A Weightlifters Guide to the Tao Te Ching (by Lao-tzu) – Interpretation, not Translation
No book, save for the Bible, has seen a wider distribution, has been printed more often, or has been translated into more languages than the tiny aphoristic Chinese masterpiece The Tao Te Ching. And since, unlike the Bible, it is the work of a single author, this makes Lao-tzu the most popular author the world has ever known.
If only his Mom were alive to see it!
What follows is my own interpretation of The Tao Te Ching, reinvented for the weightlifter: The Tao Of Snatch. In each lesson, I will cover just one of the “poems” by Lao-tzu, and offer a meditation on what it may mean and how we can apply that to our training.
My non-translation of his writing will vary somewhat from the original given many factors, not the least of which is that I don’t have a clue how to read or write ancient Chinese!
I don’t feel bad about this bastardization. There are plenty of copies of the original floating around. You can find multiple wonderful translations in English, some of which are free on the internet.
We don’t need another translation.
Meaning is explicitly linked with analogy. The deeper the metaphors your mind can attach to the subject you are learning, the deeper your understanding will be.
For this reason, what we need in studying something as ancient – and as profound – as The Tao Te Ching is a series of powerful analogies, and a language that we can relate to.
My own interpretation is not meant to be “faithful” to the original wording, but to the essence of the Tao (or the Way). I’ve never been a “letter of the law” man. I’m a “spirit” of the law man. And I will take great licence in reinventing this text to suit our needs for understanding.
Ironically then, I will be stripping as much “spirit” as I can out of it.
As I explain below, I have never found Taoism to be a religion at all, but rather an ethical/metaphysical philosophy. That difference is substantial.
But because of age of the movement Lao-tzu inadvertently started, and its wide-reach, it gets lumped into the religious category in nearly every instance. The language can easily be misinterpreted as religious or spiritual in nature, and I don’t fault a person for reading that into it. (For example, when paired with other religions, the word Tao itself is conflated with the word God.)
I will not be doing that.
My rendering will have a decidedly secular, philosophical, and (dare I say it) practical bent. While I will not shy away from waxing poetic, I will also not shy away from waxing scientific!
Tao vs Zen vs Buddhism
By my definition, Taoism is not properly a religion at all. It has no conception of God, of Soul, no conception of an afterlife, no hell, no devil, no spirits, nor does it have any kind of dogma to build a religion upon. I refuse to call something a religion that is lacking in everything that makes every other major religion tick.
It is properly an ethical and metaphysical philosophy (even a political philosophy), not a religion.
Taoism purports to tell you how to live your life. It does this by way of an attack on our inherent conceptions of metaphysical questions:
- What is the meaning of life?
- What is “the self”?
- What is “good”, “bad”, “ugly”?
- What is the nature of “meaning” in the first place?
- What is “balance”, and what are we balancing?
It doesn’t appeal to a supernatural authority for the answers, but to a kind of reasoning from first principles. The ultimate first principle being The Tao itself which is the thing we can’t name accurately, nor can we describe it accurately.(1) Though, the words nothing and everything when fused, and rolled around together, come the closest.
Zen is the descendant of Taoism first begun in China under the name Ch’an. It then took on the name Zen when it moved to Japan. It has a very close connection historically to Buddhism, but that history is horribly misleading.
The term Zen Buddhism is an outright contradiction in terms. (As “Zen” as that sounds, it obscures what makes Zen Zen and what makes Buddhism Buddhism!)
Zen is a training program for the Tao. It takes the philosophical basis of Taoism as its goal, and then proscribes a pragmatic step-by-step method for reaching it.
This is why I have been training in Zen for the last 17 years! If you agree with the baseline Taoist philosophies, but find it hard to 1) grasp the dichotomous nature of its precepts, and 2) put them into practice, then Zen is right up your alley.
But alas, culture and history tend to win out of over logic, and so Zen has been fated to be attached to Buddhism at the hip throughout most of its existence.
That has been changing, though, because of its move to America and the rest of the western world. Here, without the cultural baggage of its homeland, it has been allowed to roam free, unencumbered. Zen has taken on a life of its own everything from pop culture to academics to crazy weightlifting blogs! And because of that, its deep relationship with Taoism is coming back into the light.
I’ve often called my own brand of practice, Zen Taoism, to make very clear that I am not a Buddhist.(4) Given my feeling that Zen is more of a training program, a series of steps and practices, it has the ability to be applied to many possible philosophical inclinations. I see no issues with someone saying they are a Zen Christian. I just happen to jive well with the original one.
This is a project I’ve looked forward to tackling for some time. And I’m excited to have you join me on it. We have 81 lessons to get through, which means that at a rate of 1 to 3 per week, it’s going to be a while! That’s a good thing. It will give us all time to process the information, and then PUT IT INTO PRACTICE!
This is a blog about development in all of its forms. Another way of saying that is that The Iron Samurai is about ACTION.
After each lesson, I want you to spend some time finding ways of incorporating it into what you do in the gym, how you act at home, and how you live your life. Human beings are quite domain specific, meaning that the lessons learnt in one place (like a classroom, or gym) rarely make their way out of that room.
Let us do something different this time, and take the lessons with us wherever we go.
NEXT UP – Lesson 1 of The Tao Of Snatch!
Now go lift something heavy, Nick Horton
- Don’t worry, we tackle that badboy in the very first lesson. [↩]
- though, many atheists have adopted its methods regardless [↩]
- for more on this, see the book The Tao Of Zen, which has one of the best write ups around on the nature of this – larger than you might think – difference. [↩]
- Though, if I HAD to pick a religion, Buddhism would be on the short list – along with my “home” religion: Southern Baptist Christianity. Someday I’ll explain why those are the two, and make sense of the “WTF” factor for you – I promise! [↩]