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Hermeneutics and Taoism

To: Taoism-Studies-L
From: tyagi uzt (
Subject: Hermeneutics and Taoism
Date: 49940728

Quoting: |anonymous others

|You can believe and propogate all the principles you want. It's another 
|thing to pretend a certain text you can't read is your justification and 
|support for such principles. 

I agree strongly here.  My impression is that if one is to use texts to
justify one's assertions then one had best understand the language in
which the text is written and have done some very careful analysis of
that scripture.  I hope that I shall not come to use texts in this way
in this forum, since I admit I know very little of the Chinese language.

|And it's particularly tiresome - and cruel to the text - if it
|turns out that the so-called "principle" is NOT to be found in the text at
|all, but projected there by "translators" and ...

Here we seem to part company, though I do think your point is well-taken.
The problem comes when we try to find a time that 'it turns out', as you
have stated.  My impression (from reading a few essays and commentaries by
translators) is that the old texts are written in a fairly ambiguous style
and therefore may encapsulate a wider range of meaning than we shall ever
be able to comprehend.  Perhaps you (or some of the other scholars in this
group) could comment on this concept of the traditional taoist texts so 
that we can appreciate the circumstance of difficulty in translation 

Support of your assertions by virtue of your comprehension of Chinese 
language is a mark in your favor when attempting to comprehend and convey 
the meaning of the texts which still exist.  Experience of the tao need
not be attained through study of those honorable characters, however,
and it is possible that the essence which inspired Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu
and others may well inspire different expression ('correction' if you
like :>) than the original authors.  I agree with you that we ought be
very careful to identify our authority in the matter and I hope to do
this consistently for myself in this forum.

|Principles are one thing; texts another. Don't confuse them (as you 
|seem to mistakenly accuse scholars of doing).

We are agreed that they are two different things, yet I think it is very
important to understand the relationship between them.  As I see it,
principles (such as tao or te) may be described after having experienced
them.  Sometimes this results in texts.  Another who happens upon a text
may be led or inspired to an experience of those original principles, and
sometimes this inspiration may even come from what you would consider a
'poor translation'.

I don't say that scholars do anything as a whole.  I have seen some who
identified themselves as scholars failing to embody the principles which
the texts attempt to communicate (at times in their very ambiguity).  I
cannot tell if my sight was fuzzy or if they were poor students.

My impression is that 'distinguishing impossible readings' may be dangerous
and that to do so limits the value of the text itself.  I do not say you
should refrain from this, only that doing it may be difficult and harmful
if done without a full comprehension of the principles toward which the
texts point.  Can you, with full assurance, say that you know the tao so
completely as to decide the matter for others in this way?

|There are "translations" out there
|that are just impossible to justify on the basis of the original text, not
|just because a word or phrase has been taken loosely, but because the text
|has been so profoundly ignored in what is presented as its English
|representative, that the meaning and implications of the English are either
|diametrically opposed to what the original says (e.g., the first line of
|Lao Tzu as a declaration of ineffability vs. a display of the tao in
|language) or it gets lost under padding that imports a whole range of alien
|concepts (e.g., the gnostic and neoplatonic over- and undertones of the Lao
|Tzu translation posted some days back). 

I agree with you very strongly, and think that rather than criticize the
poster or the author of the 'reinterpretation' of the text, it would benefit
us all if you were to calmly identify the text (e.g. Bynner's) as such,
provide your reasons for making this identification, and then go upon your
way.  Criticizing the source rather than the text is a waste of our time.

|Anyone who resonates to
|gnostic-neoplatonic ideas will find that "translation" very exciting; the
|sad thing is they will think that Lao Tzu, and not some misguided
|"translator" who doesn't know Chinese but "understands" the Chinese heart
|and spirit, is the source of their excitement.

Again, I agree with you.  I only wish to point out that there are many
possible faces of taoism, and that what masquerades today as 'a translation
of _Tao Te Ching_' may be hailed tomorrow as 'a pertinent work on taoism
inspired by _Tao Te Ching_'.  

As we are concerned not *only* with the texts but with the principle (else 
best call this list: tao-te-ching-l or the like), let us analyze what is 
presented from both a scholarly and mystical perspective.  I am prepared
to listen carefully to the words of scholars such as yourself, and I hope
that you are willing to reflect on the experience of some who may not have
such a grasp upon the scripture, yet have experience with the principle.

|>  Therefore it is somewhat pointless to
|>make it at all.  Knowing things is over-rated.  If one finds in one's heart
|>the principle which appears to compare with what the texts say to you, this
|>is perhaps more important than any sort of intellectual understanding of
|>an historical document.
|Such dualisms everywhere! Heart vs. intellect, principle vs. text, life vs.

Does dualism cause you distress?  I tend to see things in terms of *polarity*
actually, rather than strict and combative dualism.

|You say knowing is over-rated, but you make plenty of claims as if
|you knew the better from the worse - and one should either believe you or
|they're a fool (or an intellectual, which seems to be worse). 

I am the fool.  I merely type words upon a screen.  You are free to ignore
them.  I do not fear either pole, yet I see strengths and weaknesses in each.

|Heart and mind are the same word in Chinese (xin), so no dichotomy there 
|that a Chinese of Lao Tzu's day would have understood. 

I do not claim to be Chinese or to understand the Chinese language or
psychology.  I speak in terms relevant to those who use English.  I hope
you can see past my general ignorance and get to my meaning.

|Principles and texts are different (apples and oranges), not in competition. 

Agreed, with comment as per above.

|Life IS history. A line
|that appears in both the Lao Tzu and the Confucian ANalects is that the
|present should be managed on the basis of the past. Both Lao Tzu and
|Confucius had a deep respect for history, and saw life and history as two
|ways of talking about the same thing.

It is evident that you and I are using the term 'history' in different ways.
What I mean by 'history' is a dry and 'confirmed' hypothesis regarding how
'the world was'.  I do not see that life is this at all.  Personality,
character, perhaps.  But not life, not experience.  Could you elaborate?
|Why call this "universal" object taoism? 

The universal object is not, of course, taoism.  Taoism can be seen as very
many possible objects, from a religious tradition to a philosophical school;
from a mystical discipline to an alchemical lineage.  'Taoism' is a name that
was applied to a very diverse social structure, if my reading has taught me
anything (please correct me if you know more/differently).

What I am calling 'universal' is what is known as 'tao'.  I think that the
Chinese, from whom the word comes, I think, thought and still think of tao
as a universal pattern/theme/movement/way/path.  It is tao to which I refer
when I say 'principle' and I had thought that 'taoism' took as its focal
point the expression about, upon, around and from 'tao'.

Again, I am not as familiar with the study of Chinese and China as you,
so I would appreciate your reflections upon my words here.

|Are you so sure that Lao Tzu, and Chuang Tzu, and the rest of the 
|Taoists were gazing at the same Object you are? 

1) I am not sure that 'Lao Tzu' existed.
2) I am not sure that either 'Lao Tzu' (given his existence) or 
	Chuang Tzu should be considerd 'Taoists'.  I gather that
	they did not refer to themselves in this way, at least.
3) I am not sure that anyone who calls themselves 'Taoist' or anyone
	who does not do so is 'gazing at the same object as I am'
	when they apply the term.

However, the expressions of many writers on the subject do seem to
conform to my experience of that gazing.  This is as much as I can
say about my 'authority': that I have certain experiences which lead
me to think that there is a universal principle which I've heard
that the Chinese describe as 'tao', and that I may well have experience
of it.  I could be mistaken and admit as much.

|How do you know? On the basis of translations that have butchered
|their writings to give the appearance that they do? 

I do not know.  I don't feel that certainty is at all valuable.
I find that the translations of the texts in question more often suggest 
that a wise course is not certainty but movement within uncertainty.
As I am not a scholar, I could not comment on the quality of any

|Or are the "principles" just so self-evident to you that it would 
|be impossible to conceive of Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu seeing things in 
|any other way? 

I admit that I favor certain mythos and that the stories surrounding
particular historical and nonhistorical individuals (like Chuang and
Lao, perhaps) do inspire me.  I also note the writings I have sampled
who attributed concepts and syntax to these men have at various times
reflected deeply my experience of the world.

Could I conceive of things differently?  Surely.  Would I want to?
I'm not sure.  Perhaps you can assist me in revising my assessment
by reflecting your understanding of the texts into this list.  I think
that I would find this more valuable than criticism of my ignorance or
the ignorance of others.

|Hold to any principles you wish, but you owe it to the actual taoists 
|to be sure that what you claim in their name is what they themselves 
|said, and not what you in your heart of hearts may believe they should 
|have said. 

With this I of course concur.  I think the problem then becomes finding
out just who these 'Taoists' are and what they said.  I would not claim
to know either (though I have some half-formed ideas), and I would love
to hear your reflections on why you select certain individuals (within
China?) as 'Taoists' and others as 'nonTaoists'.

|Otherwise, that's just cultural and spiritual imperialism.

I would agree if I were somehow attempting to associate myself with
the texts which you study.  I will not do this except to say that
I have been greatly inspired by the translations which I've perused,
and that they often contained within them patterns which reminded
me of my most profound experiences.  Were the patterns that I saw
there ones placed by true Taoists?  I don't know.  Perhaps you can
assist me in determining this.

I understand that you may be away from this list for awhile and I am
sorry to hear this, since it seems you are open to communicating on
the subject and have interest in doing so.  I extend my invitations
within this post to all those within Taoism-Studies-L and hope to
hear a diversity of opinion on the issues we're discussing.

With great respect for you in our exchange,

tyagi uzt

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