An All New Beginning

In the past, I have tried to include an introduction of sorts with chapter one of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. This go around, I have decided to put my introduction first, in between the last chapter, which I posted yesterday, and chapter one, which I will post tomorrow. Because I will be using Red Pine’s translation as my starting point for this new cycle, I have decided to quote extensively from Red Pine’s introduction to the 1996 edition of his translation of the Tao Te Ching. In it, you will get to learn a whole lot (I know I did) of what motivated his thinking as he translated it.

“The Taoteching is at heart a simple book. Written at the end of the sixth century B.C. by a man called Lao-tzu, it’s a vision of what our lives would be like if we were more like the dark, new moon.

“Lao-tzu teaches us that the dark can always become light and contains within itself the potential for growth and long life, while the light can only become dark and brings with it decay and early death. Lao-tzu chose long life. Thus, he chose dark.

“The word that Lao-Tzu chose to represent this vision was Tao. But tao means ‘road’ or ‘way’ and doesn’t appear to have anything to do with darkness. The character is made up of two graphs, one being ‘head’ and the other ‘go.’ To make sense of how the character came to be constructed, early Chinese philologists concluded that ‘head’ must mean the start of something and that the two graphs together show someone starting on a trip. But I find the explanation of a modern scholar of comparative religion, Tu Er-wei, more convincing. Professor Tu says the ‘head’ in the character tao is the face of the moon. And the meaning of ‘road’ comes from watching this disembodied face as it moves across the sky.

“Professor Tu also notes that tao shares a common linguistic heritage with words that mean ‘moon’ or ‘new moon’ in other cultures: Tibetans call the moon da-ua; the Miao, who now live in southwest China but who lived in the same state as Lau-tzu when he was alive, call it tao-tie; the ancient Egyptians called it thoth. Tu Er-wei could have added dar-sha, which means ‘new moon’ in Sanskrit.

“However, the heart of Tu’s thesis is not linguistic but textual, and based on references within the Taoteching. Lao-tzu says the Tao is between Heaven and earth, it’s Heaven’s Gate, it’s empty but inexhaustible, it doesn’t die, it waxes and wanes, it’s distant and dark, it doesn’t try to be full, it’s the light that doesn’t blind, it has thirty spokes and two thirteen-day (visible) phases, it can be strung like a bow or expand and contract like a bellows, it moves the other way (relative to the sun, it appears/rises later and later), it’s the great image, the hidden immortal, the crescent soul, the dark union, the dark womb, the dark beyond dark. If this isn’t the moon, what is it?

“Tu Er-wei has I think, uncovered a deep and primitive layer of the Taoteching that has escaped the attention of other scholars. Of course, we cannot say for certain that Laotzu was consciously aware of the Tao’s association with the moon. But we have his images, and they are too often lunar to dismiss as accidental.

“In associating the Tao with the moon, Lao-tzu was not alone. The symbol Taoists have used since ancient times to represent the Tao, the yin-yang (aka Tai Chi), shows the two conjoined phases of the moon. And how could they ignore such an obvious connection between its cycle of change and our own? Every month we watch the moon grow from nothing to a luminous disk that scatters the stars and pulls the tides within us all. The oceans feel it. The earth feels it. Plants and animals feel it. Humans also feel it, though it is women who seem to be most aware of it. In the Huangti Neiching, or Yellow Emperor’s Internal Book of Medicine, Ch’i Po explained this to the Yellow Emperor, ‘When the moon begins to grow, blood and breath begin to surge. When the moon is completely full, blood and breath are at their fullest, tendons and muscles are at their strongest. When the moon is completely empty, tendons and muscles are at their weakest’ (8.26).

“The advance of civilization has separated us from this easy lunar awareness. We call people affected by the moon ‘lunatics,’ making clear our disdain for its power. Lao-tzu redirects our vision to this ancient mirror. But instead of pointing to its light, he points to its darkness. Every month the moon effortlessly shows us that something comes from nothing. Lao-tzu asks us to emulate this aspect of the moon – not the full moon, which is destined to wane, but the new moon, which holds the promise of rebirth. And while he has us gazing at the moon’s dark mirror, he asks us why we don’t live longer than we do. After all, don’t we share the same nature as the moon? And isn’t the moon immortal?

“Scholars tend to ignore Lao-tzu’s emphasis on darkness and immortality, for it takes the book beyond the reach of academic analysis. For scholars, darkness is just a more poetic way of describing the mysterious. And immortality is a euphemism for long life. Over the years, they have distilled what they call Lao-tzu’s ‘Taoist philosophy’ from the later developments of ‘Taoist religion.’ They call the Taoteching a treatise on political or military strategy, or they see it as primitive scientific naturalism or utopianism – or just a bunch of sayings.

“But trying to force the Taoteching into the categories of modern discourse not only distorts the Taoteching but also treats the traditions that later Taoists have associated with the text as irrelevant and misguided. Meanwhile, the Taoteching continues to inspire millions of Chinese as a spiritual text. And I have tried to present it in that dark light. The words of philosophers fail here. If words are of any use at all, they are the words of a poet. For poetry has the ability to point us toward the truth then stand aside, while prose stands in the doorway relating all the wonders on the other side but rarely lets us pass.

“In this respect, the Taoteching is unique among the great literary works of the Chou dynasty (1122-221 B.C.). Aside from the anonymous poems and folksongs of the Shihching, or Book of Odes, we have no other poetic work from this early period of Chinese history. The wisdom of other sages was conveyed in prose. Although I haven’t attempted to reproduce Lao-tzu’s poetic devices (Hsu Yung-chang identifies twenty-eight different kinds of rhyme) I have tried to convey the poetic feel with which he strings together images for our breath and spirit, but not necessarily our minds. For the Taoteching is one long poem written in praise of something we cannot name, much less imagine.

“Despite the elusiveness and namelessness of the Tao, Lao-tzu tells us we can approach it through Te. Te means ‘virtue,’ in the sense of ‘moral character’ as well as ‘power to act.’ Yen Ling-feng says, ‘Virtue is the manifestation of the Way. The Way is what Virtue contains. Without the Way, Virtue would have no power. Without Virtue, the Way would have no appearance.’ (See his commentary to verse 21.) Han Fei put it more simply: ‘Te is the Tao at work.’ “See his commentary to verse 38.) Te is our entrance to the Tao. Te is what we cultivate. Lao-tzu’s Virtue, however, isn’t the virtue of adhering to a moral code but action that involves no moral code, no self, no other – no action.

These are the two poles around which the Taoteching turns: the Tao, the dark, the body, the essence, the Way; and Te, the light, the function, the spirit, Virtue. In terms of origin, the Tao comes first. In terms of practice, Te comes first. The dark gives the light a place to shine. The light allows us to see the dark. But too much light blinds. Lao-tzu saw people chasing the light and hastening their own destruction. He encouraged them to choose the dark instead of the light, less instead of more, weakness instead of strength, inaction instead of action. What could be simpler?”

Okay, I am going to stop there with quoting from Red Pine’s introduction. Yes, I know it was long. But, I also think it is very important to understand. And, I at least didn’t go on from there, the actual introduction is much longer, including what we know (if we can truly know) about Lao Tzu, himself. And, then Red Pine goes on to talk about the challenges he faced while coming up with this translation. It is all very good, and well-worth your read. But, I will leave that to you. I got my copy of Red Pine’s translation through Amazon. I recommend all my followers get their own copy, as well.

I do want to admit, when I first read through Red Pine’s introduction, nearly three months ago, I was skeptical of Red Pine’s take on the Tao. His criticism of the mainstream view, I took rather personally; because, I knew I shared the views of which he was being critical. But, I went on to read through his translation with an open mind; and, I believe I was rewarded for having done so. I am willing to admit I may have been wrong, and beginning tomorrow, we will see whether I have actually learned anything, commencing with chapter one.

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