The Tao Te Ching is one of the more mysterious documents in the history of religion. Nothing is known of its author, called Lao Tzu or Old Master, except a few legends given by the historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien. Its date is the subject of dispute amongst scholars. Even its nature and purpose are ambiguous. What it most resembles is our own Book of Psalms as used in Christian monastic orders, a collection of poems and short prose passages to be used for meditation or for chanting in choir by a community of contemplatives. As far as we know there were no monks in China until the introduction of Buddhism hundreds of years after the latest possible date for the Tao Te Ching. Nevertheless this is the best way to understand the book — as a collection of subjects for meditation, catalysts for contemplation. It certainly is not a philosophical treatise or a religious one, either, in our sense of the words religion, philosophy, or treatise.
Arthur Waley, whose translation is still by far the best, rendered the title as The Way and Its Power. Others have called Tao “The Way of Nature” — Te means something like virtus in Latin. (“Lao Tzu” is pronounced “Low Ds”; “Tao Te Ching,” “Dow Deh Jing,” “ow” as in “bow-wow.”)
In the Confucian writings Tao usually means either a road or a way of life. It means that in the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching, “The way that can be followed (or the road that can be traced or charted) is not the true way. The word that can be spoken is not the true word.” Very quickly the text drives home the numinous significance of both Tao and Te. Tao is described by paradox and contradiction — the Absolute in a worldview where absolutes are impossible, the ultimate reality which is neither being nor not being, the hidden meaning behind all meaning, the pure act which acts without action and yet the reason and order of the simplest physical occurrence.
It is quite possible — in fact Joseph Needham in his great Science and Civilization in China does so — to interpret the Tao Te Ching as a treatise of elementary primitive scientific empiricism; certainly it is that. Over and over it says, “learn the way of nature”; “do not try to overcome the forces of nature but use them.” On the other hand, Fr. Leo Weiger, S.J., called the Tao Te Ching a restatement of the philosophy of the Upanishads in Chinese terms. Buddhists, especially Zen Buddhists in Japan and America, have understood and translated the book as a pure statement of Zen doctrine. Even more remarkable, contemporary Chinese, and not all of them Marxists, have interpreted it as an attack on private property and feudal oppression, and as propaganda for communist anarchism. Others have interpreted it as a cryptic work of erotic mysticism and yoga exercises. It is all of these things and more, and not just because of the ambiguity of the ideograms in a highly compressed classical Chinese text; it really is many things to many men — like the Tao itself.