Bad Lao Tzu meme adds to growing list of mis-identified quotes online


This bad meme is going the Internet rounds:

“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself, if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.” Lao Tzu

Well, although deep – if a bit saccharine – it’s not from the Tao Teh Ching, the only work that the Old Master (the literal translation of his name) ever produced.

The Tao Teh Ching is a notoriously difficult book to translate. Although it consists of a mere 5,000 Chinese characters, translations can vary wildly. Compare this one with the one linked above for example. One site compares three versions (Legge, Suzuki and Goddard). This site has 175 translations of the first verse alone, dating from the late 19th to early 21st centuries, which indicates the numerous, complex ways translators have approached this work and how many ways there are at trying to wrestle the meaning from it.

Hua Hu ChingThe quote actually comes from a translation of another Taoist work called the Hua Hu Ching (Huahujing), which although attributed to Lao Tzu, is actually a forgery. According to scholars, the Huahujing was actually written some 500 years after Lao Tzu lived, by Taoist Wang Fou, ca. 300 CE. Apparently he wrote it as an anti-Buddhist polemic after he was defeated in debate by the Chinese Buddhist monk Bo Yuan. The earliest text was only one section, but by the beginning of the eighth century it had been expanded into ten or eleven.

Historical Chinese records suggest it was first produced in the late third century CE. Some scholars give it a later date because the earliest reference to to the work is from the period of 420–477 CE. The oldest extant version is from a slightly later period. The content suggests it is much later than Lao Tzu because it contains references to all sorts of later Taoist practices such as herbal medicine, feng shui, tai chi and sex:

A person’s approach to sexuality is a sign of his level of evolution. Unevolved persons practice ordinary sexual intercourse. Placing all emphasis upon the sexual organs, they neglect the body’s other organs and systems. Whatever physical energy is accumulated is summarily discharged, and the subtle energies are similarly dissipated and disordered. It is a great backward leap. For those who aspire to the higher realms of living, there is angelic dual cultivation. Because every portion of the body, mind, and spirit yearns for the integration of yin and yang, angelic intercourse is led by the spirit rather than the sexual organs. Where ordinary intercourse is effortful, angelic cultivation is calm, relaxed, quiet, and natural. Where ordinary intercourse unites sex organs with sex organs, angelic cultivation unites spirit with spirit, mind with mind, and every cell of one body with every cell of the other body. Culminating not in dissolution but in integration, it is an opportunity for a man and woman to mutually transform and uplift each other into the realm of bliss and wholeness. The sacred ways of angelic intercourse are taught only by one who has himself achieved total energy integration, and taught only to students who follow the Integral Way with profound devotion, seeking to purify and pacify the entire world along with their own being. However, if your virtue is especially radiant, it can be possible to open a pathway to the subtle realm and receive these celestial teachings directly from the immortals.

The Tao Teh Ching has none of this material: it was added later to his teachings.

Hua Hu ChingThe Hua Hu Ching is a work of Taoist philosophy and practice also known as “the scripture of transforming the barbarians.” That’s because it’s recounts a fictional journey by Lao Tzu out to the “Western Regions” and into India, where, the legend goes, his teachings formed the basis of Buddhism. The work seeks to position Taoism as the supreme philosophy over other beliefs, especially Buddhism which at the time it was written was challenging Taoism for popularity among the Chinese populace:

The world is full of half-enlightened masters. Overly clever, too “sensitive” to live in the real world, they surround themselves with selfish pleasures and bestow their grandiose teachings upon the unwary. Prematurely publicizing themselves, intent upon reaching some spiritual climax, they constantly sacrifice the truth and deviate from the Tao.

Hardly objective: it’s a strong, often angry, political stance about the superiority of Taoist beliefs. The message is clear: there’s a fight over the hearts and minds of the populace here. To prove their superiority, Taoists had to portray Buddhism as a weakened, distorted version of Taoism.

The fault of attribution lies both with the people who repeat this quote online without checking its source, and the translator. This verse is from a translation by Brian Walker. The full verse (no. 75) reads:

Would you like to liberate yourself from the lower realms of life? Would you like to save the world from the degradation and destruction it seems destined for? Then step away from shallow mass movements and quietly go to work on your own self-awareness. If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation. So find a teacher who is an integral being, a beacon who extends his light and virtue with equal ease to those who appreciate him and those who don’t. Shape yourself in his mold, bathe in his nourishing radiance, and reflect it out to the rest of the world. You will come to understand an eternal truth: there is always a peaceful home for a virtuous being.

People have cherry-picked from the work, taking lines out of context. It’s actually an interesting, deep and complex work, well worth reading for its historical and political context. You can’t simply remove lines without losing some of the meaning. In this case the verse exhorts the reader to find a suitable teacher and submit to his/her discipline in order to achieve self-transformation. It also assumes the reader’s beliefs are in concert with Taoist and Chinese beliefs about “lower realms.” Similarly other verses refer to the “immortals.”

Walker attributes the work to Lao Tzu, which is a surprising statement given the easily available research on its origins. A lot of material is available in English to explain when and why the book was written. In his 1993 introduction, Walker wrote,

The Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu is … believed among Westerners to be Lao Tzu’s only book. Few are aware that a collection of his oral teachings on the subject of attaining enlightenment and mastery were also recorded in a book called the Hua Hu Ching (pronounced “wha hoo jing”). The teachings of the Hua Hu Ching are of enormous power and consequence, a literal road map to the divine realm for ordinary human beings. Perhaps predictably, the book was banned during a period of political discord in China, and all copies were ordered to be burned. Were it not for the Taoist tradition of oral transmission of sacred scriptures from master to student, they would have been lost forever. I am permanently indebted to Taoist Master Ni Hua-Ching for sharing his version of these teachings with the Western world after his emigration from China in 1976. My work here is largely based upon his teaching.

Walker’s work is skillful, poignant and poetic, but scholarly writing I’ve found contradicts his attribution to Lao Tzu. He suggests it only exists in oral form, however, a copy was found in 1997 in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, China, dating from around the late 4th or early 5th century CE. Walker seems to ignore the inconsistencies in the text or its evident political stance.

One of the problems that oral traditions face is that transmission from one generation to the next is seldom if ever entirely accurate. Memories fail, ideologies intrude to change the message, people can mishear a word. verses handed down orally for 1,500 or more years is bound to be corrupt when compared with a written version. Walker’s work has to be read with that in mind.

An alternate translation of the book, by Hua-Ching Ni, is much longer than Walker’s version, and retains the debate format so it reads as a series of question-and-answer dialogues between a young prince and a learned Taoist master. It, too, incorrectly attributes the authorship to Lao Tzu despite the very obvious references to later practices and beliefs that post-dated Lao Tzu.

Here’s another bad quote mis-attributed to Lao Tzu, this one from Facebook, mis-identified as coming from Lao Tzu:

“Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. Love still stands when all else has fallen.”

This is actually from the New Testament (Corinthians), not Lao Tzu. Once again the problem is that lazy people don’t check sources to confirm the author, and simply attribute it to whomever they decide seems like a likely source. Never assume that what is posted online – especially anything posted on Facebook – is accurate. Always research the content before you spread another bad meme or urban myth.