The Tao Te Ching

An Introduction by Stan Rosenthal

Index to the Introductory Notes


Bibliography and References



Notes on the Interpretation

The Tao and its Name

Knowledge of the Tao

Letting Go of Opposites

Without Seeking Acclaim

The Unfathomable Tao

Tranquil but Unceasing

The Manifestaton of the Tao

To the Translation


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 this.

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.

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'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 sources.

'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 interpretation).

'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 Catholic faith.

'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 not provided.

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.

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The 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
is to try to give credence
to one's own words."
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.

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.

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There 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 'debased Taoism'.

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 required.

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 States'.

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 opinion.

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 teaching.

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 anonymity.

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.

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The 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 decipher.

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 reference section.

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.

Stanley Rosenthal
(Shi-tien Roshi)
British School of Zen Taoism
Cardiff, September 1984

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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 knowledge.

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 shutters closed.

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".

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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 society.

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 for ourselves.

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.

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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 manifestations.

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.

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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 with himself.

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.

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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.

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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.

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All 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 darkness.

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 harmony.

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