The Dao De Jing [道德经] is a collection of philosophical poems written by LaoZi [老子] . The original text is in classical Chinese and can be quite difficult to understand at some parts. Although you might grasp a few things intuitively. The poems are beautiful in their ability to distill a universal ethos into concise sentences. With a little help from the 译文 (modern Chinese translation), I hope to interpret the meaning of six passages that I find myself rereading frequently.
My translation: Everyone knows beauty as beauty because there is ugliness; All know goodness (virtue), due to the existence of badness. Thus being and non-being produce each other, difficulty and ease grow out of one another, long and short form each other, high and low lean on one another, tone and sound harmonize together, before and after follow one another. Therefore a sage acts without acting (WuWei), and conveys his teachings without the use of speech. All things spring into existence and can’t be dismissed, they grow out of the ether and are not owned, relying on no single part, accomplished with no expectation, no self congratulations, never ceasing.
Interpretation: 天下 is the classical way of saying everything/everyone. Literally means all things/people under the sky. 皆 means all, while 知 is know, so “Under the sky, all know…” 美之为美 “beauty as beauty.” What comes after is a linguistic dance between things and their opposites to illustrate how polar extremes in the universe are connected by their dependence on one another. LaoZi also introduces the concept of 无为 (wu wei), an elegant idea which means “non-action.” Non-action here does not mean inaction, in the sense that you lie down and simply do nothing. It points to acting without strain, don’t force it. Positive psychology might compare WuWei to the flow state. Or complete absorption in processes of creation.
My translation: The most virtuous objects are like water. Water benefits all things without struggling against anything. It flows places most people detest. Thus it is most like Dao. It resides in virtuous places (note: the character 善 can mean virtue, but it also carries the connotation of kindliness and benevolence, as in 善良，慈善，和善). Water’s mind is a serene abyss. It is humane. It’s words are easily believable, governing in kindness. Water is capable. Moving at the exact right time. By not struggling to force action, it has nothing to worry about. Blameless.
Interpretation: Water is revered in Daoism for its many abilities. It sustains life on Earth, and thus benefits all things. ‘Dao’ is like the movement of infinity, which flows through time like water. Daoist people were particularly adept at using water, and created elaborate irrigation systems. Of all the things to emulate, water seems like a good one. WuWei being a method of floating along the stream of least resistance. Daosim obviously influenced Chinese superstar Bruce Lee, who once said:
My Translation: Five colors blind a person. Five sounds make you deaf. Five flavors deprive you of taste. Galloping headlong into the hunt fills a person’s mind with wild thoughts. Difficult to obtain objects turn men evil. So a sage seeks only to fill his belly, limiting material desire.
Interpretation: One of my favorite concepts from the Dao De Jing is that one should strive for contentment with what one already has. Joining the rat race and striving to achieve all the pleasures of sensation at once is not a sustainable or healthy way to live. This precept makes sense intellectually, but can be hard to put into practice. Delicious food and kaleidoscopic amusement are fun, but I still like to romanticize a humble lifestyle. Extremes go both ways though, as the complete eradication of pleasure is what lead to the ascetic practices of the Indian Sadhus.
My translation: Understanding other people is smart, understanding yourself is intelligence. Overcoming others is strength, victory over the self is real might. One who is satisfied with what he has is wealthy, while ambitious people are forceful and imposing. In contrast, one who fulfills his role in society can sustain himself for a long time. Long life is when you die but are not gone (continuing to flow with “Dao”).
Interpretation: Understanding your own strengths and weaknesses is crucial in life. In this passage we see 知足 which means contentment (literally “knowing you have enough”). One of my favorite idioms 知足常乐 (one who is content with what he has will remain happy for a long time) probably originated from the Dao De Jing. It amazes me that we live in a world where people with millions of dollars complain about not having enough wealth. This level of greed seems like a threat to the future of our planet. One hedge fund manager said:
“My feelings of safety and immortality quickly gave way to scarcity. After all, I thought, if I could make 10 million dollars then it must be too easy. In fact, I honestly thought, everyone else had probably already made 11 million dollars. So then I felt poor again. I now needed 100 million dollars to be happy. I drove in a car with a friend of mine and his wife. I said, “everyone has 10 million dollars now.” — James Altucher”
My translation: When humans are living, they are fleshy and soft. In death they are stiff and hard. Living vegetation is soft and supple, while dead plants harden. The stiff and stubborn are as good as dead, the weak and flexible are full of life. This is why strong armies are defeated. Wood can be snapped in two. The soft and delicate are above the strong and mighty.
Interpretation: Liquid running water is capable of eroding the largest stones. Adapting to your environment is more beneficial than continuing to persist in stubborn old habits. One who keeps learning stays young. Intellectual stagnation is a form of death.
My translation (relied heavily on the 译文 for clarification of classical usage of words): Imagining I have little knowledge walking the path of Dao, my only fear is to go off course. The Dao is broad and level, but people like to go down evil side paths. The government is corrupted. The courts are clean and spacious, while the fields lay barren, the warehouses empty. Officials wear fine clothing, carry treasured swords, eat and drink their fill, and amass excessive wealth. This is called robbery, it is not the way of Dao.
Interpretation: According to the modern translation, 介 here means small (as in 稍微). 於 is 于, so 行於大道 is “walking along the path of Dao.” 夷 is apparently an old character meaning flat and broad (平坦). The most confusing part comes with the 而人好径. According to the modern translation, 径(path) actually means evil road despite the use of 好(good) right before it. So it translates to something like “people are good at walking down evil side paths.” It’s amazing to see LaoZi describing government corruption thousands of years ago. Sad to think after all the progress mankind has made over the preceding millennia, this condemnation still rings true. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research, “14.0 percent (17.4 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2014.” Food insecure meaning they were unable to provide enough food for everyone in the household, due to lack of resources (money). And those are the figures in one of the richest, most developed nations on the planet. Meanwhile, a majority of people in Congress are millionaires, and wind up raising billions of dollars just to be elected. Eating dinner with Barack Obama during his 2012 campaign cost $40,000. Presumably he ate and drank his fill. According to the modern Chinese interpretation, the 利剑 (sharp sword) reference in this chapter is an allusion to the government’s dependence on military might to sustain its power. The analysis section says 本章描述了社会的黑暗和统治者给人们带来的深重灾难,尤其是统治者凭借权势和武力 – “This chapter describes society’s dark side, and the many disasters that rulers have brought down on the heads of the people – especially the leaders’ reliance on authoritative power and combat force.” In 2015, the U.S. Congress allocated 54% ($598.5 billion) of discretionary spending towards the military. The United States has absolutely no money to spend creating a public healthcare option or reducing education costs for its citizens. Not to mention feeding the hungry. But it has plenty of money to spend on the 利剑 (sharp sword). Portions of that $598.5 billion inevitably wound up in the pockets of defense contractors who did such a good job of destroying Iraq and then stealing money from its “re-construction.” Defense contractors whose social circles are directly connected to the war starting President. Defense contractors who profited massively from the invasion and occupation. 是谓盗夸。非道也哉。
Daoism is a fascinating and ancient philosophy that has reverberated truth down the ages. I still enjoy dissecting its meaning slowly as I work through the Chinese text. I will enjoy translating and interpreting more chapters when I have time. If you’d like to share your own discoveries, please comment, I will read!