The Sage - an introduction
Who’s a Sage? Is a Sage simply a wise person? A holy man? A saint? A philosopher? The power behind the throne? A recognized leader? An actual leader? Or just an ordinary person acting in accordance with Tao – someone whose actions are in complete harmony with their environment? In Tao, as in so many other areas of life, everything depends on context. Where verses specifically mention a Sage, they cast this person sometimes as a leader, sometimes as a viewer of life, sometimes as a student, sometimes conflating several roles in the same verse. The answer to the question of “Who – or what – is a Sage,” is, “It depends.”
Like many concepts Westerners encounter in Oriental societies, the Shengren (Zhenren) in Chinese culture has no true equivalent in Western culture. So we need to rely on the translator’s own view of the Chinese character and its context. As with the words of many languages, Chinese characters have shades of meaning, many of which are conveyed through context and the inflections of speech rather than the fixity of writing. And don’t forget synonyms, which may be close, but not exactly the same, as our target word. In my teaching days I sometimes cringed over the results of students pulling words from a thesaurus in an effort to impress me. I’ll have to admit, they did impress me – with their ignorance of the actual meaning of the word they used. Just because a word is in a thesaurus list doesn’t mean it’s an exact match for the meaning you’re trying to convey.
Want to cast some more doubt on the meaning of translated Chinese words? Much of the early translation was done by European missionaries, each of whom viewed the text through their own particular lens and agenda, creating sages as leaders, wise men and saints with varying degrees of stature in their society. Oh, and the documents they worked from used a Chinese alphabet that didn’t exist when the Tao was composed, but one that was imposed on the language several hundred years later.
While today’s translators may not be viewing the text through stained-glass lenses, they still bring their own perspective, preconceived notions and cultural biases to the project. Like us, they’re human. Some translations use the term wise, wise person or master instead of sage. This can lend itself to the concept of an influencer, leader or ruler rather than one of the people. This may not need to be a political ruler, sometimes it can be a respected elder, or one recognized for their wisdom. Chinese meaning depends on word order.
So what are we to do with all of this confusion?
Use Tao as you’d use a map showing several ways to reach the same place. Find a translation that resonates with you. Or a commentary. Or a response in the vein that you’ll see here, where I use verses that resonate with me as jumping off points on the trail of life.
Then follow your path. Even if it’s not the same as mine, it’ll be the one that’s right for you.
Oh, and some suggestions for reading this section –
First, a few more words on translating Chinese into English. Then you’ll see my own responses to each of the Tao’s verses that specifically mention a Sage. If you agree with me, wonderful! If you don’t, wonderful! In that case I hope you make the time to consider your response to my thoughts or to the Tao’s original verse, in whatever form it comes to you. In either case, try to find ways to make your response part of your own life on your own Tao.
Oh, and if you’d like to follow the concept of Sagehood down a rabbit hole of research, ask your search engine to look up Zhenren or Shengren. The root word Zhen/Sheng is generally westernized as holy, or perfected, or genuine, or some other description that marks the person as exceptionally virtuous or good. The second character refers to the person, in many translations it’s “man”. But just saying a holy person only puts western blinders on a much broader concept. If you’d rather use Chinese characters, the traditional character is 聖人. The simplified character is 圣人. And while you’re at it, take a look at the character for woman and compare it to what you’ve just discovered.
Just randomly read these notes and the accompanying reflections on Tao’s verses at your own pace, with or without an accompanying copy of the Tao te Ching. Apply whatever you like to your own life and move on, making your learning part of your life, not your memory.
Or . . .
Get a book – yes, a real book – this will keep you from clicking from screen to screen with a chosen online Tao. Make notes in its margins. Writing things down reinforces your thoughts, making them more likely to stay with you. (Reading from paper instead of a screen does the same thing.)
Over the years I’ve read many versions of the Tao and consulted at least as many commentaries. I like some parts of some versions, other parts of others. My excerpts here are from public domain versions. So find what you like and use my thoughts as thought-starters for yourself.
Note that many of Tao’s verses cover several topics, since current versions were collated long after the original document was compiled. Since my approach is thematic rather than numeric, an individual essay may pertain to lines in the middle or the end of a particular verse, or even consecutive verses where a topic is spread between the two. The quote heading one of my commentaries may not be the one at the beginning of a verse, but rather one from its middle, pertaining to our subject.
To make things simple for this public site, I’m using public domain translations for references.
John H. McDonald – a modern translator. In the spirit of Tao, he’s hidden any personal information from public view. Several other sites claim his work is in the public domain, so I’ll continue their practice. Mr. McDonald, thank you for your wonderful work. Please feel free to contact me if I’m wrong.
Lin Yutang – 20th Century Chinese/American scholar. From the age of 40 he lived primarily in the U.S., popularizing Chinese philosophy and customs. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1940 and 1950.
Live what you learn.
Want to learn more about how the Tao treats the Sage? Simply click on one of these boxes, below. You’ll find contemporary reflections on Tao’s verses dealing with the Sage. Feel free to read them with – or without – your favourite version of the Tao-Te-Ching. Remember, these are thought-starters, not solutions. Solutions to your issues can only come from you.