1. James Legge:
The skilful masters (of the Dao) in old times,2. Archie Bahm:
with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries,
and were deep (also) so as to elude men's knowledge.
As they were thus beyond men's knowledge,
I will make an effort to describe of what sort they appeared to be.
Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in winter;
irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them;
grave like a guest (in awe of his host);
evanescent like ice that is melting away;
unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into anything;
In primitive times, intelligent men had an intuitively penetrating grasp of reality which could not be stated in words.3. Frank MacHovec:
Since their instinctive beliefs have not been recorded for us, we can only infer them from old sayings which have come down to us.
Regarding caution when crossing a stream in winter: the more nervous you are, the more likely you are to slip and fall.
Regarding suspicion of enemies: the more you fear others, the more they will be afraid of you.
Regarding courtesy as a guest: the longer you stay, the more you become indebted to your host.
Regarding melting ice: the more you do to prevent it from melting, the quicker it melts.
Regarding making furniture: the more you carve the word, the weaker it gets.
“The Dao of the Ancients”4. D.C. Lau:
The ancient followers of Dao: so wise, so sublte, so profound, so deeply understanding that they were themselves misunderstood. They must therefore be described:
Cautious, like crossing a stream in midwinter; observant, like moving in fear through hostile land; modest, retiring like ice beginning to melt; dignified, like an honored guest; genuine, like natural, untouched wood;…
Of old he who was well versed in the way5. Gia-Fu Feng:
Was minutely subtle, mysteriously comprehending,
And too profound to be known.
It is because he could not be known
That he can only be given a makeshift description:
Tentative, as if fording a river in winter,
Hesitant, as if in fear of his neighbors;
Formal like a guest;
Falling apart like the thawing ice;
Thick like the uncarved block;
The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.6. Stan Rosenthal:
The depth of their knowledge is unfathomable.
Because it is unfathomable,
All we can do is describe their appearance.
Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream.
Alert, like men aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests.
Yielding, like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
“The Manifestation of the Dao in Man”7. Jacob Trapp:
The sage of old was profound and wise;
like a man at a ford, he took great care, alert, perceptive and aware.
Desiring nothing for himself, and having no desire for change for its own sake, his actions were difficult to understand.
Being watchful, he had no fear of danger; being responsive, he had no need of fear.
“The Wise Man of Old”8. Stephen Mitchell:
The Ancient Sage was profound,
Simple, yet subtle beyond description.
One could say of him only that he was
Cautious, like one crossing a wintry stream;
Watchful, like one not to be taken from ambush;
Modest, like one who is everywhere a guest;
Self-effacing, like ice beginning to melt;
Genuine, like a piece of uncarved wood;
The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.9. Victor Mair:
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.
They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Those of old who were adept in the Way10. Michael LaFargue:
Were subtly profound and mysteriously perceptive,
So deep they could not be recognized.
Because they could not be recognized,
One can describe their appearance only with effort:
hesitant, as though crossing a stream in winter;
cautious, as though fearful of their neighbors all around;
solemn, as though guests in someone else’s house;
shrinking, as ice when it melts;
plain, as an unhewn log;
The Exellent shih of ancient times11. Peter Merel:
Penetrated into the most obscure,
the marvelous, the mysterious.
They had a depth beyond understanding.
They were simply beyond understanding,
the appearance of their forceful presence:
Cautious, like one crossing a stream in winter
timid, like one who fears the surrounding neighbors
reserved, like guests
yielding, like ice about to melt
unspecified, like the Uncarved Block
“Enlightenment”12. Ursula LeGuin:
The enlightened possess understanding
So profound they can not be understood.
Because they cannot be understood
I can only describe their appearance:
Cautious as one crossing thin ice,
Undecided as one surrounded by danger,
Modest as one who is a guest,
Unbounded as melting ice,
Genuine as unshaped wood,
“People of power”13. Wang Keping:
Once upon a time
people who knew the Way
were subtle, spiritual, mysterious, penetrating,
Since they’re inexplicable
I can only say what they seemed like:
Cautious, oh yes, as if wading through a winter river.
Alert, as if afraid of the neighbors.
Polite and quiet, like houseguests.
Elusive, like melting ice.
Blank, like uncut wood.
He who was adept at practicing the Dao in antiquity14. Ames and Hall:
Was subtly profound and penetrating, too deep to be understood.
As he was beyond people’s cognitive capacity,
I can only describe him arbitrarily:
He was cautious, as if walking across a frozen river in winter;
He was vigilant, as if being threatened by an attack on all sides;
He was solemn and reserved, like a visiting guest;
He was supple and pliant, like ice about to melt;
He was broad, like the boundless sea;
He was vigorous, like the untiring blowing wind;
He was genuine and plain, like the uncarved block;
Those of old who were good at forging their way (dao) in the world:15. Yasukio Genku Kimura:
Subtle and mysterious, dark and penetrating,
Their profundity was beyond comprehension.
It is because they were beyond comprehension
That were I forced to describe them, I would say:
So reluctant, as though crossing a winter stream;
So vigilant, as though in fear of the surrounding neighbors;
So dignified, like an invited guest;
So yielding, like ice about to thaw;
So solid, like unworked wood;…
“The Embodiment of the Dao Eternal”16. Addiss and Lombardo:
The ancient masters are wondrously subtle and profoundly penetrating.
The depth of their being is unfathomable and beyond comprehension.
As their depth is unfathomable and beyond comprehension,
Only their appearance can be incompletely described:
The master is as alert as a person fording a winter stream.
As careful as a person watchful of his surroundings,
As respectful as a thoughtful guest,
As flowing as meling ice,
As plain as an unhewn log,
The ancients who followed Dao:* * * * *
Dark, wondrous, profound, penetrating,
Deep beyond knowing.
Because they cannot be known,
They can only be described.
Like crossing a winter stream.
Like respecting one’s neighbors.
Like a guest.
Like ice about to melt.
Like uncarved wood.
Shrinking, irresolute, grave, evanescent, unpretentious, cautious, observant, modest, dignified, genuine, tentative, hesitant, formal, falling apart, thick, watchful, alert, courteous, yielding, simple, perceptive, aware, responsive, self-effacing, careful, fluid, shapable, solemn, plain, timid, reserved, unspecified, undecided, unbounded, polite, elusive, blank, vigilant, broad, supple, pliant, vigorous, reluctant, solid, respectful, flowing.
Combining all of these in one coherent and graceful character.
I do not say: Be like that.
I say: Notice that you are.
And if a shameful memory should happen to intrude,
I say: Notice that you were like that even then.
* * * * *
See Saturdao Index.