Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Looked at but not seen, it is called invisible.
Listened to but not heard, it is called soundless
Grasped for but not held, it is called formless.
These three attributes cannot be analyzed,
since they are inseparable.

The top of the Way is not bright
the underside is not dark.
Drawn out forever, nameless,
Forever returning to nonexistence.
Without form or substance,
it is an indistinct shadow.

Stand before it, and you won't see its face.
Follow it, and you won't see its back.
But hold fast to the ancient Way, and you can understand the present.
Know the ancient beginning; this ties together the teachings of the Way.

This is the first metaphysical passage other than Verse 1, which is easier to translate both because the original Chinese is easier, and because it's been analyzed practically to death by other translators. Verse 14 is more challenging. It's clearly meant to be describing the Way, but what kind of attributes is it assigning to it? I think the descriptions here are remarkably consistent, and may all have been written by the same author at the same time. The Way is invisible, soundless, and formless; it can't be analyzed. This fits exactly with the claim of Verse 1 that the Way that be described is not the true Way. The second section reiterates this description, avowing that the Way cannot be described by recourse to physical metaphors like light and dark. There is some beautiful imagery here; The phrase I've translated as "Drawn out forever" is [sheng sheng], a repeated character which can mean continuous, neverending, and infinite, and which evokes a thread because it uses the thread radical.

The first part of the third section is more of the same: the Way cannot be described as having a front and back, at least not as we understand them. But what to make of the last two sentences? What is this talk about "ancient Way?" There are two things necessary to understand this. First, remember that the Way is said to be very old, in one verse it is even said that it predates the gods. Another important element to the meaning is that Chinese philosophers around the time of the Tao Te Ching used "ancient" as a way of referring to ideas or principles they liked. In later verses we'll see statements like "Ancient kings did X, and everything was wonderful." It's important to understand that the authors of the TTC didn't really base their recommendations on archeological evidence of what ancient kings or people did, they're just using "ancient" as a signal to tell you they agree with something. Of course, it's not completely just a rhetorical device, because records of ancient times were sparse and most people probably did believe, to some degree, that things really were better in the "good old days." Suffice it to say that according to other, opposing philosophical and moral traditions, ancient kings were said to be behaving very differently!

Monday, June 12, 2006


Both honor and dishonor are cause for worry.
Misfortune is caused by the self.

What does it mean to say that honor and dishonor are cause for worry?
The concept of honor is depressing:
You are worried about obtaining it.
Once you have it, you are worried about losing it.
That's why it is said that honor and dishonor are both cause for worry.

What does it mean to say that misfortune is caused by the self?
As long as you are attached to your self, you will suffer.
Without a self, what is there for suffering to affect?

One who regards his responsibilities as his self, however, can be trusted with anything.
One who loves the world as his self can be trusted with caring for it.

This is a very difficult passage to translate, especially since one of the characters is different between two different versions of the Tao Te Ching, the Wang Pi and the Ho Shang Kung (HSK). The fourth line, in Chinese, is only three characters long, glossed like this: [honor makes low]. That's in the Wang Pi version of the TTC, though. Another version, the HSK, has [dishonor makes low]. This is a very difficult situation because the two words used are opposites. Often, the cause of a discrepancy between two of the versions is that somewhere along the way, a scribe mistakenly copied a character as a similar-looking character. In that case, the mistake is easy to spot because in one of the versions, the character has a meaning that seems totally out of place.

Here, though, the two characters don't look anything alike, and so it's likely that what happened was a failure of memory. The copyist remembered the basic gist of the passage, but couldn't remember whether the word in question was honor or dishonor. How could they make such a mistake? Looking at the passage, it's clear; substituting "dishonor" doesn't actually change the meaning very much. In both cases, the passage is saying that attaining honor is stressful, and that getting dishonored is also stressful. However, due to the context I think "honor" is a more likely choice.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five tastes dull the palate.

Too much chasing after things just makes the mind crazy.
Too many precious things just get in the way.

Because of this, the wise person attends to his belly, not his senses.
Ignores the latter, listens to the former.

This is one of the most famous verses in the Tao Te Ching. The first three lines are very clear, and various translations usually translate them into exactly the same English words. The fifth line is very ambiguous; the gloss is something like [hard-to-get objects make a person's activities hindered]. Translators usually take one of two routes: Either valuable objects are making a person do wrong or harmful things, or they are hindering his progress. We can't know if the authors intended this line to mean something more specific, but I've tried to maintain the ambiguity in my translation.

The last two lines feature another common metaphor in the Tao Te Ching: the belly. In fact, in Chinese, as well as Japanese, the belly has a much more important role, being symbolically the seat of health and well-being. That's what it means here; not just making sure you eat enough, but attending to health and satisfaction rather than over-stimulating the senses. Relating to the senses, in fact, we have to keep in mind how most of the sayings in the TTC are meant to be taken as proverbs, not universal laws. When this verse says "The five colors blind the eye," it doesn't mean that looking at colors will make you blind. Rather, it's warning against
over-stimulation, the same way we might tell someone to take it easy by saying "Slow and steady wins the race." We're not recommending the person do everything in her life slowly, just that she exercise moderation and make sure she's not going too fast.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Thirty spokes meet at a hub;
Because the hub is empty, it is useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
Because the vessel is empty, it is useful.
Cut out doors and windows to make a house;
Without these holes, the house couldn't be lived in.

A thing gets profit from what is there;
it gets usefulness from what is not.

Most people think that to add usefulness, you have to add to what is there. This passage emphasizes how the usefulness of things depends also on what is not there. Imagine a life without any free time; although you would be accomplishing a lot, you wouldn't be happy. You need the "empty" time to reflect on and plan for the activity, and to rest from it. The meaning of this passage doesn't just concern the necessity of emptiness, though, but also the proper balance between what is there and what's not. During the school year students often wish they could be free of school forever. During their two-week winter break, they revel in their free time and wish they could have more of it. But during the summer, after a month or two, they become bored and miss the activities they would do during the year. Just like one puts together clay and emptiness in the right proportion to make a useful pot, one needs to put together activity and rest in the right proportion to make a satisfying life.

What is Non-action?

One of the phrases most-identified with the Tao Te Ching is "non-action." In Chinese, the phrase is [wu wei]: the character for "not" followed by the character for acting, making, or doing (many languages use the same word for all these things). But what exactly is "non-action?" Most translators and commentators subscribe to one of four interpretations:

1. EFFORTLESS ACTION: In this reading, non-action is the kind of action, without effort or thought, produced by thorough training. Advocates of this interpretation compare non-action to actions performed by skilled athletes; a skilled quarterback's throw has a perfect spiral, excellent accuracy, and amazing distance, but the quarterback doesn't even think about it; he's thinking about whether or not he's going to get blitzed, and which of his teammates are open. The idea behind this interpretation is that many everyday actions can become effortless, not just by training, but by a certain state of mind that is not preoccupied with thinking, and just does what comes naturally, the way we say a skill is "second nature."

2. ABSENCE OF UNNECESSARY OR HARMFUL ACTION: In this reading, non-action is a focus on not doing superfluous action. In this busy world, an advocate of this interpretation would say, we are always thinking about how to solve problems by doing things. For example, our solution to insomnia is to learn self-hypnosis, take up meditation, or take melatonin. To practice non-action, according to this definition, would be to solve the problem by not doing something. For example, not watching TV right before bed, not taking on as many stressful assignments at work, or not going out with friends when homework needs to be done.

3. LACK OF RESISTANCE: In this reading, non-action is a lack of resistance to the actions of the world. The authors of the Tao Te Ching often compare the Way to water, since water doesn't resist and flows naturally, according to the laws of the universe. This also extends to not competing with others; one of the most common phrases in the Tao Te Ching is often translated as "If you don't compete, no one can compete with you."

4. A SPECIAL MEDITATIVE PRACTICE: According to some interpreters, the Tao Te Ching contains a lot of phrases that can only be interpreted as jargon; names of specific meditation or contemplative techniques. Verse 10 is the most frequently cited where this is concerned; many interpreters believe that "opening and closing Heaven's door," "becoming like an infant," and "cleansing inner vision" are the names of specific meditative exercises that would have been familiar to the students of the people who wrote the Tao Te Ching. In this interpretation, "Non-action" is also a name for a kind of meditation. Exactly what kind, we'll probably never know, but we can guess it probably has something to do with calming and clearing the mind.

So which do I think is the meaning most probably intended by the authors? I would say #2 is the most likely, followed by #3. The TTC is filled with recommendations to do less, to relax, to not exert effort, and even to give up knowledge. One of the later verses even admires people who don't leave their native country! Interpretation #3 is also referenced many times, such as in the comparisons of the Way to water and the exhortations not to compete with other people.

As for interpretation #1, it is true that skillful effort was something admired by the authors. There are several references to skilled people doing things exceptionally well, such as skilled runners leaving no tracks. Another Laoist text, the Chuang Tzu, has an example of a butcher using his knife so skillfully that he hardly has to exert any effort to carve up a bull, and he never has to sharpen his knife. However, the Tao Te Ching speaks of non-action as something that should be practiced in everyday life, and that makes it most likely that it's not referring to the kind of exceptional skill possessed by elite athletes and tradesmen. This also applies to interpretation #4. In the TTC, non-action is something you practice with everything in your life, and that rules out a separate activity like meditation.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Cultivating your soul, can you embrace the oneness of things?
Collecting your breath, can you become as soft as an infant?
Cleansing your inner vision, can you make it without flaws?
Caring for the people you govern, can you dispense with cleverness?
As Heaven's door opens and shuts, can you remain receptive?
Seeing all around with clarity, can you practice non-action?

They Way produces things and nourishes them;
produces but does not claim them.
It acts without self-interest,
leads but does not dominate.

This is true virtue.

Various commentators, including Michael LaFargue, have suggested that the first section of this verse is taken from meditation instruction, and each sentence refers to a special type of meditation which would be familiar to students of the Laoists. In other words, there was a type of meditation which Laoists knew by the phrase "opening and shutting Heaven's door." I can see why people are tempted to say that these phrases represent some special meditation jargon: they're hard to interpret! Most of them aren't mentioned anywhere else in the TTC, like the concept of "cleansing your inner (hidden) vision." There's no mention of this anywhere else in the book, and in fact this is the only place the character for "vision" appears. However, just imagine how much of the Laoists' practice must not have made it into the TTC. Eighty-one short verses is hardly enough to lay out an entire worldview, and we shouldn't assume that the vague, hard-to-interpret passages are intentionally so. They may just be small parts of a larger concept which didn't make it into the version of the Tao Te Ching we have today.