Books I love: Stephen Mitchell’s “Tao Te Ching: A New English Version”

Tao te Ching: A New English VersionIf I was going to be stranded on a desert island for the rest of my life and could only take one book with me, I’m not 100% certain which one I’d pick. But I am 100% certain that Stephen Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching: A New English Version would be on the short list. It is one of the very few books I’ve read that legitimately changed my life.

I discovered it more or less by accident. I’ve written before about my experience living with depression, and how the pain it causes ebbs and flows. Once, many years ago, when it was well and truly flowing, I found myself in a bookstore hoping to find consolation in philosophy. I grabbed a few books at random, one of which was Mitchell’s Tao.

The others didn’t help much, but this one did. In fact, it kind of blew my mind.

It’s not a long book; just 81 short chapters, most less than one page long. There are editions of it small enough to carry around in your pocket. But don’t be fooled by that — there are ideas here deep enough to spend the rest of your life thinking about.

The Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

Part of that comes from the timeless nature of the Tao itself, of course. Written hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, the Tao Te Ching is one of the foundational texts of Chinese religion and philosophy, and over time hundreds of translations spread its influence around the world. Its short, gnomic verses invite contemplation, like a puzzle waiting for the reader to solve it.

The heavy is the root of the light.
The unmoved is the source of all movement.

Thus the Master travels all day
without leaving home.
However splendid the views,
she stays serenely in herself.

But Mitchell’s contribution to this work shouldn’t be underestimated, either. Eager for insight, I’ve read several translations of the Tao beyond Mitchell’s, but I’ve never found one that affected me as deeply as his. He takes this ancient work and renders it in English prose that, diamond-sharp and flashing, approaches poetry.

Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.

That prose has brought A New English Version criticism ever since it was first published. Mitchell’s work is more interpretation than translation, his detractors charge, departing from the letter of the text in its efforts to communicate to a modern reader its spirit.

When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.

And maybe that’s the case; I don’t read classical Chinese, so I’m in no position to judge. But I’m approaching this work as a lay reader, not as a Taoist or an historical scholar, so I’m less interested in the strict accuracy of its translation than I am in its use as an aid to thinking. And I know no translation of the Tao that has given me as much to think about over the years as Mitchell’s.

Act without doing;
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.

I won’t attempt to summarize the book’s message here. Who would be so bold as to try to summarize in a few words a book that people have ruminated on for thousands of years? But I can tell you what I have taken away from it, which is that so many of the problems we humans struggle with in our lives are just smoke from fires that we ourselves have lit.

The Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

That the secret of living in the world is found in learning how best to embody what the world is, rather than taking up hard iron tools to try and force it to become something else.

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

That the way to embody what the world is can be found in shedding pretensions and embracing humility.

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.

That ambition is a snare set for human hubris, regardless of whether it leads to success or failure.

Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
you position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

That true leaders understand they are actually servants.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”

I don’t expect you to agree with all of these positions. I don’t; or at least, I agree with some more than I agree with others. But I have found that the act of engaging with them, of hashing out how closely I should hew to them in my own life, to have a remarkable ability to blow away the smoke that clouds my mind and help me see things more clearly. It’s grounding, centering.

When I first discovered A New English Version, it was summertime, and I was volunteering with a group that taught theater skills to high school kids. We were doing Shakespeare in the Park that summer — A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because of course — in a bandshell in a beautiful park; so I spent a lot of time between scenes sitting on a green hilltop reading this little book. And as I sat there reading, the sun shining on my face and the wind blowing through my hair, this book taught me how to still the cacophony in my brain, how to find a place inside myself that I had never even realized existed. Someplace quiet, peaceful, where I could focus on the work that was immediately before me and tune out the rest of the world’s distractions.

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

Words to live by.