True speech isn’t beautiful,
Beautiful speech isn’t true.
Expertise doesn’t debate,
Debate isn’t expertise.
Knowing isn’t wealth,
Wealth doesn’t know.
The holy person doesn’t accumulate.
Already, considers people’s personal healing his own.
Already, so as to support people’s personal healing more.
Nature’s way benefits, and yet doesn’t harm.
The holy person’s way acts, and yet doesn’t contend.
Limits: Translations, even the nearly literal one above, lose some of the original meaning due to the cultural context of contemporary words. Studying the numerous synonym-like meanings of the Chinese characters in the Word-for-Word translation mitigates this. (Click graphic at right for on-line Word-for-Word.)
Chapter of the Month
I decided to change the periods to commas in lines 2, 4, & 6 as the preceding line for each is closely related. I had actually overlooked a few of the periods so this corrects two issues.
Next, there are a few terms that you might wish to change (i.e., ‘correct’), even though they are terms with which I am perfectly content… so far. Overall, this exemplifies the value of holding more loosely to word meaning in order to see ‘the big picture’ better. Our steadfast cleaving to word meaning is one way we bolster our illusion of self. As Buddha pointed out, our cleaving to things creates and maintains that ego illusion. Cleaving to particular word meaning is one of those “things”. This explains why chapter 71’s Realizing I don’t’ know is better, delivers such a challenge; accepting I don’t know diminishes the illusion of self and so threatens the ego. This is a little like ego suicide.
Line 3 & 4: Expertise doesn’t debate, Debate isn’t expertise. Does expertise actually not debate? The character here is 善 (shàn) — good; satisfactory; make a success of; perfect; kind; friendly; be good at; be expert in; be adept in; properly. “Kind” and “friendly” are the furthest away in meaning from expertise I suppose. Saying, Kindness doesn’t debate, certainly isn’t wrong, but that meaning doesn’t plunge deep enough, for me personally.
Line 5 & 6: Knowing isn’t wealth, Wealth doesn’t know. Why doesn’t wealth know? The character for wealth here is 博 (bó) — rich; abundant; plentiful; win; gain. All of these are rare in nature, at least in realms of the living. Abundant, rich, plentiful circumstances are only possible if whatever is abundant is skimmed off the common ground and amassed. Gains for a few usually, if not always, require losses for many. Naturally, such winning narrows focus. If knowing has anything to do with seeing the ‘big picture’, then catching glimpses of it are less likely as winnings accumulate. Similarly, Knowing isn’t wealth. Wealth is narrow, not the ‘big picture’, not the knowing. (Of course, ‘big picture’ knowing contains within it wealth, just as ‘big picture’ perfection and balance contain within them imperfection and imbalance.)
Line 7 & 11: The holy person… The character here is 圣 (shèng) — sage; saint; holy; sacred; emperor. Sage conveys particular elitist meanings for me, so I chose holy. On Sunday, someone felt that holy conveys an elitist meaning, where as sage doesn’t. This goes to show what a huge impact our personal take on word meaning has upon understanding… or misunderstanding. Therefore, it is important to take word meaning with a grain of salt. Always be alive to the biases your life’s background brings to words if you want to plumb the depths of the Tao Te Ching. This is why considering the various synonym-like meaning for the original Chinese character help illuminate.
Line 8 & 9: Already, considers people’s personal healing his own. Already, so as to support people’s personal healing more. The character here is 愈 (yù) — heal; recover; become; well; better. I’m almost tempted to change healing to well being… maybe next time around. I hope that you see the importance of avoiding hard and fast definitions. Words are like clouds in the sky — more show than substance. Imparting rock-solid meaning to words and names only ends up hoodwinking you, the eye of the beholder.
True speech isn’t beautiful. Beautiful speech isn’t true. Naturally, this immediately evokes chapter two: All under heaven realizing beauty as beauty, wickedness already. All realizing goodness as goodness, no goodness already. Attempting to beautify anything, speech or things, is by its very nature biased. These attempts arise from a focused need to transform what is naturally so into what one imagines being better.
As chapter 25 puts it: And the way follows that which is natural and free from affectation. The Word for Word here is: road (way, principle; speak; think) method (follow; model after) natural (free from affectation). 道法自然。(dào fă zì rán.)
Here it helps to break down the meaning of the duel character zì rán (自然).
Zì (自) = self; one’s own; certainly; of course.
Rán (然) = right; correct; so; like that
Of course, there is no harm in attempting to make things better. It is completely natural, but also completely biased. Truth if nothing else must be impartial and come as close to the ‘big picture’ as possible. The last half of chapter 16 speaks to this nicely:
Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself.
Chapter 81 also harkens back to humanity’s old way, before the Agricultural Revolution brought about civilization. Considering the differences can shed light on problems we face under civilization. Not that we’re ever going to return to the old way, but having a better grasp of all this may help manage our new way better. One of the most disconcerting things in life is not knowing why ‘bad things happen’, so to speak.
Here are some ways I see this chapter relative to the old way (1)
First, Expertise doesn’t debate. Debate isn’t expertise. Expertise is a very prominent feature of civilization’s hierarchical social system. The experts are at the top of the pyramid, the ignorant at the bottom. Although, Taoist expertise may be a bit different, as it embodies what is called profound sameness. Different and yet profoundly the same? No wonder Knowing doesn’t speak; speaking doesn’t know. Debate from this angle becomes impossible.
Next, Knowing isn’t wealth. Wealth doesn’t know and The holy person doesn’t accumulate. There was no wealth in hunter-gatherer times. There were times of plenty followed by times of scarcity. No one accumulated things, either materially or intellectually. (Note: Hunter-gatherers were illiterate and literacy makes intellectual accumulation much less possible.)
Then, Already, considers people’s personal healing his own. Already, so as to support people’s personal healing more. The hunter-gatherers were interdependent by survival necessity. Another’s well being greatly influenced one’s own well being. That depth of connection is only experience now by people whose life and death survival are intertwined — soldiers in combat and disaster situations in general come to mind (2).
Finally, The holy person’s way acts, and yet doesn’t contend. The hunter-gatherers acted very much in tune with nature. They had to cooperate with nature, unlike modern people who have the where-with-all to contend with Mother Nature and bend her to their desires and expectations.
(1) See my series of posts Who are you? for background. Also, see The !Kung of Nyae Nyae, The Harmless People and The old way: a story of the first people for more specific research on the hunter-gatherer way of life.
(2) The short NPR clip, Sebastian Junger Examines Veteran Life After Leaving ‘Tribe’, offers deeper insight into the disconnection problems we face — a problems that was unheard of in the hunter-gatherer old way. Without exaggeration, I see ALL the social problems we face as being the unintended consequence of civilization. I do mean All, but that doesn’t mean to say hunter-gatherers didn’t experience their own interpersonal discord at times, just as all other animals in nature experience. The problems were interpersonal not societal as is the case now.