Lao Tzu, Chapter 1

Tao Te Ching —
The Classic about Ways And Instances

Lao Tzu

(Translated, with comments, by William P. Coleman)

Chapter 1

Ways that can be walked are not ways.
Names that can be said are not names.

The origin of heaven and earth has no name;
the mother of all things has a name.

So, we clear ourselves of passion, to see natures;
just as we’re passionate too, to see appearances.
These are the same, but are called differently as they arise.

Seen next to each other, they seem enigmatic—
a secret that’s a secret, yet the gate to all essences.

< — Introduction

Table of Contents

Chapter 2 — >

my comments:

Chinese does not use definite or indefinite articles the way English does and is not clear about singular and plural, so it is not decided whether the topic of Laozi’s book is “the way” or “a way.” It might, grammatically speaking, even be “the ways” or just “ways.”

The early translators of the Tao Te Ching into English were clergymen, missionaries. They understood that Laozi was not a Christian; but still they wanted to think that he was enlightened, in some natural sense. It was obvious to them that the idea of a single divine being was more lofty than polytheism, and that one admirable feature of the single divine being in whom they believed was that He had introduced a single moral code for us to follow. Laozi may not have been a fellow Christian, but it would have done him credit with them if what he wrote about was a single divine idea, if that divine idea were ineffible to mortal beings, and if understanding that idea singled out a special way of life for them–even if Laozi concentrated more on the ineffible principles of that way of life than on its practical code. Thus, for them, Laozi was speaking about “The Way” or “The Tao,” capitalized. Later translators were not clergyman, but they still had the benefit of two millenia of Christian influence to tell what should be sublime: the singleness of underlying principles, their importance in prescribing conduct, and, as far as possible, the embodiment of those prescriptions in a code. Some other later translators have been Buddhist in their sympathies and have had different, though partially similar, biases.

My own prejudices would differ. As a mathematician, it is not a given for me that underlying principles would be single. A linear equation will have a single solution, but a quadratic equation will have a pair of real solutions–or none at all. Theology is different from mathematics, but with a mathematical background it’s not inescapably logical, or even especially likely, that the universe would have a single “solution” in its God. Mathematically, a letter “U” and a circle both can be approximated locally by straight lines: even though they’re curved, if you look at small segments separately you can replace the curve by a straight line, and the distortion in doing so becomes less as the segment becomes shorter. There’s an important mathematical concept, called a “manifold,” in which you define a method of systematically replacing overlapping individual segments of a cuved line by straight lines, giving specific equations that allow you to translate between one segment and the next. The difference between a “U” and a circle is that you can bend the arms of the “U” outwards and make it into a single straight line whereas you can only do this to the circle by cutting it, by doing violence to its integrity. As a manifold, the circle has to be the joint product of several overlapping lines: its nature cannot be captured by a single straight line. Similarly, the surface of a ring can be the product of a system of flat surfaces but not of a single one. Manifolds that can be defined by a single flat surface are relatively exceptional and, in fact, mathematicians call them “trivial.”

Another of my prejudices would be my respect for the ancient Greeks. To me, Homer, Aiskhylos, Sophokles, and Euripides were profound thinkers. I wouldn’t be able to view of their religious beliefs as the unfortunate simplicities of primitivistic minds not yet culturally able to attain our own monotheism. It seems more plausible that their stories of the gods embody sophisticated thinking about complex, many-sided realities.

You might ask why we–either the earlier translators or I–should translate Laozi with any prejudices or biases at all. Why not translate what he actually wrote, the way he intended it? The answer is that making choices is unavoidable when translating between the very different geniuses of the Chinese language and the English. We are forced sometimes to choose among distinctions in English that aren’t there in Chinese; and sometimes either to ignore distinctions that are there in Chinese or to manufacture our own explanations for them. The distinction between “The Way” and “a way” is only one example of choices we can’t avoid responsibility for: a choice that meets us in the very first line. I can’t pretend to be unbiased. Like earlier translators, I can only try to render Laozi in the way that makes him make most sense to me. I don’t pretend that my translation somehow defines, once and for all, what Laozi might have said if he wrote our English. I can only try to open up the range of plausible meanings so that readers who come after me will have more to work with. Thereby, I imagine that I’m being “faithful” to Laozi and making it easier for us in a different cultural tradition to understand him.

The words of the opening lines don’t seem mainly interested in any distinction between “The Way” and “a way.” They are direct in their paradoxes and seem aimed at something else. The shock comes from the sense that they’re saying the impossible—almost something like, “Ways are not ways; names are not names.”

In context of the rest of this chapter, the point of these lines seems to be that a way is what it is–but, the moment we actualize it by walking it, it becomes particular.

I’ve tried to leave the paradoxes intact—to avoid inserting any resolution and let the reader supply as many as seem good. In particular, I’ve not used qualifiers like “true ” names or “names” eternal to overemphasize a contrast that’s strong enough without them.

If I were to make one suggestion about it, I would look at the relationship, a few lines later, between essence and expressions—which are closely related. The opening lines might be saying that the (expression) ways are not the same as the (essence) ways. If so, it’s not necessarily implied that the essences reside in some separate, far-off heaven—the way that Plato’s forms are vulgarly supposed to. The essence might be immanent in the things we sense, as direct and intimate a part of them as the expression is.

There is apparently no set reason to assume the occurrences of “way” and of “name” in Chinese are singular. I’ve taken advantage of this to avoid writing, “The Way.” The thing we’re talking about may not be a single monolithic abstraction. It might be a manifold of ways combined in a fit that’s locally seamless though globally puzzling.

We can be without passion—and also sometimes passionate. Neither is necessarily easy to achieve.

The two modes and the things we reach in them seem different, but they’re the same. When we’re forced to confront their relationship, it seems like a paradox, a secret.

Further, this “secret” is a secret in both senses. It’s something hard for us to know, but it’s also something that’s a key to other things. In fact, it’s the key to all other things.

For comparison, I’m including the translation by Lin Yutang, which I always love and respect, even when I disagree:

1. On the Absolute Tao

The Tao that can be told of
Is not the Absolute Tao;
The Names that can be given
Are not Absolute Names.

The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;
The Named is the Mother of All Things.

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.

They may both be called the Cosmic Mystery:
Reaching from the Mystery into the Deeper Mystery
Is the Gate to the Secret of All Life.

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2 Responses to Lao Tzu, Chapter 1

  1. lizard yeo says:

    Mr. Coleman,

    I believe you have done a great deal of work on Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. But the very first phrase “Ways that can be walked are not ways.” has indicated that you have taken it too literally. I prefer “The Tao that can be told of is not the Absolute Tao,” because, Lao Tze was talking about the way the universe is functioning; it is not relative but absolute. “Tao” is an abstract pronoun used to describe the power of the spreme being and the way it works. It is beyond description, and to give it a name is never complete to say what it is.

    I have created a Chinese seal design with the first phrase from Chapter 8 of Tao Te Ching, which I particularly like.
    Click , go to my gallery and then click “chinese maxims” to view. Please give comments too.

    Thank you, sir.

  2. Lizard Yeo,

    Thank you for commenting.

    Your interpretation is certainly one that is supported by very many translations and commentaries. However, I personally disagree with the idea that Lao tzu intends “tao” is any kind of an absolute, and a main purpose of my translation is to explore ideas that are very opposite. As you point out, my version is consistent with the literal meaning of the text. I feel it is also consistent with the passages in which Lao Tzu emphasizes the importance of relativity and the balance of polar opposites. He also emphasizes the delusiveness of imagining one knows any truth absolutely.

    I admit I do not have my interpretation worked out in any final definitive form. Indeed, I would worry that any “definitive” interpretation would thereby already be a betrayal of Lao Tzu’s purpose. I regard my translation as a work in progress that I plan to continually revise.

    I’m also not completely sure of the exact wording I want. For example, in the phrase you object to, I wonder if I shouldn’t write, “A way that can be walked is not a way.” However, in no case would I translate “tao” as “the Tao” or as “the Way,” with capital letters. If, by any chance I were to become convinced that this was what Lao Tzu intended, I’d stop translating and delate all the posts — because I’d no longer be interested or want such ideas represented in my blog.

    Still, though, I appreciate your interest.
    – Bill

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