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.

Taoteching: Chapter 53

Because Chapter 33 is a relatively short chapter it may illustrate better than some other chapters how apparently minor differences in wording subtly shift the meaning of a poem.

Here are, in order, Le Guin’s, John Wu’s, and Red Pine’s translations with selected commentary from Red Pine’s edition:

Kinds of Power

Knowing other people is intelligence,
knowing yourself is wisdom.
Overcoming others takes strength,
overcoming yourself takes greatness.
Contentment is wealth.

Boldly pushing forward takes resolution.
Staying put keeps you in position.

To live till you die
is to live long enough.


HE who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.

He who knows when he has got enough is rich,
And he who adheres assiduously to the path of Tao is a man of steady purpose.
He who stays where he has found his true home endures long,
And he who dies but perishes not enjoys real longevity.


Who knows others is perceptive
who knows himself is wise
who conquers others is forceful
who conquers himself is strong
who knows contentment is wealthy
who strives hard succeeds
who doesn’t lose his place endures
who dies but doesn’t perish lives on

SU CH’E says, “Perception means to distinguish. Wisdom means to remove obstructions. As long as our distinguishing mind is present, we can only know others, but not ourselves.”

WANG P’ANG says, “The natural endowment of all things is complete in itself. Poverty does not reduce it. Wealth does not enlarge it. But fools abandon this treasure to chase trash. Those who know contentment pay the world no heed. This is true wealth. Mencius said, ‘The ten thousand things are all within us”

WANG PI says “Those who strive with devotion reach their goal. Those who examine themselves and work within their capacity don’t lose their place and are able to endure. Although we die, the Tao that gave us life doesn’t perish. Our body disappears, but the Tao remains. If our body survived, would the Tao not end?”

KUIMARAJIVA says, “Not to live in living is to endure. Not to die in dying is to live on,”

Stylistically, I prefer Wu’s parallel structure, possibly because the repetition of “he who” places more emphasis on the individual than the other two versions.

It’s impossible for me to say which of the three versions is closer to the actual text. In fact, I’m a little intimidated by how different the Chinese character in Wu’s and Red Pine’s appear. There are, though, particular lines in each of them that seem “truer” to my view of life than the others.

For instance, my favorite lines from all three versions are: “To live till you die/is to live long enough.” Although it doesn’t suggest an “eternal” quality as the others do, it fits in better with my own personal philosophy. It also seems to fit in with Kuimarajiva’s interpretation, as suggested above. Of course, I might prefer this version simply because I’m more interested in a philosophy that allows me to live life to the fullest than in one that promises me some sort of barely-believable after-life.

If I had to decide whether knowing others is intelligent, clever, or perceptive, I would probably lean toward “clever,” but that might merely be my INTP bias coming out, as would suggesting that “wisdom” is the best description of knowing yourself.

If forced to choose between, “Contentment is wealth,” “He who knows when he has got enough is rich,” and “who knows contentment is wealthy, ” I would choose the simpler “He who knows when he has got enough is rich,” perhaps because that sounds like a line directly out of Thoreau or Emerson.

Though I can see no clearly superior version, reading all three versions certainly gives a good indication of what the main message of the chapter is, while at the same time revealing how personal values and word choice must inevitably color any interpretation.

All three versions remind the reader that the greatest, and most rewarding, task is to “Know thyself” as Plato suggested a few years later, and perhaps that is all that we can demand of any book.

It’s a little humbling and depressing to think that governments and leaders haven’t changed much since the 6th Century B.C. Perhaps that’s because human nature hasn’t changed much in that time. Be that as it may, it appears to be true judging from chapter 53 of the Taoteching, as translated by LeGuin, Wu, and Red Pine:


If my mind’s modest,
I walk the great way.
is all I fear.

The great way is low and plain,
but people like shortcuts over the mountains.

The palace is full of splendor
and the fields are full of weeds
and the granaries are full of nothing.

People wearing ornaments and fancy clothes,
carrying weapons,
drinking a lot and eating a lot,
having a lot of things, a lot of money:
shameless thieves.
Surely their way
isn’t the way.


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?


Were I sufficiently wise
I would follow the Great Way
and only fear going astray
the Great Way is smooth
but people love byways
their palaces are spotless
their fields are overgrown
their granaries are empty
they wear fine clothes
and carry sharp swords
they tire of food and drink
and possess more than they need
this is called robbery
and robbery is not the Way.

LU HIS SHENG says, “The Great Way is like a grand thoroughfare: smooth and easy to travel, perfectly straight and free of detours, and there is nowhere it doesn’t lead. But people are in a hurry. They take shortcuts and get into trouble and become lost and don’t reach their destination. The sage only worries about leading people down such a path.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, ‘A spotless palace refers to the height of superficiality. An overgrown field refers to an uncultivated mind. An empty granary refers to a lack of virtue.”

Is it revolutionary to suggest that we should hold our leaders to the same standards we would live our own lives by? That’s precisely what Lao Tzu seems to suggest here.

Though there seems to be considerable difference between having a “modest mind,” ” a tiniest grain of wisdom,” and being “sufficiently wise,” all three translators seem to agree that arrogance and greed in the government doom the country to hard times.

At first glance, the description seems to best fit a country like Saudi Arabia where a fabulously wealthy ruling family seems to have impoverished the nation, leading to a radicalism that threatens the whole world.

But our own leaders generally seem rich rather than poor, don’t they? A government that favors the rich and chooses to protect the interests of industries over its own citizens is unlikely to produce the ideal nation, or even one that serves the fundamental needs of many of its people.

Though our granaries are remarkably full and few people seem to be starving, it would be hard to argue that our government is following The Way or producing an ideal society.

Any doubt in your mind that Bush and his Conservative friends, despite their sanctimonious pronouncements, don’t follow the “Way?” Do you think they even understand the basic principles? They’d probably be on the same path if they followed in Christ’s footsteps, but, then, Christ’s example is nearly as hard to follow as Lao Tzu’s Way, isn’t it?