Anyone looking for an approachable edition of the Tao Te Ching, one that gives us the Chinese and Taoist point-of-view in clear and simple English, and that isn't overburdened with extraneous or purely scholarly matter, should certainly consider that of Red Pine. The translator has spent much of his life in the East, has experienced the life of a Taoist ascetic, and we could ask for no better guide to the meanings of this simple but elusive text, a text that is one of the greatest glories of the Ancient Chinese literature of the Chou period.
As many know, Classical Chinese is an extremely concise and powerful language, a language of great masculine vigor, and one of the first things to look for in any translation from Classical Chinese is a comparable economy and energy. Some people don't seem to understand this, and I think it's because they fail to realize that words, besides expressing meaning, can also serve to limit meaning, especially in grammatically fussy Indo-European languages such as English where sentences are intended to convey as precise a meaning as possible and in doing so can become (as mine are here) rather wordy.
But ancient Chinese writing isn't like this. Rather than attempting to narrow and delimit meaning, and to pin us down to something particular and explicit, it aims instead to open and expand our understanding. In other words, although it can look deceptively simple, it is in fact richly suggestive, rich in implications. And this rich suggestiveness will suggest many things to different readers. That is why no Chinese reader would even think of approaching an ancient classic without a commentary. For no matter what a text may suggest to a given reader, we may be sure that it has suggested many more things to earlier and possibly more acute readers.
Red Pine does not fail us on either of these counts. His translation is spare, pure, even austere, but whereas most English editions of the Tao Te Ching give us only the comments of the individual translator, Red Pine has gone one further. He has had the brilliant idea of giving us, on pages facing the text, a selection of passages from over twenty of China's most outstanding commentators, figures ranging from the famous philosopher Wang Pi (+ 226-249) through to the Sung Dynasty Taoist nun Ts'ao Tao-Ch'ung (+ 960-1278), and this is something which has never been done before in English.
Red Pine tells us that he "envisioned this book as a discussion between Lao-tzu and a group of people who have thought deeply about his text" (page xxi). Many of the comments, which are intended "to provide important background information or insights," are truly luminous, and to read them along with the text can be an overwhelming experience.
Here is Chapter 47 of Red Pine's translation, slightly rearranged since it should be set out as verse: "Without going out his door / he knows the whole world / without looking out his window / he knows the Way of Heaven / the farther people go / the less people know / therefore the sage knows without moving / names without seeing / succeeds without trying." (page 94).
I was led to ponder this particular passage by Ingo Swann, the noted US exponent of Remote Viewing, who quotes it in one of his writings. The chapter itself, for anyone who knows anything at all about Remote Viewing, is powerfully suggestive. But the comments (which really need to be read in full to be properly savored) add even more.
The first comment which struck me was that of Su Ch'e, who tells us that "The reason the sages of the past understood everything without going anywhere was simply because they kept their natures whole" (page 94). The second remarkable comment was that of Ch'eng Hsuan Ying, which reads in part: "'without trying' means to focus the spirit on the tranquility that excels at making things happen" (page 95).
But doesn't all this suggest that superpowers, as Ingo Swann asserts, are part of everyone's inheritance as a human being? Doesn't it also suggest a getting in touch with the Collective Unconsciousness? the Universal Mind? The ONE? The TAO? And isn't this in fact what Remote Viewers such as Ingo Swann have rediscovered today? Have we, in other words, finally begun to re-acquire something of the lost Wisdom of the Ancients...? It would certainly seem so to me.
Besides the excellent translation and valuable commentaries, Red Pine has thoughtfully given us, printed vertically alongside the English translation, the Chinese text in full form characters. This text, it should be noted, is the translator's own new and original recension, and is based on a careful study of the many extant editions of the Tao Te Ching including that discovered at Mawangtui in 1973.
Red Pine's edition also comes with a map; an informative 12-page historical introduction; several interesting photographs among which is one of the Mawangtui text; and a very full bilingual glossary of Chinese names and terms. My one criticism is that, although Red Pine often refers us to specific lines (e.g., "In line sixteen..."), line numbers have not been printed alongside either the English or the Chinese texts and it can sometimes take time to locate the line he's talking about.
Although intended for a popular readership, Red Pine's edition, which I believe was out-of-print for a while, is certainly scholarly in the best sense of the word. The wise would be well advised to snap up a copy before it goes out-of-print again. It may be the only Tao Te Ching you will ever need.