“Knowing yourself is enlightened”

Though I first fell in love with the Tao Te Ching because it pushed my awareness to new levels, I suspect that I love it now and keep returning to it because it reaffirms some of my strongest beliefs. As I said, I first encountered the Tao Te Ching in Grad school, and at that point in my life I was probably proudest of how successful I was in grad school. I was proud that I held 4.0 throughout my Master’s Program and that several professors, including the visiting Korean professor, asked me why I wasn’t pursuing my PhD. In other words, I knew a lot more about other people’s ideas than I did about my own. Analyzing other people’s ideas came relatively easy to me; it wasn’t until later that I learned the truth of what the Tao Te Ching says in Chapter 33:

Knowing others is intelligent.
Knowing yourself is enlightened.
Tzu chih che ming

Conquering others takes force.
Conquering yourself is true strength.

Knowing what is enough is wealth.
Forging ahead shows inner resolve.

Hold your ground and you will last long.
Die without perishing and your life will endure.

Perhaps not surprisingly this chapter didn’t leave as great an impression on me in my first reading as the one I discussed yesterday. Now, I do think I’ve always been interested in knowing myself. I don’t think anyone would read and write as much as I have and not be interested in knowing himself. But for most of my life the focus has been on other’s ideas. That’s no longer true. Since I’ve retired I’ve focused my studies on better understanding myself. I still don’t know what it means to be enlightened, but I can’t imagine a more important goal than becoming enlightened. I suspect that what I think is “enough” is way more than any person really needs, but I’ve long felt that not wanting something is better than actually owning it.

Lao Tzu hints at how to attain enlightenment throughout his work. As Burton Watson pointed out in the introduction, quietism is Lao Tzu’s preferred method of channeling the Tao. That becomes even clearer in Chapter 47.

Without going out the door,
Know the world.
Without peeping through the window,
See heaven’s TAO.
Chien t’ien tao

The further you travel,
The less you know.
This is why the Sage
Knows without budging,
Identifies without looking,
Does without trying.

Much to my daughter’s distress, I’ve long believed that I could have been perfectly happy without ever having left Washington State. In fact, given my choice, I doubt I would have ever left Western Washington. As I age, I suspect I could be happy spending most of my time in my backyard or den quietly meditating (he says as he plugs into the internet). It seems obvious that the more you learn about yourself the more you learn about the world because to a great extent we are all reflections of each other. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “The further you travel,/The less you know,” but I do think that for some people travel can be a form of escapism.

Another Version of the Tao Te Ching

As I think I’ve noted a long time ago, I got my first introduction to Asian literature in a graduate course taught by a visiting Korean professor at Portland State. Although we covered a wide range of Classic Chinese literature, the one work that stayed with me was the Tao Te Ching. It inspired a love of Chinese/Japanese literature that has helped me so see the world in an entirely different light than I did when I was stationed in Vietnam in the 60’s. I’ve re-read the original version we read for class a few time and have also read and discussed several different versions. Though I prefer some translations over others, all of them have helped me to better understand the Tao Te Ching. That’s certainly true of Stanley Lombardo and Stephen Addiss’s recent translation of the Tao Te Ching.

Burton Watson’s Introduction reminded me what makes the Tao Te Ching different from other great Chinese Classics of the same era:

What in particular sets the Taoists apart from the other schools of philosophy is the marked strain of mysticism and quietism that underlies so much of their thought, a strain that seems to reach far back into the roots of Chinese culture. It is this strain that in a Taoist text such as the Tao Te Ching engenders its most potent symbols: water, darkness, the valley, the female, the babe.

Since these aspects of Taoism remind me of the Transcendentalists, particularly Thoreau, I had a natural affinity for it when I first encountered it.

The Tao seems similar in many ways to the Transcendentalists’ Oversoul. Burton Watson notes that though “Tao” literally means the “way” or the “path” in Chinese, it has a much more complex meaning in Taoist literature:

But in Taoist writings it has a far more comprehensive meaning, referring rather to a metaphysical first principle that embraces and underlies all being, a vast Oneness that precedes and in some mysterious manner generates the endlessly diverse forms of the world. Ultimately, as the Tao Te Ching stresses, Tao lies beyond the power of language to describe, though the text employs a number of highly suggestive terms and similes to allude to it, kennings for the ineffable, as it were, that serve to suggest at least something of its nature and immensity. For, unknowable as the Tao may be in essence, one must somehow learn to sense its presence and movement in order to bring one’s own life and movements into harmony with it. The aim of the text, then, is to impart to the reader, through hints, symbols, and paradoxical utterances, such an intuitive grasp of the tao and the vital ability to move with it rather than counter to it.

At first encounter, the Tao seemed to correspond to the Holy Spirit. Today, if I were trying to explain it to a class of high school seniors, I might compare it to Yoda’s “Let the Force be with you.” Yoda’s directive “Do, or do not. There is no try.” would certainly seem worthy of a Taoist sage.

Burton Watson also points out another reason why The Tao Te Ching appealed to me more than the other classical Chinese writings:

But the Tao Te Ching lacks a specific speaker or context and because it relies not on logical exposition but on sheer power of language in expounding its ideas, it comes closer to pure poetry than do any of the other philosophical texts. It is this poetic force and beauty of the text that the translators, as they explain in their preface, have been most concerned to bring across in their translation. It seems to me they have succeeded brilliantly.

Although I occasionally become obsessed with understanding “why” something is happening or has happened, I generally prefer the kinds of intuitive truth to be seen in paintings or poetry to the logical truths the mind attains.

I remember in order to Illustrate differences between the Chinese language and the English language, my Korean professor would write the exact translation next to the Chinese characters, making the original Tao Te Ching seem much more “concrete” than the translation we were using. Quite often I preferred the professor’s “translation” to the one we were reading. Though Lombardo and Addiss’s translation is much more sophisticated than the professor’s simple translation, that seems to be part of what they are trying to accomplish in their translation:

First, we wanted to translate rather than explain the text. The Tao Te Ching is always terse, and sometimes enigmatic. Previous translators have often offered explications rather than pure translations; they explained what they thought Lao-tzu meant rather than what he said. We have chosen to let the text speak for itself as much as possible. Second, we found that earlier translations, because they often paraphrase the text, tend to be verbose, extending the concise Chinese text into much longer sentence patterns.

The first chapter of their translation illustrates their emphasis on conciseness

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.

If as Watson says the two primary elements of Taoism are mysticism and quietism, this first chapter sets them out clearly. This insistence that The Way cannot be named clearly places it outside the intellectual domain, asserting its mystical essence. The very act of naming something forces us to divide the world up into distinct elements rather than intuiting the unity of all things. And the very essence of quietism seems personified in the phrase “empty of desire,” a very non-Western idea.

These same two ideas are developed more fully in the second chapter:

Recognize beauty and ugliness is born.
Recognize good and evil is born.

Ku yu wu hsiang sheng
Is and Isn’t produce each other.

Hard depends on easy,
Long is tested by short,
High is determined by low,
Sound is harmonized by voice,
After is followed by before.

Therefore the Sage is devoted to non-action,
Moves without teaching,
Creates ten thousand things without instruction,
Lives but does not own,
Acts but does not presume,
Accomplishes without taking credit.

When no credit is taken,
Accomplishment endures

The line “Recognize good and evil is born” reminds me of the Existentialist line, “Nothing is right or wrong, but thinking makes it so.” If we declare that something is “good” it inevitably follows that anything not “good” must be “evil,” or, at least, bad. It is this constant judging that drives us, making us unable to live in and appreciate the moment. “Is and Isn’t produce each other.” No wonder the Sage must learn to quiet his monkey brain to attain true awareness.

Without Going out the Door

When I began this review of the Taoteching in preparation for reading the Jesus Sutras, I purposely didn't go back and review what I'd previously written as I wanted to see if I would come away with new perceptions. Not so much, as it turns out.

When I looked back today, I found that I'd chosen several of the same verses, and I'd said much the same thing, though in different words. Although I like to think of myself as open to new ideas (after all, I have read all those books on the sidebar in the last five years, almost all of them for the first time) after a certain age the tracks seem to get a little deeper, and you find yourself drifting back into them without even being aware you're back where you started. Of course, I might also attribute it to my INTP personality and my tendency to evolve a consistent philosophy throughout my life, even if that philosophy seems quite different from most of those people who I have grown up with. The fact that I was drawn to the Taoteching in my early 30's and keep returning to it suggests that I am, indeed, drawn to the kind of life it extols and have been most of my life, even before I knew it existed.

There is, of course, the element of Nature in it that I've always been drawn to from my early experiences on Puget Sound and fly fishing in the backwoods. Probably even more important than that is the meditative aspect of Taoism. That, too, may have stemmed from early fishing adventures when my father passed his love of nature on while sitting quietly for long periods of time while fishing. Perhaps it was nourished by long hours spent reading in California when it was too hot to be outside doing anything besides visiting friends' swimming pools. Heck, if my parents had been wealthy enough to have our own pool I might have never been drawn to those quiet times in my life.

I do know I was drawn to the lifestyle as early as college because I instantly fell in love with Emerson and Thoreau when I took my first college-level lit class. I instantly agreed with Emerson when he said, "Travelling is a fool's paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go." Needless to say, I thought Thoreau's Walden was one of the greatest American books ever written.

It should come as no surprise then that I am also particularly fond of verse 47, in this case as translated by John C. H. Wu:

Without going out of your door,
You can know the ways of the world.
Without peeping through your window,
You can see the Way of Heaven.
The farther you go,
The less you know.

Thus the Sage knows without traveling,
Sees without doing,
And achieves without Ado.

with its obvious parallels to Walden, and even to Blake's famous grain of sand. It's not only my frugal ways that keep me from traveling. If it weren't for the Army and relatives, I would probably have been happy to spend my vacations in the Cascades and at the beach for the rest of my life. Heck, if I'd stayed in Seattle instead of moving to Vancouver, I probably would have been happy spending my vacations visiting the San Juans and the Cascades.

Of course, if you're not even going out your door, then you're probably going to have to rely on meditation to discover the essence of the universe, as suggested in Wu's version of Verse 56 :

He who knows does not speak.
He who speaks does not know.
Block all the passages!
Shut all the doors!
Blunt all the edges!
Untie all tangles!
Harmonize all lights!
Unite the world into one whole!
This is called the Mystical Whole,
Which you cannot court after nor shun,
Benefit nor harm, honour nor humble.
Therefore it is the Highest of the world.

Like much of the Taoteching, or any poetry for that matter, the lines suggest two different interpretations. The first two lines suggest that the Sage who knows the Tao "does not speak" because as we've already been told the Way cannot be named, so whoever gives it a name, who speaks, does not understand the Tao.

How, then, does one learn about the Tao? "Block all the passages! Shut all the doors" seem to suggest turning inward, not outward, there to experience the "Mystical Whole." For me, at least, that suggests silent meditation, which, Google assures anyone who cares to check, is a major aspect of Taoism.

Judge Not Lest

I'd like to say that I remembered section 2 as well as I remembered section 11, but I'm afraid I'd be lying if I claimed that. In fact I didn't remember it all, probably because in grad school I was so busy learning the best way to judge what is good or bad that this idea had no chance to register.


All the world knows beauty
but if that becomes beautiful
this becomes ugly
all the world knows good
but if that becomes good
this becomes bad
the coexistence of have and have not
the coproduction of hard and easy
the correlation of long and short
the codependence of high and low
the correspondence of note and noise
the coordination of first and last
is endless
thus the sage performs effortless deeds
and teaches wordless lessons
he doesn't start all the things he begins
he doesn't presume on what he does
he doesn't claim what he achieves
and because he makes no claim
he suffers no loss

It should be obvious to anyone who reads my blog that I occasionally, perhaps more than occasionally, make judgements about the world and what I see. To do so seems human nature, at least part of my nature. It's certainly part of our culture, and a large part of what I learned to do in the nineteen years I attended school.

I'd like to think that carrying my camera around and looking at the world more closely has helped me to be less judgmental, to see the beauty in all things if I can but see them in the proper light — at least that seems true in the natural world.

Perhaps when I'm a little further along toward self-enlightenment I shall become less judgmental on other matters. At least I'm far enough along that I can see the wisdom in several of the wise men's comments on this passage that Red Pine cites:

LU HSI-SHENG Says, "What we call beautiful or ugly depends on our feelings. Nothing is necessarily beautiful or ugly until feelings make it so. But while feelings differ, they all come from our nature, and we all have the same nature. Hence the sage transforms his feelings and returns to his nature and thus becomes one again."

WANG AN-SHIH says, "The sage creates but does not possess what he creates. He acts but does not presume on what he does. He succeeds but does not claim success These three all result from selflessness. Because the sage is selfless, he does not lose his self. Because he does not lose his self, he does not lose others."

SUNG CH'ANG-HSING says, "Those who practice the Way put an end to distinctions, get rid of name and form, and make of themselves a home for the Way and Virtue."

Back to the Tao

I first read the Tao Te Ching in a graduate class more than twenty years ago and section 11 made such an impression on me that I still remember it today. Like all great poetry it made me see the world in a different way, in a way I had never considered before. Here's Red Pine's translation of section 11 of Lao Tzu's Taoteching:

Thirty spokes converge on a hub
but it's the emptiness
that makes a wheel work
pots are fashioned from clay
but it's the hollow
that makes a pot work
windows and doors are carved for a house
but it's the spaces
that make a house work
existence makes something useful
but nonexistence makes it work

And here are three of several different interpretations of this passage that Red Pine cites:

LI-JUNG says, "It's because the hub is empty that spokes converge on it. Likewise, it's because the sage's mind is empty that the people turn to him for help."

WU CH ' ENG says, 'All of these things are useful. But without an empty place for an axle, a cart can't move. Without a hollow place in the middle, a pot can't hold things. Without spaces for doors and windows, a room can't admit people or light. But these three examples are only metaphors. What keeps our body alive is the existence of breath in our stomach. And it is our empty, nonexistent mind that produces breath."

TE-CH'ING says. "Heaven and Earth have form, and everyone knows that Heaven and Earth are useful. But they don't know that their usefulness depends on the emptiness of the Great Way. Likewise, we all have form and think ourselves useful but remain unaware that our usefulness depends on our empty, shapeless mind. Thus existence may have its uses, but real usefulness depends on nonexistence. Nonexistence, though, doesn't work by itself. It needs the help of existence."

When I first read the passage I was struck by the same ideas that Wu Ch'Eng begins with. It is the hub that holds the axle and makes the wheel useful, and yet we ignore it. We admire the color of the China, but it's the empty shape that is most important. I suppose I paid less attention to the last line "nonexistence makes it work," or, if I did, I cannot remember what I thought it meant.

After several years of reading Asian literature and practicing meditation, though, it's the last line that seems most significant. On one level, perhaps, the Tao itself is "nonexistence," and it is the Tao that makes existence work. If you've spent much time meditating, you can begin to believe that "empty mind," makes the rest of your life work. Empty mind leads to awareness, and awareness makes everything else possible.

The Classic of the Way and Its Virtue

Before Rick and I agreed to meet for breakfast this morning we agreed to read, or, in my case, to re-read the Tao Teh Ching, this time translated by John C.H. Wu. Of course, I tended to skim large parts of it, paying particular attention to passages I’d marked as liking in previous readings.

As I read, I was again struck by chapter:


If only I had the tiniest grain of wisdom
I should walk in the Great Way,
And my only fear would be to stray from it.

The Great Way is very smooth and straight;
And yet the people prefer devious paths.

The court is very clean and well garnished,
But the fields are very weedy and wild,
And the granaries are very empty!
They wear gorgeous clothes,
They carry sharp swords,
They surfeit themselves with food and drink,
They possess more riches than they can use!
They are the heralds of brigandage!
As for Tao, what do they know about it?

Know any politicians who seem to “prefer devious paths“? Any who wear “gorgeous clothes,” “carry sharp swords?” Any who “possess more riches than they can use?”

Is it any wonder that “brigandage” pervades the Republican party when party leaders are willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder in order to ensure their re-election?

Do you really think they’ve insisted on cutting taxes for the wealthiest one percent of the population without extracting some benefit from the betrayal of the democratic dream of equality? I’d love to hear an argument that tried to prove that the multi-millionaire executive who runs the company and a the laborer who earns $10, 712 a year, the amount working a full year at minimum wage for that company are EQUAL in any real sense of that word.

Taoteching: Chapter 81

I'm closing out this current look at the Taoteching appropriately by looking at the last chapter of the Tao. Let's not forget that I am no expert on the Taoteching, I am not purposely teaching the Taoteching (see the previous statement), and I ended up looking at these three versions of the Tao simply because of pf's comment about earlier translations I referred to. Most of all, I'm re-reading the Tao to provide a much needed background for the Chinese and Japanese poetry I am in the middle of exploring. I still prefer to have my philosophy presented in the guise of poetry.

Being retired, I have the luxury to simply stop what I'm doing and do what I want, which in this case was to explore pf's comment in more detail. If I've learned anything from these three versions of the Tao, it's that different interpretations of the Tao are probably as inevitable as different interpretations of the Bible. If you hope to gain an understanding of these enigmatic ideas, it is helpful to look at them from many viewpoints. Even then, it's doubtful that you will ever exhaust their full potential.

Here are Le Guin's, Wu's and Red Pine's translation of what is often considered a summary of the work:

Telling it true

True words aren't charming,
charming words aren't true.
Good people aren't contentious,
contentious people aren't good.
People who know aren't learned,
learned people don't know.

Wise souls don't hoard;
the more they do for others the more they have,
the more they give the richer they are.
The Way of heaven profits without destroying.
Doing without outdoing
is the Way of the wise.

Sincere words are not sweet,
Sweet words are not sincere.
Good men are not argumentative,
The argumentative are not good.
The wise are not erudite,
The erudite are not wise.

The Sage does not take to hoarding.
The more he lives for others, the fuller is his life.
The more he gives, the more he abounds.

The Way of Heaven is to benefit, not to harm.
The Way of the Sage is to do his duty, not to strive
with anyone.


True words aren't beautiful
beautiful words aren't true
the good aren't eloquent
the eloquent aren't good
the wise aren't learned
the learned aren't wise
the sage accumulates nothing
but the more he does for others
the greater his existence
the more he gives to others
the greater his abundance
the Way of Heaven
is to help without harming
the Way of the sage
is to act without struggling

HO-SHANG KUNG says, "True words are simple and not beautiful. The good cultivate the Tao, not the arts. The wise know the Tao, not information. The sage accumulates virtue, not wealth. He gives his wealth to the poor and uses his virtue to teach the unwise. And like the sun or moon, he never stops shining."

CHIAO HUNG says, "The past 5,000 words all explain 'the Tao of not accumulating,' what Buddhists call 'non-attachment.' Those who empty their minds on the last two lines will grasp most of Lao-tzu's book."

WANG CHEN says, "The last line summarizes the entire 5,000 words of the previous eighty verses. It doesn't focus on action or inaction but simply on action that doesn't involve struggle.

Tell it plain, tell it true. Don't let "poetry," or at least poetry's "rules," get in the way of what you're really trying to say. I've had this discussion more than once with Mike, and it's clear that he's more sensitive to the way a poem sounds, is phrased, than I am. The fact I prefer Hardy's poetry to Stevens' poetry must surely prove that. Of course, it's when the two come together that we both recognize true genius.

While I wouldn't go so far as to say that the "argumentative are not good," I would agree that those who argue simply for the sake of argument are more apt to obscure the truth than they are to reveal it. Too often arguments are simply concerned with "winning," not discovering any real truth.

It almost sounds like Lao Tzu had the same prejudice against "scholars," against book-learning, that Hawthorne showed against "Chillingworth," with the very name suggesting the cold-heartedness of a man dedicated to the mind instead of to man's heart.

Lao Tzu's view of charity could just as easily have been the source of much Christian teaching on materialism and worldly weatlth.

However, the concept that "the Way of the sage/ is to act without struggling" seems like a particularly Oriental concept, one seldom used in the West. It manifests itself in meditation where intruding ideas are gently set aside rather than confronted. "Western" religions frequently refer to the dark or the light, the demonic or the angelic, and saints "wrestle" for their soul.

Anyone could benefit from picking up any of these three versions of the Taoteching and reading it, and would probably gain a better understanding of it by reading at least two different versions of it, in part to recognize the difference between reading an original in its original language and in part because different interpretations help us to more easily form our own opinions.

I will probably refer back to the Red Pine edition more often than to the other two, primarily because I appreciated the inclusion of commentaries on the chapters. Truthfully, though, I enjoyed reading all three versions and could easily recommend one of them to a friend, depending on the reader's background in Chinese literature.