The Whiny Sage: A Note on the Translation of Tao 20

While we ended up being fairly happy with our translation of Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching, there were a few issues of interpretation that seem to be worth mentioning.

Chapter 20 is pretty unique when compared to most other chapters. It is written in the first person and, at least in the three translations that we were working off of, has a fairly whiny and depressive tone to it.

Here is an example of one of the versions we read:

Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles.

Is there a difference between yes and no?
Is there a difference between good and evil?
Must I fear what others fear?
What nonsense!
Other people are contented, enjoying the sacrificial feast of the ox.
In spring some go to the park, and climb the terrace,
But I alone am drifting, not knowing where I am.
Like a newborn babe before it learns to smile,
I am alone, without a place to go.

Others have more than they need, but I alone have nothing.
I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused.
Other men are clear and bright,
But I alone am dim and weak.
Other men are sharp and clever,
But I alone am dull and stupid.
Oh, I drift life the waves of the sea,
Without direction, like the restless wind.

Everyone else is busy,
But I alone am aimless and depressed.
I am different.
I am nourished by the great mother.

We found one interpretation we really liked at The Rambling Taoist. He puts forth that this chapter is essentially about the nature of true wisdom: that the truly wise can seem silent, stupid and reclusive when viewed next to those who would stand on the street corner bellowing their own virtue:

As Lao Tzu eloquently points out, people who genuinely are wise don’t spend their time reveling in their own sagacity. They don’t spend their time announcing to the world how wise they are; they lead simple and humble lives in tune with their own natures. They intuitively understand that there is far more that they don’t understand than what they do understand.

Above this insightful interpretation, the author posted a translation by Stephen Mitchell. Mitchell’s translation differed slightly from those that we were using. Where each of our versions had the narrator saying things like “I am depressed,” or “I am forlorn,” Mitchell’s only real negativity was vague in terms of its origin: “I am like an idiot.”

The essential difference here is that our translations had the narrator overtly complaining about their situation, where Mitchell’s seemed to merely recognize that some attributes of the truly wise person could seem like negative traits to people who don’t know any better.

If we had read Mitchell’s translation first, we would no doubt have reached the same conclusion and not thought twice about it, but since our versions were so rife with statements of self-doubt and depression, we naturally started off in a different direction.

To explain our initial thoughts, I would quote from the introduction of Eckhardt Tolle’s book The Power of Now:

One night not long after my twenty-ninth birthday, I woke up in the early hours with a feeling of absolute dread. I had woken up with such a feeling many times before, but this time it was more intense than it had ever been. The silence of the night, the vague outlines of the furniture in the dark room, the distant noise of a passing train — everything felt so alien, so hostile, and so utterly meaningless that it created in me a deep loathing of the world. The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence. What was the point in continuing to live with this burden of misery? Why carry on with this continuous struggle? I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for nonexistence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live.

“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”

I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first and then accelerated. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words “resist nothing,” as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly, there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that.

This beautiful story of Tolle’s “awakening” reminded us very much of the versions of chapter 20 that we had read. Deep depression is not necessarily the only way to find some sort of enlightenment, but as Tolle describes, it is possible for a total dissociation from one’s self to be the catalyst for a new vision of reality.

In this sense, we would merely like to note that one potential interpretation of chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching is that it is the lament of one who is stepping through the door, but has not yet embraced what lies on the other side.

To be different can be a frightening and depressing thing prior to the realization that what makes you different may, in fact, be your greatest strength.

“What do you think?” he asked in an obvious attempt to encourage reader participation.


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