The Tao Te Ching is perhaps the most influential book, word for word, ever written. This classic contains only five thousand Chinese characters: eighty-one short poems, yet it communicates the essence of a life lived with flow and grace regardless of circumstances. It is also the most revolutionary book in history, providing ancient wisdom for modern social and personal transformation of the most fundamental sort.
We all know that things must change. We all sense that “something is wrong” with the basic assumptions by which we have been taught to live; assumptions that acquisition of material comfort is the highest good, that aggression is necessary for this acquisition, and that we are each separate and isolated beings who are always at risk of losing everything we value. These assumptions make personal satisfaction and contentment impossible and create a world in which greed and fear produce countless frightful forms of violence and war.
Our study will focus on the transformative and revolutionary teachings of The Tao Te Ching. We will examine the parallels between Lao-Tzu’s culture and our own and attempt to apply his counter-cultural teachings to our personal lives, to our families, and to our communities. We all share the intuitive understanding that something fundamental needs to change, to turn around, in the understanding of humanity concerning its place on Earth and in the Cosmos. We don’t know the answers. We don’t even understand our own conditioned responses. But we have within us this spark of transformation and we feel the need to express it – in our words, but more importantly in the way we live.
Each week I will post a lesson from the Tao Te Ching along with questions for your reflection and exercises you might try. You will be asked to contribute your responses in the comments link of each lesson. We will not use this site to argue or “adjust” each other’s thinking but simply to share insights, ideas, and questions to help each other in our own revolution/transformation.
I would ask that you have at least two translations of The Tao Te Ching available for use. My own is contained in the book, A Path and a Practice. Three others that are excellent are those by Steven Mitchell, by Ursula Le Guin, and by Jonathan Star.
The fact that there are over one hundred English translations speaks to the impossibility of having a definitive, “accurate,” and once-and-for-all translation of this text. We don’t know if the book is the work of one person or the collection of Taoist wisdom from many sources compiled by one editor at a later time. It really doesn’t matter. The very ambiguity of authorship and origins works in harmony with the philosophy itself – the wisdom is intuitive and cannot be pinned down, controlled, and understood in the way our conditioned mind would like it to be.
The book was copied and recopied, edited and re-edited, modified and changed for hundreds of years before the copies we now use became available for translation. The manuscripts we have do not agree with each other completely. The complexity of Chinese characters adds to the difficulty. Each character represents many different ideas and meanings. The Chinese written language of the Tao does not have tenses, active or passive voice, singular or plural usage, case, person, or mood. Meaning has to be gained from context and the context of such an ancient book is often impossible to discern. This, in fact, is one of the blessings of the Tao Te Ching. As its traditional opening lines might say: “The Tao that can be translated is not the Eternal Tao.”
Legend has it that Lao-Tzu didn’t want to write anything but was forced into it by a border guard. The constant warfare, social inequalities, and general lack of consciousness in China had left him feeling no alternative but to leave. When he reached the border, about to slip away into obscurity, he was asked by the border officer to write down his understandings of Taoism to leave as a legacy. He refused, saying, “If I write it down, it won’t be the Tao.” Nevertheless, the guard would not let him pass until he wrote. Taking a brush and paper, Lao-Tzu sat under the shade of a tree and, in one afternoon, wrote the short book of poetic wisdom that has become, 2500 years later, one of the most-translated, and well-beloved books in the history of the written word.
Whatever the truth behind the legend, I am personally filled with gratitude both to Lao-Tzu and to the nameless border guard whose stubbornness allowed the words to take a journey all the way from 600 B.C.E to the present day. It is in that sense of gratitude that I want us to undertake this study together. We know the words we share will not be the Truth Itself, but we trust that they will point us in the right direction.
Once again, welcome to this transformative study. Enjoy the journey.