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.