True words aren’t beautiful, beautiful words aren’t true

by Bob Schwartz

True words aren’t beautiful
beautiful words aren’t true

Regular readers of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching have absorbed its values and—when possible—integrated those values into their worldview and lives. Those students can recite some or many of the 81 verses by heart.

The final verse stands out. It lets the air out of the preceding verses, like a pin in a balloon. It neutralizes the words of wisdom texts, including its own.

Of the many quality translations, each different from another, my first choice is that of Red Pine (Bill Porter), whose work as a translator of Chinese spiritual texts is unsurpassed. Following is his translation of Verse 81 with commentary, followed by the interpretation of poet Witter Bynner, composed in 1944. Bynner’s version is special for me, since it was my first exposure to the Tao Te Ching and to Taoism. An unforgotten trailhead where the journey really began.

True words aren’t beautiful
beautiful words aren’t true
the good aren’t eloquent
the eloquent aren’t good
the wise aren’t learned
the learned aren’t wise
sages accumulate nothing
but the more they do for others
the greater their existence
the more they give to others
the greater their abundance
the Way of Heaven
is to help without harming
the Way of the Sage
is to act without struggling

At the beginning and at the end of the Taoteching, Lao-tzu reminds us not to become attached to the words. Let the words go. Have a cup of tea.

Taoteching, Verse 81, translation and comment by Red Pine

Real words are not vain,
Vain words not real;
And since those who argue prove nothing
A sensible man does not argue.
A sensible man is wiser than he knows,
While a fool knows more than is wise.
Therefore a sensible man does not devise resources:
The greater his use to others
The greater their use to him,
The more he yields to others
The more they yield to him.
The way of life cleaves without cutting:
Which, without need to say,
Should be man’s way.

The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu, Verse 81, translated by Witter Bynner