This post is an introduction to my continuing translation of Lao Tzu’s (Laozi’s) Tao Te Ching, or The Classic about Ways and Instances.
When I was a teenager, curious about everything, an event happened that made me aware of a perception I’d had but couldn’t formulate. In a bookstore, I looked at a copy of Lin Yutang’s translation of Lao Tzu, and in the middle of the first page I read:
Oftentimes, one strips oneself of passion
In order to see the Secret of Life;
Oftentimes, one regards life with passion,
In order to see its manifest forms.
These two (the Secret and its manifestations)
Are (in their nature) the same;
They are given different names
When they become manifest.
I was excited by its emphasis on passion—wanting to do things—and that this was a key element in life. But, as I also knew, when I wanted to understand something—either in order to do it, or simply from love—the way was detachment, to ignore passion. Adults had always implied that passion was an intrusion, strictly to be controlled; and the religions I knew seemed to teach that passion was bad. It was exciting to thing that a sophisticated combination of passion and detachment could be good.
These two ideas—that passion is important and that passionlessness is important—and that two opposite concepts could simultaneously both be central principles, good to build a life on—stayed with me.
I looked at other translations, but most rendered the words with an opposite meaning: that passionlessness gives the real thing whereas passion gives “only” the empty shell of appearances. (I discuss this interpretation further in the comments for Chapter 11.) These concepts—that the world I knew and loved was only appearance and that passion was futile—seemed too depressingly like Christianity rebranded as Oriental; it seemed the kind of lofty thoughts that people think when they want to think lofty thoughts.
I wondered if perhaps it were Lin Yutang who was misleading. I tried, without knowing Chinese, to get through the haze separating me from the original. One thing that seemed clear was that Lao Tzu thought the result of passion and the result of passionlessness are the same and differ only in how we see them, and that combined together they are a paradox that we need to grapple with. It was difficult to imagine that Lao Tzu thought that either was evil or dispensable.
At the time, though, the Tao Te Ching as a whole was much more than I was ready to absorb.
Many years later, in my search for new translations, I found the “philosophical translation” by Roger T. Ames and Donald L. Hall. This was another big event for me. By then I’d been trained in western philosophy, and I found Ames and Hall’s discussions, explanations, and notes dazzling and fascinating.
Soon after, I began seriously learning to do Tai Chi. I find that doing its movements is a direct expression of my sense of the meaning of life to me. To someone learning Chen style Tai Chi, the words
Endlessly drawn forth like a thread of silk, it seems to continue on.
In use it needs no effort
have a direct, simple meaning. And it’s positively inspiring, mind-expanding to see them presented as an instance of the idea
The spirit found in emptiness does not give out.
A student of any style of Tai Chi understands the words
Having and not having produce each other;
difficult and easy complete each other;
long and short contrast with each other;
high and low rely on each other;
tone and voice harmonize each other;
and front and back follow in rotation.
In contrast to the abstractions of philosophy, Tai Chi makes many passages in the Tao Te Ching concrete. There’s noting impractical, obscure, or otherworldly in them at all. They record facts that are intimately familiar in the expression of one’s physical body.
I’m not saying that doing Tai Chi is some kind of secret key that makes the Tao Te Ching simple. Lao Tzu still demands and deserves the deepest attention and thought. The parts that seem more clear only lead to other parts that challenge one’s understanding. He’s still profound—but he’s not esoteric. On the contrary, his profundity comes from the fact that he talks about the usual things of life, but with directness and insight.
So I wanted to understand Lao Tzu more.
I bought several translations. Jonathan Star’s version comes equipped with a set of tables that supply for each word in the Chinese some dictionary definitions and a selection of renderings from other translations. Using them could be a toolkit to try to work out for myself what the Tao Te Ching might mean.
Eventually it occurred to me that the best way would be to write it down, to make my own translation, so I could keep cross-checking and revising, building up a cumulative sense of what the book says. And, it also occurred to me that if I went to that trouble then others might like to see the result too.
I’m not a scholar of Chinese; I don’t know a word of the language.
What I think I can offer is a certain literary ability in English—an ear, hopefully, for phrasing and for sensing the possibilities that words try to suggest. And I can offer whatever of life I’ve lived and whatever thought I’ve given to these and related things.
What I’m trying for is a translation that’s simple. No loftiness, no abstractions. To reflect as many of the ambiguities as I think I see in the text, and to leave them that way—as paradoxes—not restricting them with supplied in-line explanations. To convey meaning in everyday, familiar terns: the ones I regard as the profoundest, most beautiful of all. To write with the same lucidity and suggestiveness I would try for in writing a fictional story.
This will be an ongoing enterprise. Please expect the chapters to be revised after posting—as I learn to understand better.
Chapter 1 –>