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Monday, April 12, 2010

The Sage Has No Goals?


Question

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?

Answer

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:

不自見故明
不自是故彰
不自伐故有功
不自矜故長

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.

8 comments:

David said...

I was reading your translation of the Tao Te Ching, and there are some lines that suggested Buddhist-like lack of self, for example chapter 13 ("favor and disgrace make one fearful") and 16 ("attain the ultimate emptiness").

I guess you would interpret these more as just a warning against excessive pride than a statement about enlightenment?

Derek said...

Hi David,

Chapter 13 and 16 express two different topics. Chapter 13 is about the inflated sense of self-importance that causes one to pay too much attention to praise and criticism. Chapter 16 is primarily a meditation on the Tao: its emptiness, it cyclic nature, and how we connect with it.

Rex, the Wonder Blog said...

It remains a pleasure - yes, I wrote pleasure! - to visit this site. I never leave empty. That is, even when the wisdom is not apparent, its seed has been planted. And for this, I remain humbled and grateful.

Your translations, Derek, are very useful. The Tao, it would seem, is like the Bible, and their true meaning can easily be hidden by incomplete or inexperienced translations. No fault do I lay on the translators, though, for we all do what we can. Thank you.

Derek said...

Rex, I appreciate your support very much, and I absolutely agree - the translators are doing the best they can, and it's better to have something than nothing at all. :)

ranabir said...

Hello Derek,


Myself Ranabir Choudhury frm India. I have recently introduced to Taoism and the Tao Te Ching, and would love to explore it further and in depth. I really love your explanations as they have given me a starting point from where i can carry it further.
Thanks a lot for you guidance and help,I hope to bother you with lots of questions i may encounter in the journey of learning the self.

Derek said...

Hello Ranabir,

Thank you for reaching out to me. It is an honor to explore the Tao with you. I look forward to further correspondence with you!

David Orman said...

I have found that goal setting is a trap, with the end result being stress, strain and endless (often empty) effort.

I let go of goals and simply go follow my fascination. Granted, that is probably viewed as a goal itself but it feel much more free and flowing.

Another approach.

David Orman said...

I have found that goal setting is a trap, with the end result being stress, strain and endless (often empty) effort.

I let go of goals and simply go follow my fascination. Granted, that is probably viewed as a goal itself but it feel much more free and flowing.

Another approach.