Daodejing Chapter 1 breakdown: the mystery of mysteries

Richard Brown
2 min readNov 30, 2023

Chapter 1 of the Daodejing invites you to step through the gateway to all wonders and explore the manifold mysteries of the Dao (way or path). In poetic, even portentous language, the text opens your eyes to a new way of looking at and reflecting on the world around you.

The Dao can be likened to a river with two currents. The inner marvel lies hidden and deep, flowing silently beneath the surface. The outer radiance dances above the surface, sparkling in the sunlight. Like Yin and Yang, these two are inseparable and complementary. Together they form the duality at the heart of Daoist philosophy.

Section 1
A Dao that can be spoken of
Is not the eternal Dao.
A name that can be named
Is not the eternal name.

In the first section, the text tells you that trying to describe the Dao with words is impossible. It is something that escapes the confines of language and thought, something that you have to feel and experience rather than read about and discuss.

Section 2
The origin of heaven and earth
Has no name.
The mother of the myriad things
Has a name.

The text dives deeper into the duality of the Dao by contrasting the nameless origins of the universe with the named physical world we see around us. This is like looking at a tree and understanding that its roots, hidden and nameless, are as important as the branches and leaves that you can see and name.

Section 3
Free of desire,
Observe the inner marvel.
Filled with desire,
Observe the outer radiance.

This same duality determines your perception of the world at any given moment. When you are free of desire, you can contemplate the intangible spiritual essence of the Dao. When you are filled with desire, your attention shifts to the tangible beauty and complexity of the physical world.

Section 5
Both spring from the same source,
But they have different names.
Both are a mystery.
The mystery of mysteries.
The gateway to all marvels.

Even though they are different in name and nature, the inner marvel and the outer radiance emerge from the same source and come together as the Dao.

Recognizing the duality of these two aspects of the Dao is the key to unlocking the mystery of mysteries and understanding that life, in all its complexity, is a dance of visible and invisible forces, constantly intertwining and shaping your interactions with the world.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.