Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sage, Deity, Philosopher: Understanding Lao Tzu, Part I

Understanding Lao Tzu:   The Letter and the Spirit

Lao Tzu, (Laozí), Tao Te Ching, Part I, Verse 11

Wu is nothingness, emptiness, non-existence…

Clay is molded to form a cup
yet only the space within
     allows the cup to hold water

Thus when a thing has existence alone
it is mere dead weight
Only when it has wu, does it have life

Lao Tzu:  Content

I like this space within which allows the cup to hold water, because I can visualize it. That empty space makes me think of airy landscapes by Cezanne, with their painterly articulations of negative space: filled emptiness denoting absence. Perhaps my awareness of negative space, cultivated through an appreciation of modern art, gives me a mistaken impression that I understand the concept of wu, so integral to the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. After all, this concept, abstract and cosmological, doesn’t really have an analogue in the perceptual world of French painting. Yet this is part of the experience I bring to the reading of the Tao Te Ching. It is associations like these that cause me to pause in my reading, registering the content of a particular verse.

The content of the Tao Te Ching, albeit elusive, is profound in such a fruitful way that it forms the source of one of the world’s great religions, as well as a source of wisdom  literature of timeless relevance.

Composed of a series of sutras, or seed verses, the Tao unfolds its wisdom in myriad instances that adumbrate the distinction between the ultimate Reality, and the temporary, mutable reality of the illusory world that is manifest to the senses.

What then is the nature of such wisdom? And who is its author, Lao Tzu (Laozí)? For Taoism, the legacy of Lao Tzu, is literature, philosophy, and religion.

Taoism as Literature According to Chinese historian Sima Qian (145-86 BCE), Lao Tzu was a record-keeper at the Zhou Court. A contemporary of Confucius (551-479 BCE), Lao Tzu was consulted by him on ritual matters. Again according to the historian, Lao Tzu left the Zhou Court when he saw that the dynasty was in decline. Reaching the northwest border of China, Lao Tzu composed the Classic of the Way and Virtue (Tao Te Ching) in answer to a request by border official Yin Xi to write down his teachings. Thereafter Lao Tzu left China and disappeared from history/ legend.

Taoism as Philosophy Writing for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Alan Chan explains that “Philosophical Daoism traces its origins to Laozi, an extraordinary thinker who flourished during the sixth century B.C.E., according to Chinese tradition.”[1]

Taoism as Religion As philosopher Chan explains, “According to some modern scholars…there never was a historical Laozi. In religious Daoism, Laozi is revered as a supreme deity.”[2]

Of the author of the Tao little beyond the testimony of historian Sima Qian is known. An iconic figure in Chinese tradition, Lao Tzu is often pictured sitting astride a water buffalo as he holds the manuscript of the Tao Te Ching, composed for the legendary gatekeeper who requested it.

The Meaning of Tao (Dao)

I can’t tell you the meaning of Tao, a word of which the significance is so large that it encompasses the Tao Te Ching, an entire way of life, the word tao, meaning “the way,”  and related concepts such as te: virtue; ziran: naturalness and spontaneity; and wuwei: nonaction.

The first line of the Tao Te Ching begins by saying what The Tao is not.

There are two ways translators translate the word “Tao” in line 1.

Tao: Walking the Walk

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.
The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
          –James Legge

A way that can be walked
Is not The Way
A name that can be named
Is not The Name.
          ––Jonathan Star

Most scholars of the Tao Te Ching agree in translating Tao as “the way.” According to Alan Chan, tao  in ancient Chinese literature generally depicts a relatively wide  thoroughfare or carriageway” and has a second meaning of  “the right or proper course.”[3]

Tao: Talking the Talk

The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
– Wing-Tsit Chan

1.     Tao that can be spoken of
  Is not the Everlasting (ch’ang) Tao.
      Name that can be named
   Is not the Everlasting (ch’ang) name.
– Ellen M. Chen

Some translators, taking tao as a verb, translate it as “speaking.” Ellen M. Chen comments: “The everlasting transcends the finite…because it is a cyclical movement…The everlasting (ch’ang) Tao is thus a verb, not a noun. When forced to give it a name, the sage calls Tao the Way or Path.”[4]

Even if the novice reader of the Tao Te Ching could properly assess the various denotational meanings of the word tao, etymology will only get him so far.

The word tao has a rich web of associative meanings, depending on the
philosophical, religious, or spiritual context in which the word is being
used. In the context of Chinese spirituality, Tao is the original matrix
from which chi (qi) energy, or holistic vitality is derived.

In philosophical terms, Tao is an absolute entity, a source of being.[5]

Because this thousand-plus year-old document has had deep significance across time, and around the globe to a diverse range of cultures, indeed, to millions of people, the more the meaning of Tao is clarified, the more ineffable it becomes.

The Meaning of Te (De)

Translators into English agree on translating Te as “virtue.”

Virtue is the Way

Virtue according to traditional (Confucian) Chinese thinking related to individual character formation, primarily through the understanding and fulfillment of defined obligations to family and clan. Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching added a new meaning of “virtue.” The individual’s relation to the Way could be clarified through self-cultivation.

Te, or virtue, is thus a way of living according to the Tao.

Living Virtuously is Plan B

But wait! Like all great wisdom literature, the Tao Te Ching contains apparent contradictions. In Verse 38 of The Tao, discussed  in Part II of this essay, Te–– virtue––is described as a fall-back plan for those who have lost The Way. This ‘second best’ sense of virtue is described by commentator Stefan Stenudd: “Lao Tzu makes it very clear that virtue, although seemingly splendid, is what to follow in the absence of contact with the Tao. This is true even for the highest virtue. It’s a symptom of deviation from the Way.”[6]

The Meaning of Ching (Jing)

The Tao Te Ching wasn’t always ching. Ching means “classic,” and Lao Tzu’s teaching likely attained classic status and was welcomed into the canon of ancient Chinese literature sometime during the Han era (206 BCE–219 CE). At that time the Laozi (the written work of Lao Tzu/ Laozi) became:

Tao Te Ching: The Classic of the Way and Virtue.

                End of Part I: Copy and Paste Link to Part II:

[1] Chan, Alan, “Laozi,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, (ed.) URL = 2012/entries/Laozi/

[2] Chan, Alan, “Laozi,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, (ed.) URL =

[3] Chan, Alan, “Laozi,” p. 23
[4] Chen, Ellen M., The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, Paragon House, 1989, 274 pages.
[5] Chan, Alan, “Laozi,” p. 24
[6] Stenudd, Stefan, The Ancient Taoistic Classic Tao Te Ching (Dao de Jing),  by Lao Tzu (Laozi), Translated, Explained and Commented upon by Stefan Stenudd:

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