Approaching Chinese, approaching the Dao

a look at the first chapter

 

Here offered is the briefest introduction to the Dao, a short presentation of its first chapter. The text is given in Chinese with English translations of the characters alongside. There follows a more or less literal translation and commentary on the text and its translation.

 

Wisdom Quest

The purpose of this presentation is two-fold : to show those who are curious about the Dao just what characters and specific terms gave rise to the numerous translations, be they maddeningly and opaquely stark or delightfully flowery; to show a famous but famously obscure text to those with an interest in Chinese writing.

 

This is the effort of a decidely amateur Sinologist. It shows what happens when someone with a dictionary and patience tries to take a road, a dao in fact, that has proved treacherously fascinating to far wiser and more capable scholars. Understanding is asked. As are the suggestions of people who have light to shed on this effort and suggestions for its improvement.

 

The text is of my own devising, pieced together from the two Mang-wa-tui texts used by Robert Hendricks in his <i>Te-Tao Ching : A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts</i> and the texts used by John C. Wu and Red Pine in their translations from more traditional sources. The text has been created with a view to accessibility for English-speaking readers – starting with the author – and is not scholarly by its very nature. This presentation is not for scholars specializing in Eastern religious texts; it is for the educated generalist who is curious.

 

With all cautions given, here is my text:

 

the way (dao) 1

 

name 5

 

glitter 19

can 2

 

10,000 7

 

two 20

speak 1

 

thing 8

 

of them 21

not 3

 

’s 9

 

same 22

constant 4

 

mother 12

 

source, spring 23

way 1

 

constant 4

 

different 24

name 5

 

without 6

 

name 5

can 2

 

desire 13

 

same 22

name 5

 

so 14

 

called 25

not 3

 

see 15

 

profound 26

constant 4

 

it/its 16

 

profound 26

name 5

 

essence 17

 

and more 27

without 6

 

constant 4

 

profound 26

name 5

 

have 11

 

many 27

10,000 7

 

desire 13

 

essence 17

thing 8

 

so 14

 

’s 9

’s 9

 

see 15

 

door 28

beginning 10

 

it/its 16

 

 

 

have 11

 

which 18

 

 

 

 

Here is a skeleton translation from the keywords alongside a (slightly) more polished translation:

 

The way can be spoken

Not the constant way

The name can be named

Not the constant name

Without a name is the 10,000 things’ beginning

With a name is the 10,000 things’ mother

Ever without desire, so one sees its essence

Ever having desire, so one sees it which glitters

The two, of the same source,

With different names,

Are both called profound

Profound beyond profound

The many essences’ door

The way that can be spoken

Is not the enduring way.

The name that can be named

Is not the enduring name.

Nameless is the origin of the 10,000 things.

Named is the 10,000 things’ mother.

Free of desire, see its essence.

Having desire, see that which glitters only.

Two things, same source,

Different names,

Are both called profound.

Profound beyond profound

The door to the many essences.

 

Cursory analysis: The most obvious feature of this text – and much of the Dao (The Way) – is its use of opposition. The contradictory nature of the passage illustrates the Way’s mystical quality and the quandary which plagues every devout Daoist : How does one stick to a tradition that demands we eschew everything without eschewing the Dao itself? In a sense, if one seeks to become a master Daoist failure is certain. The Dao tells us to cease striving and simply do what needs doing because it needs to be done. This is at the heart of the message that the enduring way cannot be spoken, the enduring name cannot be named. The way cannot be captured : it must be lived. As to the question of named or nameless, multiple interpretations are possible. Some translations make it about the 10,000 things’ mother having a name, but not their beginning. Some make the named Dao the 10,000 things’ mother and the unnamed Dao as their beginning. Both are preposterous, of course, but one of the beauties of languages is they allow us to abuse grammar to say perfectly ridiculous things. Since brighter minds than mine have flubbed this question, I’ll have a go, satisfied that my own ridiculousness will find itself in respectable company : It seems to me that this is simply a replay of the first two oppositions. The origin of the world that can be named is not the immutable origin of the world. We can assert that something brought the world about, and even give it a name, like “mother.” This does not mean we’ve found the origin of the universe, any more than naming the neighbor’s Mercedes will put it within our grasp. Speaking of the neighbor’s Mercedes, the Dao warns us not to take too strong an interest. This part was awful to translate, but finished seems the most obvious point of all : taken with desire, we’re not going to be sticking to the Way because other thoughts will interfere, like whether we’ll get to take a Mercedes like the neighbor’s for a spin along the Way. The Way doesn’t glitter, doesn’t shine; it just is. It’s a matter of doing what needs to be done, which may be lucrative but very well may not. Indeed, this Way would hardly seem worth bothering with, except that it offers a shot at something profoundly marvelous – though don’t strive to get it or you’ll overdo, much like the person who gets a headache from closing his eyes too tightly in an effort to be the most focused meditator in the Yoga seminar. That something is the peace of mind that comes from being on the right path.

 

Copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003.

 

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