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Activity 3: So Little, So Much (15 minutes), Workshop 8: Taoism

In "Building Bridges," a Tapestry of Faith program

Materials for Activity

  • Leader Resource 3, Chapter 10
  • Newsprint, markers, and tape

Preparation for Activity

  • Copy Leader Resource 3, Chapter 10, and cut it into strips, one translation per slip.
  • Optional: If you wish to use more, or different, translations of the Tao Te Ching, visit the Daoism Depot, where you can find 17 translations. This site also allows you to split the screen in two and then re-split each section, so you can see four translations simultaneously.

Description of Activity

Participants compare different interpretations of a sacred text.

Give one slip to each participant. Ask participants to read their slip silently and think about what it means to them. After a few minutes, have them read each slip aloud. Participants may quickly realize that they are reading different versions of the same chapter. Ask:

  • What are some ways in which the translations are alike?
  • Why do you think there are differences?
  • Can you think of other holy texts from other religions that exist in more than one translation?

Record their responses on newsprint.

Say, using these words or your own:

Translations of holy text can differ so radically that it can seem like they did not even come from the same source. This is much more than inconvenient; conflict over scriptural interpretation has led to violence, even to a new sect breaking away from the original faith.

However, for seekers of truth, the abundance of translations of every sacred text can provide clarity and depth. This is also one way that religions change over time. Remember that religions exist to help fulfill basic human needs. As those needs change, religions change, and translations and interpretations of sacred texts change, too.

Translations differ for many reasons, including the time and place that the translator lived, the translator's level of skill with the source language, and what the translator was trying to accomplish with the translation. One especially important influence is the personal spiritual path of the translators, because the aspects that speak to them most strongly in the original will be the ones they emphasize in their translations.

For this reason, it is important to sample several translations of the Tao—or any other religious text you intend to study—if you are not reading it in its original language. Some translations will speak strongly to you and sustain and empower your spiritual growth, while others might say almost nothing to you.

The process of sampling several texts to see which works best for you will seem familiar and is also a Taoist undertaking: Taoists, like Unitarian Universalists, are required to reflect on their own experiences and observations and identify the truth for themselves.

Some scholars say you have to learn Chinese to really be able to understand the Tao. Others say that the teachings of the Tao are broad enough to survive translation without losing much. Do you think there is enough content in what you have heard to be a valuable tool in your own search for truth and meaning—our Fourth UU Principle? Do you think your own process would benefit from using more than one translation? Why?

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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