The Tao: You Can’t Comprehend It (Don’t Even Try)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tzu. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the Tao? Why does it go against Taoism to try to understand it? How can you engage with the Tao?

In the hierarchy, the Tao falls above all else, even the Universe. It is the supreme entity and the source of all life. Although you shouldn’t try to understand how the Tao works, it is possible to engage with it and become enlightened.

Keep reading to learn more about the nature of the Tao.

The Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching is one of the foundational texts of Taoism, written between the 4th and 6th centuries. This article is based on the Stephen Mitchell translation, which modernizes much of the text.

While we have done our best to research the text and offer an accurate representation of the Tao Te Ching, areas of this article are based upon interpretation. The piece is written as poetry and, as such, even Taoist scholars have different perspectives on what the language represents. 

The Nature of the Tao

Older than any deity, the Tao is the natural order of the universe. It’s the guiding energy that lives within us and connects us to everything around us. Also known as the “Great Mother,” it paradoxically creates nothing while offering infinite energy to all beings, nurturing and caring for them.

As an omnipresent entity, the Tao is eternal and infinite. It was never born or created, and, therefore, it can never die or be destroyed. The Tao has no biases, being unconditionally available to all beings who want to live according to its teachings.

The Tao exists as part of a universal hierarchy:

  1. The Tao: The supreme entity of the universe, the Tao is the source of all life.
  2. The Universe: The workings of the universe adhere to the guidance of the Tao.
  3. The Earth: The workings of the earth adhere to the guidance of the universe.
  4. Humanity: Human beings should adhere to the guidance of the earth, though some fight against it out of selfishness, ego, or greed.

Though the Tao is immensely powerful, it’s unaware and uninterested in its own strength, remaining humble and objective. It is constantly at ease and at peace, never allowing its desires to impact its actions.

Beyond Comprehension

Because it’s beyond the comprehension of human beings, the workings of the Tao can’t be described or understood, only experienced. The more that you try to understand the workings of the Tao, the less you’ll be able to engage with it. In fact, the Tao may even seem paradoxical. For example, the Tao is empty because it holds onto nothing, yet it is infinite as it expands through the universe. 

Before you begin your journey with the Tao, embrace your inability to comprehend its nature. Instead, look for the manifestations of the Tao, using them as a reminder of the Great Mother’s power. For example, if you feel a sense of peace while looking at a gorgeous sunset, recognize that the sensation of enjoying the sunset is a manifestation of the workings of the Tao.

Engaging With the Tao

The Tao (and the universe) works in inexplicable ways, and, while you’ll never completely understand it, you can engage with the energy it creates. There are three major aspects to engaging with the Tao:

  • Simplicity: Keep your thoughts and actions simple. This lets you stay engaged with the universe.
  • Patience: Be patient with friends and foes alike. This lets you stay objective with your observations.
  • Compassion: Be compassionate to yourself and others. This lets you respect all beings regardless of your biases.

Enlightened people embrace the teachings of the Tao, while foolish people laugh it off as nonsense. The workings of the Tao aren’t readily apparent to most people, and those who aren’t willing to embrace the Tao would rather dismiss its existence. 

The traits developed by listening to the guidance of the universe often seem mundane, preventing many from recognizing the significance of the Tao. Stay firm in the face of ridicule or criticism. Your inner peace isn’t linked to other people’s opinions.

The Tao: You Can’t Comprehend It (Don’t Even Try)

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Tao Te Ching summary:

  • What the natural order of the universe is
  • How the "Great Mother" offers energy to all beings
  • How you can achieve harmonious living

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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