Life is not the life you live,
Nor mind the thoughts you think;
Mind is the course of all thoughts,
Life, the source of all forms.
Releasing thought yields the formless.
Responding to thought bears form,
Form and thought generating each other
As waves on the surface of mind.
Beneath this surface flows life
Ever deeper and more subtle than thought.
What is unusual about this translation? It takes few liberties with the Chinese text, differing only in minor rearrangements of scansion and word choice. It represents a frame for the rest of the poem, an open door between the personal and the universal. But before we walk through that door I should say something about my choices as translator.
I’ll talk in terms of chapters and lines. The Chinese text is not split up this way and in fact contains little punctuation. It has just two chapters each followed by a word count. But traditional chapter and line numbering makes it easier to compare Unlocking with other translations.
- Line 1, literally Tao that can Tao is not constant/eternal Tao, is harmlessly reversed: Constant/eternal Tao is not Tao that can Tao. The reversal enables me to take advantage of the natural English meaning for unqualified Capital-L Life as the translation of Constant/eternal Tao.
- Line 2 follows the form of line 1 in the original Chinese, so also here. The normal translation of ming2 as name or distinction is here rendered as thought, with constant/eternal thought rendered as mind. By thought I mean any representation of form. Information might be a better and more interesting translation if it were not among the least poetic words in English.
- Lines 3 and 4 are harmlessly reversed.
- Releasing and responding to thought in iines 5 and 6 are more literally always without intent and always with intent. This translation attempts to reduce “special sauce” words – mystical jargon – here shifting the semantic from the noun to the verb.
- The formless (miao4) on line 5 is normally rendered as mystery or subtlety. The original chinese repeats miao4 on the last line and this correpondence is lost, but there is no harm in this and it also helps avoid special sauce.
- Form and thought, in line 7, are an interpretation of the literal these two. The two could be interpreted as form and formlessness, but we shall see shortly that this would harm the correspondence between chapters 1 and 2. I fear it would also impoverish interpretation of the following 3 lines.
- Surface, in line 8, is a concept that neatly matches the Chinese description of the two distinct in mind only.
- It is important to make explicit the word life in the final couplet where it replaces the traditional translation mystery, the formless from line 5. The river motif underpins Lao Tzu and this makes its meaning clear from the outset.
Which is just fine so far as it goes but … why are we here? What is the point? No one cares about Lao Tzu as a puzzlebox; we’re after what’s inside, the secret treasure. Even when a translator pretends to be a dry scholar, that’s what drives the work – the search for enlightenment.
The first chapter of the Tao regards life as a continuum with mind its sensate, reflective surface, life forms as refractive currents flowing within. It posits biology as the fundamental physical process, a liquid living universe through which thought and form propagate in waves.
Is there support in modern biology and physics for such a view, or is it mere mysticism? Next post I’ll blow the dust off chapter 1 by rebasing it on recent science. And I’ll contrast this science with the beautiful but baseless Pale Blue Dot of 20th century Confucian cosmologist Carl Sagan. Stay tuned.