Tao Te Ching
Trans. by Stephen Addis & Stanley Lombardo
This is not one of those books.
It is however the basis for one of those books. More importantly, it is one of those books lying at the core of human civilization that we really ought to read. Think of the Judeo-Christian Bible, a book I’d make the same claim for, and you’d be foolish if you were undaunted. Drop it and you could break a toe.
Your nether digits will be safe with the Tao (pronounced ‘dow.’). This quiet, wise book says all it has to say in 5000 Chinese characters over 81 ‘chapters’ (decidedly not the right word) arranged into two books. You can choose to linger or read it in a rush. Its very brevity invites repeat visits.
As with any work in translation the work of the translators is as big a factor as the source text. While both of our translators are professors neither has the pedigree I typically see for such a task. Only one of them is, and I intentionally use an old-school term, an Orientalist although they presumably both read Mandarin.
The professors have chosen to render the Tao in a fashion as close to the original as they can achieve. In a fabulously informative preface they explain just what that is.
I have only a glancing understanding of Sinic language structure and syntax. So while I know that the Chinese dialects, as spoken language, are inflected, I did not realize that the entire language consists of single syllables each of which is rendered by one of those 6000 characters I’ve heard tell of. There are days I’m glad the Roman alphabet contains but 26 even if our monster of a mother tongue has 600 thousand plus words in its omnivorous lexicon.
But the Tao isn’t about vocabulary and grammar. In fact, the Tao is seemingly about nothing even as it is about everything. If that last sentence threw you then be warned: there’s an awful lot of sentences just like that in these scant hundred pages. In fact there’s one I bet you already know: “The longest journey begins with a single step.” You’ll find it right there in ‘chapter’ 64. (It doesn’t make sense to give page numbers. No chapter is more than two pages long and in any case, the book contains no page numbers in the main text.)
A skeptic, and that would include me, might start to wonder whether they’ve come face to face with the source material for motivational workplace posters. That would be a mistake because the Tao is far more profound than that rather obvious statement.
In a way the Tao is a philosophy of right living. The author’s lounge for that category is a crowded place with residents from all over the world including Laozi’s countryman, Confucius, and Marcus Aurelius in Imperial Rome. (I have not yet touched The Analects and have only dabbled in the Meditations; someday I hope to finish both.) Such a list should also probably contain Jesus although He was a teacher and not an author.
What these greats have in common is that with some variation they all wind up in more or less the same place. By now I hope you recognize that I have a keen sense of commonality; it’s the only positive outcome of the otherwise undisciplined state of my mind. To me, the wisdom of the ages isn’t just a cute phrase, it’s a category that contains ways of thinking about things that occur over and over again in culture after culture.
Culture does have an impact. In his introduction to the text Burton Watson notes the importance of harmony to the great Chinese philosophers. By contrast, Jesus was a world-class rabble-rouser. So there are clear differences.
Here’s chapter 24 in its entirety:
On tiptoe: no way to stand.
Clambering: no way to walk.
Self-display: no way to shine.
Self-assertion: no way to succeed.
Self-praise: no way to flourish.
Complacency: no way to endure.
According to Tao:
Therefore, the follower of Tao
There’s not a single word there incompatible with Christian belief as I was taught it.
There’s more of such commonality and yet one of the things I like most about reading the Tao Te Ching is that it is not prescriptive. It can fit right in with any other belief system because a major part of it is not asserting yourself in fighting the order of the universe. And that order of the universe, that kingdom, power and glory, that’s Tao.
I can’t resist using another chapter to reflect on the current political process in the US. From chapter 57:
The more prohibitions and rules,
The poorer people become.
The sharper people’s weapons,
The more they riot.
The more skilled their techniques,
The more grotesque their works.
The more elaborate the laws,
The more they commit crimes.
See, something for everyone to agree or disagree with. Need I point out that’s another commonality with Christianity. Teasing, by the way, is a great Taoist pastime. If you can’t laugh at the perplexities and absurdities of the universe you may never be in harmony with the Tao.
Gary Snyder, renowned poet and last of the living Beats, says this edition is the best translation of the work. I’m in no position to assert or protest that. Yet I do know that like the second-hand encounter I first had with the Tao, I am moved.