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

So beautiful.


  1. "Because there is no striving, thus there is no error"
    Galen, I'm here reminded of the utmost importance of our surrender to God and His will, not ours, being done. Even when we do not understand or comprehend, that shouldn't matter as long as we rest contented in the fact that His ways are always best.
    Might I take a stab at the "koan?"
    Home - The earth God created and called "good."
    Heart - The deeper it delves, the more it will feel God's presence.
    Associations - always good, and presented in times where those connections bear much fruit
    Word - God's Word, unfailing, ever trustworthy.
    Leadership - A servant leader never needs to be reminded of the value of justice
    Work - whatever work God has entrusted to you, do it to the best of your ability, with passion and love.
    Action - pray for God's timing in all you do.
    Blessings, my friend!

    1. Wow, Martha, I love your insight on the "koan"! Really beautiful! And yes, so true about surrender. Thank you so much for taking the time to consider the meanings here and to share your thoughts.

  2. So much to think about! I did not at all see that "goodness" was the theme. How did you learn about the Chinese characters and their meanings? I only have one translation with me, as I am traveling, but the topic character was represented a good bit differently--except for work.

    1. Polly, I'm not surprised you didn't see goodness as the theme because unless you saw the Chinese, you would miss the nine repetitions of that one character. That doesn't mean that your translation is deficient in any way. (Many translations, by the way, are not translated directly from the Chinese but rather are interpretations based on other translations.)

      We saw the same thing in Chapter 4, where there are three characters used to describe the Tao. The meanings of the three characters are not directly related to water, but all have the water root which gives a certain perspective on the meaning that, again, is lost in translation.

      This is why I wanted to go back to the original Chinese. There are layers of beauty and mystery and meaning in the characters that are simply not translatable. And also, there is a rhythm and symmetry that is fascinating. And also (!), there is a poetry and beauty when it's read aloud in the Chinese.

      You asked how I learned about the Chinese characters. I spent two and a half years taking a chapter at a time and delving into the characters, with the help of a classical Chinese dictionary, lots of translations and commentaries, comparisons of different versions of the Chinese text, and several websites explaining the etymology of the characters. It was a deeply profound endeavor. I felt like I had entered a secret garden.

      [I speak a little Chinese, but just like old English, classical Chinese is completely different.]

      I can't share everything I discovered and experienced--it would take too long and bore most folks--but I'm trying in these posts to share a little of the exquisite beauty and wisdom in this ancient text. So glad you are joining me!


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