A number of problems arise when translating any work from a written
language, such as early Chinese, into twentieth century English. One
such problem is the difference between the written forms of the two
languages, another is the difference between the two cultures, and a
third is the time which elapsed between the writing of the original
work, in this instance, some time between six hundred and three hundred
years before the Christian era, and the compilation of the textual
arrangement by Wang Bih, dating from the third century A.D., used today.
There are however, other problems for any translator/interpreter of
this work. The first is the number of changes in the form of written
Chinese characters since the original work was written. At least one
such change occurred prior to the arrangement of the text by Wang Bih,
and at least another three have been implemented since his time.
The source of another problem has been described by Dr. L. Wieger
(please see bibliography/reference section below) as, ".... the
ignorance of scribes who continually brought to light faulty forms which
were .... reproduced by posterity ....".
Another problem related to those mentioned immediately above is the
change in writing instruments used by Chinese scribes. With the
invention of the paint brush, the efficient 'fibre tipped pen' (made
from vegetable fibre soaked in ink, and held in a hollow bamboo tube)
fell into disuse. The resultant change in writing style was due to the
fact that the writer had less control over the stroke of a brush than of
an instrument with a fine, firm tip. Despite this handicap, the brush
could be used to paint on silk, and was considered to produce a more
'artistic' form of calligraphy than the earlier instrument. Furthermore,
it became almost a 'hallmark of a gentleman' to write in a free, flowing
and virtually illegible style. There can be no doubt that this was the
cause of many errors which were made and subsequently compounded.
A further problem is the possibility of confusion, caused in part by
the multiple meanings of some of the limited number of characters said
to have been used in the original text, this being attributed to the
cryptic style of Lao Tzu. It is also in part a result of the nature of
early Chinese grammatical structure itself. Even if a literal
translation were desirable, it would make little sense to the reader
schooled only in Western grammar, who would therefore be unfairly
presented with the problem of 'guessing the missing words', which, it
may be said, is a primary function of the translator of any work such as
Having discussed the problems which exist for the translator of such
a work as the Tao Te Ching, it is only reasonable to mention briefly the
problem which exists for the reader, concerning the significance of
various influences upon a translator.
There are already at least forty-two English translations of this
work (listed by Clark Melling of the University of New Mexico), each, I
am sure, carried out as ably and honestly as was possible. However, it
is difficult, if not impossible, for any person not to be influenced by
the philosophy, beliefs, culture and politics of their own society,
historical period and education system.
Even a brief glance at various translations of the work of Lao Tzu
will illustrate how such a 'hidden curriculum' surreptitiously imposes
itself upon even the most honest of men, thus creating a major problem
for the reader. This is the case even for the reader who merely hopes to
see an accurate English rendering of the work, but the reader's problems
are compounded if he or she seeks a translation which presents a
reasonably accurate description of Taoism (Tao Chia), the 'system' of
which the Tao Te Ching is a major work. It must be said of the existing
English translations, that most treat the Tao Te Ching as a literary or
poetic work, whilst many others treat it as a work of mysticism, rather
than a work of classical scholarship, which I believe it to be,
describing the key concepts of Taoist philosophy (tao chia) expressed in
a poetic manner. My intention here has been to provide a translation
suitable for those readers wishing to discover something of that
philosophy, as described in one of its major works.
On the matter of 'translation', I should state that I consider the
term to be a misnomer when applied to an English rendering of this
classical Chinese work. For the reasons mentioned above, I believe that
any such work is at least as much, and probably more a matter of
interpretation than of literal translation. This problem is admirably
expressed by Arthur Hummel, former Head of the Division of Orientalia at
the Library of Congress when he writes in his foreword to Dr. C.H. Wu's
translation (referenced), "Any translation is an interpretation .... for
the language of one tradition does not provide exact verbal equivalents
for all the creative ideas of another tradition."
Whilst I have tried to ensure the accuracy of my own sources, this
does not of course guarantee the accuracy of the result. Furthermore,
since I have not attempted to be literally accurate in my
interpretation, and because this rendering is not intended to compete
with such translations, I have listed below some titles, including ten
translations of the Tao Te Ching, which have been of value in this
undertaking. They are listed in order to acknowledge the work of the
translators, as well as to provide alternative sources for those readers
wishing to conduct their own research and comparisons. The other titles
are those of books on the Chinese language, and these are listed for the
benefit of those readers wishing to undertake their own translations.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND REFERENCES
'Tao Te Ching', translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, is
published by Wildwood House. It concerns itself with the 'spiritual
level of being', and contains Chinese characters written in a cursive
form which although not always easy to read, are certainly aesthetically
pleasing. However, the photographs which illustrate this edition are
also pleasing to the eye, and it is as much for the illustrations as for
the translation that this edition is recommended.
'Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching' is translated by D.C. Lau, and published by
Penguin Books in their 'Penguin Classics' series. It is currently in its
seventeenth printing, the first edition dating from nineteen
sixty-three. Although this translation is written in a style which I
find rather too literal for my own taste, it carries a very lucid
introduction, as well as footnotes, a glossary and a reference section,
all of which recommend it to the reader who wishes to check reference
'Truth and Nature', by Cheng Lin, published in Hong Kong, does not
claim to be a translation, but interprets the Tao Te Ching in a very
interesting manner. Two arrangements of the Chinese text are included,
one according to the arrangement of Wang Bih. The reader wishing to use
the original language as a source will find the Chinese text in this
edition of value. It must be emphasized however, that there are a number
of Chinese texts available. Whilst these usually conform to Wang Bih's
arrangment of the text, they do vary in detail.
'The Simple Way of Lao Tsze' (sic) is a very pleasant analysis of the
Tao Te Ching first published by 'The Shrine of Wisdom' in London some
sixty years ago. It contains many footnotes, and is an interpretation
rather than a direct translation, attempting to describe the 'spirit' of
Taoism, and doing so without pretence. However, some readers may find
the nomenclature somewhat esoteric (although it is only reasonable to
expect that the same criticism might be levelled at my own
'Lao-Tzu: "My Words are very easy to understand" ' by Man-jan Cheng,
translated by Tam C.Gibbs, and published by North Atlantic Books, is a
Confucionist (rather than Taoist) rendering. It therefore contains
material of value to the student who wishes to 'see both sides of the
coin'. This edition consists of a series of lectures by Man-jan Cheng,
and includes the Chinese texts of both the Tao Te Ching and the
lectures. The printing of the Chinese characters is large and clearly
printed, which commends it to the student requiring a text in the
'original' language, although it must be emphasized that there are a
number of differences between the Chinese text in this edition and that
of Dr. Wu, mentioned immediately below.
The translation by Dr. J.C.H. Wu is in its eighteenth printing, a
fact which will not surprise any reader of this delightful little
edition. Small in size, and containing an excellently drafted Chinese
text, this translation is likely to appeal to the reader who is of the
'The Way and Its Power' is the title of the translation by Arthur
Waley, published as 'A Mandala Book' by Unwin Paperbacks. As the
translator himself says, it "represents a compromise...", but even so it
is possibly the most widely read translation in the U.K. It is for this
reason that it is included it as a reference work worthy of reading. The
use of the word 'power' in the title of this translation provides a clue
to the style of the translator, who employs very strong academic (but
non-Taoist) arguments, which are made in his copious introduction.
The translation entitled 'Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu', translated by
A.J. Bahm, and published by Frederick Ungar is well supported by notes
in an 'afterword'. The translation itself is written in a very pleasant
and easy-to-read style, which is (unfortunately) unusual for the work of
a professor of philosophy.
'Tao: A New Way of Thinking' by Chang Chung-yuan, published by Harper
and Row, is a translation which contains excellent commentaries and
footnotes. The translator undoubtedly has expert historical and
philosophical knowledge which he puts to good use in this excellent
edition, in which he compares various aspects of Taoist philosophy with
that of European philosophers.
The tenth translation used for my own researches is 'The Tao Te Ching
of Lao Tzu' translated by James Legge as one of a two volume set of 'The
Texts of Taoism', published by Dover Publications. Although written in
eighteen-ninety, this translation withstands the test of time extremely
well. The translator was very knowledegable in his subject, as well as
of Chinese philosophy, literature and religions, and does not hesitate
to state his opinions, arguing a strong case where these differ from
those of other translators from the Chinese.
Because of the changes in calligraphic style mentioned earlier, any
student wishing to conduct their own research into the Chinese text of
the Tao Te Ching will need to be at least familiar with the relationship
between modern and classical Chinese characters.
An outstanding book covering the 'middle period' is the 'Ch'ien Tzu
Wen' (Thousand Character Classic) of Chou Hsing-szu, written some time
between 507 and 521 A.D., an excellent English language edition being
that edited by F. W. Paar, with calligraphy by Fong-Chih Lui, and
published by Frederick Ungar in 1963. This edition also carries
translations in French, German and Latin. Although it is not a rendering
of the Tao Te Ching, it contains many passages from that work.
'Chinese Characters' by L. Wieger, translated from the French by L.
Davrout (mentioned previously) is a lexicon with etymological lessons,
but also contains both a phonetic dictionary and a dictionary of
characters arranged by 'radicals' (the means by which it is possible to
'find' a character written in 'Kanji', the root form of both Chinese and
Japanese writing in a dictionary). This book also contains a number of
examples of 'early period' characters which will be of value to those
readers interested in the calligraphy and other graphic communication.
In similar vein, 'Analysis of Chinese Characters', by G.D. Wilder and
J.H. Ingram, published by Dover Publications, complements the work of
Wieger, listing one thousand and two characters, together with
derivations and modern alternatives.
Chang Hsuan's work on 'The Etymologies of 3000 Chinese Characters in
Common Usage', published by Hong Kong University Press, also shows the
derivations of many Chinese characters, from the 'small seal' script.
Unfortunately however, this book contains virtually no English and is
therefore intended primarily for the student who is already proficient
in the Chinese language.
The earliest form of Chinese writing predates even the Tao Te Ching,
and possibly originates from the same period as the original I Ching of
Fu Hsi. This writing consists of characters inscribed on bone, shell and
antler horn, the collection being known as 'The Couling-Chalfant
Collection of Inscribed Oracle Bones'. The collection has long been
dissipated, some pieces being in the Royal Scottish Museum (Edinburgh),
some in the Carnegie Museum (Pittsburg), other pieces in the British
Museum (London), and the remainder in the Field Museum of Natural
History (Chicago). Fortunately though, an excellent catalogue exists,
drawn by F.H. Chalfant, edited by R.S. Britton, and published by the
Commercial Press, Shanghai, in 1935. This book illustrates each of the
pieces, showing the characters inscribed on the original material. It is
a particularly valuable work for those interested in tracing the origins
of many of the Chinese characters in use to this day. Translations are
The philosopher Chuang Tzu, a follower of Lao Tzu, did much to
clarify the somewhat criptic style of his teacher. The book 'Chuang Tzu'
translated by H.A. Giles, published by Unwin Paperbacks, renders the
sayings of the later master into English in a clear and fine literary
style. This book, said to have been originally written by Chuang Tzu
himself sometime between the fourth and third centuries before the
Christian era, contains a number of references to the Tao Te Ching. For
this reason it is a valuable book, but its value is increased by the
humour and depth inherent in Chuang Tzu's writing.
It may be of interest to some readers that the dictionaries I have
used are Lin Yutang's 'Chinese English Dictionary of Modern Usage',
published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Andrew Nelson's
'The Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary', published
by Charles E. Tuttle.
Since it may seem strange that I have used a Japanese dictionary to
translate a Chinese work, it is perhaps worth mentioning that many
Japanese characters are Chinese in origin, and that the characters in
Andrew Nelson's dictionary are listed in a sequence, and according to a
system different from the same characters in the dictionary by Lin
Yutang. Although the spoken Chinese and Japanese languages differ
considerably, the written Japanese language has its roots in the
Chinese. I therefore use the Japanese dictionary as a 'cross-reference'
for finding the meaning of characters which I have difficulty in
locating by Lin- Yutang's arrangement.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTSThe fact that I have not listed more
of the forty-two English translations of the Tao Te Ching is not meant
to reflect in any way on their quality, but simply means that I have not
used them on this occasion; all of them, of course, have something of
value to offer.
Since I have acknowledged the work of other translators and
interpreters, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the help I
received from my own teachers, each of whom attempted to aid my
understanding and development in his own unique manner. The reason why I
refrain from mentioning them by name in print is not due to disrespect,
but rather out of respect for the Taoist belief that,
"To boast of one's teachers Fortunately it is not considered
boastful to mention in print, one's own students. It is therefore with
pleasure and gratitude that I acknowledge the help I have received from
those who consider me their teacher, and through whose questions I have
gained so much. On this occassion my special thanks go to Ian (and his
wife, Jeanette) for their company, the help they provided without being
asked, and for their patience; to Michael, who did most of the
proof-reading; to Jackie who transcribed my notes to the 'word
processor' (which does not know that its 'sixty-four bit binary system'
is an outcome of Taoist 'yin-yang' philosophy) and who tried to ensure
that what I had written made sense; and to Judith, particularly for
providing me with a copy of her B.A. dissertation 'A Comparison of
Plotinus and Chuang Tzu', which was of great help in explaining some of
the more obscure phrases in other translated texts.
is to try to give credence
to one's own words."
Finally, I take this opportunity (on behalf of Judith and all other
members of the English speaking Zen Taoist community) to thank Professor
Cavendish, former Professor of Philosophy at Saint David's University
College, Lampeter, who personally supervised her dissertation, which is
of value to us all.
INTRODUCTION: THE TAO TE CHING, LAO TZU, TAOISM AND
ZENThere is frequently some confusion between three
practices, each of which is generically termed 'Taoism'. Since this
confusion exists, it is important that the prospective student of Taoism
can distinguish between them. The three activities, or practices of
Taoism are Philosohical or speculative Taoism, Religious or esoteric
Taoism, and Alchemical or 'debased' Taoism.
The earliest of these is Philosophical Taoism (Tao-chia), which is
believed to have developed between the sixth to the second century
before the Christian era, from the earlier 'Yin-Yang' school of
philosophy, whose teachings it inherited and integrated into its own
'philosophical system' through the 'I Ching', now (unfortunately) most
widely known as a work of 'divination'.
Philosophical Taoism is generally thought to have been based on the
'Tao Te Ching' of the possibly legendary Lao Tzu, and the work of his
follower, Chuang Tzu, which is known through the book which bears his
name, and is otherwise without title.
The major development and establishment of Religious Taoism
(Tao-chiao) took place during the two Han dynasties (from 206 B.C. to
220 A.D.), and considered the Tao Te Ching as divine teaching, using
specific interpretations of Lao Tzu's work as one of its own primary
scriptures. The Religious Taoists deified Lao Tzu, describing him as the
'T'ai Shang Lao-chun'. In later centuries, Religious Taoism was to
become a very powerful movement throughout China, where it was widely
practiced, at least until the middle of the twentieth century.
The earliest known reference to Alchemy (in Eastern and Western
Literature) is in the 'Shi-chi', written about eighty-five B.C., but the
'Chou'-i ts'an t'ung ch'i' of Wei Po-yang (c.200 A.D.) was probably the
first major alchemical text to use a Taoist work to this end, some
auhorities believeing the treatise to be a derivation of the I Ching.
This form of alchemy was referred to by the Philosophical Taoists as
Of these three 'forms' of Taoism (or practices which called
themselves Taoist), Religious and Alchemical Taoism are not mentioned in
the text of this work, other than where they, and similar practices,
were referred to, usually indirectly, in the Chinese text (and then
usually in a derisory manner).
Readers of both the I Ching and the Tao Te Ching will readily
apppreciate from many of Lao Tzu's statements, that he was certainly
well versed in the concepts explained in the earlier work, and accepted
its major precept, that all things are always in a state (or process) of
change ('I Ching' means 'Book of Changes'). However, even allowing for
the age of the I Ching, and the certainty that its concepts were well
known in China at the time of Lao Tzu, it would seem, from historical
records, that the Tao Te Ching was considered to be a perplexing book,
even in the period in which it was written. Although not mentioning
either Lao Tzu or the Tao Te Ching (nor the I Ching) by name, many of
Chuang Tzu's stories (which are probably apocryphal) serve to illustrate
and explain points from the Tao Te Ching. If there were no confusion or
doubt, presumably such explanatory material would not have been
In its original form, the Tao Te Ching (as it is now known) is
believed to have consisted of eighty-one short chapters, these being
arranged in two sections, known as the 'Tao Ching' and the 'Te Ching'.
The first of these was comprised of thirty-seven chapters, and the
second of forty-four chapters. The length of the original work is said
to have been approximately five- thousand characters, and it is probable
that these were written on bamboo strips or slats, which would then have
been bound together to form two scrolls, each appearing somewhat like a
venitian blind with vertical slats. These were a common form of 'record'
in the period of Lao Tzu, this being known as 'The Period of the Warring
Since it is not known with absolute certainty that a person named
'Lao Tzu' actually lived during the period of the warring states, to
catagorically describe the Tao Te Ching as the work of Lao Tzu would be
without sufficiently valid historical foundation. Even the 'biography of
Lao Tzu' which may be found in the 'Historical Records' (Shih-chi) of
Ssu-ma Ch'ien (second century B.C.) is not without its inconsistencies.
This record describes Lao Tzu as having been an archivist of the Court
of Chou, and further states that he is said to have personally
instructed Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius).
It is in this last statement that one inconsistency may be found, for
other chronicles state the date of the death of Lao Tzu to precede that
of the birth of Kung Fu Tzu by nearly half a century. Even the author of
the 'Historical Records' states his doubts as to the authenticity of the
information available regarding Lao Tzu, and some scholars maintain that
the Tao Te Ching does not present a distinctive or single point of view.
They argue that it is probably a compilation or anthology of sayings
from various writers and schools of thought, reaching its present form
in the third century B.C.
Conversly, according to legend, it is said that on his retirement
from public office, Lao Tzu headed west, and that the guardian of the
pass to the state of Ch'in requested that he write a treatise on the Tao
before departing. It is then that Lao Tzu is supposed to have sat for
two days, in which time he wrote the Tao Te Ching, after which he left,
some writers stating that he was never heard of again, others describing
his ascent to heaven in the form of a magnificent dragon.
Whichever story we believe concerning the existence of Lao Tzu, we
may reasonably conclude (at least) that there is much contradictory
evidence. Although I cannot offer conclusive proof that he did exist, I
do not believe that the contradictions prove that such a person did not
exist, and neither do I believe they prove the Tao Te Ching to have been
written by more than one person. As I have stated, the reasons for my
beliefs are admittedly without sufficient 'hard evidence' to withstand
strong philosophical questioning, but they are offered here for those
who might wish to know of an argument contrary to current academic
Since one meaning of the words 'Lao Tzu' is 'Old Man', it is very
unlikely that they were used as an ordinary (or 'proper') name, but
could well have been a 'nickname'. Some authorities claim that this was
so in the case of the person in question, the nickname possibly being
derived from the fact (?) that he was born with white hair, like that of
an old man. This theory seems to borne out by the fact that the second
character, can also be used to mean 'child'. However, in the context of
teaching and learning, it also means 'master' or 'scholar' (compared
with 'pupil' or 'student'). Furthermore, and for the purpose of this
discussion, more importantly, the same two characters which form the
Chinese 'Lao Tzu' form the words 'old scholar', pronounced as 'roshi' in
Japanese, a title usually reserved in that language for a master of Zen
This means that 'Lao Tzu' is the Chinese equivalent to the Japanese
'Roshi'. For this reason I believe there probably was a person called
Lao Tzu, but that Lao Tzu was his title, rather than his name. It may of
course be that there were many 'old scholars', all known by that title,
but the existence of many has never been considered proof of the
non-existence of one.
At this juncture it is perhaps necessary to mention briefly the
historical and philosophical relationship between Taoism, Ch'an and Zen.
The word 'Zen' is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese 'Ch'an', the
system attributed to the 'Bodhidharma' (in Japanese 'Daruma'), described
by followers of Zen Buddhism as the twenty-eighth Buddhist Patriarch,
who is said to have arrived in China in 526 A.D. Although well known to
followers of Zen, it is not always known to others that the Bodhidharma
then spent nine years in the earliest Chinese Buddhist temple, which had
by that time been in existence for over four hundred years. Furthermore,
during that period, the original Buddhism of India had undergone many
changes in China, much of its teaching having been adapted (Tibetan
Buddhists might claim, 'adulterated') by its proximity to Taoism.
Today, in the West at least, the most widely known sects of Zen are
Buddhist. However, even before its acceptance by Buddhists, Ch'an (or
'Zen') was accepted by the Chinese followers of Philosophical Taoism
(Tao Chia) as an adjunct to their own philosophy and practices. So it
was that the 'non-religious' aspects of Zen and Taoism became integrated
into the system known in China as 'Ch'an Tao-chia'.
It is probable that we will never know all the reasons for this
two-way integration which occurred between Tao-chia and Ch'an, but some
of the reasons become apparent when we learn something of the
similarities between the philosophies underlying the two systems. It
will hopefully suffice to mention that the practitioners of each group
probably felt an affinity with the 'fluidity' of thought and action of
the practitioners of the other, recognizing this as stemming from the
same philosophical source as their own. Similarly, it is very likely
that the members of both groups appreciated the 'ethics' of the other,
since both philosophies emphasize the development of the individual as a
prerequisite to the development of society.
Notwithstanding any inaccuracies in my own interpretation of events,
of even greater historical significance is the fact that from about six
hundred A.D., the survival of Philosophical Taoism was made possible
only through its adoption by Ch'an. Had it not been for this fact, the
antagonistic attitude of the Religious Taoists, combined with their
growing governmental power, might easily have resulted in the forceful
demise of Taoist Philosophy as it is known today.
As to the continued integration and co-existence of Taoism and Zen,
we fortunately need look no further than the words of the great Zen
scholar, Professor D.T. Suzuki, who said,
"To ask a question about Zen is to ask a question about
the Tao."All this is of course intended to illustrate the
links between the two practices which use the same written characters (
) as a teaching name or honorary title, and that this title may have
been used by the author of the Tao Te Ching wishing to retain his
If this was the case, it could have been either for reasons of
personal safety on the part of the author, or out of deference to his
own teachers. Any reader who has knowledge of the history of China
during the peiod of the warring states will readily appreciate, and
hopefully sympathise with the first of these reasons, but the second
reason perhaps requires some explanation. This is now offered.
Carrying out one's work in an unostentatious manner is an important
aspect of Taoist teaching, as is respect for one's teachers. In some
instances these two principles were adhered to so rigorously that a
writer or painter might either not sign his work at all, or use a
pseudonym compiled (possibly as an anagram) from the names of his most
revered teachers. It is therefore possible that the author of the Tao Te
Ching used the pseudonym 'Lao Tzu' as an acknowledgement of his own
teacher, using the title 'old scholar' to refer to that teacher as he
might have been known and referred to by his own students.
It is quite likely that the title 'Roshi', used in Zen (Japanese
Ch'an) developed as an 'official title' from its earlier Chinese usage.
In Zen, it is thought to be rank bad manners to use the real name of
one's own teacher in a published work, at least in the context of he or
she being one's own teacher (for reasons which I have attempted to
explain in the 'Acknowledgements' section), but it is quite acceptable
to refer to him (or her) by an honorary title. Combine any of these
possibilties with the fact that one's own teacher may have been given or
have chosen a 'teaching name' (a pseudonym under which a teacher may
work) and it becomes easier to understand why it is impossible to be
definitive regarding the 'real name' of the author or authors of the Tao
Te Ching. For the purposes of this discussion however, I wish to
continue from the assumption that the Tao Te Ching did have an author,
and that we may, without too much 'licence', refer to him as Lao Tzu.
The second factor which causes me to believe that we should not
completely disregard the legend of the writing of the Tao Te Ching
concerns its cryptic style. The basis of my belief is twofold. In the
first instance, if, as legend tells us, Lao Tzu completed his writing in
two days, it is not surprising that it was cryptic, since this would
have required him to write at a rate of two and one half thousand words
each day. It may therefore be that he wrote as succinctly as possible in
order to complete his task as quickly as possible, so that he could
continue on his journey into retirement.
Those who know the Tao Te Ching will also know that Lao Tzu did not
teach that a task should be rushed; rather, he taught that all things
should occur in their natural time. This leads to my second point
regarding the cryptic style of the original work.
We know that the keeper of the pass, who made the request for a
written copy of Lao Tzu's thoughts, was a well known Taoist of the
period named Yin Hsi, also referred to as 'Kwan Yin'. As a Taoist, he
would certainly have been familiar with the teachings of Lao Tzu, even
though, as he himself is supposed to have told the old philosopher,
because of the nature of his work, he had not been able to avail himself
of personal tuition from the master. It could be that the 'vagueness'
(or seemingly esoteric nature of the first chapter) is due to the fact
that Lao Tzu would have had no reason to explain the Tao to someone who
was already versed in Tao-chia.
I believe we can assume that, although possibly not nationally
famous, Lao Tzu would certainly have been well known in his own
province. This would certainly seem to be the case, since Yin Hsi either
recognised the figure of Lao Tzu, or his name, otherwise he would not
have made his request to that particular traveller.
Assuming the keeper of the pass to know something of the teaching of
Lao Tzu, his request could have been made in the form of a list of
questions, to which Lao Tzu might have written the answers in the form
of brief (or cryptic) notes, as an 'aide memoire'. This might of course
also account for the apparent discontinuity of the completed work. If
the text were written in answer to a number of questions, the sequence
of the text would conform to that of the questions, which might easily
have been prepared by Yin Hsi over a period of time, in the hope that
the occasion might arise when he would meet with a scholar such as Lao
Tzu, with whom he could then discuss his questions. This could account
for the apparent repetitions in the text, for two questions both phrased
in a similar manner, would presumably be answered in a similar manner.
This concludes the summary of my own beliefs regarding the legend of
Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, other than to add the rider used
frequently even by those who disagree totally with my own interpretation
of the legend. This is that, irrespective of the authenticity of the
legend and the problem of identifying its authorship, the majority of
scholars date the origin of the text of the Tao Te Ching no later than
400 B.C. Furthermore, there is virtually no dissent among scholars as to
its great value as a philosophical, literary and historical work.
NOTES ON THE INTERPRETATIONThe text of the Tao Te
Ching follows immediately after these notes, the arrangement following
the convention set by Wan Bih in the third century A.D. Each of the
eighty-one sections is shown in English, the text being as brief as
English grammar will permit, whilst still retaining sensibility. The
differences between my own rendering of the text and those of other
translators will seem to some readers to be minor; to others they may
seem radical. In either case, the reader is of course free to compare
the texts by referring to those editions cited earlier in these notes.
The Chinese characters employed as chapter headings are written in a
style approximating to the period in which the original text was
written. The style is commonly known as 'small seal script'. Readers
wishing to use modern Chinese characters for their own researches may of
course refer to any or each of the Chinese texts mentioned earlier, and
there are of course many others.
'Small seal script' is by no means the earliest written form of
Chinese, but it is certainly one of the most aesthetically pleasing and
easiest to read. Being more pictographic than later forms, the symbolism
of the images contained within the small seal characters is easier to
understand than it is in later forms. Modern Chinese script is virtually
always more stylized, and (if hand written) frequently more 'freehand',
and therefore sometimes difficult for the inexperienced reader to
Each small seal script chapter heading provides an approximate
rendering of either the English title beneath or beside which it
appears, or of the key concept or concepts embodied in the text of that
chapter. As with the Chinese text itself, there are a number of
different 'authentic' chapter headings. In most instances I have used a
'traditional' heading, but where even the traditional meaning is unclear
I have used the heading I believe to be most appropriate to the contents
of the chapter. Following the usual conventions, horizontally presented
script should be read from left to right, and vertically presented
script should be read from top to bottom, the right hand column first.
As I have stated earlier, because of the cryptic nature of the
original text, and also because of the difference between the structure
of English and Chinese grammar, a completely literal translation of the
Chinese text would make little if any sense to the reader not versed in
both the written Chinese language and the concepts of Taoism. This means
that virtually any intelligible English rendering of the Tao Te Ching is
bound to be longer than the original Chinese text. The variation in the
length of many English (and Chinese) texts of the Tao Te Ching will be
readily apparent to the reader of those translations listed in the
There are many valid arguments for and against the inclusion of
commentaries on the text in any edition of the Tao Te Ching, but in this
instance I hope that the English rendering will 'speak for itself', thus
serving the purpose for which it is intended. It is for this reason that
no separate commentaries are included.
The text in this edition is somewhat longer than that found in most
other translations. There are two reasons for this, the first being that
it includes certain expansions resulting from points raised in
discussion by my own students. In those instances where there was
apparent lack of clarity in my original drafts, additions have been made
to clarify the concepts involved. (Where additions have been made to the
most commonly available Chinese and English editions, the addition and
the reason for its inclusion are annotated in the appendix at the end of
the book.) The second reason is the form of interpretation employed, the
rationale of which is now briefly described.
I do not believe it is by accident that the Tao Te Ching can be
interpreted at many different levels without contradiction. The actual
interpretation placed upon the text by any translator will depend on
many factors, as has already been discussed. However, there is no doubt
that Tao-chia and Ch'an are both very much concerned with individual
development, maintaining that this is essential to a healthy society.
It is from this particular viewpoint that the rationale for this
interpretation has developed. Although other translators have certainly
raised this issue, to the best of my knowledge this is the first
rendering to give priority to this aspect of the Tao Te Ching. It was
because my own students requested such an interpretation in English, and
because we were unable to find such an interpretation that I undertook
the translation and interpretation presented here.
British School of Zen
Cardiff, September 1984
THE TAO AND ITS NAME
1. Naming things enables us to differentiate between them, but names
are words, and words easily give rise to confusion. They do not replace
the thing or direct experience of the thing which they name, but only
represent or describe it.
Consider a thing such as a strawberry. If we wish to find the word
'strawberry', we look in a dictionary; if we wish to find a description
of a strawberry, we look in an encyclopaedia. But if we are hungry, we
do not go to the library, but to the field where fine strawberries may
be found. If we do not know where there is such a field, we might seek
guidance as to where fine strawberries may be found. A book on the Tao
is like such a guide.
It can point us in the direction of the strawberry patch, but cannot
provide the fruit itself. It can give an idea of the taste of Tao, but
of itself, has no taste to compare with direct experience of the Tao.
Consider now three things: There is the universal principle which
enables all things to be, and to flourish naturally; there is the name
'Tao', by which that universal principle is known; and there are words
which describe the manifestations of the Tao.
Even the name 'Tao' is only a convenience, and should not be confused
with the universal principle which bears that name, for such a principle
embraces all things, so cannot be accurately named nor adequately
described. This means that Tao cannot be understood, for it is infinite,
whereas the mind of man is finite, and that which is finite cannot
encompass that which is infinite.
Although we cannot understand Tao, we are not prevented from having
knowledge of it, for understanding stems from one of the two forms of
It stems from that which is called cognitive knowledge, the knowledge
born of words and numbers, and other similar devices. The other form of
knowledge, conative knowledge, needs no words or other such devices, for
it is the form of knowledge born of direct personal experience. So it is
that conative knowledge is also known as experiential knowledge.
Cognitive and experiential knowledge both have their roots in reality,
but reality is complex, and complexity is more of a barrier to cognitive
knowledge than it is to experiential knowledge, for when we seek
cognitive knowledge of a thing, that is, understanding of it, the
knowledge we gain of that thing is understanding only of its
manifestations, which is not knowledge of the thing itself.
We may seek to understand a thing, rather than to experience it,
because, in a world beset with man made dangers, it is frequently safer
to understand than to experience. Tao is not man made, and there is
nothing in it to fear. So it is that we may experience Tao without fear.
When we cease to seek cognitive knowledge, that is, cease to seek
understanding of a thing, we can gain experiential knowledge of that
thing. This is why it is said that understanding Tao is not the same as
knowing Tao; that understanding Tao is only to know that which it
manifests, and that knowing Tao is to be one with the universal
principal which is Tao. This is to say that knowledge of Tao is not the
same as understanding Tao. To know Tao is to experience both Tao and the
manifestations of that universal principle. As human beings, we are born
as manifestations of Tao.
If this seems complex, the reason is because Tao is both simple and
complex. It is complex when we try to understand it, and simple when we
allow ourselves to experience it. Trying to understand Tao is like
closing the shutters of a window before looking for a shadow. We might
close the shutters to prevent anyone from discovering our treasure, but
the same shutters prevent the moonlight from entering the room. All
there is in the room is darkness, and in total darkness we cannot find
the shadow, no matter how hard or diligently we seek.
We call one thing a shadow, and another darkness, but the shadow is
darkness, and the darkness shadow, for in reality, both darkness and
shadow are absence of light, yet we call one shadow and the other
darkness. The shadow is darkness in the midst of light, but within total
darkenss, the shadow seems to disappear, for darkness is a shadow within
shadows. We may think that the shadow has been destroyed when all light
is removed, but it has not been wiped away; in reality it has grown, but
we need light even to see that form of darkenss which we call a shadow.
Such is the pursuit of the universal priciple called Tao, that if we
seek to understand it, we prevent the very means by which it may be
found, for the only way in which we might find Tao is through the
experience of Tao. We find Tao when we do not seek it, and when we seek
it, it leaves us, just as the silver moonlight leaves the room when we
close the shutters. We find and know Tao when we allow ourselves to find
and know it, just as the moonlight returns when we allow it to return.
We do not need to seek Tao as we seek physical treasures such as jade
or gold. We do not need to seek Tao as we seek such treasures as fame or
titles. We do not need to seek the treasure of Tao, for although the
greatest of treasures, it is also the most common. Perhaps it is bacause
it is so common that so few men find it; they seek it only in mysterious
and secret places, in chasms and caves, and in the workplace of the
alchemist. The Tao is not hidden in these places, and is hidden only
from those who frequent and inhabit them, secretively, and with the
Just as darkness may be known as the absence of light, so to may
light be known as the absence of darkness. When we experience darkness
and light as having the same source, we are close to the Tao, for Tao is
the source of both darkness and light, just as it is also the source of
all other natural things. When we experience ourselves as part of Tao,
as a shadow or reflection of the universal principle, we have found it,
for it is said that "Experience of Tao is Tao".
1. KNOWLEDGE OF 'THE TAO', AND EXPERIENCE OF THE TAO.
There is a way in which we may conduct our lives without
regrets, and in such a manner as assists in developing and realizing our
individual potential, without harming others, or inhibiting the
realization of their potential, and which is beneficial to a healthy
Such a way of life may of course be conducted without a name, and
without description, but in order that others may know of it, and so as
to distinguish it from other ways in which life may be conducted, we
give it a name, and use words to describe it.
When discussing or describing this way in which life may be
conducted, rather than refer to it in full, for convenience, we refer to
it as 'the way', meaning simply that the discussion is concerned with
this particular way, not that it is the only way of conducting one's
life. In order that we might distinguish it more easily from other ways,
we refer to it also by its original name, which is 'Tao'.
By intellectual intent, that is, through thought and words, and by
considering ourselves as non-participating observers of this way of
life, we may gain knowledge of its manifestations; but it is only
through participation that we can actually experience such a way of life
Knowledge of anything is not the same as the thing of which we have
that knowledge. When we have knowledge of a thing but do not have
experience of it, in trying to describe that thing, all we can describe
is our knowledge, not the thing itself. Equally, even when we have
experience of a thing, all we can convey is knowledge of that
experience, not the experience itself.
Knowledge and experience are both real, but they are different
realities, and their relationship is frequently made complex by what
distinguishes them, one from the other. When they are used according to
that which is appropriate to the situation, we may develop that way of
life which enables us to pass through the barrier of such complexities.
We may have knowledge of "Tao", but Tao itself can only be experienced.
2. LETTING GO OF OPPOSITES.It is the nature of the
ordinary person, the person who is not yet at one with the Tao, to
compare the manifestations of the natural qualities possessed by things.
Such a person tries to learn of such qualities by distinguishing between
their manifestations, and so learns only of their comparative
So it is that the ordinary person might consider one thing beautiful
when compared with another which he considers to be ugly; one thing
skillfully made compared with another which he considers badly made. He
knows of what he has as a result of knowing what he does not have, and
of that which he considers easy through that which he considers
difficult. He considers one thing long by comparing it with another
thing which he considers short; one thing high and another low. He knows
of noise through silence and of silence through noise, and learns of
that which leads through that which follows.
When such comparisons are made by a sage, that is a person who is in
harmony with the Tao, that person is aware of making a judgement, and
that judgements are relative to the person who makes them, and to the
situation in which they are made, as much as they are relative to that
which is judged.
Through the experience and knowledge through which he has gained his
wisdom, the sage is aware that all things change, and that a judgement
which is right in one situation might easily be wrong in another
situation. He is therefore aware that he who seems to lead does not
always lead, and that he who seems to follow does not always follow.
Because of this awareness, the sage frequently seems neither to lead
nor follow, and often seems to do nothing, for that which he does is
done without guile; it is done naturally, being neither easy nor
difficult, not big or small. Because he accomplishes his task and then
lets go of it without seeking credit, he cannot be discredited. Thus,
his teaching lasts for ever, and he is held in high esteem.
3. WITHOUT SEEKING ACCLAIM.The talented person who is
also wise, retains humility, and so does not create rivalry. The person
who possesses material things, and who does not boast of his
possessions, does much to prevent stealing. Those who are jealous of
talents, skills or possessions of others, easily become possessed
themselves by envy.
The sage is satisfied with a sufficiency; he is not jealous, and so
is free of envy. He does not seek fame and titles, but maintains his
energy and keeps himself supple. He minimizes his desires, and does not
train himself in guile. He thus remains pure at heart. By acting in an
uncontrived manner, the harmony of the inner world of his thoughts and
the external world of his environment is maintained. He remains at peace
For these reasons, an administration which is concerned with the
welfare of those whom it serves, does not encourage the seeking of
status and titles; it does not create jealousy and rivalry amongst the
people, but ensures that they are able to have a sufficiency, without
causing them to become discontent, therefore the members of such an
administration do not seek honours for themselves, nor act with guile
towards the people.
4. THE UNFATHOMABLE TAO.The mind should not be filled
with desires. The individual who is at one with the Tao is aware of the
distinction between that which is needed as a sufficiency, and that
which is a desire, or merely wanted rather than needed.
It is the manner of the Tao that even though continuously used, it is
naturally replenished, never being emptied, and never being as full as a
goblet which is filled to the brim and therefore spills its fine spring
water upon the ground. The Tao therefore does not waste that with which
it is charged, yet always remains a source of nourishment for those who
are not already so full that they cannot partake of it.
Even the finest blade will lose its sharpeness if tempered beyond its
mettle. Even the most finely tempered sword is of no avail against
water, and will shatter if struck against a rock. A tangled cord is of
little use after it has been untangled by cutting it.
Just as a fine sword should be used only by an experienced swordsman,
intellect should be tempered with experience. By this means, tangled
cord may be untangled, and seemingly insoluable problems resolved;
colours and hues may be harmonized to create fine paintings, and people
enabled to exist in unity with each other because they no longer feel
that they exist only in the shadow of the brilliance of others.
To conduct oneself without guile is to conduct oneself in a natural
manner, and to do this is to be in contact with nature. By maintaining
awareness of the way of nature, the wise person becomes aware of the
Tao, and so becomes aware that this is how its seemingly unfathomable
mysteries may be experienced.
5. TRANQUIL BUT UNCEASING.Those things which are in
opposition with each other are not benevolent towards each other, and
may even treat each other with contempt or malevolence.
Although the creatures which are born of nature may be in opposition
with each other, nature itself is in opposition to nothing for there is
nothing for it to oppose. It acts without conscious intention, and it is
therefore neither deliberately benevolent, contemptuous nor malevolent.
In this respect the way of the Tao is the same as the way of nature.
Therefore, even when acting in a benevolent manner, the sage does not
act from any conscious desire to be benevolent.
Through his manner of breathing like a babe, he remains free of
conscious desire, and so retains his tranquility. By this means he is
empty of desire, and his energy is not drained from him.
6. THE MANIFESTATION OF TAO THROUGH COMPLIMENTARY
OPPOSITESAll physical things possess certain natural
qualities, such as size, shape and colour. Since the universal principle
encompasses all things, so it encompasses their natural qualities.
Being possessed by all things, natural qualities are general to all
things, but in order to relate to a quality, we think of it as it exists
relative to a particular thing, and to ourselves. We therefore think of
and describe a quality according to how it is manifested through one
particular thing compared with another. Thus, we judge one thing to be
big, compared with another thing, which we think of as small; one person
young, and another old; one sound noisy, and another quiet. Equally, we
judge and compare by thinking of the aesthetic quality in terms of its
manifestations, 'beautiful' or 'ugly'; morality in terms of good or bad;
possession in terms of having or not having; ability in terms of ease or
difficulty; length in terms of long or short; height in terms of high or
low; sound in terms of noisy or quiet; light in terms of brightness or
Although many of the manifestations which we compare are judged by us
to be opposites, one to the other, they are not in opposition, but are
complimentary, for even extremes are nothing other than aspects or
specific examples of the quality which encompasses them. Both big and
small are manifestations or examples of size, young and old are examples
of age, noise and quietness are aspects of sound, and brightness and
darkness are extremes of light.
It is the nature of the ordinary man to compare and judge the
manifestations of the naturally occurring qualities inherent in things
and in situations. It is not wrong to do this, but we should not delude
ourselves into believing that we thereby describe the quality rather
than a manifestation of the quality.
Whilst all judgements are comparative, a judgement is frequently, if
not always, relative to the individual who makes that judgement, and
also to the time at which it is made. To the young child, the father may
be old, but when the son reaches that age, it is unlikely that he will
consider himself old. To the child, the garden fence is high, but when
the child grows bigger, the same fence is low. The adult in his physical
prime knows that to run ten miles, which is easy at that time, will
become more difficult as he becomes older, but that that the patience
required to walk will become easier.
The sage knows that qualitative judgements, such as old and young,
big and small, easy and difficult, or leading and following, relate as
much to the person who makes that judgement, as they relate to the thing
or action described. Consider a sage and an ordinary man sitting on a
hill in the late evening, looking down on the road below. When darkness
has fallen, they both see the light of two lanterns approaching, one
yellow, the other red, bobbing gently as their bearers pass by. From the
positions of the two lights, the ordinary man knows that the bearer of
the yellow lantern leads the bearer of the red. As he watches, he sees
the red lantern draw level with the yellow, and as they pass beneath
him, the red lantern preceding the yellow.
The ordinary man wonders why the two lantern bearers do not walk side
by side. The sage, who has seen what his companion has seen, thinks it
right that the two travellers should do as they have done, to walk side
by side through the night, neither leading and neither following the
other. The sage is aware that he who seems to lead does not always lead,
and that he who seems to follow does not always follow. Because of this,
the sage frequently seems neither to lead nor follow, and often seems to
do nothing, for that which he does is natural, being neither easy nor
difficult, not big or small.
Those changes which occur naturally in life, the sage accepts as
natural, accepting them as an opportunity for learning, whilst realizing
that knowledge is not his possession. Because he knows that the credit
for learning is due to the willingness of the student, he teaches
without teaching, but by allowing his students to observe the virtue of
observing natural qualities, rather than only comparing and judging
their manifestations. He does this without seeking credit, and continues
without contriving to be given credit. Because of this, his teaching
lasts for ever, and he is held in high esteem.
The gifted person retains humility and thus prevents jealousy. The
person who does not boast of his possessions prevents stealing. Only
those who have greed are perplexed by envy. The wise person is therefore
satisfied with a sufficiency, and is free of envy. He does not seek fame
and titles, but keeps himself strong and supple. He minimizes his
desires, and does not train himself in guile. He thus remains pure at
heart. By acting in an uncontrived manner he maintains his inner