from’s Language Pages Dao-9 project:


Approaching the Dao-1, page 2


Here are our second two sentences:



lack name 10,000 things ’s beginning



have name 10,000 things ’s mother


They’re probably among the most difficult to translate in all the Dao, so let’s take them apart piece by piece.  First, a little grammar.   indicates possession or relation.  Because of its positioning, it is easiest to think of it as equivalent to -’s or –ness, depending on which works best.


The first word in each line is of tremendous importance.  and show up throughout the Dao.  The first means “without, nothing, to lack, to not exist”; the second means “with, to have, to exist.”  The pairing shows up all over the place, including in the two sentences after this.  In book 7, they are given their definition:  the two of them together mutually produce one another and perhaps everything else too.  There is something about Dao which loves to play with oppositions, and in a sense, this lacking and having play off one another.


The other important term in these phrases is 萬物 (wan-wu), the 10,000 (or myriad) things.  Wan-wu is all of life, all the things in the world, and sits alongside天土 (heaven-earth or creation) as a way of showing the all-encompassing nature of the matters under discussion.


We have our vocabulary now, and the words for each character are given in the first figure on the page.  The problem is figuring out how they go together.  In summing up, I’ll offer my interpretation, but for now, I’ll just give a few translations:



There is no name for the 10,000 things’ beginning.

There is a name for the 10,000 things’ mother.


Nameless is the 10,000 things’ beginning.

Named is the 10,000 things’ beginning.


Lack is the name of the 10,000 things’ beginning.

Having is the name of the 10,000 things’ mother.


Non-existence names the 10,000 things’ beginning.

Existence names the 10,000 things’ mother.


The first of these is the standard interpretations, but the third and fourth intrigue in that they give the 10,000 things’ beginning and mother both names, but of a drastically different character which mimic the distinction between the “way that can be spoken” and the unutterable way, the name that can be named and that which cannot.


In lines 5 and 6, the tangle continues:



therefore ever without desire : so to see its essence


ever with desire : so to see it which shines


First, a grammar note.  is a sort of causative meaning “so” or “in order to.”  It can be helpful to think of it as meaning “as a result.”  The particle’s use can be confusing because the connection between cause and effect get murky in the Dao.  means “him/her/it” or, more often, the possessive form of these.  In this case, the standard reading says that the at the end of the opening of each phrase encapsulates it as a property which gives way to what lies beyond in the text.  Hence, this translation for the first line (with the parts subject to in italics):


Therefore, [be] always lacking desire (), in order to see its essence.


The “its” is always left “its” so that the translator doesn’t have to resolve whether it refers to Dao, desire or creation with its 10,000 things.  In my view, the “its” refers to the Dao or way, which is found not by striving but by being at one with the flow of things, a state that desire necessarily impedes.


With our ideas about the fifth sentence, we’re ready for the sixth.  The only tricky point we haven’t resolved is the “其所皦” (it which shines).  The first thing to be noted is that manuscripts disagree – often – on how this line ends.  The character I have used is not used in any manuscript that I have encountered, but the notes for one manuscript indicate that it’s what the scribe probably meant to write; in its place was a homophone that made no sense whatsoever.  The choice of character makes sense because the things that shine are those on the surface, those struck by the light, and these stand in contrast to the inner essence.    In a way, this indicates that constant desire for the Way will leave you caught up in the glory of the ancient Way, too caught up to capture what the lasting way is all about.  As we will see on the next page, the last lines of Book 1 of the Dao reinforce the distinction.


First, however, here is the translation for line 6 (again with thepart italicized):  [Be] ever desiring () [and] as a result see [only] its surface.”


Go to Approaching the Dao-1, page 3.


Copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003.


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