Posts Tagged ‘Essay’

Translations of the Tao Te Ching

By Steven Gregory.

One of the oldest texts in the world, the Tao Te Ching, also happens to be one of the most widely translated books in history. Although its true origins are somewhat unknown, its teachings are said to have began sometime during the Zhou Dynasty, when, as fable has it, a woman finally gave birth to a wrinkly baby with grey hair, after more than 50 years (62 years according to legend) of pregnancy. Laozi, or ‘Old Master’, began teaching himself in the high courts, and soon became disillusioned with the Chinese government and decided to leave. Before leaving however, a guard on China’s border pleaded the wise man to write down his teachings, and thus the Tao Te Ching was born. Composed of 80 chapters, or small poems, Laozi’s teachings deliver a broad spectrum of thought-provoking philosophy that has actually evolved into a religion. Eventually this ancient text was introduced to the West, but unfortunately because there are many cultural and idealistic concepts present in this book for which the West has no knowledge of (or even a word for), the translations are heavily subjective and based on interpretation of the translator. There tend to be three major categories of translations however, the literal translation, the poetic translation, and of course the political translation.

Undoubtedly the most controversial and interpretative chapter is the first. Although across the many translations it expresses the same principal idea, language and diction gives the text different connotations. For example, in the translation by Ursula K. Le Guin, the excerpt, “So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden, and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants” the wording is expressed in a more poetic undertone, suggesting its meaning in not only a physical, but a spiritual sense, unlike the more materialistic translation by S. Mitchell stating, “Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations” which expresses the same general idea, just in a more interpretative and physical sense, rather than with the spiritual aspect. Similarly, Mitchell’s opening chapter states, “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name” which does attempt to interpret any Eastern concepts, is generally more difficult to understand because of this, compared to the much more flowery “A way can be a guide, but not a fixed path; names can be given, but not permanent labels.” In this translation by Thomas Cleary, the Tao is interpreted to be ‘A way’, a Western idea that does not actually have the same meaning as ‘The Tao’. In fact, the distinction is even made between this ‘way’ as being not a path to follow, but a ‘guide’, even though The Tao is really neither.

In similar fashion, the 77th chapter is an excellent example of how the Tao Te Ching can be interpreted in a more political sense, focusing on the physical and moral implications amongst a greater society. The excerpt “Those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, go against the direction of the Tao. They take from those who don’t have enough and give to those who have far too much. ” by S. Mitchell chiefly exemplifies this by establishing the presence of the very specific ‘force’ and ‘power’, both words that are usually associated with the government. This is a very political interpretation of the Tao Te Ching as opposed to Yi-Ping Ong’s “It is the Way of Heaven to remove where there is excess and add where there is lack. The way of people is different: they take away where there is need and add where there is surplus” which uses words like ‘excess’ and ‘lack’ that are much more broad and encompassing, thus expanding the overall meaning of the passage beyond just the implied idea of controlling force like a government.

These minor differences amongst the many translations of the Tao Te Ching may not seem like important elements of Taoism, but for a Westerner reading such a translation it may in fact have a surprising effect on that persons view and understanding of The Tao. This is why it is quite important for readers to try and see these various interpretations. This also points to the immense flexibility of the already ambiguous text and philosophy.


English Essay, Take Two

So I re-wrote my essay and rather than taking an analytical view of it, I went all out Bodhidharma on them. Hopefully this time I get my point across.

The Depth at the Surface
Zen is something that by its very nature cannot be defined. It cannot be described, categorized or even captured in song, story or poem. But I can tell show what Zen is not, and I can show why even that in itself, is Zen.
Having lived in both the United States and in Mexico for extended amounts of time has made me realize that we are all victims, and that we ourselves are our victimizers. If we want to see our greatest enemy, we only have to look at a mirror. It is in the very actions that keep us alive, that we guarantee our deaths, and this I realized cannot be escaped. It is perhaps one of the few unalterable and obscure rules of our existence. But of all the discoveries that I’ve made, both in the US and in Mexico, the one that took me the longest to understand and perhaps the most difficult to lose to Zen was the one I finally understood, in of all places, standing at the edge of a bridge, looking nearly fifty feet below at a small trickle of water that was called, in all of its irony, a river.
Things, whether by some unwritten law of the universe or by fate or even by chance alone, will always gather in groups. Trash floating in a busy Mexican City street or humans in that city itself, always end up in groups, in piles. We find, as a species, and as objects themselves, a sense of comfort in groups. We stand strongest in groups, but it is also in groups where we commit the great fallacy of Zen: we are also at our weakest. Trash on the side of the street can be set afire, humans in groups will run to their dooms, not even bothering to know why, all they know is that everyone else is going, and that they cannot stop, even if they want to. This I realized on the bridge.
Water flows to the sea, it is inevitable, like humans running to death. But it is in this grisly realization that I realized, that death is the only thing keeping up together. No matter how cold that water is, no matter what color it is, or how far it has run, it will end up at sea, just where it started out. And humans are the same; we are all connected, not in a symbolic or metaphoric way. We are all literally connected; we are all descendants of the same reproductively successful ancestor, and no matter how much we think we differ, we are all cousins, and we are all running to our deaths. Only one thing really matters: how much life did that water give? How much life did that water take? How many lives did we touch? How many lives did we fail to touch? Such is the Zen of our existence.
As I realize this, I also take not of the water itself, not just its trajectory, and I find myself thinking about the multitudes and the groups again. Each individual molecule of water clings desperately to another, and in their haste to belong to something, they form a tension, a tension strong enough for bugs to run across it, a desperation strong enough to amuse children when they blow a bubble of soapy water though a loop. And despite what may be happening below, the surface always remains the same, undisturbed, and pristine. And so do the facades of men and women alike. We will embrace a philosophy, and we will live by it, until something forces us to reconsider, and then we will leave the band, we will search, and explore. We may become Moslem after being Christian, we may become American after being Mexican or French, and then we will rise up and cry injustice, and try to force the river to flow the other way. But we will not succeed, because even though we may not realize it, we are still part of the same current, and we are still running in the same direction, despite all of our life altering actions, we have nothing but switch positions on the surface of the current. We may have brushed up against the undercurrents, who in themselves are another group with the same agenda. We may say that we are wiser because we have seen the suffering of our cousins, we may be wiser because we shared Christ with them, or because we showed them Nirvana, or Allah. But in the current, we have done nothing, but help it faster along.
From the bridge, I realized that not all men are like that, I realized that there are pebbles and drops as well. Drops, people who leave the current, seeking depth that is so difficult to accomplish on the surface, they will seek for that life altering moment, and when they find it, rather than selfishly keep their salvation, they will stupidly run and jump back into the flow. Their arrival is not welcomed by the surface and the tension drives the drop back, wrestling with the loose water and the opposing impact from below. These men arrive, and after a minute or two will stir up the surface, and for a moment, hope shines though, but after that moment passes, that drop is nothing more than a part of the surface, running still. Great men and women have been like drops, they stir the waters and our thoughts and then fall back in, either after death claims them of they simply surrender. Some men, however, are like pebbles. Jesus, Darwin, Gandhi, Watson, they are pebbles.
Drop a pebble into a pool, and you see a splash, a fight of confusion and resistance, when that surface is broken, and the ripples expand and touch all of the surface, and some are plunged into the depths without wanting to and finally see the big picture, others are tasseled about and twist the meaning of the words, the movements of the water and run with it in an entirely different direction, but never leaving that precious tension. The pebble sinks, to the bottom where creatures to foul to see the light of day or the darkness of the night live. And so these men also fall to the bottom, Jesus: crucified, Darwin: mocked, Gandhi: reinvented, Watson: forgotten.
Their ideas are twisted and made part of the surface, because at their core, they are too difficult and too heavy for men to lift. That is one thing that men and water do not share, water does not have a choice, but men do. Men, if we desired, could let go or our simple, superficial pseudo-philosophies and rise up, unaided but by our own vision and strength and become monoliths, monoliths that after millions of years will still stand even against all of the assault of time.
We do not, why not, I cannot understand. It is like Zen, either you know, or you do not, and clearly I do not. But this I do understand: we like to be unnoticed, one single molecule of water in the flood, one pebble in the gravel, one drop of water in the rain. One mediocre and un-extraordinary person who will be noticed because of how well they blend in, and sadly, we believe that even those who by their very definition should be more than human should be just like us, no one of any great importance; because we believe that we are all created equal.
I do not know why we want greater men to be lesser. I understand why water acts the way it does, but I do not understand the monotonous herd of humans. But here is one more thing I understand, one thing that is not Zen and Zen at the same time. I understand that despite the great flow of the river we all share something that does have meaning: this moment.
This single moment, as you read this while I write it and a little 14 year-old blond boy with a pocketful of marbles runs to his friends, a full radiant smile on his face, and an older, gray haired man aims a high powered assault rifle.
This moment, when a shady politician, no greater than the junkie looking for his morning fix only ten floors beneath him, cries out about the Moslem terrorists, and that boy’s smile fades away as a bullet rips across his head because his Moslem parents live on the wrong side or the river and the multitudes wave their arms in unison at a football  game, and not a mile away a group of men, all sharp angular figures cutting across the night yell out in outrage about the illegal aliens in their country.
This moment, when a man and child die in the desert because had they not left, they would have died at home, and the politician smiles along with millions more, smug in their ideas and the belief that he is a great humanitarian because he sent a young man to kill another far away.
This moment, and we are all in it. We are all sharing it, all six billion and a half of us. Like all of our cousins, we are dying, and living in this single moment, propelled forward by the past and watched passively by the future. Imagine it, all our DNA jam-packed in one moment. We are all connected, and the worst part is, that for all of our dedication to forming “us and them” groups, it is not a metaphor, not a philosophical ‘oops’ that we can overlook.
Some of us may be the soft underbrush of the forest, where the deer pisses and the raccoon decomposes, and few of us may be the towering trees that hold up against all living beings, and may never fall. But we are all human, and we all family.
All this I realized, and forgot, standing on a bridge over a trickle of water, that only two days before had washed away my father’s hometown. And telling you this, whoever you may be, is not Zen, it is the opposite of it in fact. But I hope that in telling you this, perhaps I managed to take your hand, and run downstream with you, and along the way, give you a little bit of that paradox named Zen, and maybe, just maybe, made you a drop or perhaps even a pebble.

Then again, I might have failed even worse than before, who knows?