The passages are ambiguous, and topics range from political advice for rulers to practical wisdom for people. Because the variety of interpretation is virtually limitless, not only for different people but for the same person over time, readers do well to avoid making claims of objectivity or superiority. Also, since the book is 81 short poems, there is little need for an abridgement.
Ineffability of genesis
- The Way that can be told of is not an unvarying way;
- The names that can be named are not unvarying names.
- It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;
- The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind. (chap. 1, tr. Waley)
These famous first lines of the Tao Te Ching state that the Tao is ineffable, i.e., the Tao is nameless, goes beyond distinctions, and transcends language. However this first verse does not occur in the earliest known version from the Guodian Chu Slips and there is speculation that it may have been added by later commentators. In Laozi's Qingjing Jing (verse 1-8) he clarified the term Tao was nominated as he was trying to describe a state of existence before it happened and before time or space. Way or path happened to be the side meaning of Tao, ineffability would be just poetic. This is the Chinese creation myth from the primordial Tao.
- The Valley Spirit never dies
- It is named the Mysterious Female.
- And the doorway of the Mysterious Female
- Is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang.
- It is there within us all the while;
- Draw upon it as you will; it never runs dry. (chap. 6, tr. Waley)
Like the above description of the ineffable Tao as "the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures", the Tao Te Ching advocates "female" (or Yin) values, emphasizing the passive, solid, and quiescent qualities of nature (which is opposed to the active and energetic), and "having without possessing". Waley's translation can also be understood as the Esoteric Feminine in that it can be known intuitively, that must be complemented by the masculine, "male" (or Yang), again amplified in Qingjing Jing (verse 9-13). Yin and Yang should be balanced, "Know masculinity, Maintain femininity, and be a ravine for all under heaven." (chap. 28, tr. Mair)
Returning (union with the Primordial)
- In Tao the only motion is returning.
- The only useful quality, weakness.
- For though all creatures under heaven are the products of Being,
- Being itself is the product of Not-being. " (chap. 40, tr. Waley)
Another theme is the eternal return, or what Mair (1990:139) calls "the continual return of the myriad creatures to the cosmic principle from which they arose."
There is a contrast between the rigidity of death and the weakness of life: "When he is born, man is soft and weak; in death he becomes stiff and hard. The ten thousand creatures and all plants and trees while they are alive are supple and soft, but when dead they become brittle and dry." (chap. 76, tr. Waley). This is returning to the beginning of things, or to one's own childhood.
The Tao Te Ching focuses upon the beginnings of society, and describes a golden age in the past, comparable with the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Human problems arose from the "invention" of culture and civilization. In this idealized past, “the people should have no use for any form of writing save knotted ropes, should be contented with their food, pleased with their clothing, satisfied with their homes, should take pleasure in their rustic tasks." (chap. 80, tr. Waley)
- We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
- But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
- We turn clay to make a vessel;
- But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
- We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
- And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
- Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not. (chap. 11, tr. Waley)
Philosophical vacuity is a common theme among Asian philosophical traditions including Taoism (especially Wu wei "effortless action"), Buddhism, and some aspects of Confucianism. One could interpret the Tao Te Ching as a suite of variations on the "Powers of Nothingness". This predates the Buddhist Shunyata philosophy of "form is emptiness, emptiness is form" by half a millennium.
Looking at a traditional Chinese Landscape, one can understand how emptiness (the unpainted) has the power of animating the trees, mountains, and rivers it surrounds. Emptiness can mean having no fixed preconceptions, preferences, intentions, or agenda. Since "The Sage has no heart of his own; He uses the heart of the people as his heart." (chap. 49, tr. Waley). From a ruler's point of view, it is a laissez-faire approach:
- So a wise leader may say:
- "I practice inaction, and the people look after themselves."
- But from the Sage it is so hard at any price to get a single word
- That when his task is accomplished, his work done,
- Throughout the country every one says: “It happened of its own accord”. (chap. 17, tr. Waley)
Knowledge and humility
- Knowing others is wisdom;
- Knowing the self is enlightenment.
- Mastering others requires force;
- Mastering the self requires strength;
- He who knows he has enough is rich.
- Perseverance is a sign of will power.
- He who stays where he is endures.
- To die but not to perish is to be eternally present. (chap. 33, tr. Feng and English)
The Tao Te Ching praises self-gained knowledge with emphasis on that knowledge being gained with humility. When what one person has experienced is put into words and transmitted to others, so doing risks giving unwarranted status to what inevitably must have had a subjective tinge. Moreover, it will be subjected to another layer of interpretation and subjectivity when read and learned by others. This kind of knowledge (or "book learning"), like desire, should be diminished. "It was when intelligence and knowledge appeared that the Great Artifice began." (chap. 18, tr. Waley) And so, "The pursuit of learning is to increase day after day. The pursuit of Tao is to decrease the doing of the self day after day." (chap. 48, tr. W. T. Chan)
Interpretations in relation to religious traditions
The relation between Taoism and Buddhism and Chan Buddhism is complex and fertile. Similarly, the relationship between Taoism and Confucianism is richly interwoven, historically.