“Tao te tao fei zhang Tao.” The word “Tao” appears three times in this first line of Tae Te Ching. But each time the word has a different meaning. This famous line may be translated as “The Cosmos (Tao) that can be named (tao) is not the eternal Great Void (Tao).”

Mistaking the Word “Tao” for Taoism

The use of the word “Tao” by Chinese masters does not, in and of itself, indicate a connection to Taoism.

Morphologically speaking, the word “Tao” is not a Taoist term. “Attaining the Tao” is frequently used in Confucian writings too, and both Confucian practitioners and scholars understand that “attaining the Tao” in Confucian writings is different from “attaining the Tao” in Taoist writings.

The same applies to Buddhist writings.

Here is an example from the most famous sutra in the Buddhist cannon — the Heart Sutra — of the word “tao” having nothing to do with Taoism:

Wu Ku Ji Mei Dao (Tao)

It is quite clear to anyone with a solid understanding of ancient Chinese that the “tao” in the context of the Heart Sutra means “path” and has absolutely nothing to do with Taoism. The translation is as follow:

There is no suffering, no cause, no extinction, and no path.

( Editorial Note: Sifu Wong explains that “path” here refers to “the Eight-Fold Path” in Buddhism. “Ku Ji Mie Dao” refers to the “Four Noble Truths,” i.e. there is suffering in life, the cause of suffering is craving, to eliminate suffering it is necessary to eliminate craving, and the way is the “Eight-Fold Path”.)

Furthermore, the Chinese character for “Tao” can have many meanings. For example, in addition to meaning the “The Way,” it can also be used to mean “to say.” This is exemplified in the first line of the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing):

Dao Ke Dao, Fei Chang Dao (Tao Te Tao Fei Chang Tao)

As another example, my own Chinese name, “Ke An Dao” has the word Tao in it. This, in and of itself, does not show a connection between me and Taoism.

What is not widely known, even among Western scholars, is that the word “Tao” is not exclusive to Taoism, just as the word “God” is not exclusive to Christianity. For example, when we find the word “God” in translations of writings from other religions, such as in Hinduism, Islam and also Taoism, this, of course, does not mean that these religions were offshoots of Christianity.

Another example: In the Chinese language, the term “de tao gao seng” literally means “attain-tao-high-monk.” This term is often used to describe a Buddhist monk of high spiritual attainment. “Tao” here means “Buddhist spiritual cultivation,” and has nothing to do with Taoism. Actually, the use of “tao” in Buddhist texts is quite common.

In the following quotations provided by Sifu Stier and Mike B, “Tao” refers to the Supreme Reality — something that may be realized through Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, or any religion. Since the following quotations were taking from Buddhist texts, “Tao” therefore means “Emptiness” or “Nirvana” and has nothing to do with Taoism.

Try this for yourselves. For each of the quotes below, substitute “Emptiness” or “Nirvana” for each occurrence of “Tao.” I think you will find that the quotes make much more sense using the appropriate translation:

I believe it is precisely the failure to understand this aspect of the Chinese word “Tao” that has mislead many Western scholars to wrongly think that Chan Buddhism was significantly influenced by Taoism.


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