Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tao or Dao

When I tell people I am a Taoist, a frequently asked question of anyone well read in religious texts asks the questions, "What's the difference between Tao and Dao?"

There is a simple answer to this question and a complicated answer to the question.  The simple answer is mistranslation.  When the texts were first translated into English, the word was translated as "tao" and as scholars gained more knowledge (and our communication with China became more open) we learned that a more accurate translation was "dao".  At that point, however, Taoism was well known enough and documented well enough that the change was difficult for lay people to understand.  This led to a strange division of those who kept the old translations (tao, laotzu, etc.) and those that switched to the new ones (dao, laozi, etc.).  Generally, I have found academics to have switched, and those less concerned with labeling to have stayed the same, or like me, came in after the fact and are just confused or don't care which is used (my take). 

The long answer is much more complicated and steeped in judgement.  I would point you to this document for an example of what I mean: what is dao?.  Though there is some interesting information there, the author dismisses all translations and interpretations other than from his own academically driven circle.  Daoism is the name of a religion still existing in China, though it is not recognizable to most Western Taoists (or PWT as the author calls us).  This religion is steeped in traditions and ceremonies that are heavily influenced by the Chinese culture and Confusianism throughout the generations.  These academics are very dismissive and even insulting of other interpretations of the works, especially any coming from the western culture.

I attribute this attitude to a black and white view of what it means to be a daoist (a rather un-Taoist view in my opinion).  An interesting parallel happens in my mind when looking at the history of Taoism to a rather well known religion of Christianity.  If ever there was a group of religious people who couldn't agree with each other, it's Christians.  Among themselves, they have dozens of different denominations, some of which seem to have little in common other than they worship the Bible on Sundays.  Then you have the religions that came before (Judaism) after Christianity (Islamic, Mormanism) that still believe in the teachings of the Bible and Jesus Christ to at least some extent.  The members of each of these religions (in general) feels they are right, and judges those others as wrong and  misinterpreting the Bible.  I feel the same type of thing is happening within Daoism/Taoism.

What led me to Taoism in the first place was the new-age spirituality aspect that the "true" daoists hate so much.  I am not judging these daoists as right or wrong in their assumptions.  Perhaps the translations I have come to love so much are horribly wrong, and misrepresent the actual author's intentions.  I guess my reaction to that is, I don't care.  The teachings are not harming anyone, and if it makes you feel better to designate it as PWT then by all means do so.  My question is, isn't there room for both of us?  Isn't there space for more than a single interpretation of the texts?  So what if some of them are western oriented?  Do you have to judge us in such an insensitive manner?  The Taoism that I love teaches tolerance, is that not so in your version?

I guess it all boils down to, "Can't we all just get along?" 

1 comment:

  1. We utilize both the Wade-Giles and Pinyin systems on our blog, The Rambling Taoists. While most of us use the "Tao" spelling, it's not uncommon to see the The Book of Chuang Tzu written as the Zhuangzi or to see Lao Tzu referred to as Laozi.