Reflections on the first two lines, which form a couplet.
The twelve characters broken down (using simplified Chinese)
道 Dao (the way)
可 called certain –defined as
非 is not
常 constant (eternal/true/complete)
可 called certain
非 is not
常 constant (eternal/true/complete)
The use of repetition suggests analogy. These two complementary but different things may be looked at in the same way. This is quite common (I believe) in ancient Chinese, especially Daoist poetry.
Stripped down as far as I can, I’d say the argument/concept might be rendered thus:
As it is for The Dao, so it is for a name.
Which leaves us with the question ‘as what is?’ What is it?
I suggest it’s the concept of definition, or certainty. Thus i Interpret it as follows:
The Dao ‘defined as such’ is not the ‘real’ Dao.
The name ‘defined as such ’ is not the ‘real’ name.
The character 可 ‘called’ encompasses called with certainty (we might say ‘defined)
The character 常 ‘Real’ encompasses concepts of eternal, constancy, truth, completeness.
What is meant by ‘real, or ‘eternal’ or ‘constant’ or ‘true’ or ‘complete’ is a matter for the individual to interpret.
I see Dao/name as yinyang complements (not opposites) Daoism finds the concept of definition unhelpful. Definitions by their nature are ‘fixed’ and Daoism is infinitely flexible. So you can’t ‘pin down’ what any character or set of characters ‘means’. Meaning is flexible. It’s all interpretation. And its beyond words because words are the ‘fixing’ of thoughts/ideas.
So my interpretation today of this couplet today is as follows:
If you understand that naming something doesn’t tell you anything substantial then understand that you can’t constrain the Dao (as concept or ‘thing’) with words.
To me that seems a really good place to start exploring the Dao from.
Thinking about the many various translations of the Dao De Jing and how varied they are... I wondered how Google Translate would handle it. So I copied in the Simplified Chinese translation
and here's what it spat out...
Road to Road, very Avenue. The name can be named, very famous.
The beginning of the nameless world; the mother of all things.
So there is always nothing, one wants to see the magic; when there is often, one wants to see the good.
The two come from the same name but have different names, and the same is called "Xuan".
Mysterious and mystical, the door to all the wonders.
Go figure! I know it's April 1st but... seriously?
Here are six versions of Chapter One I've engaged with over the years. I wish I could say I remember which was the first. I suspect actually, none of these. I've listed them in chronological order simply because they have to be ordered some way.
Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.
As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless
As ‘the mother’ of all things, it is nameable.
So, as ever hidden, we should look at its inner essence:
As always manifest, we should look at its outer aspects.
These two flow from the same source, though differently named:
And both are called mysteries.
The mystery of mysteries is the Door of all essence.
2. Vincent H. Mair (1990)
The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way:
The names that can be named are not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of the myriad creatures;
The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.
Always be without desire
In order to observe its wondrous subtleties
Always have desire
So that you may observe its manifestations
Mystery of Mysteries,
The Gate of all wonders.
3. Tao Te Ching (The Definitive Edition) Translation and commentary by Jonathan Star. (2001)
A way that can be walked
Is not The Way
A name that can be named
Is not The Name
Tao is both Named and Nameless
As Nameless it is the origin of all things
As Named, it is the mother of all things
A mind free of thought,
Merged within itself
Beholds the essence of Tao
A mind filled with thought
Identified with its own perceptions
Beholds the mere forms of this world
Tao and the world seem different
But in truth they are one and the same
The only difference is what we call them
How deep and mysterious is this unity
How profound, how great!
It is the truth beyond the truth,
The hidden within the hidden,
It is the path to all wonder
The gate to the essence of everything.
4. A philosophical translation Dao De Ching ‘Making this life Significant’ Featuring the recently discovered Bamboo Texts. Translated and with a commentary by Roger T.Ames and David L.Hall. (2003)
Way making that can be put into words is not really way making
And naming that can assign fixed reference to things is not really naming
The nameless is the fetal beginnings of everything that is happening
While that which is named is their mother
Thus, to be really objective in one’s desires is how to observe the mysteries of all things
While really having desires is how to observe their boundaries
These two - the nameless and what is named - emerge from the same source yet are referred to differently.
Together they are called obscure
The obscurest of the obscure
They are the swinging gateway of the manifold mystery.
5. Tao Te Ching on the Art of Harmony Chad Hansen 2009
Ways can be guided; they are not fixed ways
Names can be named; they are not fixed names
‘Absence’ names the cosmic horizon
‘Presence’ names the mother of 10,000 natural kinds
Fixing on ‘absence’ is to want to view enigmas
Fixing on ‘presence’ is to want to view phenomena.
These two, emerging together, we name differently.
Conceiving of them as being one: call that ‘fathomless.’
Calling it ‘fathomless’ is still not to fathom it
… the door to a cluster of puzzles.
plus 6. Derek Lin (online translation, I'm not sure of the date)
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders
For my entertainment I made a table with all the variations line by line - but I've lost it for now. If I find it again I'll post, and if I don't, one day I'll do it again when the mood takes me!