Tao Te Ching §1: The Gateway

by Peter Saint-Andre


For many years I have admired, and puzzled over, the Tao Te Ching. This classic text of Chinese philosophy is wise, poetic, suggestive, paradoxial, even inscrutable. Because I don't know classical Chinese, I'm forced to read multiple translations - a task made easy by the fact that it's one of the most translated works in all of world literature. Yet, not knowing the original language, I'm always unsure whether I really understand its message. It's one of my "best friend books" and I return to it every few years.

Each of the 81 chapters of the Tao Te Ching consists of a short poem. Recently I've formed the ambition of setting some of these poems to music. The inspiration for this somewhat unusual project is the Beatles song "The Inner Light", in which George Harrison used a translation of chapter 47 of the Tao Te Ching (with slight adjustments) as his text.

The first step for each song is to settle on the lyrics. Somewhat boldly, I've decided to make my own renderings by triangulating among available translations. Here, for instance, is my version of chapter 1, which I've entitled "The Gateway"...

The way that we can say is not the ageless Way
The name that we can name is not the ageless Name
From that which has no name, came Heaven and came Earth
From that which we can name, all things have had their birth

Never yearning, we see the way things are
Ever yearning, we see but what appears
Born together, these differ but in name
See their oneness, a mystery indeed

The mystery of mysteries
The gateway to all wonder

We see here some of the signature themes of Taoism: the presence of an ageless Way underlying all heaven and earth; the gap between our names for things and their true natures; the urgent need to let go of yearnings and cravings so that we can live in harmony with the Way; the improbable unity of the abstract or universal and the particular or personal; and what Socrates too recognized as the origins of philosophy in the experience of wonder.

As to the resulting song, I'll endeavor to make a rough recording in the near future.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


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