Author's Web Site:

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Sage Has No Goals?


Derek, I love the line in the Tao Te Ching that says, "Because he has no goal in mind, everything he does succeeds." Can you expand on this wisdom, and give us some thoughts on how we can let go of goals?


Many people express a liking for this idea, and talk about how it is radically different from the Western mindset of endless goal-setting and tiresome to-do lists. However, the truth is that this line is a mistranslation that bears little resemblance to the original Chinese. The idea agrees with how people imagine Eastern philosophy to be, but not what it actually is.

The line comes from a popular translation of chapter 22, and is the last of four lines describing a Tao sage:

Because he doesn't display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn't know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

They are supposed to match the following four lines from the original Chinese:


The abovementioned English version shifts the order around and moves the fourth line to the second position, but even when you take this into account, the translation still fails. The first translated line corresponds with the original, but the other three do not. The original does not speak of goals, success, trust, recognition, or knowing oneself at all. Instead, all four lines describe how a sages does not show off or brag, and therefore becomes well known and enjoys an excellent reputation. Here is what they actually say:

Without flaunting themselves – and so are seen clearly
Without presuming themselves – and so are distinguished
Without praising themselves – and so have merit
Without boasting about themselves – and so are lasting

The line that says "Without praising themselves – and so have merit" is the one that has been mistranslated as "Because he has no goal in mind, everything he does succeeds." The translator, knowing virtually no Chinese, mistakenly uses "goal" for "praise" and "success" for "merit." The result is a sentence that is not even close to the original in meaning, but by a quirk of fate has become embraced by some Western readers.

The larger, more important issue here is that there are no teachings in the Tao tradition that speak against setting goals. Quite the opposite. For instance, Lao Tzu's journey of a thousand miles and tower of nine levels are both metaphors for great goals that require long, sustained work. Chuang Tzu's flight of the giant Peng bird is also a metaphor for an ambitious, awe-inspiring goal. These sages not only want us to have goals, but also encourage us to think big.

If asked about letting go of goals, they would probably point out the paradox that the goal of letting go of goals is itself a goal. Goal-setting is just another tool that we can use to get what we want from life, neither positive nor negative by itself, so there is not much more to it than using the tool in a skillful way. Goals need not be the annoying burdens or traps as some seem to believe... so there is nothing we have to do to "free" ourselves from them.