The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao(1)
The name that can be named is not the eternal name(2)
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth(3)
The named is the mother of myriad things(4)
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations(5)
These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders(6)
Translation and Annotation by Derek Lin
(1) The first line of the Tao Te Ching can be one of the most confusing. Some have interpreted it to mean that we must never speak of the Tao, or that if we try to explain it, then we must have not true understanding of it. What it actually means is that we can never understand the Tao through the intellect alone. We must feel it. Talking about it can be useful but will never replace the actual experience of living it.
(2) Not only is the Tao beyond the power of spoken word to describe, but it is also beyond the power of written words to define. That which can be defined is limited by definition, and the Tao transcends all limitations.
(3) Before the universe came into being, concepts and things did not exist, and no human consciousness was present to perceive and name them. Therefore, the Tao that initiated Creation was the ultimate nameless enigma.
(4) Once the universe came into being, the stage was set for the physical manifestation of everything, including human beings. These humans eventually attained sufficient awareness to observe all things and name them.
(5) Self-serving desires tend to limit us to a superficial level. If we think of other people and not just focus on ourselves, we will find it much easier to connect with the underlying reality. This applies to every aspect of life. It is one of the most powerful teachings of the Tao.
(6) The two refer to manifestations (outer appearance) and essence (inner truth). They represent the material world and the spiritual realm respectively. Both emerge from the Tao, because the Tao encompasses all - not only spirituality but also the physical universe. The basic unity of the two is the mystery that we investigate in Tao cultivation.