Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Tao Te Ching – Chapter 8
Water is the most prominent image of the Tao in the Tao Te Ching. We saw this first in Chapter 4 where several characters used to describe the Tao had water radicals or roots. Here the chapter begins by explicitly comparing the Tao to water.
Before we talk about that, however, I want to introduce you to a character that is repeated in this chapter 9 times!
This character means good or goodness. So even though we begin with the water metaphor, keep in mind that goodness is the theme of this chapter.
The highest good is like water
Water’s goodness benefits the ten thousand things yet does not strive
It flows to places people shun
Thus is like the Tao
The goodness of water is not intentional. It is simply its nature, and so it supports all living things effortlessly. Remember that our bodies are mostly water!
The third line about flowing to places people shun is intriguing. Water flows downhill, and thus into low places. One might think of swamps or even sewers. But ultimately water flows to the greatest of all waters, the ocean. Its lowest point is its most powerful. This line reminds me of Jesus, who sat at the table with the people others rejected, and by so doing, manifested the highest goodness. In that way he was like water or like the Tao.
The next section of this chapter consists of seven lines, each one having three characters. The first character in each line is a topic character, followed by the character for goodness, and ending with a comment character.
This presents a challenge for translators who must try to understand how goodness links the topic with the comment. If you look at various translations, you will see much variation, and the central character of goodness is often obscured because the translators are trying to make this make sense in English.
So I’m going to try something different here. I’m going to just give you a word for character correspondence, and invite you to use this like you might use a zen koan, a puzzle if you will. Without trying to elaborate in English, just contemplate the topic and comment linked by goodness and see what understanding emerges. Try to get out of your head and let the meaning be whispered in your heart. There is no right or wrong, no single answer. Just an open heart and a listening spirit. Ready?
home good earth
heart good deep
associations good impartial
word good trustworthy
leadership good justice
work good competence
action good timing
Hmm, what did you think? [If you have your own copy of the Tao Te Ching, what do you think of how the translator interpreted these characters?] You might have felt some frustration because it is hard to tolerate uncertainty of meaning or understanding.
I think perhaps this is one of the greatest gifts of the Tao Te Ching. The original Chinese is full of beauty, rhythm, and poetry, much of which is lost in translation. But even in the Chinese, the meaning is not often clear. Many characters have multiple meanings, which change even more when combined with other characters. Thus, the meanings swirl like a dancing creek, escaping capture. Relaxing into the elusiveness, releasing the need to know, is how we enter the mystery.
Ursula LeGuin noted in her own interpretation that the text of the Tao Te Ching itself is like water: the poetry flows, the teaching is not forced. Just as you cannot grasp water in your hand, you cannot capture the Tao in thought or word.
Because there is no striving
Thus there is no error