Tao and Taoism

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Yesterday's NYT has an article by Javier C. Hernández titled "China’s Religious Revival Fuels Environmental Activism" (7/12/17).  It's a long article, filled with a lot of New Age, ecological phraseology that is uncharacteristic of the usual political, military, and economic discourse of the antireligious PRC.  I was drifting along, not paying too much attention to the details of what it said, but this short paragraph — quoting a Taoist monk named Xuan Jing — caught me up short:

As he sipped tea, he jotted down Taoist teachings: “Humans follow the earth, the earth follows heaven, heaven follows Taoism, Taoism follows nature.”

How could that be?  "Heaven follows Taoism" — that doesn't make sense.  If anything, Taoism should follow Heaven.

I read the paragraph again, but it still didn't compute.

So I clicked on the Chinese version of the article, where the offending paragraph reads thus:

Tā yībiān pǐn chá, yībiān xiě xià dàojiā jiàoyì: “Rén fǎ dì, dì fǎ tiān, tiān fǎ dào, dào fǎ zìrán.”

他一边品茶,一边写下道家教义:“人法地、地法天、天法道、道法自然。”

As he tasted his tea, he wrote down Taoist teachings:  "Humans model themselves on Earth, Earth models itself on Heaven, Heaven models itself on the Way, and the Way models itself on Nature."

If you want some chuckles to start your day, check out what Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, and Microsoft Translator do with this.  But one shouldn't really blame them overmuch, since what the Taoist writes isn't Mandarin, but a kind of Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese.

[h.t. Bill Holmes]



18 Comments »

  1. David Scott Marley said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

    It's a quote from Chapter 25 of the Daodejing.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 1:22 pm

    From julie lee:

    Count on Victor Mair to investigate a dissonance and then find an error.

    A note:

    The last sentence: "the Way models itself on Nature" (道法自然)

    The last word , 自然 "Nature", is in Chinese literally "self so", "self thus", or spontaneously so/thus. Thus "the Way models itself on Self-So, Self-Thus (Nature)" This is the ultimate reality in Taoism, just as God is the ultimate reality in Christianity. And this ultimate reality, God, is a mystery (as we learned in primary-school catechism).

    So too the Taoism ultimate reality, "self so, self thus" is a mystery, called "the Dark" (xuan 玄 "dark, mystery"), hence the Way (Tao) as self-so, self-thus (Nature) in the Tao Te Ching is described as "the mystery of mysteries" (xuan zhi you xuan 玄之又玄)。

    Also I find interesting that in Buddhism the ultimate reality is called tathata, "such-ness, thus-ness, so-ness". "Such, so, thus" is the ultimate reality, with no further explanation possible—a mystery.

    I was struck by this commonality on ultimate reality in Christianity, Taoism, and Buddhism.

  3. J said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 1:45 pm

    Unlike Daoism and Buddhism, God is not just a mystery, but He is a person (three, exactly). 自然 and tathā-gata in Buddhism are not 'persons' per se; they are impersonal. The tathā-gata is "[the one who] in that manner has gone," but only "one who" is that way because English requires a dummy subject here.

    This is the key difference between the 'mystery' behind Yahweh/Allah complex from the Levant and the Brahman/Dao/Tathāgata complex out of India.

  4. julie lee said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 2:37 pm

    @ J said,

    Thanks for your comments on "mystery".

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

    Last stanza of ch. 25 as translated by VHM in Tao Te Ching (Bantam, 1990):

    Man
    patterns himself on earth,
    Earth
    patterns itself on heaven,
    Heaven
    patterns itself on the Way,
    The Way
    patterns itself on nature.

    [Because I cannot indent in WordPress comments, some of the formatting has been lost.]

  6. julie lee said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

    A note regarding @J said.

    A quote from Barbara O'Brien
    Updated February 21, 2017

    'Tathata, which means "suchness" or "thusness," is a word sometimes used primarily in Mahayana Buddhism to mean "reality," or the way things really are. It's understood that the true nature of reality is ineffable, beyond description and conceptualization. "Suchness," then, is deliberately vague to keep us from conceptualizing it.' (from ThoughtCo, online)

    "Ineffable, beyond description" gives me the impression of "Dark", a Taoist word for mystery and profundity.

  7. Chris C. said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

    You can indent either with the non-breaking space entity  

    Man
        patterns himself on earth,
    Earth
        patterns itself on heaven,
    Heaven
        patterns itself on the Way,
    The Way
        patterns itself on nature.

    Or with the DL/DT/DD tags

    Man
    patterns himself on earth,
    Earth
    patterns itself on heaven,
    Heaven
    patterns itself on the Way,
    The Way
    patterns itself on nature.

    And I'm hoping this works as I expect, because the preview they used to have for comments here doesn't work anymore.

  8. Chris C. said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 3:41 pm

    The DD tags must not indent with the style sheet they use here.

  9. Neil Dolinger said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 5:08 pm

    "Unlike Daoism and Buddhism, God is not just a mystery, but He is a person (three, exactly)."

    I know this is not Theology Log, but that last part depends on who you ask….

  10. Jonathan Silk said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 5:21 pm

    @ J: tathā-gata in Buddhism are not 'persons' per se; they are impersonal. The tathā-gata is "[the one who] in that manner has gone," but only "one who" is that way because English requires a dummy subject here.

    I am afraid that this is not correct. Tathāgata (compare Sugata) refers to a person/individual (leaving aside the doctrinal issue of what sort of 'person' may be said to exist at all). This is not an English problem at all.

    There is also a gap between tathatā and Tathāgata, which J seems to have erased somehow. But yes, this is not a Theology Log, and I just wanted to make the grammatical point that tathāgata quite transparently refers to an individual.

  11. Alyssa said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

    I'm not sure I understand the error here. Isn't "the Way" just another name for Taoism?

  12. peterv said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 5:31 pm

    @J:

    What scriptural or other justification is there for claimimg that the God of Christianity, in either Roman Catholic or mainstream Protestant theology, has any of the attributes of personhood?

  13. Craig said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

    It seems like the original translator mistook "Tao" (the Way) for "Taoism" (a philosophical belief system about the Way). The original text makes perfectly good sense in Taoist terms if you write "Heaven follows the Tao (the Way)" instead of "Heaven follows Taoism".

  14. John Roth said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 7:57 pm

    @ Craig

    That's my understanding:

    The word that may be spoken is not the Word

    The way that may be mapped is not the Way.

  15. Alyssa said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 10:00 am

    @Craig:

    Thanks! That clears it up.

    @peterv:

    I'm not enough of a theologian to make my own arguments on the matter, but the Catholic Catechism refers to the Trinity as "three divine persons".

  16. Karen said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

    I don't understand the error, either. To me, "Heaven follows Taoism" means the same thing as "Heaven takes Taoism as a model".

  17. julie lee said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 3:27 pm

    @J,

    regarding the Trinity,

    "The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is, as stated in the General Catechetical Directory, 'the most fundamental and essential teaching in the hierarchy of the truths of fa'th.'" " In paragraph 234 of the Catechism we are instructed that 'the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. " –from "The Trinity: Source of All Mysteries", by Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg,, online, catholic exchange.com.

    "In its strict sense a mystery is a supernatural truth, one that of its very nature lies above the finite intelligence." —from "Notion of mystery in Scripture and Theology", Catholic Encyclopedia, new advent.org.

  18. John Swindle said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

    @Karen: See Craig's post. The Tao is the pattern in which everything is believed to occur. Taoism is the belief that things do follow such a pattern. Heaven doesn't follow the belief (Taoism). It follows the supposed natural law (the Tao) that the belief is based on.

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