more often than any other book except the Bhagavad Gita. But what, exactly, is the nature of this little book? And why does it fascinate people?

First of all, it is a short "classic" (ching). It is traditionally divided into eighty-one chapters, which are further organized into two sections, one dealing with tao (literally "way") and one dealing with te (usually translated "virtue," but conveying the idea of "moral force"). There are several different versions of the text, but each contains about five thousand Chinese characters. That makes it a manageable task for a reader.

Second, it is often cryptic. Many passages are susceptible of quite different translations. Not only does this offer a challenge to any translator or reader, it also leads to a feeling, on the part of many, that they know what it really means, whereas others have missed the point. In fact, Lao Tzu even encourages this attitude, when he says:

My words are easy to understand and easy to practice,
Yet no one under Heaven understands or practices them.
My words have an ancestor, my deeds have a lord.
Precisely because men do not understand this, they do not understand me.
Because those who understand me are few, I am greatly valued.
Therefore, the Sage wears a coarse woolen coat, and carries
his jade underneath it. [ch. 70]

To have an "ancestor" and a "lord" was to be part of the social order, that is to say, not to be a wild man. Here it is a metaphorical way of claiming that the Tao Te Ching has a coherent teaching. The last line is a metaphor to say that the teaching is, however, hidden under an apparently rough exterior guise. These lines make an important point for those who cannot read Chinese: one should always be cautious about citing any translation uncritically. And that applies to those in this essay, which are all my own.

Third, where one finds general agreement among translators on the meaning of certain passages, the philosophic viewpoint that the Tao Te Ching offers is so strikingly different from our normal way of thinking that it causes us to sit back and reassess our own viewpoint--especially in the realms of metaphysics and interpersonal behavior. Again, Lao Tzu alludes to this when he writes:

When the best student hears of the Way (tao),
He practices it diligently.
When the average student hears of the Way,
He half believes, half disbelieves it.
When the foolish student hears of the way,
He laughs out loud.
If he didn't laugh, it couldn't be considered the Way! [ch.41]

That is true of most really profound teachings. And that is why Theosophists find the Tao Te Ching a book well worth careful, repeated study. But that's just the beginning. We still haven’t answered the question what is its nature? The answer to this question is crucial to any translation, since it will color how certain important words, and even whole passages, are translated.

Is this little book the work of a single author? If so, one expects to find its ideas coherent. Or is it merely a compilation of what one translator calls "Laoist" sayings? If so, one would not expect consistency, but rather occasional contradictions. My own feeling, after forty years of studying the book and reading numerous translations, is that it is at least generally coherent. One ought at least to look for coherence before abandoning the hypothesis that it is the work of a single author. In fact, even translators like D. C. Lau who feel it is a collection of stray sayings, have done coherent and consistent translations. Even if it is a compilation of "Laoist" sayings by someone calling himself Lao Tzu (literally "old fellow" or "old master"), they form a generally consistent whole.

There are basically three approaches to the text. One assumes the book to be primarily mystical or metaphysical, and certainly many passages support that idea, including the opening chapter. Another assumes that the Tao Te Ching is predominantly a sociopolitical treatise; again, numerous passages support that interpretation. In addition, almost all early Chinese philosophy was sociopolitical in nature, so this interpretation fits the general pattern. And finally, one can find support in many passages for a philosophy of personal, or more aptly interpersonal, action. I think all three interpretations are correct, with no real conflict between them.

All ancient Chinese philosophers (prior to the advent of Buddhism) considered humans to be social creatures with certain natural desires (for good food, fine clothing, sex, a filial family, nice housing in a decent neighborhood, and a government responsive to the needs of the people). To be a celibate recluse was considered to be abnormal, sick. So early Chinese philosophy addresses the problems of human beings in society and the Tao Te Ching is therefore a sociopolitical treatise. But the organization and governance of state and society should be based on ethics. And that means, according to the Tao Te Ching (and Theosophy), that ethics must be grounded in the way Nature works, or metaphysics.

The sociopolitical situation in ancient China at the time of Lao Tzu (which might have been anywhere between the sixth and the second centuries BC) was dire, as is clearly indicated in a number of passages, for example:

The court is arrayed in splendor,
While the fields are full of weeds
While the fields are full of weeds
While the fields are full of weeds
And the granaries are bare.
Yet some wear elegant, embroidered clothes
And carry sharp swords;
They gorge themselves on food and drink
And have more possessions than they can use.
This is robbery and extravagance,
And is certainly not the Way (tao).[ch. 53]

Why are the people starving?
Because the rulers take so much tax grain.
That’s why they’re starving. [ch. 75]

Unfortunately, in many countries of the world today, the political situation is essentially the same! That is just one of the things which makes this little classic timeless--and which makes Lao Tzu’s recommended solution of more than merely intellectual interest to us.

Although important metaphysical ideas are scattered throughout the Tao TeChing, most of them can be found in the tao or first section of the book (chs.1–37). The first idea is that Nature is unitary—one coherent, mysterious, interrelated ground of being, such that it cannot be delineated or described in language, but can only be apprehended in a desire-free, transcendental, unitive experience (clearly a Theosophical idea):

Something there is mysteriously formed,
Existing before Heaven and Earth,
Silent, still, standing alone, unchanging,
All-pervading, unfailing,
It may be regarded as the mother of Heaven and Earth.
I do not know its name; I call it tao.
If forced to give it a name, I call it
Great (ta).
Being great, it flows out;
Flowing out means far-reaching;
Being far-reaching, it is said to return. [ch. 25]

The tao that can be told of is not the unvarying tao;
The name that can be named is not the unvarying name.
The nameless is the beginning of Heaven and Earth;
The named is the Mother of the ten thousand things.
Therefore, ever desireless one sees its essence,
But ever desiring one sees its manifestations.
These two are the same,
But after being produced have different names.
This may be called a mystery:
A mystery within a mystery,
The gateway to all essences. [ch. 1]

The second idea, as already alluded to above, is that nature or tao is cyclic:

Returning is the movement of tao;
Weakness [or yielding] is the method of tao;
The ten thousand things are born from Being;
And Being is born of Nonbeing. [ch. 40]

This too is a common Theosophical idea. So also is the third characteristic of Nature: it is impersonal, not partial to humans or any other beings:

Heaven and, Earth are not humane (jên);
They regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The Sage is not humane (jên);
He regards the hundred families as straw dogs. [ch. 5]

"The ten thousand things" in Chinese means "all things"; and "the hundred families" means "all people." The Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu (about 369–286 BC prior to the compilation of the Tao Te Ching) reports that certain ancient ceremonies in China used dogs woven of straw; during the ceremony these straw dogs were treated with the greatest respect, but after they had served their purpose in the ceremony they were discarded and trampled on. This idea ofthe impersonality of Nature runs through all the major philosophical Taoist writings, and it is echoed in letter 10 (88 in the chronological series) of The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett:

Nature is destitute of goodness or malice; she follows only immutable laws when she either gives life and joy, or sends suffering[and] death, and destroys what she has created. . . . The butterfly devoured by a bird becomes that bird, and the little bird killed byan animal goes into a higher form. It is the blind law of necessity and the eternal fitness of things, and hence cannot be called Evil in Nature.

Fourth, manifested Nature is dual, having two aspects. These are indicated, in one passage, by the familiar terms yang (more frequently called Heaven or t’ien in thetext) and yin (more frequently called Earth or ti). But a closer reading of the text also shows that the two are but different aspects of a more fundamental energy, termed ch’i:

The ten thousand things carry yin on their backs and embrace yang in their arms,
And by blending the ch’i achieve harmony. [ch. 42]

The Secret Doctrine (1:14–5) has passages in which the"one absolute Reality" ("rootless root," "Be-ness," or "Parabrahman") is called"that Essence which is out of all relation to conditioned existence" and is said to have two aspects, "abstract Space" and "abstract Motion," the latter also called the "Great Breath." H. P. Blavatsky further says that once one passes from this level of abstraction, "duality supervenes in the contrast of Spirit (or consciousness) and Matter, Subject and Object." Yang, then, would be equivalent metaphorically to Spirit and yin to Matter, although they are often interpreted more literally as just "sky" and "earth."

Finally, Lao Tzu mentions a trinitarian aspect to Nature. The manifested one not only gives rise to two, but two, in turn, gives rise to three--thence to the "ten thousand things":

Tao gives birth to one;
One gives birth to two:
Two gives birth to three;
Three gives birth to the ten thousand things. [ch. 42]

Such a trinitarian aspect of the creative, manifesting side of Nature is a common theme in several of the world’s religions. The Secret Doctrine (1:16) also identifies three logoi, the third of which is called "the Universal World-Soul, the Cosmic Noumenon of Matter, the basis of the intelligent operations in and of Nature," which sounds very much like the same idea expressed cryptically above. There is one other passage from the Tao TeChing which some Theosophists have thought even suggests influence from or upon Hindu and Judeo-Christian theology:

We look at it but do not see it: it is
    termed elusive (or evanescent, minute,
    formless, invisible) (yi);

We listen to it but do not hear it: it is
    termed inaudible (or rarefied) (hsi);

We touch it but do not feel it: it is termed
    intangible (or subtle, infinitesimal) (wei). [ch. 14]

The three words used here to characterize tao are yi, hsi, and wei in Chinese, suggesting a trinitarian parallel with yod, he, and vau or YHV of the Hebrew Divine Name transliterated as Jehovah, or, i, sha, and va of the Hindu "Isvara." But since philosophical Taoism is naturalistic, not theistic, these parallels are more probably a linguistic coincidence. Theosophists shouldn’t make too much of them. In fact, H. P. Blavatsky quotes Max Müller in pointing out that this is, in his phrase, a false analogy (SD 1:472). [to be concluded]


Richard Brooks, PhD, is a retired professor from Oakland University in Michigan, where he taught Asian philosophy. A member of theTheosophical Society for forty-seven years, he currently serves on the National Board of Directors. This article is adapted from the Theosophist, November 1998.

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