Tao Te Ching
"The way is so simple that complicated minds cannot see it."
By Ken Russell
The Tao Te Ching has been one of my favorite books for decades. I have a fondness and appreciation for Lao Tzu. He feels like an old friend. He was a simple man, yet a profound mystic. He left behind no ponderous treatises, no great band of disciples, just one slim book, the Tao Te Ching. But what a beautiful vision it holds: the essence of simplicity and naturalness. I embrace this man because he has stripped away all the spiritual bullshit and defined the mystic way as simply being natural.
This vision of man is stupendous: he is perfectly fine as he is -- if he were to allow himself to be. This vision is so liberating and so inspiring. Lao Tzu simply says, "The way is so simple that complicated minds cannot see it.” That is it. I have found no greater utterance in the whole literature of mysticism, philosophy, or religion.
He doesn't tell you what the way is. "The way that can be defined to death is not the Way to Life." He is wise. Knowing that we cannot speak of that which is beyond the mind, he doesn't even attempt to do so. He merely offers pointers on how to uncomplicate the mind. He tells us to just be still, like allowing muddy water to settle. This is the essence of meditation -- letting it all wind down. What is left is the purity of being.
Others have complicated this vision, even those who claim to be Taoists. Systems and understandings of increasing complexity have arisen, presumably for our liberation. Yet these more complex ways only confuse us without freeing us. They distract us from our true nature. It always comes down to the same thing: "The way is so simple that complicated minds cannot see it." Watch a baby, a tiny child, with no verbal or conceptual mind -- there you see a glimmer of the beauty of existence that Lao Tzu lives in and points us toward. When an adult, as a fully conscious individual, returns to this simplicity and way of being, he or she is known as a Buddha, a Christ, a bal shem tov. What could be simpler!
An examination of our lives reveals the complexities that have been forced on us and that we perpetuate through habit and ignorance. We cannot even eat without experts telling us what is right and what is wrong. We have manuals that tell us how to make love, how to walk, how do to just about everything. There are books on relaxation; odd, because relaxation is the natural state of man. Indeed, the fully relaxed individual is known as a buddha, the awakened one. When all the tensions and conflicts and layers of pseudo-understanding have been allowed to drift away, what is left is just our pure being or buddhahood or cosmic consciousness or the great whatever (my preference).
This simple man, Lao Tzu, can be beneficially contemplated and meditated on throughout a lifetime; his vision is the most liberating of all -- yet the hardest to follow because of its very simplicity. Listen to him again: "The secret of the Tao is found in the smallest detail of the ordinary day. Worthless glitter is quickly seen; the most valuable jade is noticed last.”
I suspect that he would like us to ponder our own lives and our futile attempts to fulfill ourselves through all kinds of strange behaviors and activities. He points to the importance of exploring our lives to see whether we are ignoring what is most important, what is right under our noses, like the air we breathe but take for granted until its supply is cut off. Maybe we have cut ourselves off from something just as valuable. That is what conscious work is about: waking up to the fact of our real deprivation, the impoverishment of our daily existence. Then the quest becomes vital, becomes critical. What is this thing, this smallest detail that we are overlooking?
I have a whole shelf filled with translations and adaptations of the Tao Te Ching . The one, I believe, that best captures the sense of Lao Tzu is The Way to Life by Benjamin Hoff, published by Weatherhill and now out of print. I took the quotations in this article from that version. It is hardcover and relatively expensive but well worth it, if you can find it.
There are many popular and modern renditions of the Tao Te Ching, a good number of which reflect more the people who were doing the translation rather than Lao Tzu. It seems everyone wants to get into spinning Lao Tzu to fit his or her ideas about what the spiritual path is about. The translation that I would recommend as a starting point is Jonathan Star's Tao Te Ching; The Definitive Edition. Now, I can't tell if it is definitive, but I do like his version second to Hoff's. The other major advantage to this translation is that it includes, along with his excellent version, a detailed translation of each Chinese character for every verse, showing the many possible ways any symbol could be interpreted. This allows the reader to see the enormous variables affecting any translation and why the Tao Te Ching is open to so many interpretations. In addition, there are several excellent essays by Star talking about what is involved in translating this work. This book should give you a good basis to explore the many other versions available.