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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"The way to do..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: The way to do is to be.

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"The way to do is to be."






What way this quote ascribed to Lao Tzu comments is hardly the Way of which he spoke. It is rather nonsensical, like a joking wordplay. That is also what it has become, in a famous threesome that appeared at first as graffiti on a warehouse wall in Richardson, Texas. A Dallas newspaper reported in January 1968:


Bud Crew says that a month ago he wrote this on the warehouse wall at Bud's Tool Cribs in Richardson: "'The way to do is to be.' - Leo-tzu, Chinese philosopher."
A few days later, a salesman wrote under that: "'The way to be is to do.' - Dale Carnegie,"
Recently, says Crew, an anonymous sage has added still another axiom: "'Do be, do be, do.' - Frank Sinatra."



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       My source is the website Quote Investigator in a text from 2013. I don't know if the misspelling of Lao Tzu's name was on that wall or in the newspaper only.

       It is hard to make serious sense of the quote. Lao Tzu preached non-action, wu-wei, so he would recommend just being instead of hurrying to do things. But it would not work as a complete substitute. There are still things needed to be done in our daily lives.

       Nor is 'being' to Lao Tzu a state of its own, a sufficient form of human existence. That's more Zen, at least symbolically. He would rather have it something like: We are what we do, so we have to be careful about what we do. Not that he said those words, either.

       Still, this quote is from a Tao Te Ching version, by Witter Bynner in 1944. It's the last line of chapter 47 (page 55 in the 1962 edition). Bynner was so fond of it that he also wrote it on a page of its own in the beginning of the book, as if this quote were the essence of Lao Tzu's teaching.

       But it is a questionable translation of that line in Tao Te Ching. It is the third of characteristics of the sage (my version):


Completes without acting.


       James Legge in 1891 expressed it, about the sages (page 89):


...accomplished their ends without any purpose of doing so.


       It is the wu-wei method of fixing things with minimal interference, which is not the same as simply being. To Lao Tzu, total passivity was no goal in itself, but by not springing into hasty action many additional problems would be avoided. Given time, things tend to solve themselves.

       Bynner's big portion of poetic license, so to speak, is increased by his use of rhymes. That certainly does not make translating Tao Te Ching easier, if trying to stay close to the original content. But it's not an unreasonable aspiration.

       The major part of Lao Tzu's text is written in rhymes. Bernhard Karlgren (1889-1978) in an essay on the subject from 1932 found that about three quarters of Tao Te Ching are in verse (page 4). But that is so much easier in Chinese, since there are many words sounding the same. Furthermore, the Chinese tradition allows for rhyming with the same word.

       Most other languages lack these benefits, which is why few translators have made the same choice. When they have done so, it has been only with sections rhymed in the Chinese text. So did James Legge, but not with this chapter.

       Not only with the rhyming, Bynner allowed himself significant deviations from the original, especially regarding the last three lines:


Search your heart and see
If he is wise who takes each turn:
The way to do is to be.


       I would say that he got caught by his rhymes. Here is my wording:


The sage knows without traveling,
Perceives without looking,
Completes without acting.


       Legge wrote, with an explanatory remark within parentheses:


Therefore the sages got their knowledge without travelling; gave their (right) names to things without seeing them; and accomplished their ends without any purpose of doing so.


       For more about Witter Bynner and his version of Tao Te Ching, see the chapter A man with outward courage.

Stefan Stenudd
September 21, 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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