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Tao Interpretations
April 7, 2004 10:03 AM   Subscribe

(1) If you can talk about it, it ain't Tao.
If it has a name, it's just another thing.

Ron Hogan "perpetrates" his interpretation
of the Tao Te Ching, often coming nearer
its essence than stricter interpretations.

See also Jim Clatfelter's Headless Tao:
(11) The openness within a house
Provides location to reside
The open space that is my heart
Is where ten thousand things abide.

(Tread softly, for Headless Tao is on GeoCities.)

        Pooh heartily approves.
posted by Shane (34 comments total)

 
Oh. goody. An opportunity to repeat something I wrote only a few weeks ago:
Instructions for Use

Irony is the correct response to fervor. Zen is the correct response to irony. The Tao is the correct response to Zen; and everything is the correct response to the Tao.
—Keith M Ellis
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:15 AM on April 7, 2004


Irony is the correct response to fervor. Zen is the correct response to irony. The Tao is the correct response to Zen; and everything is the correct response to the Tao.—Keith M Ellis

Do these instruction come with a plain English translation, or an example? Sounds deep and meaningless to me. Am I being Zen for being so literal? Be Tao back to me!!
posted by SpaceCadet at 10:38 AM on April 7, 2004


Shane,

That's some nice smooth curve you put on that FPP. Did you anti-alias the right edge of that paragraph, or is that some masking technique?
posted by thanotopsis at 10:42 AM on April 7, 2004


I tend to think the TTC was pretty accessible as religious texts go,
what the world really needs is a plain language Qur'an.
posted by milovoo at 10:42 AM on April 7, 2004


The Tao of y2karl, Shane?
posted by soyjoy at 10:43 AM on April 7, 2004


Putting the text into rhyming couplets of doggerel doesn't help it, IMHO.
posted by crunchburger at 11:09 AM on April 7, 2004


He who knows does not speak; He who speaks does not know.
posted by Satapher at 11:10 AM on April 7, 2004


A favorite koan, or thought problem, of mine:

This is an apple. What is it?

A problem with the koans arises when someone tries to explain them. When a koan is "answered", it is like finishing an ice sculpture.

Dilbert said it well:

"But what if I get to the end of my journey and still haven't found the cosmic joy?"

"Then the cosmic joy is on you."
posted by kablam at 11:13 AM on April 7, 2004


Did you anti-alias the right edge of that paragraph, or is that some masking technique?
I, um ... used the combobulator mechanism. Yeah, um, that's it. It doesn't work for just anyone.
soyjoy: LOL!

posted by Shane at 11:16 AM on April 7, 2004


When two masters meet.
posted by homunculus at 11:27 AM on April 7, 2004


Ugh. Terribly artificial, and sometimes just plain wrong. If you have any desire to know what this text or Taoism is pointing to, just pick up a copy of "the Tao Speaks" or "the Tao of Pooh"; both are really accessible and light-weight, but much closer to the heart of the TTC than these crap spewings. For example:

""If you can talk about it, it ain't Tao.
If it has a name, it's just another thing."

Completely misleading.

"Lao Tzu makes another promise. This emptiness that is totality is also bliss and wonder. Bliss is our true identity!"

Just plain not true.

The authors of these interpretations give a new-agey spin to a quite rigorous and multi-leveled text. If that's your thing, then great, but if it's not, and you don't know much about the TTC, don't take these interpretations as anything more than the respective authors' opinions on mystical experience.
posted by billpena at 11:36 AM on April 7, 2004


Deep inside, this is all truly shallow stuff...I know. I am missing some grand enlightment. I am reminded though of the great zen master near death who turned to his adoring pupils and said: I am scared. Two pupils said: thanks for be honest with us...when you're hungry eat; when tired, sleep. I do this, don't you? As for understanding Koran, try this for the key stuff:
http://www.faithfreedom.org/Quran.htm
posted by Postroad at 11:36 AM on April 7, 2004


Jesus, Postroad, you'll take any excuse to bash Islam, won't you? As a counterweight to Postie's burst of involuntary micturation, try this, by people who actually know what they're talking about when they talk about Islam.
posted by languagehat at 11:46 AM on April 7, 2004 [1 favorite]


This is an apple. What is it?

(takes bite.)



Ah, I know what you want to know!

Zen is a Place, Tao is the Way.
Tao is a Watch, Zen is the Time.

If you want to know, you have committed three errors.
posted by ewkpates at 11:49 AM on April 7, 2004


"Lao Tzu makes another promise. This emptiness that is totality is also bliss and wonder. Bliss is our true identity!"

I admit "Bliss is our true identity!" extrapolates a bit far, even into the realm of fluffiness. But the Tao's passages on emptiness are some of my favorite, emptiness and nothingness are neither empty nor nothing, and Clatfelter doesn't exactly put me off by getting carried away here and there.
posted by Shane at 11:50 AM on April 7, 2004


I'll admit, I didn't give two shits about the Tao until I watched The Tao of Steve. I have three different translations now, but I still have no clue, and I don't get laid like Steve, either.
posted by letitrain at 12:05 PM on April 7, 2004


Shane, I agree that emptiness/Nothingness is a crucial concept in the TTC. But Emptiness = Bliss/Wonder is completely missing the point, but it's seductive, which is why I think these interpretations are ultimately harmful to a real understanding of the text and philosophical tradition. The closest thing I can say that would be justifiable is Understanding Emptiness = Internal Peace. Peace != Bliss/Wonder, nor is Bliss a necessarily good thing!

See, it's all about balance, peace, integrity, and finding the middle way. If you spend a lot of time being blissful, you are apt to unbalance yourself, and find yourself angry or depressed later, or you may find yourself blissfully unaware of your surroundings, breeding chaos. Taoists are actually against the idea of the "ecstatic" state as an end of itself (let's bracket the fact that an "end" is also unfavorable, it's the path, the flow, the process, that is real and neverending), which is a sharp distinction from pretty much every other meditative tradition. Living well and in peace with all things, not living blissfully, or being "enlightened", is the goal. "Enlightenment" is merely a part of the process of being one with the Tao, aka living in peace, living by the concept of "wu-wei".

I'm not trying to be an interpretative stickler. I don't really care if you like this interpretation, and I don't care if you like mine. Whatever works for you, great. But there is something to be said for those who are uninitiated understanding that these interpretations aren't true to Lao-Tzu or other Taoists' intentions; they are in fact contradictory in many ways. Remember, Mao Zedong tried to justify his version of communism with the TTC as well! It's an obscure text, full of metaphors and paradoxes, in order to make you think and, hopefully, make you stop thinking and start acting truthfully. Reducing that to fell-good platitudes with an ABAB rhyme scheme does a disservice to anyone interested in really understanding the text and the Tao.
posted by billpena at 12:18 PM on April 7, 2004


I have three translations too, but with all that reading I came away with:

Don't sweat the small stuff (it's all small stuff)
Regard nature and natural processes
Don't overthink
Be excellent
work and live efficiently and simply
Be humble
Let go

I'm sure I'm forgetting something, but I'm "working" on it!
posted by black8 at 12:22 PM on April 7, 2004


billpena, I think I view bliss more as quiet, maybe glowing, contentment than jumping-up-and-down ecstacy. But I see your points. But while you may feel that lighthearted interpretations are misleading, I think they also often attract new people, encouraging them to explore in more depth. They turn people on to the ideas ;-)

Anyway, I think you have definitely studied the Tao more than I.

But one other point in translating the Tao is that trying to be too literal is akin to trying to name the Tao! You know, "The Tao that can be written..." Considering also the troubles of translating Chinese to English, it seems that a more abstract approach is just natural.
posted by Shane at 12:46 PM on April 7, 2004



posted by Blue Stone at 12:57 PM on April 7, 2004


Hey Postroad, you are right. It is all shallow. Taoism and Zen are meaningless.

That's why I am a Taoist and practice Zen. I even teach T'ai Chi, a Taoist art. It's totally meaningless and as soon as everyone learns that, the better.

When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.
posted by Dantien at 1:03 PM on April 7, 2004


Yin and Yang mean Yin and Yang. Translating them abandons this.

If you aren't going to ask basic questions about the language that the text is in, then don't waste time on it.

Best case scenario. Most translations I've read have serious omissions of meaning with at least a few errors of translation.

Another good idea is to translate one single simple chapter. Then look at five or ten translations of this chapter.
posted by ewkpates at 1:09 PM on April 7, 2004


Can meaninglessness be learned?

There is futher a difference between surpassing meaning and negating it.

Meaninglessness is not No-Meaning.
posted by ewkpates at 1:16 PM on April 7, 2004


"billpena, I think I view bliss more as quiet, maybe glowing, contentment than jumping-up-and-down ecstacy. "

ditto :)

"But while you may feel that lighthearted interpretations are misleading ..."

I don't! I think Tao can be very easy to grasp, and I heartily recommend "The Tao of Pooh" whicc everyone has heard of, and "The Tao Speaks" which is the TTC turned into a comic book. They were the first interpretations I ever read, and I still LOVE them!

"I think they also often attract new people, encouraging them to explore in more depth. They turn people on to the ideas ;-)"

Very true. And as long as those ideas are close to the original (see black8's post for a good example) then they may be said to be lighthearted interpretations of the text, and not writings "inspired by" the text. Nothing wrong with the latter, as long as it doesn't make people think they've grasped the former and therefore stop developing those ideas in themselves.

Anyway, I'm going to shut up now. Thanks for the post Shane, it's a topic dear to my heart. I always like seeing new perspectives on Tao. :)
posted by billpena at 1:33 PM on April 7, 2004


Hey, who bit my apple?

It was bad. It was green.

It came from that tree over there.

Did you keep the seeds?

What kind of apple was it anyway?

I wish I still had my apple.
posted by kablam at 1:39 PM on April 7, 2004


I actually got a lot of value out of this interpretation....well I've read just the first part so far (very slowly) - have bookmarked to read more later. It's not something to speedread or browse over.
posted by SpaceCadet at 1:42 PM on April 7, 2004


> This is an apple. What is it?

Meow
posted by jfuller at 2:24 PM on April 7, 2004


Everyone missed the fact that Bluestone actually summed the whole thing up.
posted by nyxxxx at 2:25 PM on April 7, 2004


Heh. nyxxxx, I was just going to point out the same thing, but doing so seems contradictory to this meme...

A minor derail: I've just realized where 'nothing doing' came from.
posted by of strange foe at 3:26 PM on April 7, 2004


Hate to play the pedant here -- wait, no, that's a lie; I love playing the pedant.

Anyway, speaking as someone currently studying Daoist texts - specifically, the Daode Jing/ Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi / Chuang Tzu - at Beijing University, I'd just like to point out that both this and the Stephen Mitchell "translation" that it makes reference to are not, in point of fact, translations; they're interpretations based upon other translations.

Also, while they're quite nice as New-Age philosophy, they're absolutely piss-poor reflections of Daoism. Those interested might want to check out either the Robert Henricks translation, which I think someone's already mentioned (although it should be noted that the Mawangdui texts he translates are different from the standard Wang Bi texts) or the Victor Mair translation.
posted by bokane at 6:48 PM on April 7, 2004 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Involuntary micturation.
posted by plep at 12:59 AM on April 8, 2004


Deep inside, this is all truly shallow stuff

posted by Postroad at 11:36 AM PST on April 7


i think Postroad gets it.
posted by Miles Long at 2:25 PM on April 8, 2004


bokane -- aye aye on all points! I have two copies of Victor Mair's translation of the Zhuangzi; it's wonderful.
posted by billpena at 5:06 PM on April 8, 2004


If Everything is Shallow, than there is no Shallowness.

Stop trying to ruin it!

Or, hey, maybe some things are shallow, even compared to the Shallowness of all things...
posted by ewkpates at 5:01 AM on April 9, 2004


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