One of the books I'm working on at the moment is my own version of the Tao Te Ching. For those of you that don't know, the Tao Te Ching is the central text of Taoism. It is thought to be the oldest complete sacred text dating back to something like 500 years BC and is said to have been written by a mysterious figure called Lao Tzu. Whether Lao Tzu was a real person or is a mythical figure, no-one is sure and some say the text is an amalgamation of several philosophers writings. I don't know about all that, but I do know that the Tao Te Ching is a wonderful text full of beautiful poetic subtlety (when well translated) and profound lessons about the nature of life the universe and... well, everything!
"So," I can hear you thinking "...why are you writing your own version of a profound, ancient Chinese text? Do you even speak Chinese? Who the hell do you think you are anyway??!!"
All fair questions. It is in the nature of translation work - especially in a language which is so different in it's nature to English (Chinese being made up of pictograms which have image-based significance as well as linguistic) - that the translator is not a mere technician swapping one bolt for another in the machine of language, but is an artist re-creating the original work in another medium. Imagine getting a Picasso painting and then asking a contemporary artist to re-create it as a piece of music. It's not quite the same thing but translation is closer to this metaphor than we often like to think. There are some wonderful translators out there (one of my favourites is Daniel Ladinsky who has translated a lot of the Sufi mystics - check out his book 'Love poems from God'). There are also some wonderful translations of the Tao Te Ching - I've read about 6 or 8 cover to cover over the years, some many times, and dipped into a further 5 or more that weren't as good in my opinion. To be clear, my opinion is based not on being a scholar of the Chinese language but on having studied and lived with Taoist arts for much of the past 10 years or so. The ones that I feel really capture the essence of the Taoist outlook are the translations by: Gia-fu Feng and Jane English; Stephen Mitchell; and Ursula LeGuin.
There are some great translations out there... and I feel there's space for another one! I wanted to write one in language that doesn't lose the wonderful sense of the mysterious but is in slightly more 'modern-friendly' language. There is also, in the Taoist tradition, a great sense of humour and rogue-ishness. The other versions of the Tao Te Ching seem to me to be missing this quality. It's probably the case that the original text didn't have this quality so they are accurate translations. None-the-less, I wanted a version with a sense of humour so as no-one else seemed to be forthcoming in writing such a thing, I thought I'd do it! I've written the first chapter below for you to have a read, I hope you enjoy it.
The Tao Te Ching is written in 81 'Chapters' and each chapter is a kind of poem. The first chapter is considered by many to contain the essence of the entire book.
My Tao Te Ching - A Fools Guide to Effing the Ineffable - By Francis Briers
I'm going to talk about something
I'll call it Tao (which means 'Way').
By Talking about it I'm only going to confuse matters,
But if I don't,
This will be a very short book.
Even by calling it "Tao" I've taken something amazing,
And wonderfully mysterious,
And reduced it to a 3 letter word.
Direct experience, no matter how confusing, is the real deal.
As soon as I give it a name it's just another thing
Like the toaster,
Or the train,
Or Auntie Maureen,
Or the Jelly mold...
When we let go of our need to pin things down
Our confusion can be very beautiful.
When we get obsessed with having all the answers
All we can see is the toaster.
Strangely: Beautiful confusion and the toaster come from the same place.
This place is called "The Dark."
It's so dark you can't see anything,
But if you want to understand
Then "The Dark"
Is the only place worth looking.
If you like this and you'd like to be kept up to date on this and other books I will soon be publishing then drop us a line and we can put you on the mailing list. There is also a spiritual development course coming up in October which has a Taoist element and we will be offering other Taoist influenced workshops in the future - please do get in touch!