“The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
What does Tao Te Ching mean?
None of the three words in the title of the book by Lao Tzu is in English, so we will need to look at the original Chinese characters to find out what it means.
First, let us see the three characters as separate, independent words.
The first character ‘Tao’ is 道. It has several meanings, among them is ‘the way’ or ‘the path’. So we may interpret it as referring to the underlying principles of the universe.
The second character ‘Te’ is 德. It is often translated as ‘virtue’. This is a very loose translation, as virtue can mean different things to different people. In the context of the book, a more appropriate translation would be ‘the application of Tao’.
The third word ‘Ching’ is 经. It can mean a classic or scripture.
If we put the three characters together, the title of the book would then mean ‘The Scripture of Tao and Te’.
Now, let’s read the first two characters ‘Tao Te’ – 道德 – as two syllables of one word. ‘Tao Te’ as a word is often translated as morality. So the title of the book is sometimes translated as ‘Book of Morality’.
The translation, nevertheless, is not really appropriate. Morality is more a subject of Confucianism. Lao Tzu’s focus is not on morality, as it is dictated by men. What Lao Tzu wants us to do is to abide by are the laws of the universe rather than those set out by men .
Having said that, it should be noted that the book had no title when it was written. Lao Tzu did not give it a title, neither did he divide the book into chapters. These were all done by later generations. For many years, the book had been known only as Lao Tzu, i.e. name of the author. It was Emperor Jing (188 BC to 141 BC) of the Han Dynasty who bestowed it the title of ‘Tao Te Ching’ that we know today.
The book is also known as Dao De Jing, if you go by the pinyin system of pronunciation. Over the centuries, it also went by a few other names, among them Five Thousand Characters and Shangzhi Jing. So do not be alarmed if you see the title of the book being translated in other manners.
No wonder Lao Tzu would say in the opening chapter of the book, “The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”