Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Why scholarship is important

There are a lot of really bad translations of Daoist texts being published and since most readers simply don't know a lot about how to read an ancient text, a lot of misconceptions are being fed by these books. There is a whole scholarly field devoted to the systematic study of books, which is known as Hermeneutics. I thought I'd spend a little time introducing the reader to a couple ideas that came to me while reading the Liezi.

Let's look at a short passage from the Eva Wong translation:

"The Book of the Yellow Emperor says, "The Valley Spirit that does not die is the Mysterious Female. It is the foundation of heaven and earth. It continues forever and cannot be used up." Because the valley is hollow, it can hold the spirit, it can embrace, and it can nourish. Because the valley is empty, it is not subject to birth and death. To transcend birth and death is to enter into the Limitless (wu-chi) and be at one with the origin of heaven and earth.

The Gate of the Mysterious Female is where all things are created. And yet heaven and earth are said to be born from the not-born. This is what is meant by "that which is not born gives birth to everything," for the Mysterious Female is that which is not-born. Its origins belong to the realm of non-differentiation, where there is neither birth nor death. Because it is never born, it never dies. Because it never dies, its energy lasts forever. It is in heaven and earth, and heaven and earth do not know it. It is in all things, yet all things do not recognize it.

If we understand that birth and death are part of the natural order things, we will know that our lives cannot be controlled by our own efforts, and coming and going are not our own doing. At birth, we take a shape and form; in growth, we undergo development and change; and when our course has run out, we dissolve and return to where we were before we were born.

If we know the order of things, we will understand that when intelligence and wisdom have reached their zenith, they will begin to fade and decay. The rise and fall of shapes, colours, thoughts, and feelings are not subject to control. Because we don't know whence they come or where they go, we can only say that everything that is born comes from the not-born. (Eva Wong, Lieh-Tzu, Shambala, 1995, p.27)

Now let's look at a more scholarly translation of the same text, this one by A. C. Graham

'"The Book of the Yellow Emperor says:

The Valley Spirit never dies:
It is called the dark doe.
The gate of the dark doe.
It is called the root of heaven and earth.
It goes on and on, something which almost exists;
Use it, it never runs out. 1

'"Therefore, that which gives birth to things is unborn, that which changes things is unchanging."'

(Birth and change, shape and colour, wisdom and strength, decrease and growth, come about of themselves. It is wrong to say that it brings about growth and change, shape and colour, wisdom and strength, decrease and growth.) 2

(1) This passage is also found in the Tao-Te-Ching, ch.6.
(2) If these obscure sentences are rightly translated, they must be a critical note by another hand.

(A. C. Graham, The Book of Lieh-Tu, Mandala/Harper-Collins, 1991, p.18)

At first glance a reader might say that the Graham translation is more "choppy" and the Wong one "reads better". But I would like to point out that in the Graham version there is a lot more information about the text being conveyed to the reader. In effect, we learn from his presentation there is very little in the quotes that actually comes from Liezi himself. Instead, what we have is part of the Dao De Jing which has been attributed to The Book of the Yellow Emperor, plus a couple lines that seem to be some marginal notes that ended up getting included in the text through a copying mistake.

What we learn from these two pieces of information is that this text is not a complete document that came directly from a realized Daoist master, but rather a result of a collaborative process that included several people. Bits and pieces came from previous books and there are actual editing mistakes. For the modern reader this is incredibly important because it reduces the likelihood of a naive reader making a fetish out of the text.

In contrast, the Wong translation not only glosses over the fact that the text is largely quoted from the Dao De Jing, it is heavily laden with interpretation that seems to come directly from Ms. Wong's own version of Daoism. Of course, she is entitled to her understanding of Daoism; but Graham seems to be suggesting that the original text is much more terse and metaphorical than her translation would suggest.

People who elevate religious texts to the level of revealed WISDOM cease to see the authors as being fallible and rooted in a specific historical context. As a result, they tend to assume that every single word of the text is literally true in a way that the original audience and the authors themselves would never have. As a result, they cease to read the book "against the grain" in an attempt to find out what makes sense to them, and what does not. Fortunately, for Western Daoists this doesn't lead to fundamentalism of a sort espoused by Osama Bin Lauden or Jerry Falwell, but it does mean that they stop seeing the texts as being practical guides for the here-and-now and instead see them as some sort of "cosmic statement" about "ultimate reality".

Realized men do not want people to follow them slavishly, or to put their writings on a pedestal. Instead, they want folks to make the same sort of effort they did, and find their own particular wisdom. Reading a bad translation of an ancient text over and over again without learning anything in the process is simply one more way in which people fail to find their own spirit. It might be best to not look in books at all. But if we do, then the serious student of Daoism should be availing herself of the latest scholarly wisdom---if for no other reason than to free herself from her lingering infatuation with a specific text.


The Imgui said...

You raise a number of really good points. In many ways, I think Daoism is about challenging assumptions and pre-conceived notions----including the ones we bring to "sacred texts"!

I have only read portions of the Liezi (I really need to get myself a copy), but what struck me about the Graham translation you posted here is that the "critical note" almost seems to be criticizing the earlier author---i.e., "It is wrong to say it brings about..." In the Wong translation, I don't get the sense of two different opinions at all. The Wong version does seem like it could have "dropped from Heaven", while Graham brings out the almost "patchwork" quality of the text.

Bill Hulet said...

I studied hermeneutics at university, which means that I have a bit of a "leg up" on most people who read religious books. When I started study Daoism, however, there was almost no scholarly work on the subject or any translations of Daoist books, for that matter. (This has recently begun to change.)

I have read extensively on the subject with regard to Christianity, where there is an extensive literature. (Hermeneutics actually began with study of the Bible.) To a large extent, the biggest step in hermeneutics is to break free of the mindset that puts a religious text on a pedestal, so this preparation has helped me.

Paradoxically, I suspect that the injunction by Daoist teachers (and Zen masters too) against book learning was intended to stop people from putting books on such a high pedestal and learn from their experience. Unfortunately, this injunction has been taken from its intended focus and transferred to those books that would undermine this slavish devotion.

This is not an unexpected phenomena, as the study of hermeneutics is full of examples of this way in which culture twists meaning into its opposite. One example I came across was an interview with the abbot of an order of monks who complained that the vow of poverty his order followed was bankrupting it! It seems that their habit was based on what was cheap peasant clothing in the middle ages---wool cloaks. But this type of clothing was very expensive now. So they were switching to a different fabric (polyester monks?) A less trivial example is the way the Christian message of freedom from anxiety has been changed into its exact opposite of fear of damnation.

I think a useful corrective is to use the Hindu idea that scholarly study can itself be a path towards realization. This is called "jana yoga".

kasturi said...

thanks for pointing out the importance of scholarship. i studied theology in my thirties, and found that it freed me from a sort of superstitious way of being religious, and clarified my values and sense of what is 'true.' i began to really 'own' my religious beliefs in a new way. since then, i've explored some other religious traditions to varying degrees, and always regret the fact that scriptures are not often treated from the scholarly perspective, and i feel it would be so liberating and helpful if they were. By liberating I mean liberating us from marginal notes, some of which are abusive towards women, for example, or were polemical devices in some old sectarian rivalry. Let's get free of that stuff, and find the true pearls.

kasturi said...

another note: the reason the study of theology freed me like this is because we did apply hermaneutics to the texts, like historical critical method. Once I learned it, I could easily see how obvious and natural this method of studying texts really is. Why didn't we think of this before the nineteenth century? Answer: probably because we needed scientific method to be developed first. Prior to that, people lived a lot in their imaginations. Not necessarily a bad thing, but not conducive to historical critical method!

i'm enjoying your blog. you are thoughtful, informed, studious. you have a lot to share with us. as someone who has done a relatively small, but personally significant, amount of daoist study, i appreciate your input very much. thanks.

Bill Hulet said...

Thanks for the support.

I think that the internet may create a new way of thinking about spiritual issues by bringing together people who would never have been able to communicate with each other. I know that in my case I live in a very "hip", "up to date" community, but I would never have learned nearly as much about Eastern Philosophy in general and Daoism in particular if I had not had the ability to reach out to the world that exists on the internet.

I know that there is a value in living in a community and getting used to the monk who sits next to you in the meditation hall. But too many of us have the experience of being bullied by religious bigots. Things like the blogosphere allow all those people who spent most of their lives "biting their tongues" some opportunity to meet others of like mind and have a genuinely open conversation.

Anonymous said...

I would just like to point out, having read both translations also, that Wong says in the introduction to her version that it is not a translation, but her own loose interpretation of the original text.

Bill Hulet said...

Yes, I know that the introduction does say this is not a real "translation". But if not, what exactly is it? By stretching my imagination I can understand when a poet like Ursual Le Guin does a version of the Dao De Jing, but in that case we have someone who is an expert poet trying to make the text into a work of art. No one would accuse Ms. Wong of being an expert prose writer. Nor in this case is she translating an obscure text that no one else has. Pardon me if it just looks like she is "cashing in" on naive readers.

To be honest, I find the best book that I have ever read by her is The Shambala Guide to Daoism, which is neither a translation nor a "version", but simply her own words. Her other books are pretty much incomprehensible, not because I am dumb, but because they are terrible translations.