The Tao Te Ching, the esoteric but infinitely practical book written most probably in the sixth century B.C. by Lao Tsu, has been translated more frequently than any work except the Bible. This translation of the Chinese classic, which was first published twenty-five years ago, has sold more copies than any of the others. It offers the essence of each word makes Lao Tsu's teaching immediate and alive. The philosophy of Lao Tsu is simple: Accept what is in front of you without wanting the situation to be other than it is. Study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it, for to try to change what is only sets up resistance. Nature provides for all without discrimination -- therefore let us present the same face to everyone and treat all men as equals, however they may be have. If we watch carefully, we will see that work proceeds more quickly and easily if we stop looking for results. In the clarity of a still and open mind, truth will be reflected. We will come to appreciate the original meaning of the word "understand," which means "to stand under." We serve whatever or whoever stands before us, without any thought for ourselves. Te -- which may be translated as "virtue" or "strength"--Lies always in Tao, or "natural law." In other words: Simply be. - Publisher.
It's good to own multiple English translations, as the thing is basically untranslatable in any perfect fashion.
As for the Tao Te Ching itself... I've read many philosophical and religious texts, and this is the one that speaks to me the most. Simple, humble, strikingly conservative yet almost revolutionary in this day and age. I go back to it as often as I can.
Ch. 20 is my favorite:
"Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles.
Is there a difference between yes and no?
Is there a difference between good and evil?
Must I fear what others fear? What nonsense!
Other people are contented, enjoying the sacrificial feast of the ox.
In spring some go to the park, and climb the terrace,
But I alone am drifting, not knowing where I am.
Like a newborn babe before it learns to smile,
I am alone, without a place to go.
Others have more than they need, but I alone have nothing.
I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused.
Other men are clear and bright,
But I alone am dim and weak.
Other men are sharp and clever,
But I alone am dull and stupid.
Oh, I drift like the waves of the sea,
Without direction, like the restless wind.
Everyone else is busy,
But I alone am aimless and depressed.
I am different.
I am nourished by the great mother."
Tao Te Ching (TTC), when read with my modern metropolis city girl mind, instructs “The Way”, “The Virtue”, and the “The Coda” as a reminder to the simplicity of life, easily forgotten as we plow forward with our day-to-day to-do list. Contrary to Chapter 41 where “Those who think that the Way is easy will find it extremely hard”, I think the Way is hard and still find it extremely hard! TTC also depressed me a bit (true statement). If life is supposed to be following the way of ‘nothing’, then I sure have been working my ass off for no good reason. If wisdom and knowledge is to be condemned and vilified, then part of my identity is evil. The unspoken expectation, then and now, was simply always be ‘more’, quite not the ‘Tao’.
Of course, I’m not taking TTC literally. The complexities of living do not readily allow for it. (Try and explain TTC to the IRS.) Instead, I take from it a few nuggets that are meaningful. Here’s an abbreviated list:
Introduction: 1) “Wu-Wei doesn’t mean just sitting about doing nothing. It means ‘being’, it means being receptive, and it means going beyond our egos in what we do and how we do what we do.” 2) “I see the essence of the Tao as poetic, with all that implies, and all we still have to learn – to really be here, and to let go.”
Ch1 (Start of Tao): “Following the nothingness of the Tao, and you can be like it, not needing anything, seeing the wonder and the root of everything.” --- Meaning that nothing is something.
Ch 2: 1) “Neither future nor past can exist alone.” --- Acceptance and remembrance of who you were and who you have become. 2) “Life is made – and no one owns it.”
Ch 20: Seek and want nothing. “What do the people want? Money and things. And yet I find I have nothing, and I don’t care. I am as unambitious as any fool.”
Ch 28: Learn to yield, learn to bend, learn to think anew. “Understand the thrust of the yang – but be more like the yin in your being… Be like a stream… Be newborn – be free of yourself…”
Ch 38 (Start of Te): Reminded me of leadership, a truly good leader. “A Man of Te rules by Wu-Wei, doing nothing for himself or of himself… A man who rules with compassion, acts through it – and no one even realizes.”
Ch 44: “If you’re not always wanting, you can be at peace. And if you’re not always trying to be someone, you can be who you really are.”
Ch 67: “I have three priceless treasures: Compassion, Thrift, Humility… These days people scorn compassion. They try to be tough. They spend all they have, and yet want to be generous. They despise humility, and want to be the best.”
The commentary is amazing. Chen takes a philosophical rather than religious approach to the Tao Te Ching. Her commentary not only draws on Chinese texts from the Confucian, legalist, and Taoist traditions, but also on such western philosophers as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Thomas, Hegal, Proudhon, Marx, Freud, and Wittgenstein (the Tao is like that "whereof one cannot speak"). The result is a book that places Taoism in a global philosophical context, emphasizing its commonalties and, especially, its differences with other schools of thought.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
There is an important thought conveyed in those two lines that loses its' meaning if you try to reduce it to an objective fact.
On the other hand the following lines are simple good advice about how to live your life.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In business, be competent.
In action, watch the timing.
One of the author's favorite devices is the use of contradictions to express an idea.
When the Tao is present in the universe,
The horses haul manure.
When the Tao is absent from the universe,
War horses are bred outside the city.
The Tao Te Ching is eighty-one verses and each time I read it I discover something new. For me that is the hallmark of a truly great book. The edition I have is filled with full page pictures and has the original Chinese on the opposite page from the translation.
That said, Stephen Mitchell does an excellent job of providing a version of the Tao Te Ching for the layman.
I say 'version' instead of 'translation' because Mitchell actually knows no Chinese. He does have the experience of a poet, being a translator of Rilke's work as well as other spiritual texts such as the Hinduist Baghavad Gita. And despite his lack of being a true translator, he is a practitioner of the Tao, and is familiar with Zen in a way that translators usually aren't.
What makes this version of the Tao Te Ching different from others may be its poetic language. Mitchell's interpretation is a calm one, marked by simple, concise words that do not obscure the meaning of the text in any way. In the hands of a bad translator, the Tao would seem like the musings of an Eastern sophist, but in the hands of Mitchell, the Tao is easier to understand (to the extent it can be understood in words).
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
The prose reflects a stillness that is most appropriate to the Tao; it — in Mitchell's words — “makes the hidden present.”
The Tao Te Ching can be read in many ways. To some, it is about the basic principles of the universe, the exploration of a idea neither secular nor religious. To others, it is a guide for rulers. Although primarily considered a spiritual reference, the Tao Te Ching can be used by statesman or other leaders. There are many passages in which an attractive governmental philosophy is espoused, one that is consistent with the Tao, which is neither tyrannically oppressive nor liberally excessive; it “hold[s] on to the center,” true to Taoist thought.
The wisdom of Lao-tzu, his short masterpiece the Tao Te Ching, is covered by Mitchell in a modern, accessible way. It could be recommended to everyone but scholars looking for word-to-word translations. Mitchell puts a contemporary spin on the work without being irreverent, taking it into the twenty-first century gracefully.
This old classic contains advice sorely needed in our time, and this new version shatters the myth that it can't be understood by the West. It can, and now more than ever.