Wednesday, December 13, 2006


When the great Way is forgotten,
there arises kindness.

When knowledge and cleverness appear,
there arise lies and hypocrisy.

When family relationships are not in harmony,
there arises filial piety.

When there is disorder and discord in the houses of the state,
there arises patriotism.

This verse is a good example of how the Laoists strove to turn conventional morality on its head, or to appear to do so. From the first line, it is clear that something strange is going on, since the authors appear to be saying that kindness is inferior to following the Way. How can they mean this? There are two things we might infer. First, the authors might be saying that FALSE or forced kindness is a bad thing; they believe that following the natural Way will result in, not less kindness, but an equal or greater amount of more authentic kindness. Or, they might be saying that an excess of kindness is in fact inferior to the balance achieved by following the Way. Remember that one of the ideals of the Tao Te Ching is harmony with natural processes. It surely cannot have escaped the authors that natural processes hurt almost as much as they harm; a rainstorm in one season can save people from starvation, in another season it might drown their crops. I think that the authors had this idea of balance in mind when writing this passage, due to the positive connotations of the words they use for the "lesser values" (the words I translated as "filial piety" really refer to the love of parents and children for each other, and have a very strong positive connotation). The authors are trying to shock us by saying that exhausting ourselves to always be kind is not in harmony with the way the world works. However, from other passages it seems like the authors do prize kindness and compassion, and so it's likely that their true position is not as extreme as it might appear here. In other words, they believe that the values they disparage in this passage are important, just not as important as conventional morality says.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


The best leader is one whose existence is barely known.
Next best is one who is loved and praised.
After that comes one who is feared.
Worst is a leader who is held in contempt and disobeyed.

If you cannot trust others, they will not be trustworthy.

The sage is quiet, and chooses his words carefully.
He completes his work, puts things in order, and lets the people say,
"we did this ourselves."

This verse appears to be made up of three sections, possibly of different authorship. The first and third sections explain the virtues of a Laoist leader: he is invisible, does not boast or claim credit for his achievements, and guides the people gently where they already want to go. It may seem strange that the authors consider a leader who is loved and praised to be worth less than one who is subtle, but this idea appears elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching, for example in a passage saying that the Way (implying natural action) is more valuable than love, compassion, or filial piety. The authors are primarily concerned with the leader not dominating the people, and instead leading them where it is natural for them to go. They would probably feel that a leader who is overly popular runs the risk of forcing some people to do unnatural things, as well as being tempted by his own power.

As for the line in the middle, we might ask how it relates to the rest of the verse. Unfortunately, as with other seeming non sequiters, I can only say that it is probably meant as a comment by a different author. It certainly expresses a truth about human nature: people appreciate being trusted, and placing your trust in someone is a great compliment that often inspires them to act in good faith. However, if you are always suspicious and accusatory of people, they might not feel any reason to be trustworthy. After all, if it doesn't make a difference in how you treat them, why should they care? I'm reminded of Gene Wolfe's opinion that if you do someone a great favor, it is actually you who are indebted to them, because you have had the honor of helping someone and they have suffered the embarrassment of needing your help.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


Attain complete emptiness.
Hold firm to a steady calm.
As all things rise and flourish,
we can already see their impending return.
All things flourish and grow, and each one returns from whence it came.
By returning, it finds peace. This is destiny: the law of nature.

This destiny is the one constant in the world; understanding it gives you perspective; not understanding it brings recklessness and misfortune.
When you have perspective, you can be impartial.
Impartiality makes you noble.
This nobility means you are in accord with Heaven.
Heaven is in accord with the Way.
Being in accord with the Way, you will be free from danger all your life.

This verse seems to be all about one topic, although the second half may have been added later to reinforce the first half. The verse emphasizes a recurring motif in the TTC: the cyclical nature of all things. If you think about things falling apart and creatures dying, it's depressing, but only if you think about it in a linear way. Seeing it as part of a cycle, you see that as some things are dying, others are being born. As some things are being born, others are flourishing and yet others are approaching their end. According to the authors of the Tao Te Ching, this should instill in you a sense of calm and equanimity.

At the end of the verse we can also see a kind of phrasing very common in the TTC: "X leads to Y, Y leads to Z, Z leads to the Way, the Way will do something." Personally, I'm not sure how much attention to pay to the literal logical meaning of these passages; I get the feeling they are meant to be largely poetic, with their primary purpose being to express the desireability of the items on the list, without making serious claims about one necessarily leading to the other. Nevertheless, I've tried to render them in such a way that it's at least logical how attaining one item could lead to attaining the next, and so on. When dealing with something so far removed from our cultural experience, we should be careful about premature decisions about meaning.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


The sages of old were so deep,
no one could fathom them.
Because their minds were beyond understanding, we must be content with describing their appearance.

Careful, like crossing a frozen stream
Aware, as though watching all around
Courteous, like a polite guest
Yielding, like ice on the verge of melting
Simple, like an uncarved block of wood.
Open, like a broad valley
Turbid, like muddy water.

Remain calm, and even muddy water becomes clear.
Remain still, and movement brings you to life.
One who follows the Way does not wish to be always full;
For this reason he can pass through exhaustion and be replenished.

Commentary: More water metaphors in this chapter, in the context of describing a sage. A sage's mind is deep, like deep water, all we can do is describe his appearance. If there were a contest for the Ten Commandments of Taoism, this chapter would have a strong claim on the title, with its list of characteristics that make a good sage. Although these attributes of sages are suppposed to concern only their appearance, they are clearly meant to be indicative of the sage's mental state.

Why turbid like muddy water? The very next line says that remaining calm allows muddy water to become clear, presumably even for sages. The remaining lines bring to mind the Laoist idea of cycles and contrast: by focusing on moments of stillness, we are more invigorated by movement. By not wishing always to be happy, we are able to pass through periods of unhappiness more easily. This idea will be instantly familiar to anyone who's been troubled by insomnia, which often stems from an obsession with getting enough sleep. If we believe we can't tolerate sleepless nights, our fear of not being able to get enough sleep keeps us awake and torments us. But if we accept that some days we will feel rested, and some days tired, we can relax and take life as it comes.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Looked at but not seen, it is called invisible.
Listened to but not heard, it is called soundless
Grasped for but not held, it is called formless.
These three attributes cannot be analyzed,
since they are inseparable.

The top of the Way is not bright
the underside is not dark.
Drawn out forever, nameless,
Forever returning to nonexistence.
Without form or substance,
it is an indistinct shadow.

Stand before it, and you won't see its face.
Follow it, and you won't see its back.
But hold fast to the ancient Way, and you can understand the present.
Know the ancient beginning; this ties together the teachings of the Way.

This is the first metaphysical passage other than Verse 1, which is easier to translate both because the original Chinese is easier, and because it's been analyzed practically to death by other translators. Verse 14 is more challenging. It's clearly meant to be describing the Way, but what kind of attributes is it assigning to it? I think the descriptions here are remarkably consistent, and may all have been written by the same author at the same time. The Way is invisible, soundless, and formless; it can't be analyzed. This fits exactly with the claim of Verse 1 that the Way that be described is not the true Way. The second section reiterates this description, avowing that the Way cannot be described by recourse to physical metaphors like light and dark. There is some beautiful imagery here; The phrase I've translated as "Drawn out forever" is [sheng sheng], a repeated character which can mean continuous, neverending, and infinite, and which evokes a thread because it uses the thread radical.

The first part of the third section is more of the same: the Way cannot be described as having a front and back, at least not as we understand them. But what to make of the last two sentences? What is this talk about "ancient Way?" There are two things necessary to understand this. First, remember that the Way is said to be very old, in one verse it is even said that it predates the gods. Another important element to the meaning is that Chinese philosophers around the time of the Tao Te Ching used "ancient" as a way of referring to ideas or principles they liked. In later verses we'll see statements like "Ancient kings did X, and everything was wonderful." It's important to understand that the authors of the TTC didn't really base their recommendations on archeological evidence of what ancient kings or people did, they're just using "ancient" as a signal to tell you they agree with something. Of course, it's not completely just a rhetorical device, because records of ancient times were sparse and most people probably did believe, to some degree, that things really were better in the "good old days." Suffice it to say that according to other, opposing philosophical and moral traditions, ancient kings were said to be behaving very differently!

Monday, June 12, 2006


Both honor and dishonor are cause for worry.
Misfortune is caused by the self.

What does it mean to say that honor and dishonor are cause for worry?
The concept of honor is depressing:
You are worried about obtaining it.
Once you have it, you are worried about losing it.
That's why it is said that honor and dishonor are both cause for worry.

What does it mean to say that misfortune is caused by the self?
As long as you are attached to your self, you will suffer.
Without a self, what is there for suffering to affect?

One who regards his responsibilities as his self, however, can be trusted with anything.
One who loves the world as his self can be trusted with caring for it.

This is a very difficult passage to translate, especially since one of the characters is different between two different versions of the Tao Te Ching, the Wang Pi and the Ho Shang Kung (HSK). The fourth line, in Chinese, is only three characters long, glossed like this: [honor makes low]. That's in the Wang Pi version of the TTC, though. Another version, the HSK, has [dishonor makes low]. This is a very difficult situation because the two words used are opposites. Often, the cause of a discrepancy between two of the versions is that somewhere along the way, a scribe mistakenly copied a character as a similar-looking character. In that case, the mistake is easy to spot because in one of the versions, the character has a meaning that seems totally out of place.

Here, though, the two characters don't look anything alike, and so it's likely that what happened was a failure of memory. The copyist remembered the basic gist of the passage, but couldn't remember whether the word in question was honor or dishonor. How could they make such a mistake? Looking at the passage, it's clear; substituting "dishonor" doesn't actually change the meaning very much. In both cases, the passage is saying that attaining honor is stressful, and that getting dishonored is also stressful. However, due to the context I think "honor" is a more likely choice.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five tastes dull the palate.

Too much chasing after things just makes the mind crazy.
Too many precious things just get in the way.

Because of this, the wise person attends to his belly, not his senses.
Ignores the latter, listens to the former.

This is one of the most famous verses in the Tao Te Ching. The first three lines are very clear, and various translations usually translate them into exactly the same English words. The fifth line is very ambiguous; the gloss is something like [hard-to-get objects make a person's activities hindered]. Translators usually take one of two routes: Either valuable objects are making a person do wrong or harmful things, or they are hindering his progress. We can't know if the authors intended this line to mean something more specific, but I've tried to maintain the ambiguity in my translation.

The last two lines feature another common metaphor in the Tao Te Ching: the belly. In fact, in Chinese, as well as Japanese, the belly has a much more important role, being symbolically the seat of health and well-being. That's what it means here; not just making sure you eat enough, but attending to health and satisfaction rather than over-stimulating the senses. Relating to the senses, in fact, we have to keep in mind how most of the sayings in the TTC are meant to be taken as proverbs, not universal laws. When this verse says "The five colors blind the eye," it doesn't mean that looking at colors will make you blind. Rather, it's warning against
over-stimulation, the same way we might tell someone to take it easy by saying "Slow and steady wins the race." We're not recommending the person do everything in her life slowly, just that she exercise moderation and make sure she's not going too fast.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Thirty spokes meet at a hub;
Because the hub is empty, it is useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
Because the vessel is empty, it is useful.
Cut out doors and windows to make a house;
Without these holes, the house couldn't be lived in.

A thing gets profit from what is there;
it gets usefulness from what is not.

Most people think that to add usefulness, you have to add to what is there. This passage emphasizes how the usefulness of things depends also on what is not there. Imagine a life without any free time; although you would be accomplishing a lot, you wouldn't be happy. You need the "empty" time to reflect on and plan for the activity, and to rest from it. The meaning of this passage doesn't just concern the necessity of emptiness, though, but also the proper balance between what is there and what's not. During the school year students often wish they could be free of school forever. During their two-week winter break, they revel in their free time and wish they could have more of it. But during the summer, after a month or two, they become bored and miss the activities they would do during the year. Just like one puts together clay and emptiness in the right proportion to make a useful pot, one needs to put together activity and rest in the right proportion to make a satisfying life.

What is Non-action?

One of the phrases most-identified with the Tao Te Ching is "non-action." In Chinese, the phrase is [wu wei]: the character for "not" followed by the character for acting, making, or doing (many languages use the same word for all these things). But what exactly is "non-action?" Most translators and commentators subscribe to one of four interpretations:

1. EFFORTLESS ACTION: In this reading, non-action is the kind of action, without effort or thought, produced by thorough training. Advocates of this interpretation compare non-action to actions performed by skilled athletes; a skilled quarterback's throw has a perfect spiral, excellent accuracy, and amazing distance, but the quarterback doesn't even think about it; he's thinking about whether or not he's going to get blitzed, and which of his teammates are open. The idea behind this interpretation is that many everyday actions can become effortless, not just by training, but by a certain state of mind that is not preoccupied with thinking, and just does what comes naturally, the way we say a skill is "second nature."

2. ABSENCE OF UNNECESSARY OR HARMFUL ACTION: In this reading, non-action is a focus on not doing superfluous action. In this busy world, an advocate of this interpretation would say, we are always thinking about how to solve problems by doing things. For example, our solution to insomnia is to learn self-hypnosis, take up meditation, or take melatonin. To practice non-action, according to this definition, would be to solve the problem by not doing something. For example, not watching TV right before bed, not taking on as many stressful assignments at work, or not going out with friends when homework needs to be done.

3. LACK OF RESISTANCE: In this reading, non-action is a lack of resistance to the actions of the world. The authors of the Tao Te Ching often compare the Way to water, since water doesn't resist and flows naturally, according to the laws of the universe. This also extends to not competing with others; one of the most common phrases in the Tao Te Ching is often translated as "If you don't compete, no one can compete with you."

4. A SPECIAL MEDITATIVE PRACTICE: According to some interpreters, the Tao Te Ching contains a lot of phrases that can only be interpreted as jargon; names of specific meditation or contemplative techniques. Verse 10 is the most frequently cited where this is concerned; many interpreters believe that "opening and closing Heaven's door," "becoming like an infant," and "cleansing inner vision" are the names of specific meditative exercises that would have been familiar to the students of the people who wrote the Tao Te Ching. In this interpretation, "Non-action" is also a name for a kind of meditation. Exactly what kind, we'll probably never know, but we can guess it probably has something to do with calming and clearing the mind.

So which do I think is the meaning most probably intended by the authors? I would say #2 is the most likely, followed by #3. The TTC is filled with recommendations to do less, to relax, to not exert effort, and even to give up knowledge. One of the later verses even admires people who don't leave their native country! Interpretation #3 is also referenced many times, such as in the comparisons of the Way to water and the exhortations not to compete with other people.

As for interpretation #1, it is true that skillful effort was something admired by the authors. There are several references to skilled people doing things exceptionally well, such as skilled runners leaving no tracks. Another Laoist text, the Chuang Tzu, has an example of a butcher using his knife so skillfully that he hardly has to exert any effort to carve up a bull, and he never has to sharpen his knife. However, the Tao Te Ching speaks of non-action as something that should be practiced in everyday life, and that makes it most likely that it's not referring to the kind of exceptional skill possessed by elite athletes and tradesmen. This also applies to interpretation #4. In the TTC, non-action is something you practice with everything in your life, and that rules out a separate activity like meditation.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Cultivating your soul, can you embrace the oneness of things?
Collecting your breath, can you become as soft as an infant?
Cleansing your inner vision, can you make it without flaws?
Caring for the people you govern, can you dispense with cleverness?
As Heaven's door opens and shuts, can you remain receptive?
Seeing all around with clarity, can you practice non-action?

They Way produces things and nourishes them;
produces but does not claim them.
It acts without self-interest,
leads but does not dominate.

This is true virtue.

Various commentators, including Michael LaFargue, have suggested that the first section of this verse is taken from meditation instruction, and each sentence refers to a special type of meditation which would be familiar to students of the Laoists. In other words, there was a type of meditation which Laoists knew by the phrase "opening and shutting Heaven's door." I can see why people are tempted to say that these phrases represent some special meditation jargon: they're hard to interpret! Most of them aren't mentioned anywhere else in the TTC, like the concept of "cleansing your inner (hidden) vision." There's no mention of this anywhere else in the book, and in fact this is the only place the character for "vision" appears. However, just imagine how much of the Laoists' practice must not have made it into the TTC. Eighty-one short verses is hardly enough to lay out an entire worldview, and we shouldn't assume that the vague, hard-to-interpret passages are intentionally so. They may just be small parts of a larger concept which didn't make it into the version of the Tao Te Ching we have today.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Filling a cup to the brim is not as good as stopping at the right moment.
Sharpen and hammer a blade, but still its edge will not last long.
Fill your house with treasure and you'll worry about guarding it.

Wealth, status, and pride: they contain within themselves the seeds of your downfall.

Do your work and step back: that is Heaven's Way.

The first three lines are variations on each other, and their syntax is parallel in the original Chinese. All three describe moderation, but they deal with different facets of it. The first line emphasizes that in most things, what we want is not one extreme or the other, but something in the middle. The second uses a sharp blade as an example of an unnatural and fragile situation, which needs very little to upset it. This is interesting, because many translators have something like this: "Over-sharpen a blade and its edge will be lost," implying that a sharp blade is a good thing and you need to be careful if you want to maintain one. However, in the original Chinese sentence there is no character that means "over-" or "too much." The gloss is something like [sharpen and hammer it, not can long preserve]. A translation that's closer to this gloss also fits much more with the rest of the Tao Te Ching; sharpness, whether in a blade or in a person, is always something that is discouraged.

I'm still ambivalent about using the word "Heaven" in my translation of the Tao Te Ching, even though it's virtually ubiquitous in other translations. The Chinese character does refer to the sky, but as can be seen from this and many other passages, it's used as a kind of synonym for "ideally natural." Think of the flowing water that the authors of the Tao Te Ching admire so much; but imagine that in a higher, ideal reality there were a kind of "super-water" that surpasses real water in every quality the TTC authors admire: it flows more easily, it struggles less against obstacles, etc. This is the kind of meaning the authors are using "Heaven's Way" for.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


The highest good is like water,
benefiting everything but not struggling against anything.
Water dwells in low places that others disdain;
this brings it close to the Way.

In living, stay deep in the heart.
In relationships, be kind.
In speech, be sincere.
In government, be fair.
In work, be efficient.
In action, move at the right time.

Above all, don't compete,
and you will be without blame.

The authors of the Tao Te Ching often compare the Way to water, or hold up some of water's metaphorical qualities as admirable, as they do in this verse. To them, water is the epitome of natural movement; when running down rocks, it doesn't think or worry about which way to take, it doesn't try to run uphill, it doesn't resist the rocks. It just flows around them and keeps going, smoothly and without hesitation. According to these passages, that's what wise people should be like too; not resisting what life throws at them, but "rolling with the punches" and making decisions instinctively, in harmony with the way the world works.

I've translated the last line of the second section as "In action, move at the right time." Some translators have it as "In action, be timely," but I think that sounds too much like advice to get moving and stay on schedule. It's clear from the patterns of the Tao Te Ching that the authors would not get hung up over punctuality. Instead of doing something at the scheduled time, they would prefer to do it at the
right time, whatever that time might be. We can see this in the line above, "In work, be efficient." The character that I've translated as "efficient" can also mean skillful or effective, but one of those glosses doesn't make sense (telling someone to "be skillful") and it's clear that effectiveness is less important to the TTC authors than efficiency.

Friday, May 19, 2006


Heaven is eternal
Earth is enduring

How can they be like this?
Because they don't live for themselves;

That's why they can endure forever.

Therefore the wise person puts himself behind,
yet finds himself in front.
Treats himself lightly, and finds himself safe.

Is this not because he has no Self?
That's why his Self is complete.

This verse is very literal and easy to understand. Heaven and Earth, because they're not conscious, are held up as examples of things which aren't preoccupied with themselves. The authors then advise that if people don't worry so much about their status, that they will find peace and their situation will naturally improve. Certainly we can think of the kind of examples they might have had in mind: people who love their work so much, for instance, that they do it amazingly well, gaining the admiration of everyone. Their goal is not to achieve high status, but through forgetting about themselves, and forgetting about status, they've achieved it anyway.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


The Valley Spirit is immortal;
it is called the Mysterious Female,
the source from which Heaven and Earth arise.

Drawn out forever like an endless silken thread,
Its movement is without effort.

What could the first stanza possibly mean? It's likely to be an idiom or expression that has been lost. Imagine if archeologists in the year 4000 AD find the expression "team spirit" written somewhere, without a definition. Would they think we believed in ghosts that could help sports teams? In the first line, the characters I've translated as "Valley Spirit" are literally the character for valley, followed by the character for spirit. It has been rendered in various ways by other translators in an attempt to give some kind of recognizable meaning to the verse, but there is no widespread agreement on the intended meaning. What we can see for sure is that the concept of the feminine is used here with a positive connotation, as it is elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching. Depending on the verse and context, the feminine is held up as an example of receptivity, non-competitiveness, creativity, or mystery.

Monday, May 08, 2006

What is "the Way?"

Each time I translate five chapters, I'll write a short essay on some facet of the Tao Te Ching. This is the first.

What is "the Way?" The Chinese character (tao) can refer to a literal way in the sense of a road or path. It can also refer to a way of doing something, or a way of life. One of the biggest mistakes students of Eastern philosophy can make is to assume the idea of "the Way" is something unique to Taoism, as if Taoists believe in following the Way and other people don't. In fact, the idea that there is a "Way" that, if followed, makes life easy and produces good government is an idea that was virtually ubiquitous in Chinese philosophy. Schools had sprung up all over the place to teach rulers and bureaucrats the Way to rule their subjects, and themselves, in a harmonious fashion. The schools agreed on some basic principles, like the desirability of order and harmony, but the details of their Ways differed.

Most of the teachings of these schools (and their Ways) were lost, but a very few survived. The Tao Te Ching, a collection of teachings of the "Laoist" school, is one example; Confucianism is another. While Confucius would certainly have been opposed to the Way of the Laoists, which emphasizes being spontaneous and natural, he called his own system "the Way" also. So all these instances of "the Way" that appear in the Tao Te Ching could really be translated as "our Way," the Way of the Laoist school. Naturally, the Laoists thought their Way was superior to the Ways being taught by the other schools, but the fact remains that it was just one of many different Ways being taught at the time.

So why do some people think the Tao Te Ching is so wise and profound, if its philosophy was just the teaching of one school, the Laoists, and it survived by random chance? Might not another school's Way have been better? It may have been indeed, and we'll never know for sure, but we can evaluate the Tao Te Ching's Way on its own merits. On those merits, it seems pretty good. The Laoists' Way is the essence of harmony and peace; the Tao Te Ching always advocates reconciliation, never conflict, although it recognizes that conflict is sometimes necessary. Its teachings on the danger of stimulating desire are duplicated in Buddhism, and are the source of the profound peace that is the goal of practicing Buddhists. The notion that there is a Way that the world works, and that we should figure it out so that we can live in harmony with it, is humbling. This is the core idea of science: observing the world, then proposing an explanation, then testing to see if your explanation fits the way the world works. Ultimately, of course, the only way to decide if the Way of the Tao Te Ching is right for you is to put it into practice in your own life, and see how it works. I've had good results myself, and I think you will too.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


Heaven and Earth are not overly sentimental
They treat the ten thousand things like straw dogs.
The wise person is not sentimental either.
He regards the hundred families as straw dogs.

The space between Heaven and Earth is like a great bellows,
Empty and yet always full.
The more you move it, the more it produces.

Too much talking leads to exhaustion;
It's better to just remain centered.

"Straw dogs" were items used for rituals in China around the time the Tao Te Ching was written. Woven of straw into the shape of a dog, they were protected carefully before the sacrifice, but after being burned they were considered spent and no more attention was paid to them. Many translators have a word like "dispensable" in place of "straw dogs," but it doesn't really capture the meaning. A paper plate or a rock is dispensable, but a straw dog is something that was carefully handcrafted, only to be abandoned without sentimentality after it has served its purpose. What does it mean for the wise person to regard "the hundred families" as straw dogs? In this case, it seems to mean that he doesn't value other peoples' status, just as he disregards other peoples' opinions of him.

In the second part of the verse we have another reference to the Way being useful but inexhaustible, similar to the mention in Verse 4. Finally, we have an appeal to the concept (wu wei in Chinese) variously translated as "non-action" or "not doing." Here we can clearly see the intended meaning: don't try and do too much, you'll just get exhausted.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


The Way is empty, but no matter how much you use it, it never runs out.
So deep, it seems to be the source of all things.

Blunting sharp edges,
Loosening knots,
Softening the glare,
Becoming one with the dust.

Like deep water the Way will endure forever.
I don't know whose child it is;
it seems to be older than God.

The idea that "The Way is empty, but no matter how much you use it it never runs out" is one that runs through the entire Tao Te Ching. What does it mean? Remember that the Way represents how the authors of the Tao Te Ching think the universe works. In fact, "the way the universe works" is one common definition of the character [Tao] used like this. If you understand the rules of the universe, you can use these rules forever and they won't run out.

Think of two automobile mechanics: One has a deep and intuitive understanding of how an engine works. When he fits two parts together, they fit perfectly. When he arranges moving parts, they have the right amount of clearance and slide over each other smoothly, without needing to be lubricated. The second mechanic doesn't have a good understanding of the engine, and his repairs are often adjusted poorly, with the moving parts of the engine rubbing on each other and generating friction and wear. He compensates for this by squirting a profuse amount of oil on everything he does, reducing the friction between parts. Although the first mechanic uses no lubricant, his engine is better calibrated because he understands, on a deep level, the rules and principles an engine runs by. This understanding, although he uses it every day, will never run out. The second mechanic's engine, however, needs to be constantly checked and re-lubricated because it is not adjusted according to the rules by which engines run. Replace the engine with the world, and you have an idea of what the authors of the Tao Te Ching probably have in mind when they talk about the Way being useful, but inexhaustible.


Don't praise goodness, and people won't undermine each other.
Don't esteem wealth, and people won't steal.
Don't display treasures, and peoples' hearts won't become disturbed.

Therefore, the sage's way is to empty peoples' minds, and fill their bellies;
To weaken their ambitions, and strengthen their bones.
When people are without cunning, cunning men can't tempt them.

Practice non-action, and everything will naturally fall into place.

Does this verse sound too austere to you, with people being advised to give up all wealth and fame? Remember that the Tao Te Ching is written more in the style of proverbs than absolute laws. These proverbs, like our own, are meant to be applied to relevent situations, not prescriptively followed in all cases. For example, in English we have the proverb, "The early bird gets the worm," but we also have "Haste makes waste." These proverbs are not contradictory because neither is supposed to be applied to every situation. In a situation where quickness is needed, we say the first. In a situation where caution is better, we say the second.

The intention is probably the same with much of the Tao Te Ching's advice. A lot of it seems to be intended to stop people from doing something too much, such as esteeming wealth too much, or stimulating their senses too much. This is especially visible in the famous Verse 12, which states, "The five colors blind the eye; the five tones deafen the ear; the five tastes deaden the tongue." Were the authors of the TTC arguing that we should wear only gray clothes, eat only white rice, and wear earmuffs at all times? It seems much more likely they were arguing for not stimulating the senses excessively, and that is probably the best interpretation for Verse Three as well. Don't praise certain people too much, or there will be cutthroat competition. Don't worship wealth, and there will be fewer people willing to break the law to get it.

As for the lines about a full belly being better than ambition, this runs counter to American culture but is clearly what the authors of the Tao Te Ching had in mind: people being able to relax their ambitions and just take pleasure in natural things that are easy to get. In later chapters on politics, we'll see that the ideal Taoist government is not one that governs least, but one that the people can forget about because it's doing its job.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


People can perceive beauty only because of ugliness
People can perceive good only because of what is not good.

In this way:
Existence and nonexistence produce each other
Difficult and easy complement each other
Long and short put each other in perspective
High and low rest on each other
Treble and bass harmonize each other
Before and after follow each other.

That's why the wise person observes non-action in his activities
And practices silence in his teaching.

The ten thousand things come to him
and yet he doesn't deny them
He creates things, but doesn't claim to own them.
He finishes things, and forgets them.

Because he forgets them, he is not forgotten.

This verse seems to have two major parts, both introducing ideas very common in the Tao Te Ching. The first part, from lines 1-9, talks about how opposite concepts are really intertwined and dependant on each other for their meaning. This idea is exemplified by the famous black and white Tajitu symbol showing Yin and Yang. The white and black aren't totally seperate; there is a bit of each in its opposite, in keeping with the ideas in this verse.

The second part of Verse Two is also on a topic that gets discussed a lot in the Tao Te Ching: the way a wise person (or "sage" as many translations have it) follows the Way by not doing too much or being too active. He does things, but he doesn't overdo them, and he isn't attached to them. The last line is sometimes translated as "Because he forgets himself, he is not forgotten." In either version the meaning is similar: the sage is humble, doesn't seek the acclaim of others, and doesn't dwell on his accomplishments.


The way that can be spoken of is not the eternal Way.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.

Nonbeing is the origin of Heaven and Earth
Being is the mother of worldly things.

Therefore, be free of desire so you can see the true essence of things.
Having desire, all you can see are its outer manifestations.

Both come from the same source, yet they are called by different names.
What they have in common is their mystery,
Mystery upon mystery.
Mystery is the door to understanding everything.

Commentary: The first, and most famous, verse in the Tao Te Ching. The first two lines have a symmetry that's lost when they're translated. Basically, the character [tao] that means "Way" can also signify the action of talking about something, as well as the action of walking or following a path. So in the original Chinese the first line actually looks like this: "The [tao] that can be [tao]'ed is not the eternal [tao]." So it has an ambiguous meaning: either "The Way that can be followed is the not the eternal Way" or "The Way that can be spoken of is not the eternal Way." This ambiguity is lost in translation because the translator has to choose either "followed" or "spoken of," there's no word in English that means both. Was the ambiguity in the original intended? It was probably partly intended for poetic effect, but I think the intended meaning is probably closer to "spoken of." The idea that the Way is difficult to follow is not supported anywhere else in the Tao Te Ching. In fact, many passages speak of the TTC's Way as being very easy to follow, in particular 53 and 70, although both add that despite its easiness, most people don't have the good sense to follow it. Indeed, that's the whole essence of the TTC's Way: it's easy to follow, but impossible to describe.

Welcome to The Layman's Tao

Hello, and welcome to The Layman's Tao! In this blog I'm going to have a go at translating the 81 chapters of the Tao Te Ching into English.

What is the Tao Te Ching? It's an old Chinese text which legend says was written around 600 BC by a sage named Laozi (spelled variously). In reality, it's almost certainly a compilation of various kinds of writing, some older than others, some commentary on others. The oldest original parts of it were probably written around 300 BC, although they may draw on sayings that are even older.

In my approach to the Tao Te Ching, I'm very much indebted to Michael LaFargue and his fantastic book Tao and Method. In the West, at least, the Tao Te Ching is often looked at as a religion, with interpreters and translators treating the sayings as though they were intended to form a logically airtight cosmology and belief system. As LaFargue points out, they were probably applied more conditionally, like aphorisms. To use his example, when we say "Love makes the world go round," we're not explaining what makes the Earth spin, we're just saying that love is great. Similarly, when one of the authors of the TTC says "The Way is the origin of everything," he may not be talking about how dogs (and everything else) was created, but just saying that the the Way is very important.

What qualifications do I have to translate the TTC? Very few. I don't know any Chinese, although I can read some of the characters because I speak Japanese. Luckily, Jonathan Star's The Definitive Tao Te Ching features each Chinese character, with all of its meanings, so anyone who knows something about translation can have a go at cooking up their own syntax. I majored in Linguistics, and I have an MA in Applied Linguistics, so I know a thing or two about translation. But compared to the big name translators like Walker and Cleary, I'm as much of a layman as you. I'm doing this because I hope I'll learn something, about the book itself, about language, maybe about life. I hope you'll learn something too.