Category Archives: Taoism
A person of high virtue is not conscious of virtue and therefore possesses Virtue.A person of little virtue tries to be virtuous and therefore lacks Virtue.A person of high virtue does not make a fuss and is not seen.A person of little virtue always makes a fuss and is always seen.A truly good person functions without ulterior motive.A moralist acts out of private desires.A ritualist acts and, when no one responds, rolls up a sleeve and marches.When we lose the Tao, we turn to Virtue.When we lose Virtue, we turn to kindness.When we lose kindness, we turn to morality. When we lose morality, we turn to ritual.Ritual is the mere husk of good faith and loyalty and the beginning of disorder.Knowledge of what is to come may be a flower of the Tao, but it is the beginning of folly.Hence, the well-formed person relies on what is solid and not on what is flimsy,on the fruit and not the flower.Therefore, such a person lets go of that without and is content with this within.
–Laozi, Dao De Qing (Tao Te Ching), chapter 38; courtesy of here.
I am continuing with my use of older essays, written in a different context, as new blog posts. Longtime readers know I’m Catholic, but that I became so only after an extended period of studying the various world religions. This was originally written to a friend to give a brief explanation of my thinking on why, for me, at any rate, Catholicism was the right choice. I might not phrase everything quite the same way if I wrote this today; and the format is of an explanation to another person; but I am editing it but lightly, leaving it substantially as originally written. I should also point out that this is strictly personal–others of other faiths will have their own reasons for why they joined the traditions to which they adhere. This post is intended to be descriptive of myself, not evangelistic of others.
We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, and in a summary way in the other major (and minor) religions of the world. In this post I’d like to see what, if any, broad patterns we can find, and what their relevance is in general and in particular, specifically in regard to universalism as a concept.
In the case of traditional and folk religions, the very concept of an afterlife often seems murky–the dead inhabit a shady, insubstantial realm such as the Greek Hades or the Hebrew She’ol. Alternately, they may inhabit the realm of the deified or semi-deified ancestors. These two possibilities are not exclusive, it should be noted. Some such religions, such as that of the ancient Celts and some strands of the ancient Greek religion, had some sort of belief in reincarnation (or “metempsychosis”, as the Greeks referred to it). By and large, there is no consistent idea of reward and punishment–Heaven and Hell–in most of these faiths. To the extent that there is, it is either ambiguous or applicable only to a few (such as the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartarus) or it seems to have been imported from other religions (any notions of heavens and hells in Chinese and Japanese religion, for example, come from Buddhism).
In general, I think it fair to say that there is no clear evidence for reward and punishment in the afterlife in any of the religions that precede the Axial Age, with the probable exception of the religion of Ancient Egypt and the possible exception of Zoroastrianism (so many Zoroastrian writings have been lost and there are so many issues with dating the ones we have, that there is some ambiguity as to how old certain doctrines actually are). I think it is also safe to say that there is also no clear evidence of reward and punishment in the afterlife in the traditional and folk religions that have survived to modern times, except insofar as they’ve been influenced by so-called great or world religions.
We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic faiths. There are other important religious traditions to consider, but the remaining ones, by and large, cannot be grouped together as we’ve done in the last two posts. Therefore, this post will be a bit of a grab bag. The order in which I consider the various religions with which I’m dealing here will be broadly by type or cultural zone (e.g. I’ll look at the Chinese religions together); but once more, there will be no formal grouping of religions by category as before. Therefore, go below the cut tag and we’ll begin!
Lau was an expert in Classical Chinese and translated many Confucian and Taoist works for the Penguin Classics series. He also helped develop London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies into a world-renowned center for studies of Chinese culture and philosophy. His translation of the Tao Te Ching, originally made in 1963 and revised periodically (I think he did a revision in the 1980’s taking into account the Mawangdui manuscripts) is still in print, and can be read online here. I have to say upfront that this is not actually my favorite translation. The literary style isn’t bad, but Lau can be a bit stilted at times, and he is definitely less poetic in style than many translators. Why, then, is his my go-to translation? The answer in brief is that I trust him more; but that will require some unpacking.
I’ve ended up writing more essays on the Tao Te Ching than I’d originally intended over in the “Your Own Personal Canon” series. Taoism has been an interest of mine for many years, and I may well return to Taoism even after I’ve finished the essays on the Tao Te Ching. Thus, I thought it would be a good idea to set up yet another index in which to collect the Taoist essays–and here it is!
Having looked at Taoism, let’s return to the issue of translating the Tao Te Ching, the first line of which, in the original Chinese, is above (it is read from top to bottom, with the columns going from right to left; thus the first character is 道, Tào). The above is calligraphy and not intended to be perfectly neat and readable. The same first line in standard Chinese typeface is thus: 道可道，非常道。名可名，非常名。 This line is usually translated something along the lines of, “The Way that can be told is not the true way. The name that can be named is not the true name.” Twelve Chinese characters (each more or less equivalent to a single word) become twenty-two English words. Something interesting is obviously going on here.
Translation from one language (the source language) to another (the target language) is never easy, even in the best-case scenario. Such a scenario, in my opinion, would be the translation of a secular (non-religious, non-philosophical, and non-mystical) prose text between two closely related languages (e.g. Spanish and Portuguese) both of which are living languages. Prose, because prose has fewer nuances than poetry and is less connected with form (rhyme, meter, and so on). Secular, because religious, philosophical, and in particular, mystical texts often deal with concepts that have no clear equivalents in languages of different religious cultures (for example, there are no good equivalents for the Sanskrit words dharma and karma, so they have just been borrowed into English). Closely related languages, because they have similar vocabulary, grammar, and concepts (e.g. the Spanish “Yo hablo español,” and the Portuguese “Eu falo espanhol,” are very similar). Living, because the meanings of words in dead languages are often obscure, and there is no one to ask about their meanings (e.g. it is not possible to ask speakers of 1st Century Koine Greek the exact meaning of “epiousios” in the Lord’s Prayer).
The Tao Te Ching is not only religious/philosophical but mystical; it is at least in parts poetry, not prose; its language, Classical Chinese, is very much different from English and any other European language; and Classical Chinese is not a living language (it differs substantially from Modern Chinese in any of its forms). Thus, the Tao Te Ching is at the opposite end of the spectrum from being an ideal situation for translation. We must expect more than a little difficulty in translating it, then!