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.
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.