Lao-Tzu Te-Tao Ching

(aka Tao-Te Ching) Translated by Robert G. Hendricks

To superciliously ignore the beliefs of the East is to wear blinders and to accept ignorance as one’s mantle. Eastern beliefs tend to concentrate more on ethics and morality, than upon supernatural forces. The term “the inscrutable East” has long referred to the enigmas and conundrums that the Asian culture, mores and philosophies have posed to those in the Western World. No where is this more evident than in the snippets of sayings that survive from Lao-Tzu (“Lao” means Old and “Tzu” means Master or Philosopher), born Li Erh (and, like Christ, a product of a virgin birth according to some legends), who lived in the sixth century but with uncertain dates, and is said to be the “Father of Taoism”. He was also an older contemporary of, and inspiration to, Confucius. Robert Hendricks, a multi-decade Dartmouth professor specializing in Chinese philosophy, published this Te-Tao Ching in 1989. As if Chinese philosophy and “Taoism” (pronounced “Dow-ism”, which is China’s original “religion”, although Buddhism may dominant today) don’t present sufficient abstruse dicta, Hendricks reverses the conventional rubric for Lao-Tzu’s works from Tao-Te Ching to Te-Tao Ching, bending our minds and memories into pretzels from the get-go, but, then, philosophy professors are wont to do such things. Still, if Westerners are to gain a modicum of understanding of Eastern culture, they must become familiar with the rudiments of Taoism.

“Tao” (pronounced “Da-ow”) means “Way”, and “Te” means “virtue”. The word “Ching” refers to “laws” or “power”. Thus, Te-Tao Ching or Tao-Te Ching, as you prefer, loosely means “Virtue The Way to Power” or “The Way of Virtue to Power”. Lao Tzu was disillusioned that mankind, in general, failed to recognize that virtue or goodness is The Way to happiness, and his sayings (however poorly or inaccurately recorded, as with Confucius or any other source of such antiquity) seek to make that point in endlessly creative and confounding free verse and sometimes couplets.

While Confucius concerned himself primarily with social relations, conduct, obedience to laws and maintenance of a humane society (i.e., he wanted civilization rather than mass animal behavior), Lao Tzu and his Taoism propound a more individualistic and mystical “Way”, a rejection of material possessions and an altruistic devotion to the needs of others (elements that are the cornerstones of Buddha’s mendicant-faith and Buddha’s predecessors and corollary of sorts, the older Hindu beliefs); thus, Lao Tzu beseeched a submission to the natural forces of life and the universe, becoming a part of the ebb and flow of universal currents. (Interestingly, the Islamic faith is based on the verb “islama” which means “I surrender.”) Lao Tzu’s Taoist has no ambitions; therefore, he can never fail. Lao Tzu deemphasized knowledge but is said to have meant tastes and personal desires, preferring spontaneous behavior. He loathed rulers, viewing them as predators who keep the people starving by their consumptive taxes. An anarchist at heart, Lao Tzu wanted to mankind to return to his natural state, goodness, and not require the often cruel hand of rulers. Ironically, in the 1950’s, when the Communists took over China, Taoism was the “chosen” faith of The State, while Confucius (a pro-government prophet) was discredited.

As with all ancient books (defined as those before Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press circa 1452 A.D.), copies were made by hand, often by those who could not read or write but simply imitated the markings on the page, never knowing what they had written or when they erred; the less than 1% of literate “copyists” may have exacerbated those errors by editorializing the texts to their heart’s content. Moreover, the first written records (pre-Christ), e.g. Hindu texts and the subsequent Old Testament, were made on parchment (animal skins bound by ligaments) or on wood, stone, slivers of bamboo, fabrics or whatever would retain print. Papyrus (made from the stems of a water plant and came from the Egyptian port of Byblos, hence the word “bible”, meaning book), was a vastly superior writing material but was in rare supply until hundreds of years after Christ. To compound the emasculations that these archaic mechanics imposed, the meanings of words within languages changed and evolved constantly, rendering endless translations over centuries, not much more than well-intentioned guesswork (or the creative writing of the protagonists of one view or another). Still, they are all that we have; so, we make the best of them, while seasoning our gullibility with circumspection.

Hendricks’ translation of Lao-Tzu and the many one-liners of profundity make interesting reading, but, as with The Analects of Confucius, it is difficult, or impossible, to string enough of them together to form an entire philosophy, at least without the help of scholars. Regardless, they are, at once, instructive, contradictory, profound, frequently paradoxical, insultingly and sometimes deceivingly simplistic, arcane, beyond comprehension, and often infuriatingly so. These sayings are, of necessity, given to us out of context, of course, thus augmenting exponentially the myriad and juxtaposed interpretations. While some sayings insult our intelligence, many are timeless and priceless jewels. Here are some samples, not his “best”, as that judgment is too subjective; but a few, quite disjointed illustrations follow:

“The Sage has no set mind…Be bright but don’t dazzle…Act without acting… When you have little, you attain much…Contentment is to know you have enough…The Sage accumulates nothing, having used what he has for others… The way forward appears to retreat; the smooth way appears uneven; the simplest reality appears to change…Nothing brings more sorrow than the desire to attain [possessions]…The farther you go, the less you know… …colours blind the eye…tones deafen the ear…flavours dull the taste…racing [working] leads one astray…Look it cannot be seen…Listen, it cannot be heard… Grasp, it cannot be held…Stand before it – there is no beginning. Follow it and there is no end. Stay with the Tao; move with the present…The Tao abides in non-action. Yet nothing is left undone…Without desire there is tranquility. In this Way, all things would be at peace…The rulers eat up the money in taxes, leaving the people starving…A leader is best when we barely know he exists…Be the chief but never the lord…An ant does more than a dozing ox… By letting it go gets it all done…Don’t give a man a fish; teach him to fish… The female consistently overcomes the male with tranquility…Lessen self- interest and make few your desires…To understand others is to be knowledgeable, To understand yourself is to be wise…To know when you have enough is to be rich…To know you don’t know is best…My words are easy to understand; yet, no one understands them…”

Conundrums, riddles, opposites, oxymoron’s, the complex, the obvious, all of this and more, and Lao Tzu epitomizes The Inscrutable East. “Religions” in China are led by Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam and Christianity. It should be noted that the former three concentrate on conduct and devote little time to discussing deities, per se. Some see Taoists and Confucians as atheists, although that does not necessarily follow. There are no reliable data on the percentages of each, but Buddhists likely comprise over 70% of those attending “church”, while Christians and Muslims may constitute 15% or so each. Since Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians rarely mention the word “god”, the Chinese are viewed by some as areligious, agnostic or even atheistic.

Reading what history has preserved as Lao-Tzu’s one-liners is challenging and somewhat maddening. Reading the commentaries of scholars will surely enhance one’s appreciation, and the subject of Taoism is a philosophy (a guide to leading a better life) and is covered in dozens of books, mostly by Asians. Adventurous students will enjoy reading Lao-Tzu’s alleged thoughts in their raw form, with Professor Hendricks’ annotations, but understanding will be greatly enhanced by simultaneously reading a text on Taoism.