The Curiosities of the Tao Te Ching

  • Posted on April 25, 2021 at 10:38 pm
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Of all the spiritual texts, I find the Tao Te Ching to be one of the most interesting, for three reasons: 1) It has so many translations; 2) It is a book based on something undefinable; 3) It tells us not to seek knowledge. The curiosities of the Tao Te Ching intrigue me and challenge me at the same time.

Sixth-century Chinese scholar and prophet Lao Tzu is said to have written the Tao Te Ching. Unlike the Bible and many other religious texts, the Tao is compact—composed of 81 very short chapters, which can be read in an hour or two. However, its complexity lends itself to in-depth study that can last years. The Tao Te Ching is referred to as “The Way” or “The Path.”

The Tao Is the Thing That Cannot Be Defined

These are the first lines of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The Tao is both named and nameless. As nameless, it is the origin of all things.”

It says an awful lot about this thing called the “Tao,” but it never defines what the “Tao” is. Yet it tells us, in Verse 20, “The greatest virtue is to follow the Tao and the Tao alone.” There seems to be two versions of the Tao: one that is eternal and one that is not; one that can be named and one that cannot; and the nameless one is the origin of everything. It’s kind of like God/god. At least this was my first impression. In Judaism, the word God is so holy as to not be written in name, so it is written as G-d. Is uppercase “God” like the Tao that is eternal? The one that cannot be named (G-d)? The origin of everything?

Which Translation Is Best?

I’ve read a few translations of the Tao Te Ching, and the one that I have found to be the most accessible, by far, is Dr. Wayne Dyer’s Living the Wisdom of the Tao: The Complete Tao Te Ching. He claims to have reviewed hundreds of translations in preparation for compiling this accessible version of Lao Tzu’s profound ideas. After each of the 81 verses, Dyer sums them up with a short affirmation to help solidify the principles of that verse.

If you want a slightly more literary interpretation, consider James Legge’s Translation, The Texts of Taoism. Here is an example of their difference in styles:

Legge, Verse 37 says, “The Tao in its regular course does nothing (for the sake of doing it), and so there is nothing which it does not do.”

Dyer, Verse 37 says, “The Tao does nothing, but leaves nothing undone.”

An online version, Verse 37 says, “The Way is ever without action, yet nothing is left undone.”

The Paradox of the Tao Te Ching: Do Not Seek Wisdom or Knowledge

The 19th verse of the Tao Te Ching tells us to renounce the seeking of knowledge and wisdom: “Abandon wisdom, discard knowledge, and people will benefit a hundredfold.” In the same verse it tells us to “temper desire,” yet it does not define this as a desire for money, sex, or frivolous things. Verse 20 says, “Give up learning and you will be free from all your cares.” When I first read this, I found it paradoxical because the very person who is going to read this is the one seeking knowledge and wisdom. It is the person who will desire spiritual fulfillment. People who read the Tao Te Ching, the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Kabbalah, and other spiritual texts are precisely those seeking what the Tao is telling us to avoid. It seems paradoxical.

The Tao’s reasoning behind eschewing knowledge is that it can cloud our ability to recognize our true nature, to see simple truth, and to be open to reality. Clearly, I am taking its caution at face value. And I’m sure that scholars of the Tao can dissect this much more deeply to reveal the true meaning behind its suggestion to renounce knowledge. I am only expressing my initial take on what seems like a paradox: to tempt the one who desires spiritual enlightenment, yet warn against desire of any kind. To suggest renouncing knowledge and wisdom, yet offer exactly that.

In fact, the Tao Te Ching is loaded with sagacity. Consider the following:

Verse 26: “The still is the master of unrest.”

Verse 27: “What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?”

Verse 63: “Reward bitterness with care. See simplicity in the complicated. Achieve greatness in little things.”

I will talk more about the Tao Te Ching in other posts, but I wanted to start with its undefinable nature, its many translations, and its paradoxical nature to avoid the very things it teaches.





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