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By Aleister Crowley

Chapter XXXV: The Tao (2)

Cara Soror,

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

You are only one of a number of people who are interested in my translation of the Tao Teh King. Naturally, I want to publish it; but so many other things come first. So I am sending you the Introduction, in the hope that it will stimulate that interest to the point of getting some other publisher to give it sea-room.1

I bound myself to devote my life to Magick at Easter 1898 (era vulgari) and received my first initiation on November 18 of that year.

My friend and climbing companion, Oscar Eckenstein, gave me my first instructions in learning the control of the mind early in 1901, in Mexico City.  Shri Parananda, Solicitor General of Ceylon, an eminent writer upon, and teacher of, Yoga from the orthodox Shaivite standpoint, and Bhikkhu Ananda Metteya, (Allan Bennett) the great English Adept, who was one of my earliest instructors in Magick, and joined the Sangha in Burma in 1902, gave me my first groundings in mystical theory and practice.  I spent some months of 1901 in Kandy, Ceylon with the latter, until success crowned my work.

I also studied all varieties of Asiatic philosophy, especially with regard to the practical question of spiritual development, the Sufi doctrines, the Upanishads, the Sankhra, Veda and Vedanta, the Bhagavad-Gita and Purana, the Dammapada, and many other classics, together with numerous writings on the Tantra and Yoga of such men as Patanjali, Vivekananda, etc., etc. Not a few of these teachings are as yet wholly unknown to scholars.  I made the scope of my studies as comprehensive as possible, omitting no school of thought however unimportant or repugnant.

I made a critical examination of all these teachers in the light of my practical experience.  The physiological and psychological uniformity of mankind guaranteed that the diversity of expression concealed a unity of significance.  This discovery was confirmed, furthermore, by reference to Jewish, Greek, and Celtic traditions.  One quintessential truth was common to all cults, from the Hebrides to the Yellow Sea; and even the main branches proved essentially identical.  It was only the foliage that exhibited incompatibility.

When I walked across China in 1905-6, I was fully armed and accoutred by the above qualifications to attack the till-then-insoluble problem of the Chinese conception of religious truth.  Practical studies of the psychology of such Mongolians as I had met in my travels, had already suggested to me that their acentric conception of the universe might represent the correspondence in consciousness of their actual psychological characteristics.  I was therefore prepared to examine the doctrines of their religious and philosophic Masters without prejudice such as had always rendered nugatory the efforts of missionary sinologists; indeed, all oriental scholars with the single exception of Rhys Davids.  Until his time, translators had invariable assumed, with absurd naivété, or (more often) arrogant bigotry, that a Chinese writer must be putting forth either a more or less distorted and degraded variation of some Christian conception, or utterly puerile absurdities.  Even so great a man as Max Müller, in his introduction to the Upanishads, seems only half inclined to admit that the apparent triviality and folly of many passages in these so-called sacred writings might owe their appearance to our ignorance of the historical and religious circumstances, a knowledge of which would render them intelligible.

During my solitary wanderings among the mountainous wastes of Yun Nan, the spiritual atmosphere of China penetrated my consciousness, thanks to the absence of any intellectual impertinences from the organ of knowledge.  The Tao Teh King revealed its simplicity and sublimity to my soul, little by little, as the conditions of my physical, no less than of my spiritual life, penetrated the sanctuaries of my spirit.  The philosophy of Lao Tze communicated itself to me, in despite of the persistent efforts of my mind to compel it to conform with my preconceived notions of what the text must mean.  This process, having thus taken root in my innermost intuition during those tremendous months of wandering Yun Nan, grew continually throughout succeeding years.  Whenever I found myself able once more to withdraw myself from the dissipations and distractions which contact with civilization forces upon a man, no matter how vigorously he may struggle against their insolence, to the sacred solitude of he desert, whether among the sierras of Spain or the sands of the Sahara, I found that the philosophy of Lao Tze resumed its sway upon my soul, subtler and stronger on each successive occasion.

But neither Europe nor Africa can show any such desolation as America. The proudest, stubbornest, bitterest peasant of deserted Spain, the most primitive and superstitious Arab of the remotest oases, are a little more than kin and never less than kind at their worst; whereas in the United States one is almost always conscious of an instinctive lack of sympathy and understanding with even the most charming and cultured people.  It was therefore during my exile in America that the doctrines of Lao Tze developed most rapidly in my soul, ever forcing their way outwards until I felt it imperious, nay inevitable, to express them in terms of conscious thought.

No sooner had this resolve taken possession of me than I realized that the task approximated to impossibility.  His very simplest ideas, the primitive elements of his thought, had no true correspondences in any European terminology.  The very first word “Tao” presented a completely insoluble problem.  It had been translated “Reason”, “The Way”, “Το Ον.”  None of these convey any true conception of the Tao.

The Tao is reason in this sense, that the substance of things may be in part apprehended as being that necessary relation between the elements of thought which determines the laws of reason.  In other words, the only reality is that which compels us to connect the various forms of illusion as we do.  It is thus evidently unknowable, and expressible neither by speech nor by silence.  All that we can know about it is that there is inherent in it a power (which however is not itself) by virtue whereof all beings appear in forms congruous with the nature of necessity.

The Tao is also “the Way”—in the following sense.  Nothing exists except as a relation with other similarly postulated ideas.  Nothing can be known in itself, but only as one of the participants in a series of events.  Reality is therefore in the motion, not in the thing moved. We cannot apprehend anything except as one postulated element of an observed impression of change.

We may express this in other terms as follows.  Our knowledge of anything is in reality the sum of our observations of its successive movements, that is to say, of its path from event to event.  In this sense the Tao may be translated as “the Way.”  It is not a thing in itself in the sense of being an object susceptible of apprehension by sense or mind.  It is not the cause of any thing; it is rather the category underlying all existence or event, and therefore true and real as they are illusory, being merely landmarks invented for convenience in describing our exper- iences.  The Tao possesses no power to cause anything to exist or to take place.  Yet our experience when analyzed tells us that the only reality of which we may be sure is this path or Way which resumes the whole of our knowledge.

As for Το Ον,2 which superficially might seem the best translation of Tao as described in the text, it is the most misleading of the three.  For To On possesses an extensive connotation implying a whole system of Platonic concepts, than which nothing can be more alien to the essential quality of the Tao.  Tao is neither “being” nor “not being” in any sense which Europe could understand.  It is neither existence, nor a condition or form of existence.  Equally, TO MH ON gives no idea of Tao.  Tao is altogether alien to all that class of thought.  From its connection with “that principle which necessarily underlies the fact that events occur” one might suppose that the “Becoming” of Heraclitus might assist us to describe the Tao.  But the Tao is not a principle at all of that kind.  To understand it requires an altogether different state of mind to any with which European thinkers in general are familiar.  It is necessary to pursue unflinchingly the path of spiritual development on the lines indicated by the Sufis, the Hindus and the Buddhists; and, having reached the trance called Nerodha-Sammapati, in which are destroyed all forms soever of consciousness, there appears in that abyss of annihilation the germ of an entirely new type of idea, whose principal characteristic is this: that the entire concatenation of One's previous experiences and conceptions could not have happened at all, save by virtue of this indescribable necessity.

I am only too painfully aware that the above exposition is faulty in every respect.  In particular, it presupposes in the reader considerable familiarity with the subject, thus practically begging the question.  It must also prove almost wholly unintelligible to the average reader, him in fact whom I especially aim to interest.

For his sake I will try to elucidate the matter by an analogy.  Consider electricity.  It would be absurd to say that electricity is any of the phenomena by which we know it.  We take refuge in the petitio principii of saying that electricity is that form of energy which is the principal cause of such and such phenomena.  Suppose now that we eliminate this idea as evidently illogical.  What remains?  We must not hastily answer “Nothing remains.”  There is some thing inherent in the nature of consciousness, reason, perception, sensation, and of the universe of which they inform us, which is responsible for the fact that we observe these phenomena and not others; that we reflect upon them as we do, and not otherwise.  But, even deeper than this, part of the reality of the inscrutable energy which determines the form of our experience, consists in determining that experience should take place at all.  It should be clear that this has nothing to do with any of the Platonic conceptions of the nature of things.

The least abject asset in the intellectual bankruptcy of European thought is the Hebrew Qabalah.  Properly understood, it is a system of symbolism indefinitely elastic, assuming no axioms, postulating no principles, asserting no theorems, and therefore adaptable, if managed adroitly, to describe any conceivable doctrine.  It has been my continual study since 1898, and I have found it of infinite value in the study of the “Tao Teh King.”  By its aid I was able to attribute the ideas of Lao Tze to an order with which I was exceedingly familiar, and whose practical worth I had repeatedly proved by using it as the basis of the analysis and classification of all Aryan and Semitic religions and philosophies.  Despite the essential difficulty of correlating the ideas of Lao Tze with any others, the persistent application of the Qabalistic keys eventually unlocked his treasure-house.  I was able to explain to myself his teachings in terms of familiar systems.

This achievement broke the back of my Sphinx. Having once reduced Lao Tze to Qabalistic form, it was easy to translate the result into the language of philosophy.  I had already done much to create a new language based on English with the assistance of a few technical terms borrowed from Asia, and above all by the use of a novel conception of the idea of Number and of algebraic and arithmetical procedure to convey the results of spiritual experience to intelligent students.

It is therefore not altogether without confidence that I present this translation of the Tao Teh King to the public.  I hope and believe that careful study of the text, as elucidated by my commentary, will enable serious aspirants to the hidden Wisdom to understand (with fair accuracy) what Lao Tze taught.  It must however be laid to heart that the essence of his system will inevitably elude intellectual apprehension, unless it be illuminated from above by actual living experience of the truth.  Such experience is only to be attained by unswerving application to the prac- tices which he advocates.  Nor must the aspirant content himself with the mere attainment of spiritual enlightenment, however sublime.  All such achievements are barren unless they be regarded as the means rather than the end of spiritual progress; allowed to infiltrate every detail of the life, not only of the spirit, but of the senses.  The Tao can never be known until it interprets the most trivial actions of every day routine.  It is a fatal mistake to discriminate between the spiritual importance of meditation and playing golf.  To do so is to create an internal conflict.  “Let there be no difference made among you between any one thing & any other thing; for thereby there cometh hurt.”  He who knows the Tao knows it to be the source of all things soever; the most exalted spiritual ecstasy and the most trivial internal impression are from our point of view equally illusions, worthless masks, which hide, with grotesque painted pasteboard false and lifeless, the living face of truth.  Yet, from another point of view, they are equally expressions of the ecstatic genius of truth—natural images of the reaction between the essence of one's self and one's particular environment at the moment of their occurrence.  They are equally tokens of the Tao by whom, in whom, and of whom, they are.  To value them for themselves is to deny the Tao and to be lost in delusion.  To despise them is to deny the omnipresence of the Tao, and to suffer the illusion of sorrow.  To discriminate between them is to set up the accursed dyad, to surrender to the insanity of intellect, to overwhelm the intuition of truth, and to create civil war in the consciousness.

From 1905 to 1918 the Tao Teh King was my continual study.  I constantly recommended it to my friends as the supreme masterpiece of initiated wisdom, and I was as constantly disappointed when they declared that it did not impress them, especially as my preliminary descriptions of the book had aroused their keenest interest.  I thus came to see that the fault lay with Legge's translation, and I felt myself impelled to undertake the task of presenting Lao Tze in language informed by the sympathetic understanding which initiation and spiritual experience had conferred on me.  During my Great Magical Retirement on Aesopus Island in the Hudson River during the summer of 1918, I set myself to this work, but I discovered immediately that I was totally incompetent.  I therefore appealed to an Adept named Amalantrah, which whom I was at that time in almost daily communication.  He came readily to my aid, and exhibited to me a codex of the original, which conveyed to me with absolute certitude the exact significance of the text.  I was able to divine without hesitation or doubt the precise manner in which Legge had been deceived.  He had translated the Chinese with singular fidelity, yet in almost every verse the interpretation was altogether misleading.  There was no need to refer to the text from the point of view of scholarship.  I had merely to paraphrase his translation in the light of actual knowledge of the true significance of the terms employed.  Any one who cares to take the trouble to compare the two versions will be astounded to see how slight a remodeling of a paragraph is sufficient to disperse the obstinate obscurity of prejudice, and let loose a fountain and a flood of living light; to kindle the gnarled prose of stolid scholarship into the burgeoning blossom of lyrical flame.

I completed my translation within three days, but during the last twenty years I have constantly reconsidered every sentence.  The manuscript has been lent to a number of friends, scholars who have commended my work, and aspirants who have appreciated its adequacy to present the spirit of the Master's teaching.  Those who had been disappointed with Legge's version were enthusiastic about mine.  This circumstance is in itself sufficient to assure me that Love's labour has not been lost, and to fill me with enthusiastic confidence that the present publication will abundantly contribute to the fulfillment of my True Will for which I came to earth.  Let us wring from labour and sorrow the utmost of which humanity is capable.  Fulfill my Will to open the portals of spiritual attainment to my fellowmen, to bring them to the enjoyment of that realization of Truth, beneath all veils of temporal falsehood, which has enlightened mine eyes and filled my mouth with song.

So there you are.

Love is the law, love under will.

Yours fraternally,


1: The bulk of this letter is Crowley's introduction to his “translation” of the Tao Teh King (now more usually transliterated Dao De Jing) which, as he indicates, was rather a revision and free paraphrase of Legge's translation.  It was finally published, along with Crowley's commentary, in two different editions in the mid-1970s.  One of these was reprinted in 1995 by Weiser, with Liber XXI, (a verse paraphrase by Crowley of a shorter Taoist writing) as an appendix – T.S.

2: Grk., “Being” or “the Existent.”

© Ordo Templi Orientis.  Original key entry by W.E. Heidrick for O.T.O.  HTML coding by Frater T.S. for Nu Isis Working Group.

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