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Q: Lao Tze quote ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Lao Tze quote
Category: Relationships and Society > Cultures
Asked by: antun-ga
List Price: $3.00
Posted: 25 Sep 2005 19:34 PDT
Expires: 25 Oct 2005 19:34 PDT
Question ID: 572580
Recently I  came accross the following quote attributed to Lao Tze:
"When you say it is, it is not". Is this a direct quote or is it a
paraphrase of an actual quote. If it is a quote where is it from?
Subject: Re: Lao Tze quote
Answered By: efn-ga on 26 Sep 2005 02:58 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars

The short answer is:  I don't think this quote appears in any English
translation, but it might be a paraphrase.

Now for the long answer.  Laozi (the current standard spelling) did
not write in English, so at best the sentence you quoted could only be
from some English translation.  The only book ascribed to Laozi is the
Tao Te Ching ("Daodejing" by the same transliteration that gives
"Laozi"; I am following Wikipedia on the spelling).  I have read the
Tao Te Ching many times in various renderings and translations and the
quote did not seem familiar.  (It's a short book, compared to, say,
the Bible.)  I have also searched several texts of the Tao Te Ching
available on-line and have not found the sentence in any of them, or
even anything close.  I also searched for the quote itself and found
it only on this page, where judo master Gunji Koizumi, writing circa
1945, attributed it to Laozi:

(Perhaps this is where you found the quote.)  Mr. Koizumi continues,
"Reality is so vast yet so rarified it eludes all human words, so
vague, and the mind so finite."

This statement, more than the sentence you quoted, is very reminiscent
of the beginning of Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching, which is about how
language is inadequate to describe or express the Tao.  I will quote
some translations to give you an idea of what it says.

"Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name."

From "Tao Teh Ching," translated by Dr. John C. H. Wu, St. John's
University Press, 1961.

"Tao cannot be defined, because it applies to everything.  You cannot
define something in terms of itself.

If you can define a principle, it is not Tao."

From "The Tao of Leadership" by John Heider, Bantam Books, 1986.

"Existence is beyond the power of words
To define:
Terms may be used
But are none of them absolute."

From "The Way of Life," translated by Witter Bynner, Capricorn Books, 1962.

"If you can talk about it,
it ain't Tao.
If it has a name,
it's just another thing.

Tao doesn't have a name.
Names are for ordinary things."

From "Tao Te Ching," perpetrated by Ron Hogan

You can see there is a lot of variation in these translations, which
is typical for the Tao Te Ching.  Perhaps Mr. Koizumi knew a Japanese
translation and the quote in your question was translated from that.

The paradoxical character of the quote is certainly consistent with
much of the Tao Te Ching, which has plenty of statements like "To hold
onto weakness is to be strong" (Wu translation, chapter 52).

There may be an English translation somewhere that contains the
sentence "When you say it is, it is not," but I doubt it.  I can't
prove it, though.

Additional Links

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Laozi

A Taoism Information page with links to several English translations
of the Tao Te Ching

Wikipedia on Laozi

Wikipedia on Tao Te Ching

I hope this discussion is helpful.  If you need any more information
about this, please ask for a clarification.


Request for Answer Clarification by antun-ga on 26 Sep 2005 07:15 PDT
Thank You very much. I am satisfied with the answer you provided. I
believe it is quite possible that the quote in question is Koizumis
translation from the Tao Te Ching from perhaps a japanese source.
Although Koizumi lived in the west for many years, English was his
second language, and he was a judo master, not a translator. As a
result of that it is possible that the translation was somewhat

One of the things I feel the quote in question adresses, is the act of
speaking about certain higher knowledge. He clearly suggests that
higher truths about his martial art cannot be expressed in words.

I feel what he is trying to express, closely resembles what Lao Tze
states at the beggining of poem #56:

"Those who know do not talk. 
Those who talk do not know"

Your thoughts on this are greatly appreciated!

Clarification of Answer by efn-ga on 26 Sep 2005 20:15 PDT
There is certainly some similarity or relationship there, and in fact,
I had considered referring to that passage in my answer.

One could imagine a causal relationship that Laozi didn't spell out,
along the lines of "Those who know do not talk" BECAUSE they know that
"existence is beyond the power of words to define (see chapter 1)."

Since you're buying my knowledge here, maybe I should shut up before I
prove I don't know anything!

antun-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars

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