The Tao Te Ching is a 2200-year old collection of aphorisms attributed to Lao Tzu, a composite person positioned as the shamanic flower child against an imperial Confucian patriarchy. Neither archetype is totally accurate, but they’re close enough for our current purposes.
The title – Tao Te Ching – translates into many different things, all dependent on the translator’s skill and intent, as well as our own perceptions. The Chinese glyph for Tao can be both a noun and verb, variously reading as a way or a guide. As a group, we can all walk the same path and experience different things. As individuals, we can walk the same path many times, learning different things from it each time.
The Tao is rich in context-driven irony. In today’s culture it even shares a homonym with the Dow, a capitalist icon it sometimes mocks. Whether we read it in the context of today or 2200 years ago, the Tao isn’t clean, pretty and full of life-affirming aphorisms. It’s a sarcastic, ironic, Machiavellian collection of metaphors, many of which run several layers deep, creating different meanings for different readers. Many times these comments are made thru paradox. Taking its metaphors for gospel and its comments without context may not take you on a path you’d prefer. When we consider the times and context of its origin, much of its meaning was forced to remain between its lines, in the same manner that subsequent cultures embedded political commentary in benign-appearing entertainment. (Nursery rhyme Mary Mary Quite Contrary, Swift’s Modest Proposal and the more recent Alice in Wonderland, Animal Farm, and M*A*S*H are just a few of the many, many examples we can use.)
Can we truly explain the Tao?
How many times have we said, “You had to be there” when we’re talking about an event or physical phenomenon – a sunrise, sunset, joke, meeting, particular taste or sensation? There are countless translations of the Tao – and I’m not a scholar of Chinese. The face value of a passage may or may not convey the true meaning of a chapter. Scholars disagree. And the more you know the more you know that you don’t know all there is to know and need to know more…
Back to my Tao for today’s world –
The comments on the following pages will evolve along with me, changing to reflect my new understandings, my new impressions of the larger path we all share in this lifetime. While I’ve tried to stay true to the Tao’s meaning, these posts reflect my experience with each of its precepts, which may not be their original intent. For the most part, these pieces are written in clear, everyday language, not the stilted academic one that translators sometimes adopt, since it’s their natural way of communicating among themselves. A few thousand years ago, these verses were written in the conversational language of their time, not the formal language of the Confucian courts. I hope you find them useful. The photos and backgrounds come from my personal photos, created as I’ve walked my own path.
In brief, these are not translations, but rather responses inspired by the Tao – not the Dow. Undoubtedly there are probably some good Dowists out there. And if you are, you’ll find some excellent tactical and strategic advice in a significant number of the Tao’s verses. Enjoy your search.
Oh, and one more thing. The number you’ll see in the corner of each illustration – either within these sections or in the galleries – is my source verse within the Tao. Feel free to find a translation you’re comfortable with to create your own interpretations and responses.