The Tao Te Ching
Continuing in my series “Your Own Personal Canon”, about books that affected me in a deep or profound way, I now want to discuss the Tao Te Ching.
The book, traditionally said to have been composed by the sage Laozi, whose name is an alternate title for the book, is probably the most widely translated piece of Chinese literature, and perhaps one of the ones spelled in the most different ways. Its title in Chinese (shown above in calligraphy) is 道德經. The older systems of Chinese transliteration, of which the Wade-Giles is the most influential, usually render the title “Tao Te Ching“, occasionally spelling the “Te” as “Teh”. The most widely used system now, and the one official in Mainland China, is Pinyin. In Pinyin, the syllables are respectively transliterated “Dao”, “De”, and “Jing”. The combination (or lack thereof) into syllables varies: it may be given as Dao De Jing, with the transcription of each character written as a separate word, or as Daode Jing, or as Daodejing. The pronunciation is the same regardless of script. The first syllable rhymes with the “Dow” of “Dow Jones”; the second with “duh”, as in the sound a person makes if confused; and the last rhymes with the first syllable of “jingle”. Technically, the first consonant of the “Dao” and “De” is actually an unvoiced “t”, not a “d”. To hear the difference, say “tall” and then “stall” and listen carefully. The “t” in “tall” has a puff of air after it–that is, in linguistic terms, it’s aspirated. The “t” of “stall” is unaspirated and sounds almost like a “d”. In English, the unaspirated “t” never comes at the beginning of a syllable; in Chinese, it does. Listen to a Spanish speaker–“t” in Spanish is never aspirated–for a good idea of how the “d” of “Dao” should sound. “D” is used because that’s how it sounds to speakers of many European langusges, such as English. “D” (unaspirated “t”) was written as just “t” in Wade-Giles; and the aspirated “t”, just “t” in Pinyin, was given as t’ (a “t” followed by an apostrophe) in Wade-Giles.
Similarly, the “J” of “Jing” is not really a “J”, but like the “ch” in the word “cheese”, but with no puff of breath (i.e. it’s unaspirated). It was represented in Wade-Giles by plain “ch”, while its aspirated equivalent is ch’ in Wade-Giles and “q” in Pinyin. As to the vowels, “ao” is like the “ow” in “cow”; “e” in Chinese is like the “u” in “but” or the last “a” in “America”; and “i” in Chinese is like the “i” in “machine”. This holds for both transliteration systems, though some variants of Wade-Giles use “eh” for “e”.
Whether or not one can pronounce it properly, the meaning of the title, Tao Te Ching (I’m using Wade-Giles from this point on out of nostalgia, since that was still used in most translations at the time I first read it), though containing much nuance, isn’t too difficult. “Tao”, though a very complex concept in Chinese thought, is almost universally translated as “Way” (usually, though not always, capitalized). Occasionally it is left untranslated as “Tao” or “Dao”. “Te” means “virtue” or “power”, though I rather like Victor Mair’s rendition of it as “integrity”. “Ching” could be “book”, but in Classical Chinese is usually translated as “classic”. When Buddhism entered China several centuries after the composition of the Tao Te Ching, the word “ching” was used as a translation for the Sanskrit sutra (or Pali sutta). Thus, possible translations of Tao Te Ching would be “The Book of the Way and the Power”, “The Classic of the Way and Virtue”, and others along those lines.
As I mentioned in my post on the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching was one of the books of what were then to me exotic Eastern wisdom that I read at about the age of eighteen. Along with the Dhamapada, the Tao Te Ching made a very strong impression on my at the time, and has been a book that I’ve often returned to. I do have to admit that what I initially read was not strictly a translation, but a poetic paraphrase by the poet Witter Bynner, entitled The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu. In general, I strongly disapprove of this kind of thing, which I’ve discussed before. I slide Bynner a break on this, though, for several reasons. One, unlike some contemporary writers (I’m looking at you, Stephen Mitchell), Bynner was noted mostly for original work and did not make a cottage industry out of “translations” from languages he didn’t know. Two, Bynner actually traveled to China and had published a large amount of Chinese poems which he had translated with a native Chinese-speaking collaborator (Bynner, in fact, had been unable to work with his collaborator on the Tao Te Ching, since the latter had been jailed in China; but Bynner sent him a pre-publication copy of The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu, and the collaborator approved of it). Three, Bynner’s rendering is pretty good. I reread it about three years ago, for the first time in thirty-odd years, and while it didn’t have the impact t did when I was eighteen, it still had held up reasonably well.
In any case, I’ve read several different translations since then, and while Bynner’s would not be a go-to for getting a meaning, it is still worth perusing at times. I also think that his renderings of certain chapters are unexcelled. As I mentioned above, the Tao Te Ching is the most translated piece of Chinese literature, with more new translations seemingly popping up every year. Including Bynner’s rendering, I’ve read at least four or five different translations in full, and parts of several others. Comparison of translations is something that will require a post of its own, which I’ll put up later on. For now, suffice it to say that my two major recommended translations are those of D. C. Lau and Victor Mair.
As I said, the Tao Te Ching made a strong impression on me. As with the Dhammapada, it showed me that religion could be a matter of action, not necessarily doctrine, and that truth and beauty existed in other, vastly different cultures. Beyond that, I’d add the following themes:
1. Nonjudgmentalism. Christianity, at least of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist type of my youth, can be extremely, excessively judgmental, in the bad sense of that word. As one gets older, one sees that being judgmental isn’t all bad; but I think many who grow up in milieus such as mine experience much too much of it. Taoism is very refreshing in this respect–it’s not a matter of judgment, but more a matter of living in tune with the Tao. Failure to do so doesn’t result in scowling, finger-wagging, and angry punishment–it just has negative results by nature. If I don’t pay attention and slip on the ice, gravity doesn’t punish me by making me fall–that’s just nature.
2. Impersonalism. I think this is a big draw for Westerners to Eastern religions. There has been a tendency in the West to overly anthropomorphize God. This, combined with the judgmentalism mentioned above, and topped off with the traditional views of hellfire and damnation has tended to breed a sort of neurosis particularly noticeable in Evangelical and Fundamentalist cultures. This is a sort of pathological fear of a God ready to blast one for any real or imagined sins–in short, the God of Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to have a healthier view of God, partly through coming to a better understanding of classical theism, and partly through learning about the more merciful and universalist tradition in Christian history. Still, I remember where I was at the time I first read the Tao Te Ching, with its idea of the beneficent and all-sustaining, yet impersonal, Tao, and I think that was a big part of the appeal.
3. The idea of life as a balance is certainly appealing. In the words of the Billy Joel song, I go to extremes; and the concept of balance and harmony characteristic of Taoism is very much appealing to me. I’m not sure how well I emulate it; but the Tao Te Ching and the Taoist tradition have certainly given me a goal worthy to aspire to.
4. Finally, there is something about the Tao Te Ching that is very much reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount–a vision of a world that could be, a world of peace and harmony, beyond all conflict and sorrow, and a program to attain it, if our species would only do so. It is depressing to see how far we are from that vision; but it is still a vision that can give powerful comfort.
The Tao Te Ching has changed my life, then, and continues to serve as in inspiration. Its message of balance, peacefulness, and harmony, as well as some of the techniques later developed in the Taoist tradition (e.g. Tai Chi Ch’uan and Taoist meditation), are more relevant than ever in this increasingly turbulent century.