How many versions of Daodejing (T’ao Te Ch’ing) do you have in your library? I have way too many and one fewer than I need. I’m still looking for the “right” one.

Apparently others are too. New translations pop up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Or taijiquan forms. It’s right up there with the Bhagavad Gita and The Bible. Of course, I also recognize that there can never be a “right” one. That would violate the central thesis of the book. However, it is in the active engagement with the inherent paradoxes it presents that wisdom is found.

I was surprised recently to find that every version that we have read comes from one used by Wang Pi (226-249 CE). Wang Pi was a wunderkind whose commentaries on the Yijing and Daodejing set the standard for many centuries. He died at age 23! His commentary takes as its foundation that all being is born of non-being (wu). That interpretation cultivated the Chinese soil to allow for Buddhism to take root. It is worth checking him out, if only to see the extent of his influence.

I rarely get past the first chapter of Daodejing. So much is contained in those few words, and how they are translated changes everything afterwards. Let’s just take the first couple lines (as translated by western scholars):

James Legge (1891)

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.

Lionel Giles (1904)

The Tao which can be expressed in words is not the eternal Tao;
the name which can be uttered is not its eternal name.
Richard Wilhelm (1910)

The DAO that can be expressed
is not the eternal DAO.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal name.

Lin Yutang (1942)

The Tao that can be told of
     Is not the Absolute Tao;
The Names that can be given
     Are not Absolute Names.

Stephen Mitchell (1988)

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

I could go on for pages. (Here’s a link to a whole bunch of different versions of Chapter 1.) This is a representative handful, and some of the most influential voices on the subject. Each word choice elucidates certain nuance that color everything after. The one that gets my attention right now is one that most translations include, yet does not appear in the text.

“The.” “The” is a definite article: def. denoting one or more people or things already mentioned or assumed to be common knowledge.

Almost every translation I have read begins with “The Dao” or “The Way”. There is no article in the Chinese text. It is just “dao”. “The” makes dao into an object, a thing…albeit ineffable.

But what is clear (to me, anyway) is that dao is not a “thing”. “It” can’t be “named” because it is not an “it”. It is non-stuff. How do we speak about that which cannot be expressed in language?

You start off with a disclaimer: “Even though I know words can never really describe this thing I want to talk about, I can’t help myself. I’ll just call it dao, even though you and I both know that that’s not its real name.”

The best version I’ve come across that does that is from Hua-Ching Ni (1979):

Tao, the subtle reality of the universe
     cannot be described.
That which can be described in words
     is merely a conception of the mind.
Although names and descriptions have been applied to it,
     the subtle reality is beyond the descriptions.

Not a literal translation, but I believe it gets to the core of the meaning.

No “the” at the start to make us think that there is some “thing” called Dao. “Things” emerge when they are conceptualized by individuals. They become part of our story.

He goes on:

From the perspective of Nothingness,
     one may perceive the expansion of the universe.
From the perspective of Beingness,
     one may distinguish individual things.
Both are for the conceptual convenience of the mind.
Although difficult concepts can be applied,
     Nothingness and Beingness
     and other conceptual activity of the mind
     all come from the same indescribable subtle Originalness.
The Way is the unfoldment of such subtle reality.
Having reached the subtlety of the universe,
     one may see the ultimate subtlety,
     the Gate of All Wonders.

I haven’t really gotten to the actual text yet. We’ve only touched on the first word that really shouldn’t be there at all.

What are your thoughts? Let’s hear them.