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The Dao De Jing: Getting from Tulsa to Chicago without a map

This is not a review, but instead the first of a series of essays about how I’m integrating the ideas contained in an ancient text into my day-to-day life. As part of my philosophical reading, I recently read the Dao De Jing; actually, I read two different translations/interpretations (a 1919 translation by Dwight Goddard revised by Sam Torode, and a 2012 translation by P.J. Laska). During the course of my reading, I was struck by the lack of any religious overtones in either translation, but only references to the Source, the Tao, the Great Way, the Way of the Sages, etc. In other words, the original authors knew that they didn’t know where reality came from and chose not to speculate. Both translations refer to the origin of the universe as unknowable. That appealed to me and thus my reading expanded into something more, which I plan to share in this series of essays. I am writing in order to have a record of my personal philosophy as it evolves (rather than presenting a manifesto at the end), for my own benefit, but I welcome comments from anyone who reads these essays.

Reading the two translations side-by-side, it is difficult to believe that they originated from the same source; in fact, there were already many copies of the Dao De Jing (DDJ) in circulation in China by the first century of the Common Era (CE). Furthermore, ancient Chinese was apparently a very sparse language, which means that there is plenty of latitude for artistic license among translators. This is not an issue because I’m not seeking the “truth,” but rather a starting point for a journey. I might add that the phrase “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” comes from the DDJ (Chapter 64). For the record, the two versions I read couldn’t even agree on the distance; the Goddard translation sends the traveler on a much longer journey of 3000 miles.

The Goddard-Torode translation will sound familiar to most westerners; it is poetic and has many apparent paradoxes that imply the deep wisdom contained (i.e. hidden) within the verses, whereas Laska’s translation isn’t particularly appealing. It reads like a first draft of the DDJ; however, it includes notes that explain the reason for many of the more controversial (I’ll take Laska’s word for this) translations. Forced to make a choice, I went with the newer interpretation but I always read both. Thus, I will include quotes from Laska’s (2012) translation in this series and only refer to the more traditional text occasionally to make a point about the difference between a technical document and a book of poetry.

The title of this essay may be perplexing, and it was meant to be so. The Dao De Jing is a series of randomly arranged signposts without a map. It tells the reader where they should be headed and gives some vague and often ambiguous hints, but it absolutely is not a roadmap. There is a lot of wisdom contained in the more-explicit chapters, which brings me to an important point about my journey: The Dao (the Great Way) is applicable at a range of social scales, ranging from the personal to the behavior of empires. I am focusing only on the personal scale, so many of the chapters (and verses shoehorned into some chapters) are inapplicable for my purpose and won’t be discussed. Following the Dao is a matter of finding a personal path to enlightenment, with no short cuts, and only a few hints.

This ambiguity appeals to me because I’m not a big believer in dogma. To make my point, I will quote from DDJ 38:

“So, when the Way is lost there remains [higher] attainment. When [higher] attainment is lost, there remains benevolence. When benevolence has been lost there remains righteousness. When righteousness is lost there remains ritual.”

In other words, it’s a long journey from enlightenment to dogma, but humanity has managed to reach the lowest rung of the ladder. This downward spiral is, in my opinion (and apparently the authors of the DDJ), the result of individuals failing to take responsibility for their actions and how they affect others. This is not a spiritual journey but a psychological one – to take responsibility for my mind and body and try to regain some part of what was understood and practiced by wise individuals more than 2500 years ago.

Notes:

P.J. Laska; The Original Wisdom of the Dao De Jing: A New Translation and Commentary; ECCS Books, Green Valley, Arizona; 2012.

Lao Tzu; Tao Te Ching. The Book of the Way; revised by Sam Torode; Ancient Renewal.