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.