A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Tao Te Ching (10)

The Tao Te Ching is uncategorisable but, if I may call this ancient, classic Chinese text a poem, it's the wisest poem I know. There are more than a hundred translations, and I've only read a fraction of them; but I do have an affinity with the one by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo, published by the Hackett Publishing Company of Indianapolis. This version has a terse clarity, an easy flow, a 'rightness' that I love. What can I say about the Tao Te Ching? Nothing, I think; and even nothing will hardly come close to its essence. The first section explains Tao, in poetic riddle and sage paradox, far better than I ever could:


Tao k'o tao fei ch'ang tao
TAO called TAO is not TAO.

Names can name no lasting name.

Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.
Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

These have the same source, but different names.
        Call them both deep —
                Deep and again deep:

The gateway to all mystery.

I have no favourite sections in this graphic guide to life and death, in this concise, profound, gnomic yet translucent commentary on earth, heaven and the universe. All parts of the whole work are equally important to me, and I immerse myself in them time and again. All of the world's accumulated wisdom is here — in just a few pages.


Ming yü shen shu ch'in
Name or body: which is closer?
Body or possessions: which means more?
Gain or loss: which one hurts?

Extreme love exacts a great price.
Many possessions entail heavy loss.

Know what is enough —
        Abuse nothing.
Know when to stop —
        Harm nothing.

This is how to last a long time.


Min chih chi
People are hungry.

        When rulers tax grain
        People are hungry.

People are rebellious.

        When rulers are active
        People are rebellious.

People ignore death.

        When searching only for life's bounty
        People ignore death.

Only those who don't strive after life
Truly respect life.


Hsiao kuo kua min
Small country, few people —
        Hundreds of devices,
        But none are used.

People ponder on death
        And don't travel far.
They have carriages and boats,
        But no one goes on board;
Weapons and armour,
        But no one brandishes them.
They use knotted cords for counting.

        Sweet their food,
        Beautiful their clothes,
        Peaceful their homes,
        Delightful their customs.

Neighboring countries are so close
        You can hear their chickens and dogs.
But people grow old and die
        Without needing to come and go.



George said...

What can one say? Nothing. We can only stand in reverence, for, as you say, all of the world's accumulated wisdom can be found in these few pages. If I were forced to relinquish all of my books but one, the one I would keep would definitely be the Tao Te Ching.

I have several translations, but I don't think I have the one you have used here. I like the way it reads, however, and will probably order it.

am said...

Thank you for reminding me again of this particular translation of the Tao Te Ching. Fascinating how many translations there are.

"Tao k'o tao fei ch'ang tao
TAO called TAO is not TAO.

Names can name no lasting name.

Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.
Naming: the mother of ten thousand things."

That made me think of this:

"Then I came back from where I'd been.
My room, it looked the same
But there was nothing left between
The Nameless and the Name."
(Leonard Cohen, lyrics from "Love Itself")

There is humor in the mystery. I can see and hear this. Why does this make me smile?

"Neighboring countries are so close
You can hear their chickens and dogs."

Loren said...

This is probably my favorite version, too, though nearly every version I've read offers some insight into this masterpiece.

Nick said...

Wu-wei - there is, after all, no other way.

The Solitary Walker said...

As Nick says, wu wei — the action of non-action. (Also: wu nien — the thought of non-thought, and wu hsin — the mind of non-mind.)

Going with the natural flow of the elemental world — intensely aware, and with no resistance.

Beneath the ethics and morals imposed by religion and society, there is a deeper natural state of morality and 'rightness'.

Yes, I too really like those 'chickens and dogs', Am! Lovely, that specificity. I chuckle also when I think how many people seem to miss the humour in Dylan and Cohen!