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The Tao Te Ching in contemporary western contexts

[ by Charles Cameron — two reasonably diferent ways of contextualizing the Tao Te Ching for the west ]

DQ Tao Te Ching 43 in Modern Contexts

Strange, eh?

I somewhat like Witter Bynner‘s non-literal take on the line in question: “to yield with life solves the insoluble”.

My own carefully ambiguous version: “Chinese meanings can slip through / into obstinate English translators”.



  • Taoistic Taoism Explained
  • Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) by Lao Tzu (Laozi), Chapter 43
  • Physicists solve quantum tunneling mystery
  • 9 Responses to “The Tao Te Ching in contemporary western contexts”

    1. david ronfeldt Says:

      I’ve long read that, in the realms of quantum physics, “particles, such as electrons, have wave-like properties — their exact position is not well defined” — as though such particles can shift between being a solid mass and being a not-so-solid wave. And this is difficult to grasp, in part because it defies the old billiard-ball analogy about atomic structures and their orbits.
      In occasionally wondering about this, I’ve come to wonder whether it would make sense to consider the following as an analog or metaphor: Consider a drop of oil. All by itself it looks like a solid round mass (a particle). Then put it in contact with a larger ball bearing. Now the oil loses its droplet shape (and location) and spreads like a slick (or wave) around the ball bearing. Then, if the oil is shook loose from the ball bearing, it returns to a droplet shape.
      In my readings, I’ve never seen a metaphor or analogy for depicting the existence of an entity as both a particle and a wave. So I keep wondering about the one I raise above. I suppose this isn’t the best place to do so. But at least it gives me a chance to raise it — and as I recall you and/or Zen know a physicist or two. Back in 1970, I did call up a nearby college professor to ask whether my oil-drop analog made sense, but he quickly said no. I’ve not had a new opportunity to inquire since then — it’s become one of those stray ideas one carries around and keeps wondering about.
      Any answers or pointers here?

    2. T. Greer Says:

      The Dao De Jing is one of the most misunderstood books of all time (including by the Chinese). Most of the problems stem from a misunderstanding of what the text actually is. It is a guide-book, meant to be read by kings. Its intended purpose is to help them govern well. In other words, it is a manual on statecraft and the cultivation of kingly character.


      By far the best book anyone could read on the DDJ is Hans Moeller’s The Philosophy of the Daodejing. This small book (<180 pages) is probably the best study of an ancient Chinese text I have ever read. Its greatness is found in its simplicity: it talks about ancient Chinese philosophy in refined, but normal language and never descends into long words that end with “itics” or “ological.” Moeller makes the fair point that the verbiage of modern philosophy was quite unknown to the ancient Chinese, and thus really isn’t necessary to discuss it. Clarity also comes from Moeller’s approach: he takes it to mean exactly what it says it means. The DDJ’s precepts are actually very simple if taken literally, and what metaphors are used do not need labored interpretation so much as they need clear and logical organization. This is what Moeller provides.


      I really couldn’t recommend this book more strongly. His first chapter on “how to read the DDJ” has many implications for reading other books of the same time–say, Sunzi’s Art of War, or the Analects.

    3. larrydunbar Says:

      ” “particles, such as electrons, have wave-like properties — their exact position is not well defined””
      Considering the quality of the people who comment on this blog, I am perhaps not the best person to comment on this, but here goes anyway.
      I think the statement you quoted is misleading. Their exact position is well defined, but not in the the here and now.
      Quantum physics tells us exactly where the electron has been and where it is going to be, but not where it is.
      Your analogy about oil is inaccurate. You are describing, I think, surface tension, which means that when the surface tension brakes, and the ball bearing fails, there is still something (oil)there.I don’t think this is true when it comes to an electron.
      I think the best way to describe the location of a particle wave in the present tense is to think as if it never existed at all. When actually it exists, but probably in another dimension. I think this is what the string theory is all about, which, as I said, I am probably not even in the top 3 commentator who should be answering you.

    4. Charles Cameron Says:

      Thanks for the pointer, TGreer.
      On the quantum question, I’m not qualified to respond. My interest was in the juxtaposition of ideas, not in their accuracy either to “what QM means” (nor to “what the DDJ means” for that matter).

    5. larrydunbar Says:

      “(nor to “what the DDJ means” for that matter).”
      I think what it means is that just because it doesn’t have form, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have position (two negatives is a positive?), it does.
      What we can’t know is if that position is inside the impermeable wall, or on the outside of the impermeable wall.

    6. larrydunbar Says:

      Like an electron, we will never be able to see the form from our position, because either the form never existed, or it is behind the wall and we can’t see it.
      The only way we would be able to see it is if we were that object without form, and had the technology to see ourselves.

    7. larrydunbar Says:

      That is: see ourselves from another position.

    8. ken cowan Says:

      Dear Charles, perhaps you remember how I treasure my several versions of DDJ and how much fun we had talking about those verses. I have since then acquired Jonathan Star’s verbatim translation (Tarcher 2001) which adds several layers of possibility to interpretation and translation. For example, the characters (t’ien)(hsia) begin verse 43 and are often rendered as “on earth” while their stronger(?) sense is “below Heaven.” There’s also a sense of (jou) the soft and yielding, racing (ch’ih)(ch’êng) on horseback (surpassing/overcoming), which is wholly absent in most renderings. I generally agree with T. Greer regarding the importance of the historical and social context in which any work of art appears. His point that LaoTzu’s metaphors are earthy, simple and direct is right on.
      LaoTzu’s world view, 2500 years ago, certainly differs from ours in significant ways, and it makes sense that a custodian of imperial texts would summarize his studies for his liege upon retirement. As a course of instruction for princes, ’tis most useful. Considering that almost every person who can read is today living at a standard undreamed of in ancient Cathay, who would not benefit from the Old Boy’s wisdom?
      Verse 43 is also the place in Lin Yutang’s translation and commentary where she tells the story of the butcher who never needed to sharpen his blade. I used to tell this story to warm-up the food crews at programs.
      Anyway, I have no wish to unleash a slew of intimidating “ahem”s from this most learned and erudite readership.
      You know me, I’m up for Blake, LaoTzu, Rumi, et al. Anytime!
      … I do have some notions about QM … derived from altered states of consciousness … does that count?

    9. Charles Cameron Says:

      Hi Ken:
      Happy to read you here.
      For anyone reading along who doesn’t know it, “the story of the butcher who never needed to sharpen his blade” that Ken mentions is found in Chuang Tzu, and available on the web in three translations here, my preference being for the Burton Watson version, the first on te page.
      If we’d ever discussed the connection between the verse in verse in Lao Tzu about the formless being able to penetrate the impenetrable and this passage from the Chuang Tzu — “here are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone” — I’d clean forgotten it.
      The two had become one.

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