Why Did Lao Tzu Come From The West?

Lao Tzu repeats over and again that the Tao is mysterious, that we cannot define it in terms of any other thing, that forcing it into any system of forms loses it. And that’s all very well. English is not such an impoverished language that it does not possess a word whose definition our science is unable to fix. And such a word is hardly alien to the use of Tao in the poem  called Lao Tzu.

How I found this word to fit the Tao is, as any word choice of any translator, a matter of personal experience.  It happened one cool autumn in 2005 as I was sitting far from the Internet beneath a golden rain cypress in the donkey paddock of my teahouse in the rainforest at Limpinwood in Tweed Shire, Australia.

My bees were disturbing the blossoms and the tree’s falling flowers floated down around me like snow. As I curried my donkey I realised the fading blossoms decaying underfoot were transforming to nourish the next round of spring buds. A fallen flower is not dead, but a ripple flowing through the life cycle of the tree. And of all the trees of my valley. And beyond …

A monk asked Joshu why Bodhidharma came from the West.
“The cypress in the garden,” Joshu replied.

Bodhidharma, the originator of Zen, is similar to Lao Tzu in that he almost certainly did not exist, and if he did exist, he almost certainly said nothing that has been attributed to him. This doesn’t trouble Zen Buddhists, who happily deny Bodhidharma’s very beard.

Zen delights in stories about Bodhidharma. Whether he is upbraiding the emperor, inventing Shaolin martial arts, or cutting off his eyelids to make tea, Bodhidharma shows the true Dharma eye that everyone seems to be looking for. He further features in several koans, which are the riddles Zen intends to enlighten novices.

Koans are insoluble by ordinary means, requiring a profound alteration of perspective to answer. To the novice the answers seem to form further koans. In one of the most famous of these, Huijiao approaches the Zen Master Chao Chou to ask, “why did Bodhidharma come from the the west?”

Chao Chou, replied, “the cypress tree in the garden”.

Huijiao persisted, “please answer without using an object.”

Chao Chou replied, “all right. The cypress tree in the garden”.

After Chao Chou’s death the Zen Master Fayan approached Huiijao to ask why he thought Chao Chou said “the cypress tree in the garden”.

“Chao Chou never said that,” replied Huijiao.

Unlike Zen koans, the riddles in Lao Tzu need not be regarded as inherent to the Tao. They are neither intentional nor insoluble, merely traditional. As we have seen, non-Chinese readers owe no particular respect to Chinese translators claiming ownership of that tradition. As Mair’s sanskrit Tao came from the west, we should think of Lao Tzu just as the Zenists do Bodhidharma and not let orientalism get in our way. Recognising Lao Tzu as evolving over time we are freed to answer its riddles.

Where these riddles are lexical we should not hesitate to apply new word choices to uncover meaning. Where they are structural, we should refactor their jumble to resolve the confusion. Where the riddles are ontological, we should not hesitate to take their frame in our hands and bend it to our purpose.

Of course these liberties produce anxiety in a reader seeking the authentic wisdom of the ancient masters. But if ancient wisdom takes precedence, the anxious reader must take seriously the only independent account we possess of a historical Lao Tzu.

Confucius meeting Lao Tzu

As related by Ssu-Ma Chi’en in his Shih Chi – “Records of the Historian” – this concerns a visit paid the imperial librarian Lao Tzu by Confucius.

Confucius requested  a respectful discourse on the authentic wisdom of the ancient masters. Ssu-Ma Chi’en writes Lao Tzu told Confucius that the ancient masters are rotten corpses, that simplicity, readiness, and compassion for others form the basis of wisdom, and that Confucius should get off his high horse and try those for a change.

Lao Tzu’s advice to Confucius is lifted directly from his poem’s chapter 67. Modern historians find the event unlikely but Ssu-Ma Chi’en and Chuang Tzu both report a still less likely response from Confucius. Asked about the visit by his followers, Confucius is reported to have told them,

“I can shoot birds, catch fish, and trap rabbits. What am I to do with a dragon of mist and wind?”

Anxious readers may play Confucius with my translation, debate its license, and consider whether the sum of its liberties, or any particular one of them, hinders their understanding. They may suggest this is a miscegenation of Zen Buddhism and Yoga, not Taoism at all. They may split the hairs in Bodhidharma’s beard. But the intent of my translation is to create a simple, unambiguous poem whose form is consistent with its philosophy, rather than to continue the crypto-Confucian tradition of re-rendering a scrambled, gilded and anachronistic text.

Which brings us back to that little word, Tao.

Golden Rain

My bees were disturbing the blossoms and the tree’s falling flowers floated down around me like snow. The flowers rotting underfoot were transforming to loam to nourish the next round of spring buds. Not dead, but a ripple flowing through the life cycle of the tree, and of all the trees of the valley.

At a stroke I saw a river of life flowing through these delicate forms, the surrounding rainforest and the cliffs and clouds each following their own tides. Likewise the text of Lao Tzu evolving through the minds of ancient editors and you and I reading and writing it, not merely reproducing words on a page or movements behind our eyes but the cycle of thought and form that generates all mind everywhere … with a shiver I recognized the first chapter of Lao Tzu.

Tao means life. Not your life or my life, not the distinction between green buds and black loam, but life involving every scale and timeframe from the intricate rhythm of a cell at the tip of a blade of grass to the quantum correlations of whirling clusters of galaxies tearing and burning across the sky. My donkey and I dancing in our ferny paddock, each step of thought and form connected by sunlight flowing from and returning to the limitless.

Obviously such things are hard to say without a poem to frame them. But this is the experience I aim to unlock, the evolutionary answer to all the dusty questions about the origin of Lao Tzu and his Tao. Lao Tzu was never the imperial librarian confusing Confucius. As I write this, I’m coming from the West. As you read it, the cypress in the garden.

The Uncarved Block

The Tao Is Not Chinese

What new things can we say about the Tao? The original text, the Lao Tzu or Tao Te Ching, pre-dates paper. The form of the poem bears hallmarks of an oral tradition pre-dating writing.  It is the most translated text in history with more than 250 translations in English alone. It has been recombined with everything from Magick, Physics, Sex and Zen to Winnie The Pooh. I wrote a translation of it myself over 20 years ago. There is even a koan in orientalist circles: why write another translation of the Tao?

Maybe because the most important word in the book has never been translated.

Many translations don’t even try to translate Tao. Those that do usually translate it as “Way”. When readers ask what “Way” means a literal translation of its definition in the first chapter of the Lao Tzu sheds no light.

Way That Can Way Isn't Constant Way. Name That Can Name Isn't Constant Name.

To understand the other words of the poem scholars pore over Chinese dictionaries. The earliest of these, the Erya and Shuo-wen chieh-tzu, were written hundreds of years after Lao Tzu. They define only the words of then regional dialects and these only by use of visual metaphors. They prescribed word meanings to standardise the language of government regulation in an age before printing.

Try to translate Shakespeare referring only to a legal dictionary and you have an idea of the difficulty. And it would be worse still if all you had was a Russian translation of Shakespeare. It would be as if Lao Tzu wasn’t Chinese in the first place. Imagine what would happen if even the oldest Chinese edition of Lao Tzu turned out to be a translation from another language.

In 1990 Professor Victor Mair published evidence that this is indeed the case. Mair, an expert in Sanskrit, translated the edition of Lao Tzu discovered in 1973 at Mawangdui. He was amazed to find clear lexical relations between Lao Tzu and the Bhagavad Gita, a codicil to the Sanskrit Vedas.

The Gita is the purportedly divine origin of Hinduism. It occurs in the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata and quotes Krishna dictating its content to mankind at the dawn of human existence. Dates for the origin of the Tao are lost but Mair concludes that either the kernel of Lao Tzu is a gloss of the Gita, or the two derive from some lost common ancestor.

Now Mawangdui is not the earliest known edition of the Lao Tzu. That was a pile of bamboo strips discovered in 1993 at the Guodian tombs in Hubei. This Guodian Tao lacks half the length and most of the substance of the later editions.

Perhaps the Guodian poem was corrupted by grave robbers. Perhaps it was cherry-picked by some particularly dull-witted scribe. Or perhaps it was the whole poem before it was combined with a Chinese gloss of the Gita.

In any case this suggests Lao Tzu should not be thought of as one person, or even as a group, but as a game of Chinese Whispers. A series of authors, each operating under the impression that they are merely interpreting or commenting upon the wisdom of their predecessors, each subtly or boldly changing the message to suit themselves.

An English speaker comparing the scholarly English translations side by side soon discovers that each assumes a different historical context and disagrees with the others. There are even websites devoted to side-by-side comparisons of the English translations of the Tao, different readers prefering different translators. There is no standard.

In fact the most fruitful translation of Lao Tzu of all is seldom recognised as Lao Tzu. This is the 17th century “Monadology” of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz studied translations of Lao Tzu provided by the first Jesuit mission to China. His development of Monadology intertwines with his mathematical development of the continuum and his invention of binary numbers and the digital computer. These developments lead directly to Turing’s work and the Von Neumann architecture embedded in all modern computer technology.

In another chimeric tradition Lao Tzu in the form of Chan Buddhism was reinterpreted in Japan as Zen. Zen originates with the struggle of Bodhidharma and his successors to render the Tao faithfully into Japanese. The endeavour of attempting to answer insoluble riddles became part of Zen. The study of these Koans is regarded as a path to achieving enlightenment. And holistic Zen has since come to adapt itself to almost every element of Japanese culture.

Modern translators of the Tao are inevitably if unconsciously dominated by such cultural forces. Leibniz and Bodhidharma have influenced global culture so profoundly that no one can be regarded as immune to their influence. Despite this, and despite the relation of the Tao to the Gita, academics persist in the conceit that Lao Tzu is an exclusively Chinese puzzlebox.

Unlocking regards the received texts as sketches of a poem that has been writing itself for thousands of years. Unlocking offers a Lao Tzu shorn of orientalism and mysticism, inviting readers to relate it to their own lives rather than imagining ancient sages. This poem is neither advice to a king nor the basis for a cult, not the origin of a tradition nor its conclusion, but a way to live your life in harmony with all life.

Unlocking Goes Beta

Twenty years before Unlocking The Tao I created a free translation of Lao Tzu following the guidance of academic participants in the Australian National University’s taoism-studies list. After three years I released that work under the GNU public license as the GNL, a play on the recursive GNU acronym “GNU’s Not Unix” meaning “GNL’s Not Lao”.

And I figured I was done with that. Three years is a long time for a short book.

To get my reasons for translating Lao Tzu all over again two decades later you have to know that there are two broad schools of interpretation of this work. The literal, exemplified by Henricks, and the poetic, exemplified by Mitchell and Red Pine.

I see literalists labouring under the misapprehension that there was a single historical Chinese poem, or at least a small cabal of Chinese people working together at the same point in history compiling a single anthology. This illusion is dispelled by the sharply abbreviated content of the Guodian texts, the oldest recorded Lao Tzu, and by Prof. Victor Mair‘s work revealing clear textual relations between Laozi and the Sanskrit Gita.

But the modern poets not only credit this assumption of a single origin, they also have the idea that comparing multiple English translations will divine the original. My GNL translation fell squarely into this second trap. It ignored the fact is that both the text of Laozi and the underlying meaning of its words change from culture to culture over the millennia.

So I’ve attempted something new, a scientific approach to this problem. I take pains to be faithful to the historical texts, treating them as empirical data. But I have worked to develop a simple, systematic theory of reassembly of the coherent whole. I have had the temerity to re-order lines and chapters to make them make sense in the context of a whole. With a healthy skepticism concerning both English and Chinese dictionaries, I have also made novel but plausible word choices in the new edition.

Because this new work has been much more systematic than my previous attempt, I can claim it to be more conservative and more literal than the GNL. But because I’ve treated the text as a jigsaw puzzle in need of solution, and I have actually gone ahead to attempt that solution, I also regard it as by far the least conventional translation in English.

So now I’ve had time to complete the new translation, the GNL name no longer fits. This is Lao Tzu, complete, consistent, and very much alive. Anyone who wants to continue developing the old GNL under their own steam is of course welcome to do so under its copyleft license. For a delightful example of that check out Oliver Benjamin’s excellent Dude De Ching. Dudeism might be challenging to relate to Unlocking … but it is cool in its own right.

Unlocking The Tao is available for download right here online as a beta-book. While I put together commentaries and art I’ll post free chapters on a regular basis, each with a detailed log of refactorings. Beta-book customers can download the whole poem right now, get all future updates at no charge and deep discounts on the paper editions.

Non-paying readers are very welcome on the blog of course and I’ll try to answer all your questions in commentaries as we go. Excerpts from Unlocking The Tao are copyright © 2011 Peter Merel so please ask permission before you copy, mirror, or adapt this work.


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 13 other followers

All excerpts from Unlocking The Tao are copyright © 2011 Peter Merel. Please ask permission before you copy, mirror, or adapt this work.
%d bloggers like this: