What “is” the Tao?


The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin of all particular things. (trans. by Mitchell)

The famous words from the beginning of Lao Tzu’s classic, Tao Te Ching.

Tao was ubiquitous in Chinese thought/philosophy from ancient times. Why write about the Tao if it cannot be told? Any writing about the Tao inevitably falls short because words, which function to express human thought/ideas, are doomed to fail. The Tao, like Nirvana, transcends language and cannot be described–it can only be experienced.

This does not mean, of course, that the people have not talked about the Tao. Of course they have, from Confucius, to Mencius, to Lao-Tzu and still up to this day. People in the west who are familiar with the Tao are probably familiar with its Taoist “definition,” most notably from the Tao Te Ching.

One of the fundamental elements that distinguished Lao-Tzu’s philosophy from his contemporaries was his rejection of names. While most philosophers “insisted on the correspondence of names and actualities,” Lao-Tzu “rejected names in favor of the nameless” for “when names arise,” that is human language is applied to an object, “the simple oneness of Tao is split up into individual things” (Chan 139-40).

Rather than explore how the Tao has been discussed through the thousands of years of China’s rich philosophical and religious history, my aim in this post is quite simple: I only seek to discuss the etymology of the ideogram for Tao (most often translated in English as “the way, the path” and sometimes “doctrine”) as presented in the 19th century Taoist master Shui-chi’ing’s commentary on  Cultivating Stillness, a classic work of what is known in Taoism as “internal alchemy.”

The ideogram above is “Tao,” and while looked upon as a totality of sorts, it consists of several parts.

We begin with 8 directionsat the top of the ideogram. The slanting line to the left symbolizes the sun while that on the right symbolizes the moon. In internal alchemy, “they are the outer and the inner reflecting each other” (Wong 12).


The next stroke is the horizontal line eye, which simply means “one” (Wong 12) or “unity…source of all beings” (Wieger 26). Says Shui-chi’ing: “Confucianism says that ‘concentration is Oneness.’ Buddhism says that ‘all dharma comes from Oneness.’  Taoism says, ‘Hold onto the Origin and focus on Oneness'” (Wong 12).


Third is image008, which combines the ideograms for sun and moon. In this particular ideogram, “sun and moon are contained in the word for self” (Wong 12). image008, or self, then, is the union between opposites.


Last comes journey, which “symbolizes walking on a path” (Wong 12).


A conclusion? I have no conclusion, for there is nothing to explain, much as the “nothing” in the landscape painting below is the “way”, the very path, between the foreground and the background.


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