Interview

A Conversation with the Author of
Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained

by Richard Seymour

Although the ancient Chinese system of thought and spirituality known as Taoism evolved from Shamanic roots around 5,000 years ago, most modern Taoists in the West take their guidance from a book that was first written some 2,500 years later by a sage known as Lao Tzu.

This book, most commonly called the Tao Te Ching (The Way and Virtue Classic), though sometimes referred to simply as the Lao Tzu, is the most well known of the extensive Taoist canon and has been translated more than any other in history except the bible

But what makes it so special to Taoists and non-Taoists alike the world over? Derek Lin, who has offered his own translation of the classic: Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained says of it:

"The Tao Te Ching is the oldest and most powerful book about personal transformation. It speaks to the innermost core of our being, which is spiritual in nature. Its impact brings about positive changes that radiate from the inside out. Therefore, those who take the time to understand its lessons and put them into actual practice will see dramatic but natural improvements in every aspect of life. They will enjoy peace of mind, better relationships, better health, and the effortless ease of graceful living."

Unlike many other spiritual paths, there is no requirement that followers relinquish material possessions or even the wish for financial wealth, for, as the author points out: "wealth is merely another manifestation of the Tao."

But with so many translations already available, what made Lin, a Tao cultivator for fourteen years, decide to contribute yet another?

"It was a decision driven by practical necessity," explains Lin. "Ten years ago, I had an opportunity to study the Tao Te Ching with a group of English-speaking Tao cultivators. We tried to use existing translations, but quickly found that they contained distortions."

Differences between translations is something Taoists are all too familiar with. But just as Tao itself is by nature elusive and impossible to define so it is generally believed that the Tao Te Ching is itself mysterious and defiant of attempts to pin it down, with one idea of its meaning as valid as any other.

However, according to Lin, "Only a small fraction of the different interpretations fit that description; the majority were mistakes. We needed a version of the Tao Te Ching that was as perfect a reflection of the original as possible, so we had no choice but to develop our own from scratch."

The 'original' has been lost. However, the Chinese tradition differs from others in that it places great value on the passing down of knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation over many thousands of years. There is no doubt among the Chinese, therefore, according to Lin, that the Tao Te Ching they study today is the original. It is this 'version' that Lin worked from, though what followed was no simple task.

Where Derek Lin claims an advantage over many other translators is that he has been brought up in both a Taiwanese and north American (Western) culture: taking from one and being able to communicate it to the other. Taiwan was fortunately beyond the reach of Mao's Cultural Revolution and the Taoist lineage that was damaged in China continued to flourish there.

"Much of Tao Te Ching is inextricably linked to the Chinese way of thinking, which makes perfect sense in its own cultural context, but can be very different from our familiar mental paradigms," claims Lin. "The only way to really understand it is to live in Asia and be fully immersed in the culture for at least a decade. Most Western scholars do not have this experience, and the lack hampers their translations in ways they cannot perceive.

"It is a tradition that goes back to Lao Tzu and beyond, to an ancient origin thousands of years before his time," he continues. "Being immersed in this culture, I am able to convey not only Lao Tzu's views, but also the ancient wisdom that inspired him in the first place. The insights from this tradition make the passages that most consider cryptic or inscrutable quite clear."

It is this assumed inscrutability that deters some from Taoism. The very first line of the Tao Te Ching appears to warn the reader off any attempt at studying the mysteries of existence when it says: The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.

"The point is perhaps the most important in the entire book," says Lin. "Once we have read about the Tao, let's not just talk about it. Let's also put it to use. Let's apply its principles to every aspect of life. The Tao that we feel inside, act upon, and eventually become one with; now that is the eternal Tao."

To Derek Lin, the Tao Te Ching is more than just a philosophical treatise; it is a guide for life itself. And, he maintains, it is a guide that is as relevant now as it was 2,500 years ago:

"In fact, we may need the Tao Te Ching more than ever. Modern living can be stressful and chaotic; the Tao Te Ching guides us toward relaxation and tranquility. Science and technology tend to move us further away from nature; the Tao Te Ching shows us how to reconnect with it. The sensory stimulations of the modern world distract us and deprive us of peace; the Tao Te Ching takes us back to quietude and contentment."

The principles contained within it seem to be universal because, as Lin points out, "the essence of the Tao is about being human. Christians and Muslims are no less human than anyone else, so the Tao can resonate with them just as it does with followers of other religious paths."

Another area of expertise that Lin believes gives him an advantage over other authors is his knowledge of ancient Chinese that differs from the modern.

"Think about Shakespearean English. Consider how its differences from modern English make it more difficult to comprehend, and then imagine that difficulty multiplied six times to approximate language evolution over thousands of years. The result is a truly formidable barrier."

An example of this can be found in Chapter 12 and the word "shuang."

"This chapter talks about how the myriad stimuli of the material world dull the senses," explains Lin. "When it comes to the palate, it says the five tastes make the mouth shuang. In ancient times this character meant 'numb,' so the line made perfect sense. Today, the meaning of the same character has morphed into 'refreshed.' It is therefore not unusual to see a modern Chinese speaker who does not know the ancient meaning being puzzled over this disparity.

"My experience tells me that much of 'Oriental mystique' in Western society is simply misunderstanding," says Lin. "The Tao itself may be beyond description and definition, but the beliefs and practices associated with it are highly practical, sensible, and not at all mysterious. This down-to-earth aspect of the Tao is quite different from the inscrutable Asian sage in popular perception - stock characters portrayed by actors who speak in riddles."

Has he succeeded in de-mystifying the Tao Te Ching? The layout (which the author credits his publisher, SkyLight Paths, with) of The Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained is certainly conducive to clarity. The English translation of each chapter appears on the right-hand page while on the left can be read Derek Lin's interpretation.

The strength of this system is that the author's personal views on the text remain separate from the text itself allowing the readers to make up their own minds; to see in it something unique to them. In a belief that is relatively - and refreshingly - free from dogma, the Tao practitioner is free to take from it something that is unique to him or her.

While I am not qualified to make any claims regarding the accuracy of the translation or the validity of its explanations, the author's credentials compare to any and lend well to the work's credibility as one of importance; but, of course, as is the case with any such work, it will succeed and fail on an individual basis. No two experiences of it will be the same; and what will move you (or not) is something intangible; beyond the translation; beyond the original; beyond words themselves to what the Tao Te Ching, in its poetry and silences, points to all along. As Derek Lin says: "The Tao is, and has always been, intended for freethinkers."


You can visit www.taoism.net for more information. The web site offers supplementary material that will enhance the book with additional depth and details. There are also articles and stories that further illustrate the principles of the Tao. They also host a message board forum where you can ask questions and connect with people from all over the world who are also drawn to the Tao.

Copyright Richard Seymour 2006. Right to use this article in any medium, in full or edited for an unlimited time, in any region is given to Derek Lin.