The Tao Te Ching

One of the most famous books of Chinese spirituality is the Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tsu about 2500 years ago. It's a book of philosophy for individuals and rulers in relation to what is termed 'The Way", the book divided into 81 small sections.

One problem with the book is that it is written in an ancient version of Chinese and some of the characters can no longer be positively translated (Source 1). The original Chinese symbols also do not necessarily have a 1 to 1 translation system; one symbol could be translated in several different ways, the symbols representing concepts rather than cut-and-dried terminologies. So, virtually no two versions of the book are the same. Over 100 versions just in English are available.

The Tao, or the Way, is the centerpiece of all Chinese religion and thought, and the Tao Te Ching is the fundamental text of Taoism. It's also the third most translated book in the world, the first being the Bible, the second the Bhagavad Gita. Apparently, in the time just previous to the writing of the Tao Te Ching, China had undergone a period of upheaval and violence, plagues and disasters, and people wanted to know how to end all of this.

Two approaches developed, one of them being Confucius, who emphasized moral virtues, and the approach of people who were considered mystics, who had discovered a "unique Something for which there was no word or name. It did not belong to the world in which language is born. The world was its by-product and nothing could exist without it. What was more immediate, there could be no good government or well-being for man apart from it." . They ended up using the term Tao to stand for this unnamed word.

The Confucian approach led to over 3300 rules of conduct to cover virtually every single situation in life that a person could confront. In contrast, Taoism has more general principles of conduct, not real specific rules that you have to follow.

Lao Tzu is supposedly the author of the Tao Te Ching, but even in this there is some question. It is quite possible that no such person existed. The term "Lao" itself is not a surname but stands for "old." It is possible that the Tao Te Ching was written by several people who wished to remain anonymous and made up the name Lao Tzu. One source says that the book actually contains texts from over 800 years worth of writings.

The traditional story of Lao Tzu was not written until some 400 years after Lao Tzu's death. The author of that work said it was hard for him to find information on Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu wasn't even his actual name, according to the author. The man's proper name was Li Erh Tan, and the name Lao Tzu is an honorific and means "the Old Master."

The traditional story is that Lao Tzu basically got fed up with how things were going in the state and decided to leave. He came to a pass and the Keeper of the pass asked him to write a book, so Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching in one night.

Some think there is a tie between Taoism and shamanism. Shamanism deals with two worlds; the world of the spirit and the world of material reality. The shaman is in touch with this superior world of the spirit and, as such, works with it to help those in the material world. This is shown in the Taoist concept of the sage being able to work with both worlds at the same time. The shaman is also seen in the concept of the philosopher sage, who would be consulted by the ruler about various matters. At times, the shaman could become the ruler. Such a ruler would "flow with nature", guiding people via principles of the spirit world.

One source says that many of the sections/chapters of the Tao Te Ching consist of a core teaching in a few sentences (usually at the beginning) and what is basically an analysis or expansion of that core teaching in the rest of the passage. One major exception, the source notes, are in passages 20, 21, 23, 43, 49, 67 and 70, which are written more in first-person form and may represent a set of actual teachings by Lao Tzu, sort of a sayings collection. The source adds that the book is basically divided into two sections, the Tao section (passages 1 to 37) and the Te section, from passage 38 to 70. Sections 71 to 81 was added later, is of somewhat lesser quality than the other sections, has no new original ideas, and tends to reiterate what the other passages have already said.

If this wasn't already complicated enough, we have the physical manner in which the book was written. Rather than being written on a scroll, the material was written on strips of bamboo which were then tied together. This made it easy to add material, but it also resulted in some confusion if the strips broke and the bamboo sections got mixed up. Thus, the sentence order itself is a matter of debate.

Another source divides the work into various books; Book 1, the Character of Tao, consists of sections 1 through 6; Book 2, the Lessons of Tao, of sections 7 to 13; Book 3, The Imitation of Tao, of sections 14 to 25; Book 4, the Source of Power, of sections 26 to 40; Book 5, The Conduct of Life, of sections 41 to 56; Book 6, The theory of Government, of sections 57 to 75; Book 7, Aphorisms, of sections 76 to 81.

Part I

I am going to make some comments on the first ten verses and how they appear in different translations.

Verse 1
Verse 2
Verse 3
Verse 4
Verse 5
Verse 6
Verse 7
Verse 8
Verse 9
Verse 10

Part II

What I will do in this part is to go through various versions and do a short review of them by showing some typical verse translations they use and commenting on them. Most translations are relatively similar to each other, but some change a few words to make things clearer and some go really out there with their translations.

In all the verses I have examined and am continuing to examine, I have only found two translations that I consider to be really, really bad. Vogons would think it was poetry some Vogon had written, they are that bad.

Some translations will have a commentary on each verse right under the verse. Some will save commentary and notes until the end of the book, and some have no commentary at all. The actual physical size of the books also differs ranging from rather small to ones that are approaching coffee-table book in size.

The Tao Te Ching 101
A Modern Translation
Original Tao Te Ching
Penguin version
Tao of Power