Classic Review: Tao Te Ching

This month, classic lit connoisseur Bernard Norcott-Mahany continues his year-long travel theme with a review of the Tao Te Ching, which he unofficially subtitles “It don’t mean a thing without Tao Te Ching.

He who talks doesn't know,
he who knows doesn't talk":
that is what Lao-tzu told us,
in a book of five thousand words.

If he was the one who knew,
how could he have been such a blabbermouth?

-- Po Chu-i

In the notes to his translation of the Tao te Ching, Stephen Mitchell relates these words from Po Chu-i. Mitchell then goes on to say, “That's the problem with spiritual teachers. They have to be blabbermouths. But their words are (in the traditional Buddhist metaphor) fingers pointing at the moon; if you watch the finger, you can't see the moon.”

In writing this year about travel and books that involve travel, there is no way I could ignore the religious text that uses the idea of the “way” or “path” (what Tao means) as a fundamental metaphor for life.

The idea is not a new one -– it wasn’t even new when the work was written in the 6th-5th century BCE -- that life is a journey. The heroes of myth are often on a journey – think Gilgamesh, or Heracles, or Odysseus, or Aeneas. Their heroic stories are imagined as journeys over physical space (and in Aeneas’ case, through time) as well as through inward spaces.

Joseph Campbell in his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces described the hero’s story in terms of a journey as “Departure – Adventure – Return.” In our own time, the most popular poem by Robert Frost is likely “The Road Less Traveled,” which imagines life as a journey with a fork in the road, and the route one takes makes “all the difference.”

The author of the Tao, though, wants to get us past thinking in the binary way language directs us. So (with due respect to Frost) no left fork, no right fork, no difference. The opening lines of the Tao tell us that the “Tao that can be named is not the real Tao.” In other words, as soon as you’re sure you’re on the path, you’re off the path (or maybe on the wrong path). At times, the Tao as used by the author sounds something like “the Force” in the Star Wars universe – it is everywhere, its power is illimitable, and everyone can access it, but not by forcing the issue. That just doesn’t work.

Even thinking of life as a journey may lock us into certain ways of thinking. The author of the Tao wants us to keep our options open, to be open to the world around us, and to respond to it without preconceptions. So as soon as we start thinking of life as a journey, we may start to think about our goal, closing out other options. Interesting detours become less likely. The road has become a treadmill. And once we sharpen our focus on a particular goal or finish line, we can easily slip into judging things, events, people in terms of how they help or hurt us getting to our goal. The whole wide world is cut up into pieces.

For those of us in the West, analysis (cutting things up into pieces for study) is common, as are the ideas of mastery and control. The Tao confounds (or hopes to confound) this way of thinking. The master is not one who controls, but does his/her job and gets out of the way so that things work their own way out. As the text in Mitchell’s translation says, “Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”

The idea of control is illusory and blinds us to other possibilities. The chief virtue to have as a follower of the Tao is patience. The author asks the reader: “Do you have the patience to wait til your mud settles and the water is clear?” (Mitchell) Here in the West, for many of us, the truthful answer is no.

More difficult for me as a true believer in various causes over the years is the idea that the author expresses in several different ways. At one point, he suggests, “Throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier. Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing. Throw away industry and profit, and there won’t be any thieves.” (Mitchell)

In saying this, I don’t see the author as saying nothing is sacred, but when we try to encapsulate the sacred into dogma, or judge only the experts to have wisdom, or become moralistic, we are back at dividing the world up, closing out our options, and narrowing our world.

Well, at this point, I’m beginning to seem like a blabbermouth, so I’ll bring this to a close. In reading this text, I used Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Mitchell has no Chinese, and so made poetry from a literal rendering of the text. Some feel that his version is too loose, but if the words are fingers pointing at the moon, are these words (Mitchell’s translation is quite beautiful) any worse than other fingers pointing at the moon? After all, if we fixate on the finger, we miss the moon.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.