A Contemporary Re-appropriation of the Tao Teh Ching for a Western Audience



            The Tao Teh Ching was written during the fourth century B.C. according to the oldest documented text that has been recovered (Online). With documents as old as this, however, nothing can be certain, for even the authorship is highly debated. The credit is given to a man named Lao Tzu, which translates to “Old Master,” who researches believe to have worked as the record keeper at the imperial court (Online). The Tao Teh Ching consists of eighty one “chapters” each of which has been translated into poetic verses; the focus of these verses range from advice for kings and emperors, to advice for lay men, and plenty of advice in between for artists. Traditionally, this text has been interpreted as a general philosophy of life, but in my reading I looked at the words of Lao Tzu from a new perspective, trying to find the Taoist paradigm for writing.

            Through my reading I discovered a universal perspective that not only applied to the artistic applications of writing, but also to composition and rhetoric. Though most of the text rejoices in the metaphysical realm, I found that it also addresses more concrete issues such as receiving criticism, writing to an audience, the weakness of an argumentative essay, and how revision should be approached.  My methodology was simple: when Lao Tzu refers to the “sage” in a verse, I simply crossed out that word and replaced it with “writer.” This simple change in diction did not alter the meaning of the text, but it produced a wholly original reading, in which I discovered the tools that would allow the writer to tap into the universal flow of energies in a virtuous manner in order to approximate truths in his writing.

In my analysis of the Tao Teh Ching, I believe I managed to bridge the gap between the present and the deep trenches of history and none of the dust and cobwebs remain despite the age of the text.  The largest gap I bridged was the disconnect between Western and Eastern culture, for I had no choice but to approach the text from the perspective of one indoctrinated into Western Rationalism. I found that the areas of the text that carry the most meaning are where Eastern and Western philosophies intersect; I found references to Freudian psychoanalysis and even Nietzschean philosophy. Nietzsche wrote that the final stage of the artist’s evolution is to become the child, and the Tao Teh Ching refers to the same idea: “In the midst of the world, the [writer] is shy and self-effacing, / For the sake of the world he keeps his heart in its nebulous state, / All the people strain their ears and eyes: / The [writer] only smiles like an amused infant” (113). For year I have struggled unsuccessfully to attain this transformation, but it was not until this reading that I understood how it could be done. If a writer strives to keep his heart in a nebulous state, then the writer will abandon all of his firm convictions. Doing so will alter the form the writing process takes, changing it from a “knowledge-telling” medium into a search for understanding. This shift in the writing process will eliminate the hubris that discourages the reader, and the self-effacing style will put the writer and the reader on a level playing field, where the reader will be much more willing to accept what the writer has to say.

            The idea that writing is a process through which the unknown can be discovered should be self-evident, but that does not make it any less intimidating. The Tao Teh Ching acknowledges this dilemma, as this writing process requires the writer to “Open the passages! / Multiply your activities! / And to the end of your days you will remain helpless” (119). The writer must be willing to make himself vulnerable, because that is the price of having an open mind. If the writer maintains any wall of defense to protect himself, the reader will not be able to penetrate this wall, and no meaning will have been found.

            The hesitant writer may still have reservations about making himself helpless, but this fear can be assuaged through the invention process, in which the writer must tap into the wellspring of the Tao. Lao Tzu describes the Tao in purposefully ambiguous terms, as ambiguity is the point through which reality unfolds itself. The first two lines of the Tao Teh Ching are: “Tao can be talked about, but not the eternal Tao / Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name” (3). We have all encountered the phenomenon where we have something we desperately want to say, but for which we can never find the words in which to say it. For a writer this will always be aggravating, but the writer must understand that writing can only hope to be an approximation of actual thought. Metaphors are the strongest tool of the writer, because if an idea is spelled out as a truth, the writer will have ignored the ineffability of reality, and the desired meaning will dissipate into nothingness. If the writer understands the difference between words and thoughts, and seeks only to approximate thought, then unknown meanings will be conjured in the mind of the reader, which should be the writer’s goal.

            Even as Lao Tzu acknowledges the Tao as being ineffable, he follows his own advice and conjures deep meanings through his use of metaphor: “Between Heaven and Earth, / There seems to be a Bellows: / It is empty, and yet it is inexhaustible; / The more it works, the more comes out of it. / No amount of words can fathom it: / Better look for it within you” (11). In this metaphor, the writer becomes the forge, where words are shaped. The Tao becomes the bellows, which intensifies the potential of the writer. It has been powering the writer’s soul from birth and the writer’s potential continues increasing as he ages. If the writer can only learn to tap into the energy provided by this Bellows, the writer will never run out of words to write. If the writer learns how to balance introspection with metaphor, then the writer will have perfected his craft.

            By following the ideals established in the Tao Teh Ching, a writer will be able to use his words to influence others, but if the writer is not careful his egotism will prove his ruin. Lao Tzu often refers to the importance of humility in verses such as: “Therefore, the [writer] wants to remain behind, / But finds himself at the head of others; / Reckons himself out, / But finds himself safe and secure. / Is it not because he is selfless / That the self is realized?” (15). By lowering himself, the writer will find a much more accepting reader. In order to instill the most power within his words, the writer must remove himself from his written text. He must allow the text to take on a life of its own, for the words that the writer transcribes derive from the Tao, which is the invisible flow of energy that exists separately from the writer. For the writer to claim ownership of this impersonal force would imply such gross arrogance that the writer would lose his self and no meanings would be conveyed. Only by respecting the energies of the universe will the writer learn to see himself as a part of a greater whole, and only then will the task succeed.

            By nature, writing strives to transcend temporal reality, to find the immutable truths of our reality. The Tao Teh Ching could be the most transcendental text ever written, for only hints can be felt of ancient China within the text. Lao Tzu not only provides the rules to be a successful writer, he also demonstrates every claim he makes within his own writing. I firmly believe that the Western tradition is inherently flawed because it tries to exist separately from the Eastern tradition. There is no reason for the two traditions to be incompatible, but the combination of Eastern and Western thought is still a new phenomenon in our world. While the Tao Teh Ching does not qualify as a new form of writing by itself, when it is re-appropriated into our own world view, it does create a drastically new way to view the writing process, and I believe that the patterns new writers will take in the future will be increasingly influenced by Eastern philosophy.



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