Learn how to Learn from the Daode Jing
Dao De Jing Study Guide and Translations
The Mysterious Dao De Jing (The Canon of Daoism), written by Lao Zi (over 2000 years ago), is a profound little book that captivates the minds of millions of people around the world. Although obscure and difficult to fathom, its renowned popularity is testament to its intriguing contents which speak to something deep and eternal within us. It speaks to a part of us that cannot be described by words but is recognised as something prevailing and universal.
Oftentimes, You will read the dao de jing and be able to capture the essence of its meaning in its verses or some of the verses. And oftentimes, you will read verses which didn't make any sense upon reading them the first time which then make sense after reading them again months or even several years later. This process could repeat itself again and again as you uncover more and more layers of meaning. What does this mean? It means that something inside you changed. This is what is so captivating about the dao de jing.
The additional difficulty with reading the dao de jing is that it was written in Ancient Chinese. Native Chinese Speakers do not read the dao de jing directly, they read what has been translated into modern Chinese and any version that you read (as an English speaker or any other language) is a translation of this, combined by the translator's personal interpretation and understanding. Additionally, when we are speaking about translation, not only is it difficult to translate the different forms that the Chinese characters manifest over time, what is even more difficult to translate is ancient grammar into modern grammar. Even the changing forms of the characters results in some loss of meaning.
This means there could be several layers of translation and interpretation before the final, readable result becomes available (which every individual will also interpret differently in their own way upon reading). It is an interpretation of a translation of a translation neatly wrapped in an intriguing and alluring mystery within a mystery! An additional point to be aware of is that translators of the dao de jing may not be daoist or have any kind of experience with daoist or other practices and thus researching an individual translator and their background could be of value when choosing a version of the dao de jing to study.
This is why it is good to read many different translations from many different authors to get a better chance of grasping the true meaning of the book. This is one aspect of studying the dao de jing. Despite all this, the intrigue and recognition of the book as a gem still persists. It seems that the wisdom contained in the book is able to speak even through the many layers of translation and interpretation, even if ever so softly.....can you hear its whispers?!
The other aspect of studying the dao de jing is personal practice. The dao de jing is not a book of philosophy! It is first and foremost a practical text based on the understanding of the microcosm and macrocosm and the human being's place in it. When one engages in daoist practice (Such as Qigong, Tai chi, Taoist Meditation and Taoist Internal Alchemy) one has the opportunity to connect with the essence of the dao de jing and better understand it. This is the best way to study the dao de jing: from the inside! This is because Taoist practices such as Qigong are practical and based on the natural principles and phenomena detailed in the dao de jing (such as yin-yang), giving one the power to understand the world within and around them and make positive changes in one's life.
Here is a summary of tips on how to read and study the dao de jing:
The number one most important point is to - ALWAYS - check the source of a daodejing quote. If the quote cannot be linked to a particular translator or source you could be reading something that someone made up and put Laozi's name on it or a 'bad translation'.
Acquire a daodejing translation with the original text in Chinese that shows you how each Chinese character is being translated into English. Here is a good example:
You can do your own investigation/interpretation by using an online translator to get the meanings of individual Chinese Characters into English and piece together the meaning of each daodejing verse. Here is a link to a website with the Chinese text which also provides meanings for each individual Chinese character:
Link to an online Chinese Dictionary:
As you can see, it's important to at least put some extra work into reading the daodejing because you could be reading something that is not correct or more of an interpretation. Below is an example of one of the most famous quotes from the daodejing and how the original Chinese text is quite different from the resultant translation/interpretation:
Chapter 64 of the Daodejing:"A Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"
Sounds beautiful and inspirational right? But if we look at the more literal meaning it reads differently:
Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zú xià;
Thousand | Li | of | go | begin | from | underfoot
This literally reads as: "A Journey of a thousand li (miles) begins from under your feet"
This is a perfect example of the issues with translating the daodejing and how meaning is significantly shaped by translation and interpretation!
See Below Various Translations of the Dao De Jing