Although the ancient Chinese
system of thought and spirituality known as Taoism evolved from Shamanic
roots around 5,000 years ago, most modern Taoists in the West take their
guidance from a book that was first written some 2,500 years later by a
sage known as Lao Tzu.
This book, most commonly called
the Tao Te Ching (The Way and Virtue Classic), though sometimes referred
to simply as the Lao Tzu, is the most well known of the extensive Taoist
canon and has been translated more than any other in history except the
But what makes it so special to
Taoists and non-Taoists alike the world over? Derek Lin, who has offered
his own translation of the classic: Tao Te Ching: Annotated and
Explained says of it:
"The Tao Te Ching is the oldest
and most powerful book about personal transformation. It speaks to the
innermost core of our being, which is spiritual in nature. Its impact
brings about positive changes that radiate from the inside out.
Therefore, those who take the time to understand its lessons and put
them into actual practice will see dramatic but natural improvements in
every aspect of life. They will enjoy peace of mind, better
relationships, better health, and the effortless ease of graceful
Unlike many other spiritual
paths, there is no requirement that followers relinquish material
possessions or even the wish for financial wealth, for, as the author
points out: "wealth is merely another manifestation of the Tao."
But with so many translations
already available, what made Lin, a Tao cultivator for fourteen years,
decide to contribute yet another?
"It was a decision driven by
practical necessity," explains Lin. "Ten years ago, I had an opportunity
to study the Tao Te Ching with a group of English-speaking Tao cultivators. We
tried to use existing translations, but quickly found that they
Differences between translations
is something Taoists are all too familiar with. But just as Tao itself
is by nature elusive and impossible to define so it is generally
believed that the Tao Te Ching is itself mysterious and defiant of
attempts to pin it down, with one idea of its meaning as valid as any
However, according to Lin, "Only
a small fraction of the different interpretations fit that description; the majority were mistakes. We
needed a version of the Tao Te Ching that was as perfect a reflection of
the original as possible, so we had no choice but to develop our own
The 'original' has been lost.
However, the Chinese tradition differs from others in that it places
great value on the passing down of knowledge and wisdom from generation
to generation over many thousands of years. There is no doubt among the
Chinese, therefore, according to Lin, that the Tao Te Ching they study
today is the original. It is this 'version' that Lin worked from, though
what followed was no simple task.
Where Derek Lin claims an
advantage over many other translators is that he has been brought up in
both a Taiwanese and north American (Western) culture: taking from one
and being able to communicate it to the other. Taiwan was fortunately
beyond the reach of Mao's Cultural Revolution and the Taoist lineage
that was damaged in China continued to flourish there.
"Much of Tao Te Ching is
inextricably linked to the Chinese way of thinking, which makes perfect
sense in its own cultural context, but can be very different from our
familiar mental paradigms," claims Lin. "The only way to really
understand it is to live in Asia and be fully immersed in the culture
for at least a decade. Most Western scholars do not have this
experience, and the lack hampers their translations in ways they cannot
"It is a tradition that goes back
to Lao Tzu and beyond, to an ancient origin thousands of years before
his time," he continues. "Being immersed in this culture, I am able to
convey not only Lao Tzu's views, but also the ancient wisdom that
inspired him in the first place. The insights from this tradition make
the passages that most consider cryptic or inscrutable quite clear."
It is this assumed inscrutability
that deters some from Taoism. The very first line of the Tao Te Ching
appears to warn the reader off any attempt at studying the mysteries of
existence when it says: The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal
"The point is perhaps the most
important in the entire book," says Lin. "Once we have read about the
Tao, let's not just talk about it. Let's also put it to use. Let's apply
its principles to every aspect of life. The Tao that we feel inside, act
upon, and eventually become one with; now that is the eternal
To Derek Lin, the Tao Te Ching is
more than just a philosophical treatise; it is a guide for life itself.
And, he maintains, it is a guide that is as relevant now as it was 2,500
"In fact, we may need the Tao Te
Ching more than ever. Modern living can be stressful and chaotic; the
Tao Te Ching guides us toward relaxation and tranquility. Science and
technology tend to move us further away from nature; the Tao Te Ching shows us how to
reconnect with it. The sensory stimulations of the modern world distract
us and deprive us of peace; the Tao Te Ching takes us back to quietude
The principles contained within it seem to be universal because, as Lin
points out, "the essence of the Tao is about being human. Christians and
Muslims are no less human than anyone else, so the Tao can resonate with
them just as it does with followers of other religious paths."
Another area of expertise that
Lin believes gives him an advantage over other authors is his knowledge
of ancient Chinese that differs from the modern.
"Think about Shakespearean
English. Consider how its differences from modern English make it more
difficult to comprehend, and then imagine that difficulty multiplied six
times to approximate language evolution over thousands of years. The
result is a truly formidable barrier."
An example of this can be found
in Chapter 12 and the word "shuang."
"This chapter talks about how the
myriad stimuli of the material world dull the senses," explains Lin.
"When it comes to the palate, it says the five tastes make the mouth
shuang. In ancient times this character meant 'numb,' so the line
made perfect sense. Today, the meaning of the same character has morphed
into 'refreshed.' It is therefore not unusual to see a modern Chinese
speaker who does not know the ancient meaning being puzzled over this
"My experience tells me that much
of 'Oriental mystique' in Western society is simply misunderstanding,"
says Lin. "The Tao itself may be beyond description and definition, but
the beliefs and practices associated with it are highly practical,
sensible, and not at all mysterious. This down-to-earth aspect of the
Tao is quite different from the inscrutable Asian sage in popular
perception - stock characters portrayed by actors who speak in riddles."
Has he succeeded in de-mystifying
the Tao Te Ching? The layout (which the author credits his publisher,
SkyLight Paths, with) of The Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained
is certainly conducive to clarity. The English translation of each
chapter appears on the right-hand page while on the left can be read
Derek Lin's interpretation.
The strength of this system is
that the author's personal views on the text remain separate from the
text itself allowing the readers to make up their own minds; to see in
it something unique to them. In a belief that is relatively - and
refreshingly - free from dogma, the Tao practitioner is free to take
from it something that is unique to him or her.
While I am not qualified to make
any claims regarding the accuracy of the translation or the validity of
its explanations, the author's credentials compare to any and lend well
to the work's credibility as one of importance; but, of course, as is
the case with any such work, it will succeed and fail on an individual
basis. No two experiences of it will be the same; and what will move you
(or not) is something intangible; beyond the translation; beyond the
original; beyond words themselves to what the Tao Te Ching, in its
poetry and silences, points to all along. As Derek Lin says: "The Tao
is, and has always been, intended for freethinkers."
visit www.taoism.net for more information. The web site offers
supplementary material that will enhance the book with additional depth
and details. There are also articles and stories that further illustrate
the principles of the Tao. They also host a message board forum where
you can ask questions and connect with people from all over the world
who are also drawn to the Tao.
Richard Seymour 2006. Right to use this article in any medium, in full
or edited for an unlimited time, in any region is given to Derek Lin.