Chapter 20 – I Alone

A life without cultivation
has no center.

All the people
 are happily busying themselves
 with celebration and feasting on life,
taking in the sights like its springtime.

I, alone, stay calm and centered
with no desires like a newborn
who has not yet learned to smile.
 Lazy, as if I have nowhere to go.

All the people
possess more than enough,
while I appear
 to be left behind.

My mind remains foolish,
indeed very blank.

 Most people shine bright.
I, alone, am dark and dim.

People of the world
are sharp and alert.
I, alone,
am withdrawn and quiet,
drifting like the ocean –
blowing free
like a breeze with no place to go.  

Most people have purpose,
While I, alone,
seem playful and unrefined.

I am different from most people
in that I draw my sustenance
from the Great Mother.

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis Chapter 20 is a strange one.  Various commentators have suggested that it was not part of the original text but was added later by some long forgotten “editor.”  I do not read ancient Chinese, so I can’t comment on stylistic differences that may appear in this chapter, but it certainly has a different tone from other chapters in translations I have read.

 The translation here is taken from Amy Putkonen’s Tao Te Ching Daily website, and is very much in the mainstream of how this chapter is seen by modern readers.  Actually, I was tempted to refer to Dwight Goddard’s 1919 translation, which renders the chapter as follows:

Avoid learning if you would have no anxiety. The “yes” and the “yea” differ very little, but the contrast between good and evil is very great. That which is not feared by the people is not worth fearing. But, oh, the difference, the desolation, the vastness, between ignorance and the limitless expression of the Tao.  

(The balance of this sonnet is devoted to showing the difference between the careless state of the common people and his own vision of the Tao. It is one of the most pathetic expressions of human loneliness, from lack of appreciation, ever written. It is omitted here that it might serve for the closing sonnet and valedictory.)

 It is easy to see how one might view Chapter 20 as a “pathetic expression of human loneliness,”   though I don’t really care to engage in that discussion right now.

It would perhaps be more interesting to consider why Goddard thought he was reading a sonnet – which is a form of poetry written in 14 lines with a specific scheme of rhymes.  The sonnet was invented in Italy and has been widely used by English and Urdu poets, as well as by modern poets writing in various languages.  It certainly was not a form written in China thousands of years ago.

The reference to a sonnet, though, did make me think of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 79, which begins:  “Whilst I alone didst call upon thy aid,/My verse alone had all thy gentle grace.”  That sonnet is a part of the “Fair Youth” sequence in which Shakespeare repeatedly expresses his love for a young man.  In Sonnet No. 79, it seems the young man is his patron and has been providing monetary support for the poet.  However, the patron seems to have found another poet whom he favors over the Bard, causing Shakespeare to lament that his words were inadequate.  Sonnet 79 may legitimately be seen as a pathetic expression of human loneliness.

The words in this chapter also reminded me of the 1994 song “I Alone” by the alternative rock band Live.  The song seems deliberately undeveloped and ambiguous, but it does convey a feeling of pathetic human loneliness.

So, maybe it is simply the words “I alone” that cause Chapter 20 to invoke the pathetic human loneliness motif.  There is more meaning to these words, however.  I believe the sage is telling us that we will not find the true Way by following the masses and trying to be popular and well-versed on the latest fad.  The true Way is not out there – wherever “there” may be.  It lies within; and there is not room for many other people within you or me.

The same sentiment is expressed in the Gospel of St. Matthew, 7:13 and 14:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

 Another expression is found in the traditional gospel song, “Lonesome Valley,” which tells us:

You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley.
You’ve got to walk it by yourself.
There ain’t nobody else goin’ to be there for you.
You’ve got to go there by yourself.

 Now thinking about how these ideas might fit together has reminded me of a story I would like to share:  A man died and was immediately transported to heaven, where he was greeted by God, himself, who took the man on a tour of his new home.  He was shown beautiful mountains, majestic waterfalls, lush valleys and magnificent oceans.  He saw myriad plants blooming around him and animals of all kinds.  He was inspired by the blue skies and golden sun in this eternal paradise.  God then said, “You’ve had a rough day.  You must be hungry.”  The man agreed that he was, so God said, “Let me open a can of soup.”  The man was surprised and asked, “What?  Do we really have to eat canned soup in heaven?”  God replied, “Well, it’s hardly worth cooking for just the two of us.”

Returning to Dwight Goddard before I end this piece, I find it interesting that a second edition of his Tao Te Ching translation was published in 1939, and the second time around he did include the full translation of Chapter 20 without his editorial comments.  In the ensuing 20 years, he had converted from Buddhism to Christianity.  Perhaps that is relevant because the translation he gave does not seem pathetic or lonely.  It goes like this:

Abandon your acquired learning and do not regret the loss. There is very little difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, but what a vast difference between a good man and a wicked man. There are some things (like suffering and death) which are universally feared and which it is natural to fear, but woe to those ignorant people who desire and grasp after amusements and defilements (the very things that cause suffering and death). People are busy with enjoyments as if they were celebrating a feast day, or as if they were flocking to the games. I, alone, am as fresh as the morning air, as pure as a babe in its mother’s arms, as free as a homeless wanderer. Other people are admired and envied because of their cleverness; I, alone, am neglected. Am I (because of this) foolish at heart? No! Let them be as smart and aggressive as ever; I am content to remain retiring and obscure. Let them continue to be as sensible and prudent as ever; let me remain as neglected as a deaf-mute.  Nevertheless, I am as pure as the water in the ocean and as free as the driftwood upon its bosom. Let others have their means for acquiring wealth, I am content to be counted foolish and inefficient. I seem to stand in contrast to common people, empty and foolish, but I am nourished by food from Mother TAO.


7 thoughts on “CHAPTER 20 – I ALONE

  1. I am thinking that perhaps poets of Shakespearian times were quite popular since we did not have cable television to entertain us. That being said, I found your issue of the sonnet to be quite funny. You have intelligence beyond your fair share, my friend.

    I loved the Bible quote. Makes me want to read more… my husband has read most of the major spiritual texts and suggested that perhaps some other ones might be more intriguing. I have never actually read the Bible cover to cover like he has. I started reading it when I was about 12 and quickly bored of the same story told by many different people (new testament) that I put it down and never picked it up again.

    • As I understand it, the upper classes in the 16th and 17th Centuries felt they should be refined and engaged in the various arts. The various artists, in turn, thought they should be able to pay rent and eat an occasional meal. The two groups came together, often in the royal court where the courtiers would court (that’s why it was called a “court”) those who would serve as patrons. The poets or painters or whomever would dedicate works, or present physical works like paintings and statues, to the patron who provided money for support. That was patronizing. It was seen as a status symbol to be patron to a popular or recognized artist.

      The Bible is worth reading, even if you don’t want to read cover to cover. Simply open it at random and read a verse or a page. If you find the part you have read to be interesting, then read the verses preceding and following it to get some context. If you don’t find it interesting, wait until tomorrow and pick a different random selection.

  2. Thank you, Lou. When you were discussing this blog entry with our group last night, the first thought I had was the Live song, “I, Alone.” It was a pleasant surprise to see your reference here. Thank you, again, for sharing your perspective. It has afforded me a new insight.

    • This comment is “spam,” of course. Like anyone who writes a blog, I have deleted thousands of “spam” comments made by the spammers out there in cyberspace. This one made me feel a little better than most of the spam I see so I reluctantly approved it even though it is meaningless.

      • Perhaps we could hire “lep” to plunge himself out of our pipeline… Or is this just a case of too much activity in the septic tank, an overabundunce of self-proliferating bacteria best solved with a good dose of bleach? I have the spray bottle right here, and the hard drive of my computer conveniently exposed. I am reluctant to spray it anymore, though, because it is already flourescently albino-ish, and if it starts to glow in the dark it will bother the dog, who sleeps in the office for a portion of his night. Sigh. This modern life, this brave new world, that has such plumbers in it…

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