Monday, May 10, 2010

#68. Sam's Tao Te, Intro

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The Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese book about the way the world works and the power and presence of the mystery behind it. It's about 3,000 years old.

Ching simply means "book," but Tao and Te are less easy to translate. Their meanings go together, something along these lines: The Tao Te Ching is a book is about the way (tao) the ultimate mystery behind the existence of the universe shows itself in terms of its power and presence (te) operating in the world. The most common English title is The Book of the Way and its Power.

It's a set of guidelines for living in communion with the cosmic process-- exactly what the convergence of science and religion calls us to in our time.


Although it was written long before the emergence of both contemporary science and the institutional forms of religion as we know them today, it constitutes what I think of as A Manual for the New Cosmology. Its ancient wisdom is relevant for anyone interested in the evolutionary perspectives of modern science and concerned about the kind of spirituality that goes with them.

The Tao Te Ching's dynamic perspective makes it distinctly different from the static worldview of Western religion in recent centuries. At the same time, its emphasis on personal communion with the creative process puts it in deepest agreement with the heart of the West's Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

The Tao Te is specifically addressed to people in responsible positions-- from baby-sitters to emperors, and to everyone in between: mothers and fathers, politicians and police, scholars and religious leaders, business persons and military generals.

It describes how anyone who is in charge of others needs to exercise authority in accordance with the Way the world works. It stresses that each of us can only do that by personally living in harmony with the Way.

The Book of the Tao Te is made up of 81 brief sections, sometimes called "verses" or "chapters." The first section is about the ultimate Mystery from which the cosmos emerges; the second is about human beings acting in accord with it. These first two verses set the pattern for the entire collection of 81 short "chapters."


Traditionally, the name of the author is given as Lao Tzu, but that might simply mean "Old Man" or "the old Wise One."

Despite the fact that Lao Tzu's text is three thousand years old, much of what he has to say is specifically relevant for our time of Immense Transition.

We need all the help we can get as we come to a new understanding of how the world works and how we should live so as to be aligned with the processes of cosmic evolution. This ancient book offers that kind of help.

While much of it, as I've said, is specifically addressed to political leaders and, more generally, to persons in responsible positions, Lao Tzu especially challenges anyone in authority to be aware of those conventional cultural views which are incompatible with the Way the world works.

Lao Tzu did not have the evolutionary perspectives we have available to us-- anyone reading this post knows more than he possibly could have about deep space, deep time and DNA, for example-- but he did have that fundamental sense of the dynamic nature of the world which is central to the evolutionary perspective.

That's what makes it so valuable for us.


That dynamic energy which in the book of Genesis is said to have "hovered over the waters of creation," and is known in many spiritual traditions by words such as wind, air, life-breath and spiritus, is here called "te."

Te is described as the power and presence of the Mystery behind the universe; it's understood to be always flowing and moving, never static. The whole purpose of the Tao Te is make clear how we, as participants in the cosmic process, can be in dynamic balance with that holy spiritus as it operates in the world.


I mentioned back in post #8 (Background to Biogenetic Structuralism) that "Over the years, I've found it helpful to use Greek terms to talk about the material world, humanity and divinity: the meanings of cosmos, anthropos and theos are clear enough and yet relatively free of the conventional emotional connotations which the English words tend to evoke."

Since then, I have made good use of those Greek terms in many posts. As I said in post #8, "The Immense Transition we are currently experiencing involves a significant change in our understanding of all three of these basic aspects of our existence."

I think those Greek terms-- cosmos, anthropos and theos-- are especially useful here, too.

Like most of the spiritual traditions of the East, the Tao Te focuses on the anthropos-cosmos relationship. That's in strong contrast to the West's Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions which emphasize the anthropos-theos relationship-- to an almost total disregard of cosmos.

But at the same time, the Tao Te also speaks of the dynamic power and presence of the ultimate Mystery (theos) as the very means by which we humans are empowered to live full, happy, creative lives in the world (cosmos).

So this ancient text brings together the Judeo-Christian and Islamic perspectives of the West, where the starting point of everything spiritual is theos, with those of the East, such as Buddhism, where the emphasis is on anthropos-cosmos and theos is honored primarily by silence.

Beyond that, the Tao Te Ching is also especially significant in one other way. It helps us bring together the West's traditional understanding of theos with modern science's new dynamic view of cosmos.

The words may sound confusing, but it's worth thinking them through. The result is a dynamic, all-embracing, unified world view of cosmos, theos and anthropos together. It specifically includes a renewed understanding of the dynamic holy spiritus, which has been neglected for centuries in Western religion and spirituality.

And this perspective is precisely what's needed most for the convergence of science and religion in our time.


Currently, there are more than forty English translations of the Tao Te available.

Sometimes, when comparing two English versions, it's hard to believe that they really are translations of the same Chinese text.

But I've found that the more I think about them, the more clear it becomes that the different translations are expressions of similar ideas, although from very different starting points.


For the last several years, I've been creating my own "translation" of the Tao Te. It's not really a "translation," since the only Chinese words I know are the few I've picked up studying tai chi. What I've been doing is using a half-dozen of the available English translations to create a readily understandable version in contemporary language.

I did it primarily for my own sake. But my teacher-instincts have been urging me to share it with blog readers. At first I thought that I would share just a few of the more obviously relevant verses, but I eventually decided to share all 81 chapters of my version.

That's far too many to read through in one sitting, even though each chapter is usually no more than a sentence or two, and never longer than a few paragraphs .

And it often happens that even a single line will hold your attention and call you back to itself a number of times.

So I'll be sharing my version of the Tao Te in three separate posts following this one: #69 will be the first third (sections 1-27), #70 will be the middle third (sections 28-54), and #71 will be the final third (sections 55-81).


Of the translations I'm familiar with, the most down-to-earth, readable version is Backwards Down the Path by Jerry O. Dalton (1994).

The most scholarly translation is Ellen M. Chen's The Tao Te Ching (1989). In her Preface she specifically mentions the "inspiration and encouragement" which she received for her work from Thomas Berry-- a clear indication of this ancient text's relevance to the New Cosmology.

The most beautiful edition, containing spectacular photographs by John Cleare, is Ralph Alan Dale's Tao Te Ching (2002).

There's also a convenient on-line version by Steven Mitchell (1995). I've used this one to provide the basic structure for what I'll be sharing in the next three posts.


Lao Tzu didn't distinguish between political leaders and what are often called today "spiritual leaders." That kind of distinction wasn't of much concern 30 centuries ago.

The Wise Old Man's intention is to help people understand how we can go about responding to our fundamental human vocation of living in harmony with the world's workings and the Mystery behind it.

In my version, I refer to persons attuned to the cosmic process as "balanced persons" or "balanced leaders." It's important that you not hear "balanced" as meaning the same thing as "static."

It's always a dynamic balance that's meant.

The familiar medical term, "electrolyte balance," is a good example of the kind of balance I mean. The relative proportions in our blood of the concentrations of electrolytes-- chemical ions such as potassium, sodium, chloride and calcium-- are constantly being adjusted from second to second by the wisdom of the body to keep us alive and well.

In the same way, "balanced persons" are constantly active, always re-adjusting the details of their lives whenever they become aware that they are lopsided in some way.


In addition to the many translations of the Tao Te, there are numerous commentaries available. I'm deliberately not including any commentary with my version. In a way, all the thoughts I've been sharing in this blog over the last few years are a commentary on The Book of the Way and its Power.

It helps to think of this document as a part of the global world's wisdom literature-- relevant again in our day as we re-discover the dynamic workings of the world and are newly coming to understand our place as creative participants in it.

My hope is that while you are reading this "translation" of these ancient words you will watch for those which speak strongly to you. Whatever calls to you or grabs your attention in some way, especially if it strikes you as inaccurate or annoying; those may be the ones that are especially relevant for you personally.

I hope you will enjoy reading it. I'm absolutely certain you will find it challenging!

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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.