Daodejing Chapter 1: the most subtle and the most profound

Daodejing creativity

「道可道,非常道,名可名,非常名。無名天地之始,有名萬物之母。故常無欲以觀其妙,常有欲以觀其徼,此兩者同出而異名,同謂之玄,玄之又玄,眾妙之門。」
The Dao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Dao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;
The named is the mother of all things.
Thus, always free yourself of desires,
To observe its mysteries,
But always allow yourself to possess desires,
To observe its manifestations.
Both spring from the same source but have different names;
Together they are called subtle and profound;
The most subtle and the most profound;
The gateway to all mysteries.

The Daodejing was written during a very turbulent time of Chinese history towards the end of Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 476 BCE) when rulers of a veritable patchwork of feudal states and fiefdoms were vying with each other for supremacy and the traditional culture of the ancient Zhou Dynasty was in terminal decline.

Laozi (Old Master), the unknown author of the text, was one of numerous intellectuals who engaged in passionate debate over how to restore peace and prosperity to the conflict-riven land and to rebuild the shattered foundations of society. Together with Confucius, he not only emerged as the most prominent thinker of his time but also went on to receive widespread acclaim for the wisdom of his teachings right until the present day.

The philosophies of Confucius and Laozi are like yin and yang and chalk and cheese. Whereas Confucius promoted the restoration of the strict yet elaborate rituals that he believed were practiced during the (no-doubt-mythical) golden age that marked the establishment of the Zhou Dynasty, Laozi argued for a return to a (no-doubt-equally-mythical) primordial time when humanity lived in perfect harmony with heaven, earth, and the animals and plants that comprised the myriad of things.

Unlike Confucius (whose teachings were compiled in the Analects by successive generations of followers), Laozi is reputed to have written the text of the Daodejing himself. It is thus a much more cohesive work, not to mention a much shorter one at only 5,000 characters. The beauty of the language and metaphors he employs also puts the pithy but occasionally blustering aphorisms of his counterpart well and truly in the shade.

The literary genius of Laozi is immediately apparent in the first chapter of the received edition of the Daodejing. Rather than hitting you over the head with a blunt rhetorical hammer, he invites you to contemplate the mysteries (妙/miào) of the creation of the universe and the parallel “nameless” (無名/wúmíng) and “named” (有名/yǒumíng) pathways that emerged from it. If that’s not enough to send the cogs and gears in your brain spinning, he goes on to throw out the idea that you can only observe the mysteries of the way by “free(ing) yourself of desires” (無欲/wúyù) yet at the same time you can only observe the manifestations of the way by “allow(ing) yourself to possess desires” (有欲/yǒuyù).

How to resolve this parallel paradox? In contrast to Confucius, Laozi refuses to give you a clear and direct answer to this question. Perhaps by only going so far as describe the way as “the most subtle and the most profound” (玄之又玄/xuánzhīyòuxuán), he is telling you that you’ll only ever find it by searching for it yourself.

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