Sufi Light on Tao Te Ching ~ The Book of the Ineffable Reality and Virtue by Pir (Lao Tsu) Li Er

Tao Te Ching is a Spiritual Classic. Tao or Dao means Way, Ineffable Reality, Te or De means Virtue and Ching means Great Book or Classic. Thus 'Tao Te Ching' can be called: The Great Book of Reality and Virtue, or The Book of Ineffable Reality and True Virtue. Here simply translating 'Te' as virtue will not do justice, its healing virtue which brings man back to his original nature.

It is believed that the classic was inspired to be written down around 4th or 6th Century BC, so we are talking about a very old Spiritual Classic and something that ancient to have successfully been transmitted to us without being lost is not a light matter. This itself can be viewed as a proof of authenticity and energy of this timeless classic.

It is written by a Sage by the name Li Er Boiang, also known as Li Dan. Because he was Pir of his time, his honorary title was Lao Tsu which means 'Old Master,' the same meaning is conveyed in the word Pir in Sufism.

Tao Te Ching has 81 chapters, all brief, yet they carry profound message about the Reality. The Book introduce concepts about the Ultimate Reality in a language suitable for his time as well as statements concerning practical spirituality and wisdom for traveling the Spiritual Path which enable one to live in harmony and in a state of tranquility

Metaphysically Tao refers to Reality as It is. Psychologically it refers the way how human nature is constitute, the original nature of man, a deep dynamic structure of our being. Ethically its means the way human being must conduct with others to be at peace and harmony. Spiritually it refers tot the guidance that is offered to us, the method of searching for the truth that is handed down by the great sages, seers, divinely inspired communicators of the path, the way of inner work. All of these meanings of Dao / Tao is ultimately united and one.

Tao Te Ching's appeal is broad and its meaning is deep. It speaks to each at our own level of understanding while inviting for search for level of insight and experience that are not yet within our comprehension.

It is a sacred text. To read it is not only to see ourselves as we are, but to glimpse a greatness  extending far beyond our knowledge of ourselves and and the universe we live in. The Tao Te Ching deals with what is permanent in us, it speaks of a possible inner greatness and an equally possible inner failture which are both indelibly written into our very structure as human being.

Under its gaze we are not American or Chinese or European. We are that being, Man, uniquely called to occupy a precise place in the cosmic order, no matter where or in what era we live. It is a work of metaphysical psychology. (credit)

an imaginal Portrait of Wise Elder (Pir) Lao Tsu Li Er, may Allah be pleased with him

Timeless spiritual classics such as Tao Te Ching transmits its message continuously and depending on who is reading and receiving it and with what level of understanding, it continues to open itself up to help us see beyond into the deeper mysteries. This is a characteristic of authentic and inspired spiritual transmission.

How does the message of Tao Te Ching illume itself against the universal message of the Sufis? Can the message of the Tao Te Ching can also be found reflected in the message of the Quran, the Source that Sufis hold so dearly? 

In order to find suitable translation of Tao Te Ching in English, I have used several sources to have a more holistic appreciation of its mystical nature. The citation of the Quranic verses are indicated in the number within parentheses.


This chapter speaks about Tao as an Ineffable Reality, the Ultimate Reality about which anything expressed falls short, any comparison out of the construct of the limited mind is an injustice to its ineffableness. Some translation speaks of it as Path, as Existence Itself. Here is a composite translation:

The Ineffable (Tao), about which is spoken, is not the eternal Ineffable.
A name for the Unnameable, is but a name.
The Unnameable is what makes everything what it is,
By naming things you divide the Indivisible.

Only one who gives up all his desires can experience the Indivisible Essence,
One who still cherishes desires, will experience the Manifestations.
Both will see the same reality, but experience it differently.

The unity of Essence and Manifestations is said to be the mystery.
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders.

Here are some reflection of the above passage and parallel phrases from the Quran to provide hint that both are speaking about the Ultimate Reality with reverence to It's mystical nature.

La ilaha - Negate all false names. Only that Ultimate Reality now bear witness that the Unnameable alone Is. Shahida-Llahu 'AnnaHu La ilaha illa Hu. (3:18) Who is more wrong than one who invent a lie, a conjecture about the Ultimate Reality? (6:93) Thus whatever one speak about the Ultimate Reality never can do justice. Subhanahu wata'ala 'ammayasifoon -  Limitless is Hu in glory, and sublimely exalted beyond anything that men may devise by way of definition (6:100). Subhanahu wataAAala AAamma yaqooloona AAuluwwan kabeera - Exalted and Greater beyond what they say is Hu! (17:43) Huwa as-Samad, the Ultimate Reality is Eternal. al-Qayyum - the Peerless. Huwa Allahu Ahad - That One is Indivisible (112:1).

That Reality is both al-Zahir and al-Batin, The Manifest and the Essence. It is both the First and the Last, al-Awwal wa al-Akhir. (57:3) Whatever in the Heaven and Earth are in a constant state of awe from the great wonder of the Great Mystery (57:1).


Chapter 4 describe the metaphysical reality and reminds of its nature of Emptiness, the Great Void It is sometime called.

The Tao is like an empty vessel:
Never emptied and never be filled.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.
Not given birth by any.
It is more ancient than the concept of God. 

The Great Emptiness, The Ultimate Void is al-La. The Eternal Void. Hidden, al-Batin and yet az-Zahir, always Present. Lam yalid walam yoolad -  The Ultimate Reality neither begets nor is born. (112:3). It is al-Qadim, the Most Ancient, more ancient that even revelations, conceptions about or of God. Al-Qadim is one of the Divine Names and Attributes of Allah which means the infinite-most antecedent to all else!


Chapter 6 again continues to shed light on the Supreme Reality.

The Supreme Spirit of the perennial spring is said to Ever-Living, the Mysterious One. The Mysterious One is typical of the source of heaven and earth. It is continually and endlessly issuing and without effort.

an alternative translation is this:

The Tao is called the Great Mother:
empty yet inexhaustible,
it gives birth to infinite worlds.

Subtle, barely seen but always Present.
Endless flow of inexhaustible energy.

An appreciation of the Divine Feminine embedded deeply within Islamic Tradition is required here. The two most invoked Divine Name ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim both goes back to the root word R-H-M, meaning Womb. Both the Divine Qualities, ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim are Mercy, Compassionate, Universal Loving Kindness are generally manifested in the world as natural qualities of a mother. The frequently used invocation Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim, it is invocation of the Divine Feminine Principles of the Ultimate Reality. That Reality is also al-Hayy, the Ever-Living; ar-Rauf - the Motherly Loving and Tender; as-Samad - the Inexhaustible, al-Latif, Most Subtle, al-Baqi - the Ever Present, the Ever Lasting, al-Halim - the One Who is Motherly Forbearing.


Apart from speaking of the Highest Reality, in Tao Te Ching Lao Tsu also disseminate teachings on practical spirituality, on how to live to return back to the original nature from which arises tranquility of the heart, clarity of mind, deep peace of soul. 12th Chapter speaks of the dangers from the manifestation of the apparent and transitional world and how a true human being who wish to master himself and world should conduct his, her life. Finally it also speaks of the quality of the Heart that a true human being should attain.

This is a translation by Stephen Mitchell (1988):

Colors blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.

The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open as the sky.

Made beautiful are material and worldly things of desire, these are the pleasures of the present world's life; but the Source of all has the excellent return with It. (3:14) True vision is not derived from ocular vision alone, but from the inner vision of the heart. Indeed it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts, which are within the bosoms, that grow blind. (22:46) Only that person will be successful who has a sound Heart (qalbin salim). (26:89)


This again takes us back to the Highest Reality, Lao Tsu continue to help us see different facets of this Reality and dispenses his priceless wisdom.

Stephen Mitchell's translation again:

Look, and it can't be seen.
Listen, and it can't be heard.
Reach, and it can't be grasped.

Above, it isn't bright.
Below, it isn't dark.
Seamless, unnamable,
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
Image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.

Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can't know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.

Just realize where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom.

That Highest Reality about which Quran conveys the following, almost matching each phrase:

No vision can grasp Him, but Its grape is over all vision (6:103) The Highest Reality's voice is not heard directly except through veil, revelation or human messenger as medium. (42:51) Most Subtle is It, wa huwa al-Latif (6:103). Beyond all conception - subhanahu 'aamma yushrikoon. Only Allah knows Allah, It can not be known by other than it. Yet when one is consumed by It, It becomes the very eyes, the very hand, the very ear of the servant, of the human being. So one can be It, or rather said in more truthful way, one is granted the permission to become a more perfect Image of It, a more perfect representative (khalifa) of Hu. Then and only then it is said, you didn't throw but Allah threw. (8:17) It is al-Badi, the Wonderful Originator, al-Mubdi, the Beginner of us and all that exists.

Hu in Arabic - pointing to the Ultimate Reality beyond conception, definition or comparison

Hu Allahu Akbar -  Ever Greater, Ever Transcendent beyond any conception and construct is Hu.

May the Ineffable keep us on the tao (as-sirat al-mustaqim) that leads to the Tao
May we realise and become what is possible
May we be granted a heart open as the vast sky.

// Sadiq M. Alam / Dhaka, Bangladesh

# Further:
* Tao Te Ching Introduction - Read By Jacob Needleman
* Side by Side Comparison of Tao Te Ching Translations
* Alan Watts - Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching
* Dr Wayned Dyer - Tao Te Ching
* Full Audio Book of Tao Te Ching
* Do the Dao by Wayne Dyer
* Tao Te Ching: An All-New Translation by Lao Tzu, Laozi
* The Perfect Man According to Taoism and Its Relevance with Sufism: A Brief Survey
* Pondering Chinese Taoist and Arab/Persian Sufi ideas of individuality and immortality
* The Way of Life by Lao Tsu (PDF)



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Technology of the Heart: Sufi Light on Tao Te Ching ~ The Book of the Ineffable Reality and Virtue by Pir (Lao Tsu) Li Er
Sufi Light on Tao Te Ching ~ The Book of the Ineffable Reality and Virtue by Pir (Lao Tsu) Li Er
A Sufi Explanation / Intepretation of the Spiritual Class, Tao Te Ching (aka Dao De Zing). What are the parallels between Tao Te Ching and Quranic Concept of the Divine Reality?
Technology of the Heart
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