Interpolated from: “Lao Tzu’s Taoteching,” translated by Red Pine (Mercury House); “Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching,” translated by Robert G. Henricks (Columbia University Press); “Tao Te Ching,” translated by D. C. Lau (Alfred A. Knopf); “The Way of Life,” translated by Witter Bynner (Berkley Publishing); “The Essential Tao,” translated by Thomas Cleary (Harper Collins); “Lao Tsu Tao Te Ching,” translated by Gia-Fu-Feng and Jane English (Vintage Books); “Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition,” translated by Jonathan Star (Tarcher Penguin); “Tao Teh Ching,” translated by John C.H. Wu (Shambhala Publications); “Tao Te Ching,” translated by Stephen Mitchell (Harper Perennial).
A selection of eighty-one short verses written more than 300 years before the birth of Christ, the Tao Te Ching remains relevant to this day. Not quite a philosophy, not quite a religion, the Tao is instead a stunning framework for a completely different way of seeing the world than what our Western culture typically prescribes. Both deeply intuitive and profoundly inexplicable, the Tao sets out a set of principles that do not tell us how to live, but rather how not to think, and how to act without acting – “Learning from silence / Working with stillness.”
Despite being written at least 2,300 years ago, the Tao Te Ching’s fundamental philosophical contributions still feel fresh and present today. “We shape clay into a pot,” the Tao reminds us, “but it’s the emptiness within that holds water.” “We join walls to make a room; we live in the inner-space.”
My introduction to the Tao came in the form of two very different translations: one by Stephen Mitchell, and one by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English. Both were beautiful and completely astonishing to me, but at various times throughout, both were still obtuse in their phrasing, their meaning, or sometimes both. And while some verses stood out in one translation as particularly beautiful or profound, invariably these same verses read as stale and stilted in other version. Discussing this with my then girlfriend (now wife), we set upon a mission: collect enough translations of the Tao so that we might create a hybrid with only the best translations of each verse.
It would not be so simple.
The version of the Tao you’re about to read is not a translation – at least, not in the traditional sense. I call it an “interpolation,” because I used a handful of recent English versions of the Tao to craft my own unique adaptation. I do not know ancient Chinese, nor during the course of this creation did I endeavor to learn it. But that’s not to imply I didn’t work hard to maintain a textual faith to the original Tao. I just took a creative approach more closely aligned to the process used in the Tao’s original creation more than two millennia ago.
The Tao Te Ching, literally “the Book of the Way and Its Virtue,” was supposedly written by a wise man named “Lao Tzu,” or “Old Master,” As a philosophy, the Tao eschews prayer (verse 13), and it is even more critical of the act of living with desires, boasting or looking for accolades (verses 19, 36, 46, 52, etc.). It is a philosophy that promotes humor and questions “cleverness,” (38, 42, 57, etc.) and naming the author of the book “Old Master” is clearly a joke, a nudge and a wink to the philosophy’s practitioners. And yet even so, for centuries it was widely accepted among scholars that the Tao Te Ching was written by one man, who we could call “Lao Tzu” regardless of whether that was his given name. It was only at the beginning of the 20th Century that scholars started questioning this version of history, pointing to the litany of inconsistencies in the tone, structure, meaning and style of verses compared to one another (or even, at times, wide inconsistencies within individual verses).
Rather than being a single text written by a single author, these scholars argued that it was far more likely that the Tao Te Ching was originally a set of shorter verses, sayings and aphorisms that were slowly assembled, lengthened with new commentaries, and eventually (by around the second century B.C.) codified into what we call the “Tao” today. Recent discoveries of some of the oldest editions of the Tao (particularly the “Guodian Laozi”) are missing huge chunks of text, with entire sections rearranged and some verses left incomplete.
So even in the original Chinese, questions as to the “authentic” Tao remain.
To complicate things for English readers, ancient Chinese is a puzzling, highly interpretive language. As Jonathan Star explains in his translation’s introduction,
“Ancient Chinese is a conceptual language; it is unlike English and other Western languages, which are perceptual. Western languages are rooted in grammar that frames events in real time, identifies subject and object, clarifies relationships, and establishes temporal sequences. Ancient Chinese is based on pictorial representations, without grammar. Characters symbolize concepts that can be interpreted as singular or plural; as a noun, a verb, or an adjective; as happening in the past, present, or future. … For instance, most of the Chinese text of the Tao Te Ching does not identify the subject or the object. It is left up to the translator to identify who is doing the talking, from what perspective, and to whom the message is directed.”
In practice, this means you can translate these verses in a variety of ways and no one can really dispute your translation. When the text is fairly simple, versions will tend to vary slightly in their language and imagery, but the meaning will remain consistent.
Consider the first line from verse forty-five: “Great perfection seems chipped” (Lau) “Great accomplishment seems imperfect” (Feng & English) “True perfection seems imperfect” (Mitchell) “Great completeness seems incomplete” (Cleary)
So far, so good.
Now consider the ending of verse thirty, which is considerably more obtuse in its meaning: “A creature which is old in its prime / Is known as being contrary to the way. / That which is contrary to the way will come to an early end.” (Lau) “Let life ripen and then fall, / Force is not the way at all: / Deny the way of life and you are dead.” (Bynner) “They are not in keeping with Tao / Whatever is not in keeping with the Tao will come to an early end” (Starr) “This is not the way of Tao. / That which goes against the Tao comes to an early end.” (Feng & English) “Because he is content with himself, / he doesn’t need others’ approval. / Because he accepts himself, / the whole world accepts him.” (Mitchell) (Mine finishes: “What is gained by force flourishes for a time, / And then it fades. // The unguided ends early.”)
This interpretative haziness can lead various translations to significantly different notions about the meaning of verses and phrases throughout the Tao. For instance, the term “sheng jen” is translated loosely as “holy man/person,” and appears in the text in this context thirty-two times. Though “sage” is the most common translation in English versions, “master” and “sanest man” are also sometimes used. I’ve opted for “smart man” throughout, which surely betrays my own values (this is my version, after all) but also attempts to remove some Western baggage. The “sheng jen” is one who goes unnoticed, one who quietly and deliberately follows the Way. “Smart” seems much fainter praise than the ostentatious “sagely.” So major attention had to be paid to maintaining homogeneity across verses if I wanted to dutifully create a cohesive work that was still true to the original text.
This was the biggest challenge by far, though on its face it seemed fairly simple at the start.
The enormous variance between translations reveals the incredible fluidity and subjectivity behind any version of the Tao, regardless of one’s grasp of ancient Chinese. That being said, for readers looking for a translation that strives solely for accuracy, this is not the Tao for you. (I’d recommend Jonathan Star’s or Feng & English’s.)
“The Full Way of Life,” as I’ve called this version, shouldn’t be understood as my attempt to create a more accurate version of the Tao than already exists; that is clearly far beyond my level of expertise. No, my attempt here is to provide a version of the Tao that can help casual readers and less familiar Westerners grasp the rich philosophy hidden behind these short verses. The final result of this project is a text that presents – sometimes quite forcefully – a philosophical perspective on what the Tao means, how it should be interpreted, and most importantly, how it shouldn’t be misread.
This version is fully intended to be read and enjoyed by the widest possible audience. Properly understood, the teachings of the Tao do not fundamentally contradict or attempt to supersede Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other more traditional “deist” religions: To follow the teachings of the Tao doesn’t require praying to anything or anyone – it simply asks that we contemplate the void, and take stock of the emptiness before the Word, and learn lessons from the chaos that figures so prominently into every major religion’s creation myth.
To make this point more clearly, some of my earliest verses have deliberate deviations from the original text. In the very first verse, for instance, I write, “The origin of heaven and earth passes beyond the name, / Beyond the face of the deep, and beyond the waters. ” The “face of the deep” and “beyond the water” here are deliberate references to Genesis 1:2 in the King James Bible. In verse four, I go on to write “Tao is in the heavens / And in the midst of water.” Again, this is an intentional nod to Genesis 1:6, to bring the Tao closer – both literally and figuratively – to a Western state of reference.
I hope you enjoy this copy of the Tao.
And remember, as verse Twenty-three suggests:
Use words rarely, then be silent.
This is natural.