The Virtue of the Way


There’s a Facebook meme going around inviting people to list their favorite ten books – or, rather ten books that feel significant in one’s life without deeply thinking about it.

I’ve noticed among my friends the larger majority list as one of those most important the Tao Te Ching, that lovely little book of aphorisms from the mists of Chinese antiquity. Attributed to Laozi (or, from my generation Lao Tzu), putatively a librarian in the royal court. The biggest problem is Laozi simply translates as “old man,” and, well, is an unlikely real name. The oldest texts seem to date from the fourth century before the common era. A very old book.

Like so many of my friends I counted it as one of my first thought ten really important books.

And, even as I sit with the wonderment of books that have profoundly influenced me, it remains on the short and even the shortest lists.

Powerful document.

I’ve read it in maybe a dozen of the hundred plus translations available in English. (Here are eleven English versions) I’m very much aware there is something of an eye of the beholder quality to these various translations, the text is oblique and open to wide interpretation, ranging from vacuous to profound.

Another of the things I noticed in the lists my friends posted was a specific reference to the “translation” by Stephen Mitchell. I use scare quotes here, recalling a Taoist scholar friend who nearly collapsed in horror when I once mentioned Mitchell’s version as my own favorite. The truth of the matter is, as I understand it, Mitchell barely reads Chinese & even I can tell how he takes liberties with the text.

For me these limitations are balanced by his competence as a poet as well as his years as a Zen monk and his obvious integration of those perspectives with his presentation of a very powerful adaptation of this document, venerable, dynamic, adaptable, it would appear, to every generation.

(Another example of his skill at bringing a cross-spiritual analysis to difficult documents is Mitchell’s introductory essay to his translation of the Book of Job. It took my breath away. And it continues to inform my spirituality in a profound way. But I digress…)

As a first read Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching can be just what the doctor ordered.

If your heart is caught by it, I would then move on to both scholarly translations and other poetic versions.

It’s short. It is one of the foundational spiritual documents of our common human inheritance.

Give it a try.

You probably won’t regret it…

And, a small post script. If you like Laozi, you really should check out Zhuangzi’s (Chuang-tzu’s) “Inner Chapters.” Also on my ten book list. Deep upon deep…

  • Charles Yugen Stuart

    Have you read Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation? I can’t recommend it highly enough. All the poetry, none of the inaccuracy.

    • pennyroyal

      I keep it on the headboard of my bed and agree, it’s very fine.

  • MichaelNewsham

    “Those who know it do not speak about it. Those who speak about it do not know it.”
    Who, then, wrote this book of 5000 characters?


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