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The Tao Teh King: A Short Study in Comparative Religion

C. Spurgeon Medhurst


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There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of translations of the Tao te Ching, the root sacred text of Taoism, one of the three traditional religions of China. This one, written by an ex-missionary who appears to have had Theosophical leanings, includes extensive notes on similarities with other religions, primarily Christianity, but also Buddhism and Hinduism. This gives a new way of looking at this multi-faceted text, which has always had appeal to mystics of all persuasions.

This book has 143 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1905.

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Excerpt from 'The Tao Teh King: A Short Study in Comparative Religion'

"In every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him." The Spirit of God is confined to no sect, religion, race nor creed. Wherever hearts are still and aspirations pure the vision may dawn, the voice of inspiration be heard. God has spoken to man in many languages, and the translator of the present work was supported throughout what was often an arduous task by the belief that the Tao-teh-king is a message from above. Like all ancient writings, it may have suffered at the hands of time, but as I have endeavored to show in my notes and comments on the text, the teaching is one which the inner consciousness of all ages has recognized as The Truth. Though Lao-tzu's accent is his own, it is easily seen to be but a dialect of the universal tongue. "And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and the west, and shall recline with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven."

Many are the editions of the Tao-teh-king (vid. the list at the end of this book), but has Lao-tzu ever really been translated? If I have in any measure succeeded where others have failed it is because I have built on their labors. The Chinese is difficult, and mistakes are perhaps inevitable, but I have taken pains to reduce these to a minimum, and with the utmost care have consulted in detail the works of Legge, Balfour, Giles, Carus, Kingsmill, Maclagan, Old and von Strauss during the whole of my preliminary labors. Although unable to agree with any of these gentlemen in their interpretations, to all I am indebted for guidance and suggestions while working my way through the terse obscurity of the Chinese. In the course of my researches I have consulted nearly an equal number of native commentaries, but my chief claim to having come nearer to Lao-tzu's meaning than my predecessors is the fact that it requires a mystic to understand a mystic, and although I dare not venture to number myself with the mystics, I may confess that long before I dreamed of being presumptuous enough to endeavor to translate Lao-tzu into my own tongue, I was accustomed to carry his writing with me on my itineraries as a sort of spiritual vade mecum. My present rendering of the ancient philosopher is not so much a specimen of scholarship as the humble offering of a disciple. The difficulties which lie across the pathway of anyone attempting such a work may be illustrated by a quotation from Dr. Legge's preface to the Yi King (Sacred Books of the East), Vol. xvi: "The written characters of the Chinese," writes this eminent scholar, "are not representations of words, but symbols of ideas, … the combination of them in composition is not a representation of what the writer would say, but of what he thinks. It is vain, therefore, for a translator to attempt a literal version.… In the study of a Chinese classical book there is not so much an interpretation of the characters employed by the writer as a participation of his thoughts—there is a seeing of mind to mind." In this last sentence the Doctor has unconsciously explained why he so signally failed in his efforts to render Lao-tzu into English. Prof. Legge, one of the foremost Chinese scholars of his day, was wholly Confucianist in his sympathies, and it is a pity that so faulty a translation as is his version of the Tao-teh-king should have obtained the prominence and importance which it derives from its inclusion in that monumental series, "The Sacred Books of the East."

It only remains for me to add in this connection that I have made no attempt to accomplish the impossible and reproduce the measured rhythm of the original, but have contented myself with rendering the whole into as clear and concise English as I could command, without reference to the regulated cadences in which a large part of the Chinese has been written. Neither have I considered it worth while entering into any technical defense of my renderings. Such would only have been of interest to sinologues, and sinologues will have no use for such a work as the present little book.

In his "Remains of Lao-tzu," Prof. Giles has endeavored to prove that there is very little of the real Lao-tzu in the essay which goes under his name. Though perhaps few scholars would follow Mr. Giles in all his slashing criticisms—the learned doctor lacks all the qualities necessary for the understanding of a mystical work—it may be admitted that the shadowy and broken progression in the development of the basic ideas of the Tao-teh-king, together with the seemingly needless repetitions, suggest that what we have are but the higher peaks of a submerged continent, not the entire map of the old Mystic's scheme. The thought of the book is a buried thought, the connections of its sentences spiritual rather than grammatical. Divided into two parts, Part I may be described as "metaphysical," Part II as "moral," but the division is rough and not accurate. Were such a liberty allowable, it would be comparatively easy to rearrange the sections into a more orderly sequence than that which they now occupy. Perhaps the index in front may do something to remedy the existing irregularities of the text, while the bibliography, the most complete that has been published, will inform the student where he can find whatever is known of ancient Taoism, unless indeed he is able to search for himself the enormous mass of Chinese literature dealing with the topic.

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