Beauty and Ugliness in the Tao Te Ching

Our process of translation and interpretation tends to involve a series of three-way e-mails within which we come to terms with each chapter. The following is an excerpt from the discussion of Chapter 2 (Please forgive minor imperfections. It is, after all, an e-mail.):

First off, let’s just discard my nonsensical first lines: “The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, but this is only the ugly.” There is nothing to be gleaned from this.

Moving on, it seems like we have some work to do because the first two lines in both of yours are focused very differently. Julian’s seems focused on the negative productions: “recognize beauty and ugliness is born.” It seems to imply that we create ugliness by recognizing the good. John’s, on the other hand, takes a more positive approach, making it sound as if it is the existence of ugliness that ALLOWS us to see the good. Keeping my discussion thus far limited to the first two lines, Julian’s seems to prescribe neutrality in the interest of avoiding the necessary production of negativity while John’s seems to (more optimistically) preach a quiet acceptance of all things: “Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.” We have to take the good with the bad. Both of these sentiments seem very Taoist and I like the sentiment of John’s better, but I think it’s safe to say that, given the rest of the text, Julian’s is more in line with the overall point of this chapter. It does, after all, go on to state that the sage is wise in his inaction. (I’m jumping back from having finished this message to add the following clarification: It isn’t talking about beauty creating ugliness. Beauty and ugliness are products of our mind: labels. The tao simply is. It isn’t beautiful or ugly. Judgments and labeling just open up the door for bullshit)

The other main obstacle that I’m trying to work through is how both mine and Julian’s seem to make it sound almost as if the sage creates the ten thousand things. John’s stays neutral on this again, saying merely that the ten thousand things rise and fall without cease. I like this best, but I’m trying to find a way to understand what the other one’s were getting at, so please allow me the following stretch:

If you recall the direction we went with the last one about how naming allows us to interact with the world, specifically the sentiment: “Naming is the mother of the ten-thousand things,” we can sort of see where this “creationist” aspect may have sprung from. In the Jaynesian sense, our minds can’t truly interact with something until they have the words to do so. We can’t discuss the nature of dogs until we have agreed on a definition of what makes a dog. Until that has happened, we can only discuss this animal or that animal that we happen to interact with. In this way, naming sort of does create the ten-thousand things, the myriad creatures. I firmly believe that our interpretation of naming in the last chapter (that names are a hindrance spiritually, and a necessity functionally) was correct, so I have to be able to reconcile this chapter with the last.

So, getting on to the “sage” action, I actually like mine and John’s the best here. Julian’s “the sage moves without teaching” either misses the point or is too vague for me to understand it. John’s “teaching no-talking” is good, but also a little hard to grasp on first glance. I like mine the best: “the sage takes no action and practices the teaching that uses no words.” This, of course seems paradoxical, for to imagine someone sitting inactive and saying absolutely nothing gives one the image of a meditative state, perhaps, but not really any sort of “teaching.” Given that the taoist “sages” of old saw fit to compile the Tao Te Ching, I don’t think anyone is actually prescribing complete silence or an absence of words. What they are doing is prescribing a teaching that acknowledges the shortcomings of words, of naming; a teaching that aims for an understanding that is beyond the words. Perfect examples abound. If we take this chapter literally, focusing on the words rather than the underlying teaching, we might conclude that we should do and say nothing. This is obviously false.

I think one of the reasons I had so much trouble with this chapter initially is that I thought of it as a broad statement on existence as a whole. Now I think it actually has a much narrower scope. I think, for the most part, it is a message/warning to sages, teachers, translators: those who would try to convey Tao to others. I think this passage is very specifically aimed at the (would-be) sage rather than absolutely everyone. I think it flows naturally from the last chapter that began this wariness of words.

The closing lines are also difficult to grasp, but not impossible with this new perspective. This is one of the few times where I actually prefer mine to either of yours. Oddly enough, in this chapter that vaunts the benefits of teaching without words is actually benefitted by a slightly longer translation:

“Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking
no action and practises the teaching that uses no words.
The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority;
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.
It is because it lays claim to no merit
That its merit never deserts it.”

I feel like I fundamentally get this, but actually pinning it down to one specific meaning would be difficult. Between the 2nd and 3rd line above, there is a bit of a rift. I don’t quite know what the “it” is in line three. It could merely be the teaching, but I think there is just a logical connector missing there, and it is now talking about the Tao. It almost seems as if the last 6 lines are an example of the “teaching that uses no words.” It is ALMOST as if the last lines are a broad Taoist lesson that has been specifically selected BECAUSE it can speak directly to the sage (I’ll show you what I mean below):

The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority’
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
(These lines are obviously broad statements on the nature of the Tao. It is the source of all things, but it claims no authority. But I think the teaching is specifically worded so that a sage/teacher could apply it to themselves: “Your teaching can give people a better, more fulfilling life, but this does not give you authority over them. You are benefitting them, but not for compensation. Be like the Tao”)
It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.
(Again a broad statement about the nature of the Tao that serves as a warning to the teacher: “Do not let your position as teacher go to your head. The teaching springs from the Tao, you are but the vessel it flows through.”)
It is because it lays claim to no merit
That its merit never deserts it.
(For the sage: “Don’t do it for the recognition or the lessons will be tainted. If you focus on the teaching rather than merit, the lesson will not be lost to ego.”)

As always, I finish with a different understanding than I started with. I hope I didn’t bungle it up. I feel like I want to take more liberties with this one. The first 8 lines seem like really redundant examples of the same thing without actually explicitly making the point that Tao is beyond these labels, that these labels are a human creation. Tao is neutral. Making claims of positivity necessitates the existence of a balancing negative. I really don’t think this is a warning against experiencing beauty so much as it is a warning against labeling Tao. It kind of makes me want to add a line and snip a few.

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