When the first edition was published in 1919, the writer was a Christian and had very little first hand acquaintance with Taoism. Since then he has become a Buddhist and by frequent visits to China has been studying Buddhism and Taoism for twelve years. The present translation was made by a Taoist-Buddhist monk, named Wai-tao (King Yun-pen) . He is about fifty years of age, learned English as a boy in a Mission Academy, and later graduated from the Department of Chinese Philosophy in the National University in Peiping. Soon after graduation he became a member of a Taoist-Buddhist Brotherhood and remained with them for many years until he left to enter the great Kwei-tsung Buddhist Monastery. After he had remained with them for three years, he returned to his earlier home with the Taoist-Buddhist Brotherhood. The writer visited him at his hermitage in the mountains of Southern Chekiang Province in the winter 1935 and remained with him for a number of weeks going over this translation of Laotzu's Tao-teh-king and two other translations.
The present translation is nearly double the length of the Chinese text, not because it is expanded by interpretation, but because it is necessary to do so in order to bring out the meaning of the five thousand ideographs which make up the text. Even when Chinese classical texts are transliterated into the colloquial the text is extended fifty percent and Laotzu's
text is exceptionally condensed until it is almost cryptic in places. The translator had the use of a number of Taoist commentaries and was able to consult with a number of living Taoist masters. There are hundreds of these commentaries extant and many of them, in fact most of them, are exceedingly cryptic owing to the Taoist habit of expressing their teachings in secret symbols. The commentary which Wai-tao most consulted was a famous one entitled: Tao-teh-king-ching-chu-chieh. It is based upon the "divine elucidation" given to two great masters through the planchette.
The Tao conception is the most inclusive and concise conception in human thought, if not the grandest also. The Christian conception of God must be supplemented by doctrines and dogmas; the Buddhist conception of Buddhahood must be elucidated by other profound conceptions, such as, Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, Prajna, Tathata and Tathagata; but the Tao conception is self-contained, all-embracing, profound and inscrutable. It is, just as it is. "How do I know this? Because of Tao."
Arthur Waley in his recent scholarly study of Laotzu and this Tao-teh-king translates the title, The Way and its Power. (George Allen & Unwin Inc., London) . He speaks of Tao as the Principle of Naturalism which is excellent, but by seeking to crowd the book into a preconceived idea of its place in literary history, he makes the translation pedantic and disappointing. His painstaking study of its authorship is also unconvincing. Even if there was three Laos to whom the book has been credited (Laotzu, Lao Lai Tzu, and Lao Tan), who lived a total of perhaps two
hundred years apart, there is no good reason why he should credit the book to the last, in the face of the almost universal Taoist belief that it was the original teaching of Laotzu. It is probably true that the Lao Tan in his teachings used earlier material, and if the book was not put into its final form until his time, it is more natural to think of Lao Tan as an editor, than it is to eliminate the earlier Laotzu, as does Waley. Moreover, Taoists universally believe that Laotzu and Lao Tan are the same person; in fact, there is some evidence that there was an earlier Lao Tan and that he was the same man as Laotzu. Admitted, it is a puzzling question but the general belief, in this is worthy of respect and confidence.
The London modernist and "higher critic" asserts that the book is a product of the Third Century by a Taoist politician combatting the Confucian and political realism of his day. Opposed to this I would like to offer another hypothesis. Shakyamuni Buddha lived in India at about the same time that Laotzu is credited with living in China. (Buddha, 544-463 B.C. Laotzu.)
Waley thinks that the writing, Tao-teh-king, was put into its final form about 240 B.C. That it was in the main the writing of an unknown political realist, who wove into it earlier Taoist mysticism and metaphysics. Then he inclines to the belief that this unknown writer was a certain 4th Century official named Lao Tan. But there is a persistent belief that there was another Lao Tan who lived a century or two earlier and is credited as being the same person as the official Laotzu commonly called "the old Philosopher." This leaves a gap of some two hundred years during
which certain Taoist writings had been increasingly credited to "the old philosopher," i.e. Laotzu.
The hypothesis I venture to suggest is this:--That the teachings of the Indian Shakyamuni Buddha had percolated into China during those two hundred years, being carried by travelling merchants and scholars. These Buddhist teachings being unwritten in those early days were necessarily carried in memory and became more or less confused and distorted, but as they blended easily with the current Taoist philosophy, they were commonly accepted and more or less kept together, and credited to "the old philosopher," Laotzu. This hypothesis explains the vagueness and confusion as to authorship and also the affinity of Laotzuan ideas with Buddhist thought. This hypothesis may seem fantastic to some but it is no more fantastic than is the other, that it is a Third Century polemic of political realism. It has the merit, at least, of being in harmony with the universal Taoist belief and of defending the name of Laotzu.
The foregoing suggestion explains the many singular likenesses in its thoughts and even words to the teachings of Buddhism, and it further explains why in the following centuries as Indian Buddhism came into China that it found an affinity with the Laotzuan philosophy and was profoundly influenced by it, until by the Sixth Century A. D. the type of Buddhism taught by Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Dhyana Buddhism, became indigenous. Substantially all the very early leaders of Buddhism in China were Taoist scholars and for a thousand years, even down to today, it is often hard to say whether Buddhism is more Buddhistic or Taoist. Buddhist temples
and Taoist Temples, in both images and ceremonial, are often almost indistinguishable. This very translation was made in a Brotherhood that first bow in adoration to Maitreya Buddha and then turn to bow to Taoist worthies and to the name of Laotzu. The Pure Land type of Buddhists first started in just this way of synthesizing the conceptions of Tao and Buddhahood but later veered over to a more exclusive adoration of the name of Amitabha Buddha, and, by so doing, departed from the free and un-theistic spirit of Shakyamuni, which is preserved in the conception of Tao. I have written more at length of this origin of Dhyana Buddhism in China in an essay that is included in my book entitled, A Buddhist Bible; the Favorite Scriptures of the Zen Sect, and therein show at some length the steps of this influence of the Tao-teh-king upon early Buddhism as it developed in China.