Most of us are aware that Tao Te Ching is a book about Tao. Few, however, realise that to know what Tao is, you have to know what Te is.
The fact that Te, often translated as virtue, being one of the three words in the title of the book underscores its importance. It plays an indispensable role in helping us to appreciate the marvels of Tao.
I’d even venture to say any understanding of Tao would be incomplete without first acquiring some level of familiarity with Te.
What is Te? Why is it so important?
First and foremost, it makes Tao comprehensible!
Tao is formless. It’s something that you cannot see and touch. It has no form, no shape, no color, no taste, no smell. It is not even a ‘thing’ in the true sense. Try to describe something formless is next to impossible. For example, how do you explain oxygen? It is hard for you to use words alone, so you would probably need to borrow the experience of breathing and the creation of fire for illustration. Tao is a concept many times more complex than air, so it is even harder to describe.
This is where Te comes into play.
Te is manifestations of Tao. In the Taoist literature, Tao is known as the ‘body’, and Te its uses.
Through Te, we see Tao in actions! If Tao is the space in a cup where tea can be held, Te is the cup.
Te makes Tao comprehensible. It makes Tao learnable — something you can practice in life. For example, the characteristics of water falls in line with Tao, and they are the Te or virtue that reflects an aspect of Tao. By observing water, you are able to see how Tao behaves. It is soft, selfless, willing to stay at the places where people disdain, and yet ever-powerful. By imitating the behavior of water, you get to experience what Tao is.
Of course, water is nothing more than an illustration. It is like Tao, but not Tao. You will need a lot more examples of Te to get a better understanding of Tao — greatness of nature, softness of baby, and pureness of uncarved wooden block, and a lot more!
Without Te, however, you can only stay at conceptual level to understand what Tao is. This is quite useless, unless the reason your learn Tao is purely for the satisfaction of intellectual inquisition.