Recently, I ran into an interesting fiction about the origin of Lao Tzu’s Tao Teh Ching. An episode of Xena: Warrior Princess entitled “The Debt” (Please don’t give me grief about this embarrassing indulgence.) fictionalized that Lao Tzu was, in fact, a viscous tyrant—which he may have been—who didn’t write the Tao Teh Ching at all. The episode suggests that Mao Tzu, Lao’s wife, a concubine purchased from the neighboring Ming kingdom kept the dying Lao alive with ancient Chinese secrets—rolling him out into the garden occasionally to abate suspicious servants and guests. During this period of artificially maintained coma, having no desire for fame—no desire at all—Mao wrote the icon of Eastern wisdom in Lao’s name. I’ll say it again, this is pure fiction. I’ve never heard or read of any such myth regarding the admittedly mysterious Lao Tzu. But, it’s an interesting fiction and, I would argue, an appealing one.
I’ve read many translations of the Tao Teh Ching. John C. H. Wu’s translation, which contains the original Chinese characters, is brilliant and beautiful. But I believe the most satisfying is Ursula K. Le Guin’s poetic translation. Le Guin took much license to create a translation that is appealing and understandable to the broadest possible audience of English-speaking Westerners. She writes, “Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. To me, it is also the deepest spring.” And to me as well.
4 Sourceless*The way is empty,
used, but not used up.
Deep, yes! ancestral
to the ten thousand things.
the way is the dust of the way.
yes, and likely to endure.
Whose child? born
before the gods.**
*The chapters of the Tao Teh Ching are not titled. Le Guin uses titles of her own invention.
**Le Guin’s note: Everything Lao Tzu says is elusive. The tempatation is to grasp at something tangible in the endlessly deceptive simplicity of the words. Even some of his finest scholarly translators focus on positive ethical or political values in the text, as if those were what’s important in it. And of course the religion called Taoism is full of gods, saints, miracles, prayers, rules, methods for securing riches, power, longevity, and so forth—all the stuff that Lao Tzu says leads us away from the Way.
In passages such as this one, I think it is the profound modesty of the language that offers what so many people for so many centuries have found in this book: a pure apprehension of the mystery of which we are part.