the feminine and the Tao: an interview with Ursula K. LeGuin

by Brenda Peterson

Brenda: Your new rendition of the Tao de Ching strikes me as a very direct, pragmatic, and poetic classic. It is scrupulously fair and embracing, not addressed, as are previous translations, to Rulers or Sages or Masters. In your introduction you write, “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” With that intent, how did you work on your Tao?

Ursula: Since my twenties, I’ve been working on these poems. Every decade or so I’d do another chapter. I don’t know Chinese, but I drew upon the Paul Carus translation of 1898 which has the Chinese characters followed by a transliteration and a translation. This was my touchstone for comparing the other translations. The Tao de Ching, though very old, is accessible because the Chinese characters haven’t changed. One Chinese character can mean so many different things, and as you know, the meanings have changed. Every reader has to start anew with such an ancient text.

Brenda: In Thomas Cleary’s book Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women he notes that Lao Tzu, if he ever existed, had a female teacher. You wrote that you wanted to make a version of the Tao de Ching that doesn’t limit wisdom to males. Given the centuries of male interpretation from which you drew you revision, was this a difficult task?

Ursula: When you gender the philosopher and when you talk only about Kings and Sages – though technically that word is non-gender – I do believe that most readers immediately see an ancient person with a beard. A bit like God. And sine I had taken this book to my heart as a teenage girl, it obviously is a book that speaks to women. Lao Tzu feminized mysteries in a different way from anybody else. These are not “feminine mysteries,” but he makes mystery itself a woman. This is profound, this goes deep. And the most mystical passages in the book are the most feminine. This is something women need, I think, and long for, often without knowing it. That’s undoubtedly one reason why all my life I’ve found the Tao de Ching so refreshing and empowering.

Brenda: Several times when reading your rendition I felt so moved by the feminine beauty of your Tao. For example, you interpret Number 61 “Lying Low” as “The polity of greatness/runs downhill like a river to the sea, joining with everything/woman to everything.” This is such a startling definition of greatness. And your vision of Lao Tzu’s ideas of power defies the traditionally masculine definition which is usually about status, conquest, or hierarchy. But your interpretation is “Power is goodness…Power is trust.”

Ursula: You know, the words really come out that way. That’s one of the less obscure passages. It’s almost shocking. Sometimes, of course, Lao Tzu really is talking about a person in power, a ruler, and I play that down because I didn’t figure a whole lot of rulers would be reading it. On the other hand, people in positions of responsibility, such as mothers, might be. And if you want to read the manual for rulers, there is the magnificent Arthur Waley translation that is never going to be equaled for what it does.

Brenda: Yes, a real classic. Give that one to Hillary Clinton, the rest of us will read yours. Another thing that came through very strongly in this rendition, was the humor, your humor, Lao Tzu’s humor, a philosophy of nature and humor. I laughed out loud when I read your note on Number 53 “Insight”: “people wearing ornaments and fancy clothes,/carrying weapons,/drinking a lot and eating a lot,/having a lot of things, a lot of money: shameless thieves.” And your comment was “So much for capitalism.”

Ursula: You know, in general, Lao Tzu seems to be pretty cagey, and a line can mean five or six different things, and then he just comes straight-out and says something, bang! Like that. It took me a bit by surprise.

Brenda: And yet you also note that Lao Tzu was not a dualist or an aesthetic like Henry David Thoreau. You say that Lao Tzu, though often sounding like Thoreau in his philosophy of nature, was kinder. You wrote “When Thoreau says to distrust any enterprise which requires new clothes, I distrust him…Lao Tzu knows that getting all entangled with the external keep us from the eternal, but he also understands that sometimes people like to get dressed up.”

Ursula: Americans have this tremendous Puritan streak, and it’s about a mile wide in Thoreau. I love Thoreau and Thoreau was a kind of Taoist, but then there’s the puritanism. I’d been thinking for years about that line about new clothes. There’s a difference. Lao Tzu does understand innocent vanity.

Brenda: Doesn’t that go along with Lao Tzu’s three treasures which you interpret as mercy, moderation and modesty? Don’t you think that humor requires a certain modesty?

Ursula: Modesty is a very unfashionable word, isn’t it? Partly because it was demanded of woman and not of men, which is why a lot of womankind of flinch when you say “modesty.” But when you degender it, it really is a lovely characteristic.

Brenda: Given these Taoist definitions of power as trust and goodness, and the tenets of mercy, moderation, and modesty have you ever imagined, perhaps in your novels, a society that was Taoistic?

Ursula: All of my writing has been deeply influenced by the Tao de Ching. And in Always Coming Home I did imagine a Taoist society in the Kesh people of a distant future, whose culture flourishes on the Pacific Coast. But I’m not as anti-technological as Lao Tzu by a long shot.

Brenda: One of my favorite of your renditions is Number 47, “Looking Far”: “The farther you go/the less you know.” You write that Lao Tzu’s point was “it’s the inner eye that really sees the world.” And your own inner eye has imagined the world so many times over in novels and poetry. Do you want to talk a little bit about this inner eye and how it discerns deeper than reality?

Ursula: As a novelist I was told you’ve got to go out and get experience. And there’s some truth to that. Most of us don’t have a lot of fiction to write until we’re heading on to 30. You have to do some living. But it isn’t wandering around and driving cattle and working on boats and all those manly jobs that authors always used to put on the back of their book covers. I think the “get experience” rule made a lot of us women feel really crummy, because what have we got? Maybe college, and a couple of kids, some stupid job, and a lot of women didn’t even have jobs at that point. None of that counted as “experience” because it wasn’t’ experience. This is why I mention both Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson in the note to that poem. It’s what you do with what you got. It’s the eye that’s seeing. It doesn’t much matter what it sees, if the eye is a seeing eye. And if it isn’t a seeing eye, then of course, you can wander all over the world like some of those poor souls on tours, with eyes that have never learned to see at all.

Brenda: Lao Tzu’s insistence on the inner authority of this discerning eye is an antidote to those of us drowning in an Age of Information. His philosophy is also a balance to the media obsession today with the cult of personality, self-consciousness, and ego. Can you talk about this?

Ursula: Lao Tzu says things like “Don’t be controlled by love. “ He says that people who don’t cherish their own bodies can’t look after other people effectively. It’s a bit shocking. Lao Tzu is anti-altruist. That’s pretty clear. Altruism and egoism are just two sides of one coin to Lao Tzu: either you look after yourself, or you turn away from yourself and look after others. Lao Tzu says no no no, that’s not where it’s at! That’s the wrong choice! You have to do both.

Brenda: Is this what you meant when you wrote that for Lao Tzu “Nature and its Way are not humane because they are not human” and that “Followers of the Way, like the forces of nature, act selflessly?” (pg. 9)

Ursula: Nature is definitely not humane. And Lao Tzu says we should be like Nature. We should not be humane either, in the sense that we should not sacrifice ourselves for others. Now that’s going to be very hard for Christian readers to accept, because they’re taught that self-sacrifice is a good thing. Lao Tzu says it’s a lousy thing. This is perhaps the most radical thing he says to a Western ear. Just don’t buy into self sacrifice. Any more that you would ask somebody to sacrifice themselves for you. There’s a sort of reciprocity – that’s the only way I can understand it.

I’ve been thinking about this since Mother Teresa’s recent death. I have never been comfortable with her or with any extreme altruism. It makes me feel inferior, like “I ought to be like that, but I’m not.” And if I tried to be, it would be the most horrible hyposcrisy. But why, what is it that I’m uncomfortable with? And I think maybe Lao Tzu gives me a little handle on that. In a sense, this kind of self-sacrifice only occurs in a society that is so sick that only somebody going too far can make up for the cruelty of the society.

Brenda: And it’s not self sacrifice without a reward because the reward is in heaven.

Ursula: Yes, if you are Christian or Muslim, there’s a reward. So I find it morally puzzling and a little suspect. Whereas Lao Tzu is kind of scary.

On the other hand, I think that’s why he talks about how to govern and what society should be like. Because if society weren’t so incredibly rotten, with so many poor people, you wouldn’t have the kind of misery that calls for a saint. I’m not faulting Mother Teresa. Yet I’d be happier with her if she’d somehow gotten to the root of things, the causes of wealth and poverty, which is where the heart of the problem is.

You know Gandhi was certainly not a Taoist. Yet in some respects – despite his enormous activism and his probably enormous ego –I can fit him into Lao Tzu’s world. Because Gandhi struck at the root. He struck at inequality. He wanted the society to make itself better. And he did it by the most modest means, because he refused violence.

Brenda: So who do you think would be in the true spirit of the Taoist way, someone like Mother Teresa who consciously does noble deeds which have their heavenly reward? Or someone in battle who in an unselfconscious moment of mercy falls on a hand grenade and saves everyone around him?

Ursula: Well, that’s the kind of thing that soldiers in battle and workmen at work are always doing. The do the next thing because that’s the next thing to be done. It’s simply a sense of duty and responsibility –two more unfashionable words!

Brenda: Do you think that Lao Tzu, along with being subversive to politics, power structures, and dogma is also subversive to mainstream religions?

Ursula (laughing): Well, Lao Tzu didn’t have a god. The Tao is really an action rather than a person. And it’s an action in which everyone can share. The more you share, the more you approach what a theist or deist is going to call ‘union with Godhead” –although this is not in Lao Tzu’s vocabulary. It is interesting that he is a Goddess mystic. However, there’s also the practical bit in Lao Tzu for the non-mystic. He does offer a good wide range.

Brenda: Well, I think your version of the Tao de Ching is, as you say, the most demystified mysticism that I’ve ever read, and that’s why I think it’s comforting and accessible.

Ursula: I certainly didn’t want it to be mystifying. I don’t think Lao Tzu did either, except occasionally where he’s deliberately hiding things. But he wanted his teachings to be a followable Way – while stating firmly from the beginning that you can’t follow the Way.

Brenda: During your own long study of the Tao, how has it helped you in your own life and work?

Ursula: It’s become so deep in me, it’s so much a part of my fiber and my work, it’s certainly influenced some of my life choices. I’m not Taoistic enough, but I try to let things happen and then if they happen to say “Yeah, that’s the way it was supposed to be.” It has been a guide. But always a guide toward not trying to be in control. Trying to accept the fact that one is not in control. But that if you go along with things they’ll probably go along in the right way, in a way you can’t understand at the time. And since I’m always trying to take control, I need Taoism to prevent me from trying to control everything.

Brenda: Another of your interpretations I admired was from Number 58 “Living with Change”: “The wise…they are the light that does not shine.” In the Steven Mitchell translation, he reads this line as “radiant but easy on the eyes.”

Ursula: A phrase like “easy on the eyes” drives me mad. Its an advertising phrase. It’s got just the wrong aura or implication about it.

Brenda (laughing): Can you imagine a Taoist advertising agency? “Buy this if you feel like it. If it’s right. You may not need it.”

Ursula: There was an old cartoon in The New Yorker with a guy from an advertising agency showing his ad and the boss is saying “I think you need a little more enthusiasm Jones.” And his ad is saying, “Try our product, it really isn’t bad.”

Brenda: As a product of two thousand years, the Tao has certainly proven itself an enduring spiritual text.

Ursula: It is impressive and touching, isn’t it? That this weird little book has just gone on so sturdily. All through Chinese history. It was written, during a really bad period in China’s history, the Warring States period. Society then was much less reliable even that our own. And in the middle of it, here comes this book that seems not very comforting, that seems to put everything at risk – and yet it does give comfort in a bad time. Even now.

Brenda: And that bad time in Chinese history had to do with the orthodoxy of the state Confucianism?

Ursula: War was the problem, war, violence, injustice. But Confucianism did control Chinese society so strongly that I suppose this book was necessary. The orthodoxy had grown so rigid that you had to have this anarchist Lao Tzu setting off his little firecrackers.

Brenda: Why do you think, in any time or culture, people are often comforted by orthodoxy?

Ursula: That’s an interesting question. I’m thinking about McDonald’s. It’s very important, for one thing, that McDonald’s wherever it is, be exactly the same as it is everywhere else. So that people don’t feel foreign, and they don’t feel like fools. They know how to order. All this is intensely comforting, because the world is really very much more threatening than most of us want to admit. And going into a strange restaurant for most of us takes a certain amount of courage, if you don’t know how to order. But the thing is, if you do go into an unfamiliar restaurant and you do get something in a foreign language and like it – then you’ve enlarged your comfort zone. And if you just always go to McDonald’s your comfort zone is so narrow and pitiful.

You know, I think people are very brave, and are often a lot more frightened than they’re allowed to admit. Life is much harder to live for most people than we want to admit. And so many things take a summoning up of courage. It makes one’s own life a little bit easier when you can acknowledge that. I love the poem Number 76 which talks about dead things that are still and rigid, so strong and invulnerable – whereas live things are very tender and easy to break. As I said in that note, “to be alive is to be vulnerable.”

Brenda: I think my favorite is still Number 43 “Water and Stone.” You read this famous passage as “What’s softest in the world/rushes and runs/over what’s hardest in the world.” Isn’t this what we’ve been talking about with the feminine – that ability to be vulnerable and just to slowly work away at something, like water abrading and shaping stone over time?

Ursula: I would add one little footnote to what you just said. I totally agree that for those of us who feel ourselves to be vulnerable, soft, and feminine, it can be very cheering to be told that “the stiff tree is felled.” If we just hand in here and wait them out, the big boss men will eventually wear themselves away. I think small people need to be told that.

Brenda: You’ve written elsewhere that the rise and fall of society is based on battles and heroes as opposed to just simply the enduring life of offspring and farming and continuing on. Isn’t this a different way of looking at history?

Ursula: Yes, it’s the continuity in which the real life is.

Brenda: Can you think of an example of this, that what is softest in the world rushes and runs over the hardest – and example from everyday life or one of your books?

Ursula: One of my recent books is called Four Ways to Forgiveness. It’s a science fiction book. It’s about a pair of worlds in which slavery was a major element of society. We come on these worlds just as they’re beginning to emerge from slavery. There is a revolution on one of the planets where the slaves actually overthrow the mastery. We never see the revolution taking place in these stories; the people that I chose to write about are all essentially powerless. One of the stories is called “A Man of the People.” He joins the women, they sing, and they lie down on the railroad tracks. The use essentially non-violent Gandhian methods. They do by not doing. What I was trying to show was that the gentle people wear out the hard ones.

Brenda: How does knowing this particular Taoistic tenet help us in our own lives?

Ursula: Lao Tzu is very relevant at a time like ours. We’re in one of those big yin-yang movements, and the yang is so extreme. But then it will do what all extremes do, it’ll suddenly begin turning into the opposite. There’s another part of Taoism that we haven’t discussed that is part of my view of the world – extremes always do implode and begin to turn into the other thing.

Brenda: Taoism’s sense of paradox reminds me of the wonderful Rumi poem, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” Can you imagine Lao Tzu meeting Rumi in that field?

Ursula: He certainly is out there talking with Lao Tzu – probably giggling wildly.

Brenda: Flowers wouldn’t even have to be planted to rise up in that field. Any last thing you might like to say to our readers about your lifelong work on the Tao de Ching?

Ursula: This book as given me a great deal of happiness. And I hope some of that comes through.

The Taoists say there are great lessons to be learned from a calm and happy spirit. In on of her final notes, LeGuin writes that Lao Tzu is saying, “Enjoy your life…live in your body, you are your body; where else is there to go? Heaven and Earth are one. As you walk the streets of your town you walk on the Way of Heaven.”

Brenda Peterson is an author and nature writer. Her latest books are, Build Me An Ark, A Life With Animals and Sightings, The Great Whales Mysterious Journey. The Feminine and The Tao interview with Ursula K. LeGuin is forthcoming in the new book Face to Face: Women's Stories of Faith, Mysticism, and Awakening due out from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in Aug. 2003. Her recent translation of the Tao Te Ching is out from Shambala Press.