Chapter 43 – Without Words
The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.
Teaching without words,
performing without actions
that is the Master’s way
Translation by Stephen Mitchell (1988)
This is a short chapter, so let us compare Stephen Mitchell’s translation with that of poet Witter Bynner:
As the soft yield of water cleaves obstinate stone,
So to yield with life solves the insoluble:
To yield, I have learned, is to come back again.
But this unworded lesson,
This easy example,
Is lost upon men.
Translation by Witter Bynner (1944)
As I consider what I should say about each chapter of the Tao Te Ching, I often read Bynner’s translation. Usually I do not understand exactly what he is saying. Critics have called his approach to Lao Tzu’s writing “abstruse,” and it often is. Still, he was a very good poet with an ear for English – and, I believe, Chinese – and it is often interesting to delve into his version of the abstruse.
Before continuing, I would explain that my belief that he has a good ear for Chinese (which I do not) is based on the fact that he spent a lot of time in China during the 1920s, culminating with his collaborative translation, Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology in 1929. That work, it seems, was well received by the scholarly community when it was published.*
Returning to this specific chapter, I do not doubt that Mitchell’s translation is the more accurate. Bynner’s version, though, seems a very competent and poetic explanation of what Lao Tzu may well have meant.
Teaching without words might also refer to the wordless transmission that is at the heart of, for example, Chan Buddhism. For an understanding of that concept, I can think of no better source than John Blofield’s translation of The Zen Teaching of Huang-Po: On the Transmission of the Mind; and I highly recommend that book .
Teaching without words might also refer to leading or instructing by example.
Or, again, teaching without words could mean that I should simply shut up and let you see what Witter Bynner has to say. Certainly those are words, but they are not my words. Unlike my words, his are concise and have a nice a-b-c-a-b-c pattern of half-rhymes.
So, a few thoughts on Mr. Bynner himself, and I will, in fact, shut up.
Santa Fe, New Mexico has long been one of my favorite places to visit. Cathy and my wedding invitation had a picture of the oldest church in the United States, which is just off the Plaza in Santa Fe, as its cover. From the mid-1920s until his death in 1968, Witter Bynner was the absolute center of Santa Fe’s legendary literary and artistic community.
He was openly, monogamously gay at a time when that lifestyle was not accepted in this country (though he nearly married Edna St. Vincent Millay in his younger days). Still, his friends and collaborators included D. H. and Frieda Lawrence, Mark Twain, Georgia O’Keefe, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Igor Stravinsky, Isadora Duncan, Diego Rivera, Wallace Stevens, Aldous Huxley, Ansel Adams, Thornton Wilder, Willa Cather . . . and the list could go on and on. His greatest contribution to American literature may have been his ability to simply bring this remarkable group of people together to share ideas.
One of Bynner’s poems that I think fits well with this Chapter 43 is entitled “Answer,” and it goes like this:
Cease from the asking,
You receive the answer.
God is not God, life life
nor wonder wonder
Save as a man himself
becomes the dancer
Across all variations
of the thunder.
Witter Bynner’s former home still stands in Santa Fe. It is now a bed and breakfast. Ah, with all the great people who have slept there, what if those walls could teach without words?
They probably can.
* For a more scholarly look at Bynner’s translation, you can read “Translation Manipulated by Ideology and Poetics – A Case Study of The Jade Mountain”, by Mei Zhang, in Theory and Practice in Language Studies (2012) by clicking here.