That’s kind of cheat really. What I’m really reviewing is one person’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, originally written by Lao Tzu. It’s is most often pronounced something like “dow day jing.”
Most sources will tell you that the text was first written around 400 BC. That it is still relevant today is a testament to the wisdom it dispenses and Lao Tzu’s understanding of human nature.
I have several different copies of the Tao Te Ching, translated by several different authors. They all offer a little something different. But I do have a favorite. It’s the one I go back to over and over.
This version is by Stephen Mitchell and is published by Harper and Row Publishers. The translation’s copyright date is 1988. I own a first edition. Had I known then what first editions with intact dust jackets can sometimes be worth, I might have taken better care of it. Not that I would ever sell it.
It’s worn and stained and bookmarked and shows the many times I’ve picked it up and put it down. I cherish this battered copy. It’s one of the few books I will never pack away or give away. It sits prominently in a bookcase in our living room. Always ready to hand.
Over the years, I have found this translation the easiest to understand. The way that Mitchell presents the 81 verses resonates with me. His use of the English language to convey concepts written in Chinese is, to me, masterful.
It’s a wonder that it can be translated at all. The modern usage of the Chinese language is very dissimilar to the usage of the long gone feudal China of Lao Tzu’s time. So it is no wonder that the various translations can differ as much as they do. It’s often a matter of personal interpretation.
I have a number of favorite verses. But one in particular sums up why I come back to the Tao Te Ching over and over. That would be verse number nine. Here is Mitchell’s translation:
Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill
Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt
Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench
Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner
Do your work, then step back
The only path to serenity
When I first read the Tao Te Ching, I was very, very young. I was looking for guidance for how to live a moral and honest life, which is a fairly adult thing to do. Even so, I was young and, in the way of youth, looking for shortcuts. At the time, I felt that verse #9 was giving me permission to quit if something was taking too long or was too difficult.
When I was a little older, I had a different take on it. It seemed to be saying to me that life is often futile. You do the best that you can and frequently it turns out badly. It was a bit of a dark span of years in my life with my mom and grandma dying and also a number of aunts and uncles. It’s easy to see now why I might interpret that verse the way I did.
These days I hope I have a more enlightened approach and I realize that what it says is that excess leads to unhappiness. There is a fine line between enough and too much. So do what needs to be done and then let it go.
There was a time when I was particularly vexed at the job I had then. I turned to the Tao Te Ching for inspiration. Beginning with verse number one, each day I wrote a verse on a slip of paper that I kept with me at work. Periodically throughout the day, I would take out that piece of paper and read the verse and relate it to my current experience.
At the end of 81 days, unfortunately, I was still vexed at work and I quit that job. But I think that my “meditation” on all that the Tao Te Ching had to offer helped me to come to the realization that quitting was my best course. And as it turned out, it was.
Not everyone will find value in the Tao Te Ching. But I believe that everyone should read it at least once. You never know, you might just find one verse that sums up the whole of your existence and makes sense of your life where you thought it was not possible.
A Little Bit About Stephen Mitchell:
Stephen Mitchell was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1943, and studied at Amherst, the University of Paris, and Yale. His previous books include “Dropping Ashes on the Buddha,” “The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke,” Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus,” and “The Book of Job.”
He has many more books to his credit: four novels of fiction, four of non-fiction, and 24 translations and adaptations. He has edited seven books and has eight children’s books.
When his translation was published, he lived with his wife, Vicki Chang, an acupuncturist and healer, in Berkeley, California. Wikipedia will tell you that his current spouse is named Byron Katie, who is the founder of The Work (as she puts it, it is a simple process of remaining alert to and questioning stressful thoughts).