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 …
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.
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.
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.