Newsletter - September 2021
What do the words Tao Te Ching mean?
The Tao Te Ching is a philosophical text written over 2,500 years ago most likely by a man named Lao Tzu. It consists of 5,000 characters, written in classical Chinese, arranged into 81 brief chapters. But what do the three words of its title mean? A little research shows that although there is a theme to the meaning, there is a lot of variation in the English words used to capture it. Hardly surprising since the text has been translated into Western languages over 250 times.
What do the words mean? Are some translations of the title better than others? How does this affect the way we approach the book?
The word “Tao” is most frequently translated into the word “way” or one of its synonyms. Other Chinese philosophers (including Confucius and Mencius) used the same word too. However, in the context of Taoism, the word has a special meaning because it implies “the essential unnameable process of the universe.” For this reason, it is often referred to as “the Way.” So, this suggests more than simply a way, or a path, through life.
There are more variations on the word “Te.” Translations include “integrity,” “inner strength” (virtuosity), “personal character,” and “virtue.” However, this last word would not be today’s meaning of the word virtue. “The semantics of this Chinese word resemble English virtue, which developed from the Italian virtù an archaic sense of "inner potency" or "divine power" (as in "healing virtue of a drug") to the modern meaning of “moral excellence” or “goodness”.” (Wikipedia)
Another angle on its meaning comes from the fact that there are a couple of romanization systems for representing classical Chinese characters in the letters of our alphabet. On the Wade-Giles system, the title is spelled “Tao Te Ching.” However, Pinyin, the official romanization system, spells it “Dàodé Jing.” This first word “Dàodé” (a compound word) has a literal meaning of “ethics,” “ethical principles,” “morals,” or “morality.”
The final word “Ching” attracts less controversy and is usually translated as “canon,” “great book,” or “classic.”
Put these all together and here’s a list of results. The Classic of the Way’s Virtue. The Book of the Tao and Its Virtue. The Book of the Way and of Virtue. The Tao and Its Characteristics. The Canon of Reason and Virtue. The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way. A Treatise on the Principle and Its Action. The Perfect Scripture of the Way and Its Power.
Earlier, I asked the question: Are some of these English titles better than others? If I may nitpick for a moment, I think it all depends on what you mean by “better.” In my July newsletter I explored the question “Why the controversy between “translations” and “interpretations” of the Tao Te Ching?” It boiled down to whether you cared more about remaining faithful to the classical Chinese, or about words that convey the meaning best to speakers of any other language. My take was that the second mattered more than the first. And I feel the same way about the title.
For me, the translation that resonates best is “The Great Book of the Way of Integrity.” Here’s why. “Tao” being translated as “Way” works fine with me. Similarly, “Ching” being translated as “Great Book” or “Classic” is also fine. I happen to prefer “Great Book” – hence “The Great Book of the Way…” But what about the word “Te”? I think this is the word most loaded with meaning. Given the number of instances of the word “Virtue” in various forms, why do I prefer the word “Integrity”?
Here are two everyday definitions of the word “integrity” and I think they both apply. First, “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.” Second, “the state of being whole and undivided.” For me, this second definition is the one that resonates the best. Why?
I think it’s because the text has many references to the Tao as being the original Oneness/Wholeness that includes all things. To name just one example, “Can you coax your mind from its wandering and keep to the original oneness?” (chapter 10). For me, the word “integrity” seems to perfectly capture this meaning because the word “integer” can be defined as “a whole number; a number that is not a fraction.” Thus the Tao is this Oneness/Wholeness – the thing that is not a fraction of something else which is bigger than itself. That said, you can tell we’re getting stuck in the limitations of words!
Can words get in the way? Sure they can, because words are all about making distinctions between things. So what word do we use to label the thing that includes everything and cannot be distinguished from anything else? The answer is we’re stuck. The very first chapter of the Tao Te Ching points this out when it says “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.” Why not? Because to name the Tao, is to try to distinguish it from everything that is not it – and it is the Oneness/Wholeness that includes everything. So, words have their limits.
So, to my final question: How does this affect the way we approach the book? Not to be flippant, but I think the answer is to go for the meaning and forget the words altogether. Since this is rather a bold statement, I’ll offer a quote that does a better job than I can of hitting this particular nail on the head. “Nets are to catch fish. When the fish are caught, the nets are forgotten. Traps are to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the traps are forgotten. Words are to convey that which lies behind them. When that is done, the words are forgotten.” (Chuang Tzu)
“Tao Te Ching” or “The Great Book of the Way of Integrity.” I think what matters most is to get beyond the words of the title and start reading what lies within!
Have you come across different meanings of the words Tao Te Ching? Do you have a personal favorite?
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
replying to this e-mail
reaching me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FrancisPringMillAuthor
using the Contact page on my website www.inharmonywiththetao.com
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(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book or as a paperback from your nearest independent book store, from White Cloud Press, from Amazon.com, or from Amazon.ca.)