American author and translator Bill Porter, also known as Red Pine, has referred to the Tao Te Ching as “one long poem written in praise of something we cannot name, much less imagine.” Despite the elusiveness of its subject matter, the fourth-century B.C. Chinese text, celebrated as one of the foundations of Taoist thinking, has persisted over the millennia as a fundamental influence on Eastern philosophy and an inspiration to much Western creativity and thought.
In early April, Mars Hill University professor of religious studies Marc Mullinax debuted his new book, Tao Te Ching: Power for the Peaceful, a translation and interpretation that blends a scholarly awareness of the text’s original historical context with an accessible connection to the contemporary American experience. In the book, Mullinax builds a framework for understanding each of the Tao Te Ching’s 81 verses through historical reflection and a thoughtfully curated selection of quotes and writings ranging from biblical excerpts to the observations Walt Whitman, actor Mahershala Ali and Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
“My primary audience was my students,” he explains. “I wanted to do something that was an actual translation and not just an interpretation, and this was the result.”
A graduate of Mars Hill University who went on to study under philosopher and political activist Cornel West at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Mullinax first began teaching the text and learning classical Chinese characters in the 1970s when he was a young educator in South Korea. Since then, he notes in the book’s introduction, the gentle, unintrusive wisdom of the Tao Te Ching has been his “touchstone and spiritual magnetic north,” serving as a “return to clarity in frenetic or uncertain times.”
“I’ve been reading the Tao Te Ching at all kinds of junctures in my life,” Mullinax says. “It’s sort of this interface between my life and times when things are pressured or things are hard or when things are going well. And it’s always been a good interpreter or translator for me, so I thought, well, now it’s time to return the favor.”
Mullinax attributes the enduring popularity and relevance of the text to its focus on what is inherently right and good about the world. Conversely, he points out, Western culture tends to be concerned with what’s wrong, lacking or broken.
“What Taoism does is demonstrate that there is within creation itself an original harmony, original peace — you may want to call it original goodness — that is already built in, factory-installed. It’s already there, and all we have to do is access it,” he explains. “There’s nothing we have to prove, nothing we have to convert to; just breathe in with whatever’s there and leave your ego behind so that you can then hear and breathe with the situation you’re in.”
Mullinax likens the power of the Tao to the persistent forces of moving water that shaped the visually stunning, softly swirling sandstone formations of Antelope Canyon in Arizona. “Water has carved that place so beautifully over eons and eons, and that’s what Tao does to the hard places of this world,” he says.
Among the themes Mullinax highlights in his translation, including ideas of peace, going against the grain and leadership, is the transformative force of wu-wei, a concept he describes in the book as “wise, active, noninterfering cooperation with the Way of the Universe.” The literal translation of wu-wei he says, is “not doing.”
“But it’s not really that. It’s becoming so wise or accustomed to the way Tao works that you sense what’s right to do almost subconsciously,” he says. He offers the analogy of driving a car and, without really needing to think about it, simply turning a corner at precisely the right time and in just the right place. In the book, he also compares wu-wei with tacking while sailing or jiggling a key in a sticky lock until it catches.
In the 21st century, says Mullinax, wu-wei can be applied to everything from responding with appropriate public safety and health precautions to the COVID-19 pandemic to social justice efforts. “I’ve interpreted Tao as original justice. People who cooperate with Tao can bring justice to any situation that is unjust,” he says, noting that racial inequity, environmental degradation and income disparity are all violations of the Tao. “A person connecting with Tao can slowly, surely, bring change; we can change the course of that Titanic so it doesn’t have to hit the iceberg.”
The opposite of wu-wei is focusing only on one’s self. The Taoist worldview, Mullinax says, is one of total interconnection among all beings and objects, like a huge, complex spiderweb. “If you pluck one part of the web, all the other parts are going to vibrate at some frequency. [If you’re] acting out of ego, acting out of competition, you’re plucking or destroying the web, and that web is what helps us all survive.”
He notes that those in the West who follow the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching rather than the thought systems and beliefs of the prevailing culture tend to become social misfits with the potential for change-making leadership — what he says the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis might describe as “good troublemakers.”
“You’re tuning in to another wavelength that’s always been there, and by doing that, you engage in the unpopular thing that maybe is the just thing — you visit the people on death row, you give money away to people who really need it, you do these strange things like a Mother Theresa,” he explains. “You pretty much spend what capital you have — moral capital, life capital — to bring change to places that are hard and difficult. And that’s what becoming a misfit is: going outside the norm.”
Looking at contemporary American culture through the lens of the Tao Te Ching would ask us to wake up to what’s happening around us and reconsider the foundations of our worldview. “I believe we were born awake and have gone to sleep,” says Mullinax.
“We’re going to have to rethink capitalism, which is ‘grow, grow, grow,’” he continues. “We’re going to have to rethink individualism, which is ‘me, me, me.’ We’re going to have to rethink speciesism, which is always seeing only ourselves in nature, anthropocentrism. We’ll have to rethink a lot of things. But it’s nothing new — it’s been ‘thunk’ before. This is just a refinding of what is already naturally there.”
For more on Marc Mullinax, to find his book and for details about his upcoming local Tao talks, visit marcmullinax.com.