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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"Can you step back from your own mind..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?"






Step back from your own mind? Only by decapitation. Understand without your mind? Not even in your dreams. I am not fond of quasi-philosophical statements of this kind. They aim to sound profound, but really say nothing.

       If "mind" is replaced by, for example, "prejudice" or "misconceptions" there is something intelligible said, and probably Lao Tzu would agree on it. Our minds are full of presuppositions that we need to reexamine, but that would be impossible without the mind.


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       Lao Tzu's text is partly hard to comprehend, for sure, but it would be unfair to accuse him of being intentionally cryptic. He enjoyed the paradoxes and seemingly impenetrable mysteries of the world, and made no secret of it. But Tao Te Ching is mainly celebrated for its clarity and directness. As he said in chapter 70 (my version):


My words are very easy to understand.


       The quote examined here aspires to be paradoxical, as if that would make it more profound. Lao Tzu would frown at that.

       Surprisingly, this quote is from a version of Tao Te Ching - that of Stephen Mitchell from 1988. It is by far the most popular of all English renditions of Lao Tzu's text, though Mitchell has allowed himself quite some liberties in the wordings, often landing far away from the standard translations. Here, too.

       The quote is from chapter 10. Here is my version of the same lines:


Can you comprehend everything in the four directions
And still do nothing?


       And here is Arthur Waley's wording from 1934 (page 153):


Can your mind penetrate every corner of the land, but you yourself never interfere?


       Comprehending and penetrating everything is really the opposite of stepping back from one's mind. Mitchell might have thought of his words as an expression of distancing oneself in order to get the full view.

       But there is still a difference between understanding all things and doing nothing or not interfering. Lao Tzu's challenge of sorts is to remain inactive although you have all the answers - actually just because you have the answers, if they are the right ones.

       Also with the lines right above these in chapter 10, Mitchell is far away from the usual wordings:


Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?


       Here is my version of that part:


Can you open and close the gate of Heaven
And act like a woman?


       And Waley's:


Can you in opening and shutting the heavenly gates play always the female part?


       To Lao Tzu, what he regarded as the female characteristic was gentle yielding. This was his ideal, and also how he understood Tao to be. He wrote in chapter 6, calling Tao the valley spirit (my version):


The valley spirit never dies.
It is called the mystical female.
The entrance to the mystical female
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth.


       Human beings should follow that ideal in their behavior. He stated it again in chapter 28:


Knowing the manly, but clinging to the womanly,
You become the valley of the world.
Being the valley of the world,
Eternal virtue will never desert you,
And you become like a little child anew.


       It is odd that Mitchell should miss pointing this very significant aspect of Lao Tzu's teaching out in chapter 10. He did not omit it in chapters 6 and 28. For the rest of chapter 10, Mitchell stayed within the translating norm.

       For more about Stephen Mitchell and his version of Tao Te Ching, see the chapter A good traveler has no fixed plans.

Stefan Stenudd
September 13, 2020.



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Fake Lao Tzu Quotes - Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Fake Lao Tzu Quotes

Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. 90 of the most spread false Lao Tzu quotes, why they are false and where they are really from. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

       More about the book here.



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