Have you ever wondered what is the most accurate translation of the Tao te Ching?
I did. I looked, searched explored, and inquired yet I never could find that one translation that really popped for me. Eventually, I had to create my own. more bout that in about two minutes.
My First Encounter with the Tao te Ching
The Tao te Ching, is one of the most influential books of philosophy and spirituality ever written.
I first encountered the work in my first years of apprenticeship with Vincent Collura, a shaman of Italian heritage and Roman Catholic upbringing who I met when I was hungry, raw, confused, lost, uninformed, and adrift in my youth.
Vincent opened the door to many things and in my fifteen years under his tutelage, I came to understand the importance of a life dedicated to inquiry and service.
In my five decades as a meditation student and mentor to others, and in my recent years serving as the senior teacher of the Wisdom Path Community, I have always been committed to sharing and “paying it forward”. In this long process, I read many different versions of the Tao te Ching, each version with its own strengths and weaknesses.
The title of the work “Tao te Ching” is generally translated to mean “The Book of the Way and Its Virtue”. However, according to R.B. Blakney’s translation, this is an awkward explanation of the “characters” and pictographs since the Chinese do not use the word “way” or “virtue” in the same way that a Westerner might. Most seekers and experts on classic Chinese thought might agree that the term “Tao,” or Dao, rather than being just a Chinese word for “path” or “way” could more accurately describe the divine presence as the source and actualization of all life and existence. A Westerner might choose to simplify it by saying “God” but students of Mystic Taoism do not attempt to apply the types of forms, constructs, and physical qualities that the great “Western religions” apply to the concept of God.
It is this confusion of even the most basic aspects of the work, and its title, that makes the reading of the Tao te Ching a challenge for many. Even so, the very process of reading each sentence of the Tao te Ching can be an enlivening experience.
Each version I read, and I read many, had something of value to offer. Yet, none of them really touched me in my heart and my mind simultaneously. Ultimately I went to my teacher and asked him if he thought I could make the attempt of creating a worthwhile translation? I was concerned about all the kinds of things any student might be concerned with when taking on such a task — issues about ego, false humility, and the internal conversation of what right did I have to even attempt it? In spite of my doubts, Vincent was very strong in his support. Thus I began the project in 1972.
To be truthful, what I would ultimately create after forty-two years was not a formal translation of the Tao te Ching at all. Rather it was a meta-analysis, an exploration that combined the results of multiple studies addressing the same question. With a meta-analysis of something as profound as the Tao te Ching, it is assumed that each translation would be expected to have some degree of error, inaccuracy, or misunderstanding. The aim of my work was to derive a pooled work closest to the unknown common truth created by Lao Tzu
Keep in mind that the original text of the Tao te Ching was written on bamboo slats about 2,600 years ago in ”Old Mandarin”, a language that no one speaks today. Thus it is hard to know definitively what was actually said when it was written. I began researching and organizing this meta-analysis back in 1972 and continued to do so over a forty-four-year span.
How I Created the Meta-analysis
Once I decided to begin, I bought twenty modern Mandarin to English translations of the text. Then I sat at my desk and for hours a day, I went over the 81 entries or poems in them line by line, and word by word. The version of the Tao te Ching that is presented here, and in all my Taoist stories on Medium.com is drawn from this work.
“The Tao te Ching is a Simple and Easy Read But the Ideas Within it are Profound”.
As I have already said and will repeat again, the entries within the work contain short paragraphs or poems consisting of one or two thoughts linked together. To understand the thoughts contained in the work it is best to closely read these individually, rather than exploring the entries as units. We cannot always expect a high degree of cohesion in these thoughts. Thus, the most sensible way of giving an account of it is to deal with the various key concepts, and then relate them to each other wherever possible.
This Isn’t Some Chinese “Bible”.
The Tao te Ching should not be treated as a religious text, in the way that the Bible or the Holy Koran is. Though many Westerners have tried to make it into a holy book, or read it as a philosophical tract, the Tao te Ching is more a road map for the seeker of profound wisdom. As one reads it over and over much of what was previously unclear, inaccessible, confusing or incomprehensible, becomes immediately lucid and is enlivening to read.
In the end, it is for the seeker to embrace the truth here more than anything else. By seeing key passages of the text in a spiritual rather than philosophical context, one can get the true meaning of what is being said.
In reading the writings of the great Taoist masters, particularly Lao Tzu, one immediately senses that the person of profound wisdom expresses what they know- not from intellect, but rather based on spiritual insights derived from their mystic experiences. This cannot be done from the studying of books. Throughout the Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu expresses the idea that the Tao cannot be known in words, and cannot be experienced or expressed by the intellect. It can only be reflected as an authentic experience of the human spirit.
When I began this journey, one of my life visions was to produce a version of the Tao te Ching that would be accessible to the serious student but not superficial in presenting the important elements of the work. I often engaged in long and intense conversations with friends, peers, mentors, and scholars about it. For six or seven years at a time, I would adore, wrestle, resist, and surrender to the teachings on the pages and between the lines. Then I would put it away and engage in other interests only to return again to the project when I felt the longing to do so.
After forty years this part of my journey is complete. Thanks for allowing me to share it with you.
Read on to learn about my personalized, and customized course on Essential Taoism.
Based on our translation, meta-analysis, and commentaries on the writings and teachings of Lao Tzu in the Tao te Ching…The Course in Essential Taoism A-Z and Beyond…
I’m the author: I am a game theorist and a teacher of essential Taoism. I am also a self-improvement coach offering advice for innovators of all levels who are dealing with obstacles and constraints in their work (and play).
Most of my Medium stories, when related to natural healing. self-improvement, life lessons, mental health, and Eastern Philosophy are anchored into the concept of Applied Game Theory. This idea explores how and why people make certain choices, including decisions related to their health, well-being, and self-awareness.
Researchers into game theory have won over twenty Noble Prizes. The movie “A Beautiful Mind” is about the life of John Nash, one of the pioneers in game theory. Of course, the most sophisticated competitive and strategic game in existence is the Chinese game of Go. Learn more about the powerful tool, game theory, for self-improvement. I explain it in the Medium.com article below.
The article was written so that a 12-year-old can easily understand and apply the simple 3 step system. The article also includes a short video interview of me with Jim Selman a pioneer and thought leader in leadership, business success, and innovation.
If you want to read more of my stories on Taoism, self-improvement, creativity, and innovation, I recommend the following story next: