Tao Te Ching: A Reader’s Guide to the Great Taoist Classic

Lao Tzu

Legend has it that around the sixth century BCE, during the Spring and Autumn period of ancient China, a wise and venerable philosopher found himself so distraught over the chaos and social upheaval of his time that he decided to flee across the western border of China (into what is now the region of Tibet). But before he could pass beyond the western gates, he was approached by a guard who had heard of his reputation as a person of great wisdom. The guard asked the philosopher to leave some record of his wisdom before passing beyond. And the philosopher retreated for a short time before returning with a simple yet amazingly profound book of his writing, which was passed on to later generations as the Tao Te Ching (or more phonetically in pinyin, Dao De Jing)—the book of the Way and its virtue. And then he journeyed forth across the Tibetan plateau, never to be seen in China again. This philosopher would eventually become known as Lao Tzu, “the Old Master,” and his little book would go on to become not only the foundational text for the Taoist tradition but one of the most widely studied and influential works of philosophy and spirituality to ever grace the cultures of our world.

Of course, whether or not there was an individual named Lao Tzu or even a single author of the Tao Te Ching is hotly contested. But the Tao Te Ching nevertheless stands as one of the shining jewels of ancient Chinese thought and a treasured classic of our global intellectual heritage. It has become so influential, in fact, that it parallels even the Bible in its readership, having been translated into dozens of versions in countless languages worldwide. With so many translations available, the task of choosing a version to read can be downright overwhelming.

We offer this as a guide to the many translations available from Shambhala Publications. Although we certainly don’t publish all of the staggeringly numerous translations available in English, we are proud to share some of the most acclaimed. Below you will find a short description of each of these translations, organized by translator, and also a short guide to additional recommendations for further reading. Each brings out something unique and beautiful, and we hope that you enjoy them.

TAO TE CHING

John C. H. Wu

Many people call the translation from John C. H. Wu their go-to favorite, and since its original publication in 1961 it has been an enduring classic—for good reason. Wu was a hugely important figure in his age, serving as ambassador from China to the Vatican in the late 1940s and having a pivotal role in the drafting of the constitution of Taiwan. Equally at home in both Eastern and Western cultures and languages, his monumental translation of Lao Tzu’s philosophy is a reflection of his mastery of both worlds. As Thomas Merton, his contemporary, exclaimed, “No better choice of translator could be made for the Tao Teh Ching than Dr. C. H. Wu.” His stunning diction has a much-deserved reputation for resonating deeply with the minds and hearts of English speakers, and the clarity of his language makes comprehensible what could otherwise be a daunting read. If you want to learn about this great classic of world literature and aren’t sure where to turn, the Wu translation is a perfect starting point.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Most people know Ursula K. Le Guin for her extraordinary science fiction. Fewer know just how pervasive Taoist themes are to so much of her work. Here we are treated to Le Guin’s unique take on Taoist philosophy’s founding classic. Full of mystery, wonder, and awe-inspiring power, Le Guin’s Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching is a testament to her deep-seated understanding of Taoist principles and their value for our troubled world today and for the future of humanity. If you’ve enjoyed Le Guin’s writing and yearn for a deeper window into her mind—or if you simply wish to explore the philosophical bedrock that shaped an incredible, historically significant feminist author—you will surely find an incomparable treasure in this book. Also of note, the audio edition is read by Le Guin herself (a real treat).

William Scott Wilson

Few translators are as adept and rigorous as William Scott Wilson, especially acclaimed for his translations of great Japanese classics of the samurai age—among them, Hagakure, The Book of Five Rings, and The Unfettered Mind. Here he lends his acumen to the Tao Te Ching by bringing to bear two key sources, a commonly used ancient text from about 200 BCE and a still more ancient, lesser known text written in the Great Seal script of Lao Tzu’s age. The translation alone is unparalleled in its worth. But beyond the translation, Wilson’s Tao Te Ching also offers a wide range of supplements for deeper enrichment: an introduction to the history and philosophy of the text to ground one’s reading, an exploration of Taoist influence on the Zen tradition (a topic of huge significance), reflections on the role of the Tao Te Ching in the development of the martial arts in China and Japan, and extensive notes to clarify the text and demonstrate resonances with related Taoist authors.

Sam Hamill

Sam Hamill is a literary giant—the creator of dozens of acclaimed translations from Chinese, Japanese, Greek, and Latin, and the recipient of countless awards for his outstanding poetry. In this, his majestically sparse and evocative translation of the Tao Te Ching, he weaves together the enigmatic language of the text in a way that captures the imagination and compels the reader to deep meditation. Also included are original calligraphies from acclaimed Zen teacher and artist Kazuaki Tanahashi, which serve to further enrapture the reader to contemplation. This is a true poet’s translation. There’s nothing else like it.

Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo

Prolific authors and translators Stephen Addiss (The Art of Haiku) and Stanley Lombardo (Iliad, Odyssey) need little introduction. And seeing these two names attached to the Tao Te Ching should readily get one’s attention. In their rendition of the text, Addiss and Lombardo sought to achieve four key goals: (1) to let the original enigmatic nature of the text speak for itself as much as possible without explanation and personal interpretation, (2) to be true to the compact pithiness of the text, (3) to avoid illusory gendered language that has no relation to the neutrality of the Chinese, and (4) to offer a glimpse at the Chinese text of each chapter so as to supply a clearer window into the original. Coupled with stunningly gorgeous ink paintings by Addiss at the beginning of each chapter, what you get is an amazingly artful and startlingly relatable Tao Te Ching that will surely stand the test of time as indispensable. As Beat author Gary Snyder once remarked, “Of the many translations I have read in English, this is unquestionably the best.” It’s that good.

Huangshan

For Further Exploration

Tao Te Ching: Zen Teachings on the Taoist Classic

Interested in Zen? Keen to learn more about how Taoist philosophy influenced and informed the tradition? Then this book isn’t to be missed. Written by famed Japanese Zen teacher Takuan Soho, Tao Te Ching: Zen Teachings on the Taoist Classic is a Zen commentary on the entirety of the Tao Te Ching text (here included in its entirety as well). Translated by the masterful Thomas Cleary, Takuan’s Zen commentary is a fascinating exploration of the intersection of Tao and Dharma. And it really helps to show how Zen inherited, synthesized, and carried forward Lao Tzu’s wisdom.

Hua Hu Ching: The Later Teachings of Lao Tzu

Though tradition has it that the Tao Te Ching is the only written record of Lao Tzu’s teachings, there are nevertheless other traditions that purport to carry further teachings of the great Old Master. The Hua Hu Ching is one of them, a compilation of stories about Lao Tzu and his teaching activity from his elder years beyond the borders of China. Thought to have been suppressed for centuries, this rare text has been translated by contemporary Taoist teacher Hua-Ching Ni and serves as a thought-provoking companion volume to the Tao Te Ching.

Wen-Tzu: Understanding the Mysteries (Further Teachings of Lao-tzu)

The Wen-tzu is a second book that is said to contain orally transmitted teachings from the life of Lao Tzu. Whether or not that’s true, it’s a riveting read—and really helps a lot to flesh out the core Taoist concepts found in the Tao Te Ching. Translated by Thomas Cleary, it’s not to be missed.

The Essential Chuang Tzu

Usually when one speaks about essential reading for Taoism, the Tao Te Ching comes up first and the Chuang Tzu second. In many ways, they are the pillars on which the Taoist tradition is based. These teachings from an early Taoist sage are written in the form is easily relatable stories—fables, poetic verses, meandering conversations, and anecdotal wisdom. If you’re interested in Taoism, the Chuang Tzu will make its way onto your reading list sooner or later. This translation from Sam Hamill and J. P. Seaton is joyful, witty, and a delight to contemplate, as any good rendition of the Chuang Tzu should be.

The Taoist Classics

Over the course of his career as a professional scholar and translator, Thomas Cleary has produced dozens of translations of traditional Taoist texts. And the transmission of Taoism to the Western world owes much to Cleary for his decades of effort. This series collects his numerous translations into four extensive volumes. The first volume contains his full translation of the Tao Te Ching along with the Chuang-tzu, Wen-tzu, and others. Subsequent volumes go even deeper into the tradition and shed light on many centuries of Taoist development.

The Taoism Reader

To get a taste of a variety of Taoist texts, The Taoism Reader from Thomas Cleary offers excerpts from many of the books included in The Taoist Classics. It’s a very good starting point for anyone who wants to learn the basics of Taoism—and also makes a great gift for anyone in your life who might have a burgeoning interest in Eastern philosophy.

Taoism: An Essential Guide

Eva Wong is one of the world’s greatest contemporary Taoist expositors—and this, her introduction to the broader Taoist tradition, is immensely helpful. Whether you’ve read the Tao Te Ching and want to learn more about the history of Taoist thought or you’re preparing to read the Tao Te Ching and want to get some context before digging in, this is the book for the job. Highly recommended for anyone looking to learn the heart of the tradition.