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Friday, September 12, 2008

The Tao Follows Nature


Question
: Derek, what is the real meaning of dao fa zi ran? The translation I have says "the Tao follows itself." Is this correct?

Answer: This is an important phrase that comes from chapter 25 of the Tao Te Ching. Let's take a closer look at its four characters.

Dao is the new romanization for the Tao. Fa has multiple definitions, but in this context it means to follow or to model after. Put these two together and we can see that the first half of your translation is correct.

Zi ran means nature or natural. Therefore, dao fa zi ran means "the Tao follows nature." We can express this in different ways and still remain faithful to the original: the Tao follows the laws of nature; the Tao follows that which is natural; the method of the Tao is natural, etc.

Some choose to analyze zi ran as two separate characters. Zi means self and ran means correct, or "just so." This leads them to the explanation that naturalness in the Tao means "of itself so." It also leads to the translation that the Tao follows itself.

Many translators accept this, but is it what the original really says? It turns out that analyzing the characters separately may not be necessary at all. In addition to chapter 25, the Tao Te Ching also uses zi ran in chapters 17, 23, 51, and 64. In each usage, the context is always nature or natural, and never "of itself so." There is no particular reason why chapter 25 should be an exception to the rule.

Simplicity is treasured in the Tao. "The Tao follows nature" is simpler because it requires only the basic definition of zi ran. It is also more meaningful. The phrase tells us that the functioning of the Tao must always be consistent with natural laws and universal principles. Miracles in the Tao are not impossibilities resulting from supernatural intervention. Instead, they are achievements within reach of human beings who understand how to work with nature rather than against it.

The last four lines of chapter 25 are as follows:

Humans follow the laws of Earth
Earth follows the laws of Heaven
Heaven follows the laws of Tao
Tao follows the laws of nature

Once we understand Lao Tzu's message, it should become obvious why "the Tao follows iteself" is only a shadow of the real teaching. When we refrain from making things too complicated, we see a clearer image of the Tao - one that also happens to be more practical and applicable to everyday living!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Translation Differences

Question: Derek, I noticed your translation of the Tao Te Ching has significant differences from other versions. As I study further, I begin to see the underlying truth in your approach, which leads me to suspect that others may be somewhat flawed. Is this a common occurrence? If so, why? Is it because other translators believe differently and let bias get into the work?

Answer: That's certainly possible. We're all human beings, and probably one of the toughest things for any of us is to just be aware that we have blind spots - never mind actually looking into them, and overcoming the "blindness" in one's thinking.

If we survey existing translations, we can see some examples where personal beliefs may have been mixed in with the work:

  1. The translator has studied the concept that everything in the world is ultimately meaningless. This gets weaved into the translation as well as the commentary whenever Lao Tzu talks about emptiness. However, the lack of meaning in everything has never been part of Taoism. It actually comes from the philosophy of nihilism.

  1. The translator believes everyone is already enlightened and everything is already perfect, so there is nothing to do. Therefore, the concept of unattached action, wu wei, becomes distorted as non-action. This misconception may have come from depictions of Asian spirituality in movies; certainly it has embedded itself into the popular consciousness.

  1. The translator may be a staunch supporter of women's rights, and intentionally uses female pronouns "she" and "her" in the translation. This may appeal to some readers, but masks the fact that in the original Chinese, words like "sage" and "ruler" are completely gender-neutral. Forcing a feminist position into the translation is contrived and unnecessary. The Tao Te Ching itself is already the ultimate statement on feminism.

  1. The translator likes the notion of spiritual evolution, and uses it in the translation whenever possible. Thus, the characters for sage, shen ren (literally a divinely wise person), are rendered as "evolved individual" even though the term says nothing about any kind of evolution. It is an addition that is solely based on personal preconception.

Of course, words can never completely describe the Tao, and no translation is perfect. As a native speaker of both Chinese and English, I may be more aware of this than most, since I know not only the overall meaning that can be translated, but also the subtle nuances that cannot. This, however, does not mean we should give up the attempt to translate accurately, and one way to increase accuracy is to eliminate as much personal bias as possible.

Until we are able to get closer to the ideal of accuracy, I still recommend reading multiple translations and let your instincts guide you toward the meaning that resonates with you. Although words are imprecise and imperfect, I believe anyone who spends the time to experience the Tao will be able to sense truth from untruth. Anyone who invests the effort to apply the Tao will be able to reach through the distortions to touch the real essence. In the final analysis, none of the flaws and biases really matter - and that's the beauty of it!