Curriculum Lectionary


GilgameshGenesisBiblical prophetsGospelsQur'anRumi and Kabir
Bhagavad GitaUpanishadsDhammapadaHeart and Lotus SutrasTao Te ChingAnalects


Session 1
Darkness within Darkness: The Mystery of the Tao
Session 2
Daring Not to Be Ahead: The Tao and Ethical Leadership
Session 3
A Fit Person: The Tao and Happiness

Leader Notes

This first session of a three-session unit on the Tao Te Ching introduces the text and one of its major themes – mystery and paradox. Since many participants may be totally unfamiliar with this scripture, and because its ideas are rather different from Western ways of thinking, you can expect a slow start with some initial confusion. This befits the theme of the lesson, which focuses on the limits of knowability. Two activities in particular – a reading of various translations of the same chapters of the text, and a paired question and answer session - are designed to give participants a felt experience of these limits.

The Tao is a short text (only 5,000 Chinese characters), and it may be helpful to ask participants to read through it once before attending the first session. Although some reference to other English translations will be made, we will be using the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation (Vintage Books, 1972) throughout the three sessions. The complete text of this translation is available online at http://www.thebigview.com/download.

  • To understand the historical context of the Tao Te Ching
  • To consider – and experience – mystery and paradox
  • To relate the theme of mystery to their own experience
  • To consider mystery and paradox from a Unitarian Universalist point of view
  • Review the Historical Background in Leader Resource 1 for use in Activity 1.
  • Print copies of the readings for this session from Leader Resource 2, if necessary.
  • Read Leader Resource 3: Answering Children’s Questions.
Leader Resources
Leader Resource 1: Historical background -
Leader Resource 2: Readings -
Leader Resource 3: Answering children's questions -
  • Chalice with candle and matches
  • Tingshas or a bell
  • Additional translations of the Tao Te Ching. Many versions are commonly available in libraries, bookstores, and on the web. Stephen Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (Perennial Classics, 2006) is popular and highly recommended. Another good translation, this one by D.T. Suzuki and Paul Carus, is in the public domain. It can be found at http://www.sacred-texts.com/tao/crv/index.htm.
If You Only Have One Hour
  • In Activity 1, skip the reading and discussion of chapter 70.
  • Do not split into pairs for Activity 2. Simply summarize the information from Leader Resource 3, or a relevant experience of your own, and then proceed to the large group discussion questions.
  • Limit Activity 3 to 10 minutes.

Chalice lighting and opening meditation (5 minutes)

Historical Introduction to the Tao Te Ching (5 minutes)

Activity 1: Reading from the Tao regarding mystery and paradox (30 minutes)

Activity 2: Why ask “Why?” (30 minutes)

Activity 3: Paradox and the Search for Truth and Meaning (15 minutes)

Chalice extinguishing and closing meditation (5 minutes)

Chalice Lighting

Ask a participant to light the chalice as you read the passage below. Invite participants to spend a few moments in silent meditation on its meaning.


The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.

The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.

Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.

These two spring from the same source but differ in name;

         this appears as darkness.

Darkness within darkness.

The gate to all mystery.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1


After a few moments have passed, ring the tingshas to signal the end of the meditation.

Activity One

Historical Introduction to the Tao Te Ching

Introduce the overall purpose of the class (to consider a classic of spiritual literature in a Unitarian Universalist context.) Drawing on Leader Resource 1, give a brief historical introduction to the text.

Reading and Discussion

Distribute the Session 1 portion of Leader Resource 2 and any other translations of the Tao you may have to different participants. Have them read aloud at least one version of the following chapters from the Tao that deal with mystery or paradox: 21, 27, 70, and 78.  Encourage participants to share the translation they have with the group when it differs significantly from what they are hearing. Ask group members to summarize, in their own words, the concepts presented in the readings. As the discussion ensues, emphasize the idea that the text may be purposefully ambiguous, thus encouraging varied interpretations.

As time permits, you may introduce the following discussion questions.

Discussion Questions

Chapter 21

  • If the path is elusive, how can it be followed?

Chapter 27

  • Is it possible to walk without leaving tracks, reckon without making a tally, etc.? How can it be done?

Chapter 70

  • Who is a sage? How would you recognize that person? Do you know any sages?

Chapter 78

  • Why do you think the Tao relies so heavily on paradox? Is it expressing something that cannot be expressed any other way, or is it obscuring and unhelpful?
  • Do mystery and paradox promote a sense or wonder or of bafflement? Does this answer change when we are talking specifically about spirituality?
  • What roles do paradoxes and mysteries play in your own life? Do you engage them, ignore them, or seek to resolve them?
Leader Resources
Leader Resource 1: Historical background -
Leader Resource 2: Readings -
Activity Two

Why ask “Why?”

         Introduction – 10 minutes
         Answering questions in pairs – 10 minutes
         Large group discussion – 10 minutes

The purpose of this activity is to help participants relate the concept of mystery to their own experiences. Lead in to the activity by giving a little background information. Something like the following should suffice:

The human mind longs for answers. Those of us who have interacted with young children are familiar with the “why?” stage of cognitive development, when the child asks, “Why is the sky blue?”, “Why is the grass green?”, etc. It is amazing how quickly seemingly knowledgeable adults run out of answers in the face of such questioning. We like to believe that clear answers can be found, but the Tao suggests that, at a certain level, the truth is just unknowable.

Give participants a vivid example of an attempt to answer the “why?” questions of a child. You might choose to share an experience of your own, or to summarize the information in Leader Resource 3. Invite participants to share similar experiences.

Answering Questions in Pairs
Divide participants into groups of two. One person will ask “Why?” questions, and the other person will attempt to answer them. Ask participants to try their hands at “Why do things have outlines?”, “Why is it silly for a dog to manage a baseball team?”, or another fruitful question that came up in discussion. When new concepts are introduced by the answerer, the asker should ask “Why?’ about those concepts. The answerer may also ask questions to clarify what is being asked. Allow these dialogues to progress for about 10 minutes.

Large Group Discussion
Reconvene in the larger group and consider the following questions:

  • How did your discussions go?
  • Did you reach any clear conclusions? Why do adults have such a hard time answering the questions that occur to a child?
  • How much do actually we know? How much is knowable?
  • How do we respond when we reach the limits of knowability?
  • Do the Tao’s expressions of paradox help you deal with these limits?

Leader Resources
Leader Resource 3: Answering children's questions -
Activity Three

Mystery and the Search for Truth and Meaning

Draw the attention of participants to the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” one of the seven principles affirmed by Unitarian Universalists.  Invite a discussion of the following:

  • How do you search for truth in the face of mystery and paradox?
  • UUs draw from many sources, including “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life” and “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” Is the attempt to draw from both direct experience of mystery and the guidance of reason paradoxical?
  • How do these two sources inform your spiritual life?
Chalice Extinguishing

Ask a participant to extinguish the chalice as you read the following:

The wise student hears of the Tao and practices it diligently.
The average student hears of the Tao and gives it thought now and again.
The foolish student hears of the Tao and laughs aloud.
If there were no laughter, the Tao would not be what it is.
Hence it is said:
The bright path seems dim;
Going forward seems like retreat;
The easy way seems hard;
The highest Virtue seems empty;
Great purity seems sullied;
A wealth of Virtue seems inadequate;
The strength of Virtue seems frail;
Real Virtue seems unreal;
The perfect square has no corners;
Great talents ripen late;
The highest notes are hard to hear;
The greatest form has no shape;
The Tao is hidden and without name.
The Tao alone nourishes and brings everything to fulfillment.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 41

Before Session 2
Tell participants the topic of the next session: ethics and leadership. Encourage them to look at the Tao, particularly its second half, and consider these ideas on their own before session 2.