The Journey of a Thousand Miles

There is a well known saying from the Chinese; “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

I had thought the author of this saying was Mao Ze Dong, who used it as a motivational slogan to inspire his troops on the famous Long March which eventually led to the establishment of modern China.

However, I found it attributed to Lao Tse.

This is surprising. It is not the sort of thing that Lao Tse would say. It is psychological, motivational, but not spiritual, and out of place in the book of Tao, which is a brief, terse account of essential spiritual understanding.

Lao Tse, like Buddha, Jesus and other masters, wrote nothing during his life, because words are inadequate. He did not intend to write anything down, or allow his disciples to write down his words. His words would pass with him into nothingness.

But when Lao Tse was approaching death he left his home and headed towards the mountains to spend his last days in silence. To reach his destination he had to pass through a gateway which was manned by a disciple and this man, realising what was happening, insisted that the master write something down for future generations, otherwise he would not let him pass. In this way the Tao Te Ching was written.

And it may be that Lao Tse wrote only the first part of the book, and the rest has been added later by disciples who felt a need to flesh out the dry bones of the original. I agree with this theory, having noticed a lack of brilliance in the latter parts of the book.

Also translations are variable; the quality will depend on the consciousness of the translator. We are fortunate to have some great English-language translations of the Tao, such as Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English’s version, to which I refer, but one cannot rely on translators having perfect understanding, hence one must sometimes ‘read between the lines’.

The phrase in question is from Verse 64 of the book of Tao. There is an alternative translation (by Michael LaFargue, 1992) which reads; ‘A thousand mile journey begins under your feet.’ This sounds more appropriate.

The wise person doesn’t go anywhere because he knows the truth is just under his feet, and a journey of a thousand miles won’t change that. A tree grows from a single shoot and a tower is built from the earth beneath it. They don’t go anywhere. They have all they need within them already, just as we are already complete as we are.

Perhaps this part of the Tao Te Ching was not written by Lao Tse, or perhaps translations have hidden the original meaning over time. We will never know.

It is up to each individual to decide, or leave forever a mystery.