on May 28, 2004
Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao te Ching is a refreshing departure from most literal translations of such works. The fact that he attempts to translate the meaning as opposed to the language of the text is what makes it refreshing as well as suspect. The reader must rely upon Mitchell's spirtual background to have faith that they are reading a book by Lao Tzu as opposed to Stephen Mitchell. This is a good book for a reader seeking an easy to read Tao. More serious readers should consider reading a more standard translation prior to reading this book. Despite this caveat, I found this to be an excellent second book and read it more often that the more literal translation that I also own.
on August 25, 2010
The soul of Chinese literature is poetry: from oldest "Book of Odes" to TangShu (Tang poetry) to SongZu (Song dynasty poetry) to YungQu (Yung dynasty poetry) . Underneath this glorious landscape were Lao Tzu's (551 B.C.) influences running through gem-like poems by Wang Wei, Li Po, Mon Ho Jung(701-761) and reached the sea of Japanese Haiku poets, Basho, Buson and Issa(1763-1827). It is obviously the prerequisite read for anyone who wants to understand Chinese culture and philosophies of Zen. Lao Tzu's impact goes further beyond that: as the "most widely translated book in world literature, after the bible," TAO TE CHING finds religious and political leaders, business owners and enlightened masters, readers and writers alike worldwide, return to the source of his words and find its use inexhaustible.
In certain times of ancient Chinese history, TAO TE CHING was reserved for emperors and rulers, while commoners were instructed to study Confucius and Mencius. This is because Lao Tzu's spiritual scripture is liberating and best suited for people ready to unlearn what they learned, let go of their egos and emptied their minds from the world of experience for the being of higher innocence. Thus Lao Tzu teaches truth through words of paradox:
All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power. (66)
In 81 brief chapters that contains a mere 5000 Chinese words, Tao Te Ching "looks at the basic predicament of being alive and gives advice that imparts balance and perspective, a serene and generous spirit (Book cover). Mr. Mitchell interprets Lao Tzu, the erudite librarian and eminent scholar in his own time correctly when he writes, "it's clear from his teachings that he deeply cared about society, if society means the welfare of one's fellow human beings; his book is, among other things, a treatise on the art of government, whether of a country or of a child." The reactions upon reading Lao Tzu's words range from "babbling" to "lofty" but actually his teaching couldn't be easier:
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures. (67)
TAO TE CHING in its original Chinese text is referred to as "one of the wonders of the world". Every word written by Lao Tzu is a microcosmic image of macrocosmic world, complete with sound, tone, shape, rhythm symmetry and metaphoric resonance. It is the Chinese written characters that makes TAO TE CHING (and Chinese Poetry) an Art of art's kind. Through translation, it is all lost. What can be saved is the philosophical wisdom of Lao Tzu and Mr. Stephen Mitchell, through his own genius had masterfully rendered Tao Te Ching into English poetry with brilliance. It takes a poet and a scholar to translate another. If Lao Tzu is the most-read Chinese philosopher in the West today, we have Mr. Mitchell's New English Version to thank for. While Mr. Mitchell's translation is the best place to start, other works such as Dr. Wu's translation that has original Chinese text in it are also recommended. They are puzzle pieces for a better glimpse of the continent of the Way. But as proverb goes, "don't look at the hand that points to the moon. Look at the moon." Ultimately, we should all be looking at the truth that Lao Tzu is pointing to within us, be it English or Chinese.
(This text refers to the Hardcover edition.)
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (Asian Institute Translations, No 1)
on February 10, 2004
Tao Te Ching is ancient, now a couple of millenia in print. Stephen Mitchell has not translated this classic, but rather has paraphrased it -- as he admits in the Foreward. But he is a Zen student of a couple of decades and has good insight into the Zen of the Tao (Zen Buddhism is Buddhism heavily dosed with Taoism).
Mitchell's version of the Tao Te Ching is very, even extremely, modern. Perhaps to the point of being "politically correct." However, he does have a way with words and this is a very readable version of the Tao. To show how modern it is, let's take an example and compare his version of the beginning of chapter 46 with two other versions:
"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."
- Victor Mair
"When the Way prevails under heaven,
swift horses are relegated to fertilizing fields.
When the Way does not prevail under heaven,
war-horses breed in the suburbs."
- Addiss & Lombardo
"With TAO under heaven
Stray horses fertilze the fields.
Without TAO under heaven,
Warhorses are bred at the frontier."
Obviously, there were no factories, trucks, tractors, or warheads in ancient China. So, Mitchell is providing a modern interpretation of the Tao Te Ching, while Mair as well as Addiss & Lombardo are closer to a literal translation (which is not possible however, because the Chinese language and the English language are so completely different from one another.)
None of this is to find fault with Stephen Mitchell. This is just to say that his book cannot be definitive, because it is less literal and not really a translation. However it is good, compelling reading, and honestly makes no pretense of being a literal translation. If you like Mitchell's approach, get one of the more literal translations too. I bet Stephen Mitchell himself would like you to have both.
on May 9, 2013
If your someone like myself your a skeptic when it comes to anything religious. I'm an ex-christian brought about by some very bad experiences in my youth which caused me to search for a different path. Many years later I got involved in Tai Chi, and talking with my Sifu we got onto the topic of this. I figured I would buy it and give it a read. It was something that showed to me that if only I had found this knowledge 20 years ago life would have been far easier. But even now it just gives you a way of looking at things that calms your mind and brings about ways of dealing with life's inconsistencies more easily. Coupled with my Tai Chi training I have found life to be much more easily dealt with and I am much harder to come to anger.
For any person from any religion this is a great read, not to try and steer a person from their path but to offer other options of looking at the world to better understand it and yourself. Because from what I have found the more options a person has to view the world from, the far easier it is get through it with less stress, and more success!
on April 26, 2002
As Mitchell admits, he doesn't read Chinese. Instead of calling this a "translation," he calls it an "English version." But why would you want to read a loose English paraphrase by someone who can't read either the original or the early Chinese commentaries on it when you could read a translation by any one of a number of gifted and insightful scholars?
The standard defense of a "version" like Mitchell's is that he has some special insight into the text that entitles him to interpret it. But the danger of an interpretation like Mitchell's is that it projects modern Western preconceptions onto the Tao Te Ching instead of allowing us to be challenged by the powerful, paradoxical, and even frightening original text. In fact, Mitchell projects Zen Buddhist and New Age ideas into his "interpetation." (And, No, Zen Buddhism is not the same as Taoism, any more than Catholicism is the same as Judaism.) Someone who actually reads the original Classical Chinese, and is familiar with the historical and cultural context in which the text was composed is much more likely to be insightful about the text. Another common comment is that someone like Mitchell doesn't get lost in boring scholarly stuff. But there are plenty of exciting, fun to read translations by people who can actually read the original. The first Tao Te Ching translation I read was by D.C. Lau. He was a truly great scholar, but his translation is very elegant and very readable. Other terrific translations by people who actually know the "text and context" include those by Victor Mair, Robert Henricks, and Philip J. Ivanhoe. (Ivanhoe's translation is available both as a separate book, and as part of the anthology he co-edited, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy.)
Oh, and the "editorial review" that Amazon lists above is actually not a review of Mitchell's translation at all. (There is no way to report that using their "corrections" button.)
on September 12, 2002
Having spent my youth in Korea; being both Korean and Chinese with a twist of Japanese (Dad was born there and spent his childhood there); and having spent most of my life in America, I've enjoyed and found this translation of the Tao Te Ching to be enlightening.
I've read other translations of the Tao (Dao). Even with my connections to the East, I've found reading other translations to be extremely difficult--they were all too literal. Stephen Mitchell has captured the essence of the Tao allowing the reader to get a broad, general understanding.
I think that this is a great intro to the Tao. Once reading this translation, move on to more literal translations. The problem with the more literal translations that I've found is that some of the analogies, metaphors, and specific Chinese references (ancient and modern) make it all too unapproachable.
I find it amazing that some occidental reviewers were able to attain such a clear grasp of the more literal translations where I could not (not only am I Asian-American, I have a very strong background in philosophy). Maybe the Tao has truly blessed these individuals with a deeper insight, or maybe they're just pretentious poseurs.
If you've never read the Tao, please start with this one. Once having a foundation, consider moving on to a more literal translation. I can clearly state that even though this may not be a direct translation, this is good stuff, and there's nothing in here that will lead your spiritual quest astray.
It is said, "The Tao te Ching is a book you can read in an hour or a lifetime."
Here's a little handy hint for the game of life folks:
"Start with the good, and then seek the better. Seeking instant perfection will only lead you to frustration."
Keep seeking, Seekers.
on April 13, 2002
Mitchell claims his most empowering qualification for writing this version of the Tao Te Ching is that he has been an ardent student of Zen for many years. This is akin to claiming that virginity is an automatic qualification for knowledgeably expounding on sexual love.
Mitchell's Zen influence is apparent throughout. Instead of trying to be true to Lao Tzu's intent, Mitchell obviously delights in simply trying to make Lao Tzu's teachings as mystical-sounding as possible. In the very first chapter, for example, Mitchell begins:
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
Wow. How mystic.
Far better would be something like this:
The true Tao is not the Tao you may think it is;
The essence of the word Tao lies deep within, not merely
in its surface meaning.
This rendition is flawlessly faithful to both Lao Tzu's words and intent. Its meaning is naturally deep, but without artificially trying to make Tao Te Ching passages seem like a series of irrelevant Zen koans.
Three lines down, Mitchell adds:
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Lao Tzu never taught the nonsensical notion that we should rid ourselves of desire. When we are hungry, we desire food. When we see someone in need, we often desire to help. Only corpses are free from desire. And that is the way it should be. A common attribute of Chinese Taoists is that they are relatively free of sexual fears, phobias, and repressions. Their sexual desires, therefore, are often quite unfettered.
A better rendering of that same passage would be something like:
Through the void, we can understand the latent
And through the physical, we can understand the limitless
The only thing a reader will learn from Mitchell's version is precisely what Taoism is not.
on March 28, 2002
This may be a best seller, but don't waste your money. It is New Age dross, with Lao-tzu flaunting concepts that were politically correct in California in the 90's. Mitchell is totally ignorant of all religious and philosophical aspects of Taoism, and admittedly cannot read Chinese. Loosely based on other versions, Michell ad libs whenever he fancies. Where the Chinese texts literally says: "not competing so no blame," Mitchell interprets: "When you are content to be simply yourself and do not compare or compete, everybody will respect you." Even fortune cookies read better.
Tao Te Ching describes a peace-loving country that gives saddle horses the mundane task of hauling manure. In contrast, the people in the war-mongering country raise warhorses outside the towns. Mitchell boldly substitutes this with contemporary images: When a country is good "factories make trucks and tractors," and when a country is bad "warheads are stockpiled outside the cities." He has turned Tao Te Ching into... manure.
on January 7, 2003
I will be the first to admit that I am not a student of the Tao. My first exposure to it was when a friend gave me this book during a particularly difficult time in my marriage. I found it's simplicity of presentation and firm stance on principles refreshingly graspable. Unlike most self-help books, it does not preach or give advice, it's just there. If you choose to emulate "the master" that is your business. What makes this book so user-friendly is that it speaks in generalities that can be bent or interpreted to fit one's needs. I have heavily underlined and highlighted certain passages that I found applicable to my situation. I like to keep the book handy for periodic review (in the bathroom, if you must know), and I notice that when a few weeks has elapsed since my last reading, the marked lines speak to me anew. One passage in particular that has become my mantra during this very trying time is "Empty your mind of all thought. Let your heart be at peace."
on July 17, 1999
I have only read one other version of the Tao Te Ching. The other was very pretty and well respected. It also made very little sense, was sexist, and had little if anything to do with my life. Stephen Mitchell, after 14 years of Zen training, has brought this amazing and beautiful work into our times. With non-sexist language and beautifully illustrating examples, he shows the modern westerner how to truly comprehend and embrace this wise and simple philosophy. Mitchell sometimes strays from the literal translation, but always for the better, and never without letting the reader know. His notes in the back are amazingly insightful and include the literal translations of the few parts he's changed. I read from this amazing and beautiful book every day.