Review of daode jing, Laozi
Translated by Thomas Meyer (Flood Editions, 2005)

Hank Lazer

Thomas Meyer’s new translation of the daode jing by Laozi is superb. It is one of those rare books that I read deliberately, a couple of pages per day. When I finish it, I begin again. As with so many of the books from Flood Editions, this one too is simply and beautifully designed. You will want to buy more than one copy of the book; you will want to have a second copy at hand to give as a gift to a friend.

The daode jing goes by many different names; a more common transliteration is the Tao Te Ching, and the author of this wisdom-text is more commonly referred to as Lao-tzu. Meyer worked for many years with a couple of translations at hand along with the original text, making his way slowly, word by word: “So, for ten years, each spring I have read the daode jing, character by character, one chapter a day, eighty-one days, five thousand characters” (104). Meyer’s version of the legend of Laozi, a contemporary of Confucius, is that he “was the emperor’s librarian and renowned for having read everything there was to read” (107). What gets transmitted as the five thousand character daode jing is what Laozi tells to the border guard who stops him as he leaves the country: “Then, as now, things could not get worse but did. Big troubles were afoot. Those with power abused it. Those without grew cunning and two-faced. The old man finally could stomach no more greed, dishonesty, or corruption. The time had come, he told himself, to get out of China” (107).

Without punctuation, with a minimum of capitalization, and with chapter divisions kept unobtrusive, Meyer creates a wise, smart, seamless book. This daode jing has a seeming ease and directness, but also a slippery quality – a finely nuanced shifting quality of blurred beginnings and endings, and a sense of how phrases add to one another or not. Meyer’s approach to the work has the deliberateness of attention – truly a wakefulness – that Thoreau advocates throughout Walden, and his translation invites a similarly deliberate reading process. Meyer’s work has a wonderful continuity to it, and an easeful compression, a colloquial but exact feel to it, with some wonderful shifts of direction within a line. As we read the work, we can feel our own labor in constructing what phrase goes with what so that the reading takes on a pleasantly deliberative and collaborative quality to it. Each reading is slightly different from the previous one, and each day we can determine when we have read enough to begin the day.

Meyer manages to be respectful of the elusive nature of the fundamental terms dao and de, as in section 21:

the de’s natural action comes only through the dao
that thing the dao is is hard to see and hard to hold

hard to hold and hard to see inside are images
hard to see and hard to hold inside are things

timid and shadowy inside are essentials
these essentials are unmistakable

inside these are consequences
from time past until now its name has never been lost

this is where everything begins but how can I know this
it is its own answer (25)

Meyer gives the dao an elusive but lucid self-sufficiency: “the dao remains forever unnamed/ unformed though subtle” (41).

The daode jing, perhaps because its speaker knows he is leaving and will disappear forever from public life, offers an unapologetic guide to living. It is an ethical and moral work of great wisdom:

best is a mind not made up
then that mind is everyone’s

and the good are good
and those who aren’t good are good too

this [is] how goodness works
to trust those who are trustworthy

and to trust those who aren’t as well
this is how trust is maintained

live in this world breathe it in breathe it out
let the world dissolve your mind

it and everything in it fixes upon your eye
and your ear and needs your mothering (58-59)

Though the daode jing has a feeling of didacticism to it, it is a clarity of statement that takes great pains to undo itself as it goes, and to undo the egotism of the reader as well. We are left with a task of considerable simplicity: to breathe in and out while being utterly attentive and without preconception.

Laozi’s pained observations have, sadly, a contemporary exactness to them:

if we see victory as a good thing
then we take pleasure in killing
if we take pleasure in killing
nothing in this world works out (40)


anything that doesn’t work the way the dao does
comes to an end all too quickly

. . .

armies and their weapons are tools
of misfortune and ignorance (39)

There are also exhilarating glimpses of a world suddenly become attuned:

the dao does nothing so consistently
that nothing goes undone

when those in charge see this
the whole world comes into its own (45)

Reading Meyer’s book is as refreshing, clear, and enigmatic as drinking a glass of fresh spring water. It is a taste and sustenance hard to pin down.