Touching the Essence of Things:
A Conversation with Stephen Mitchell

By Scott London

Renowned translator and scholar Stephen Mitchell has brought to life a wide range of literary classics for readers of English, including the Tao Te Ching, the epic of Gilgamesh, the Bhagavad Gita and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. He has also co-authored two bestselling books with his wife Byron Katie.

Stephen Mitchell
Stephen Mitchell

In The Second Book of the Tao, just published by the Penguin Press, he anthologizes some of the great teachings of Chuang-tzu — Lao-tzu's brilliant and playful disciple — and Tzu-Ssu, the grandson of Confucius. Mitchell describes their philosophy as a kind of non-philosophy. "There was nothing to live up to," he says. "There was only a passion for the genuine, a fascination with words, and a constant awareness that the ancient Masters are alive and well in the mind that doesn't know a thing."

It would seem that the description applies not just to the ancient Chinese sages but to Mitchell himself, a man with an eye for the genuine, a deep love and respect for words, and an awareness that, paradoxically, connecting with the essence of things always requires going beyond words.

In this conversation, held in front of a live audience at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, California, I talk with him about The Second Book of the Tao, his perspectives on writing, his longtime Zen practice, and the rich tradition of wisdom literature that informs his work.

Scott London: Like many people, I’ve been reading your work for some time now. I think I was reading your books before I even knew it — which I imagine you hear quite a lot. When translators do their jobs well, they become invisible, transparent. I found my way to you through your translations of Rilke, a poet I had read in school but never really "discovered" until I came across your translations. I remember buying a copy of Letters to a Young Poet in a used bookstore in London back in the 1980s and having my mind blown wide open. I thought I was reading Rilke — and of course I was — but I was reading a version of his work refracted through your particular lens, made accessible by your own special gifts as a translator.

Stephen Mitchell: I think that is a book of surpassing greatness even in a mediocre translation. It's one of the marvels of our culture. Generally, my experience is that when I'm successful to my own inner ear it works for a lot of people. So I never have an audience in mind except for my own inner audience. It makes things very easy.

London: My experience was no doubt similar to that of many others in 1988 or ‘89 when you published your great rendition of the Tao Te Ching. That book became a literary sensation — selling over a million copies and establishing you not just as the definitive translator of Lao-tzu, but also as an important literary voice in your own right. What’s most remarkable is that at the time your version of the book came out there were already over one hundred English translations of it in print.

Books like the Tao Te Ching and The Second Book of the Tao are really about what lies beyond words. They are all about the inadequacy of words. But they say that in the most marvelously satisfying and brilliant words! It's a great delight.

Mitchell: One hundred and three, to be exact. Somebody actually counted them. And that was into English alone. And since then I'm sure there have been another couple of dozen into English. It's really quite a popular book.

London: I find it astonishing given that the book is 2,500 years old and in the public domain.

Mitchell: It's pretty wild, isn't it? It's an experience that I've had many times with the great classics — with the Book of Job, with Gilgamesh, etc. I find myself falling in love with a book, or with a consciousness, and wanting to dive into it to have as intimate an experience as I can. It's like falling in love with a person and wanting to get married because you just can't get enough of them.

With all of these books, I had the sense of being deeply unsatisfied with what was out there. Like Gilgamesh or the poems of Rilke, they had been translated many times, but to my mind they hadn’t been done with the kind of excellence that I thought the text deserved and that I wanted to bring to it if I possibly could.

With Lao-tzu, there was something else too: the music. I wanted to create a certain compressed and very lucid and really clear music in English. There was also a question of understanding it. I had read not quite 103 versions of it, but a couple of dozen versions into English, German, and French. The book had always been translated by linguists and scholars and theologians. And I felt that they were missing something.

scott london & stephen mitchell

London: I understand you don't speak any Chinese.

Mitchell: That’s right, I don't speak or read a word of Chinese. I would never have dared to do it if I hadn't felt a deep connection to Lao-tzu.

London: You've published some thirty books since the Tao Te Ching came out, so I don't think anyone would doubt your qualifications today. But at the time people probably wondered what you were doing translating Chinese when you didn’t speak the language.

Mitchell: Absolutely. But, you know, I had a really clear sense of what was more important that linguistics or scholarship. I used to call it my umbilical connection with Lao-tzu because I had gone through what at that time was 13 years of very intensive Zen training. So I had a sense that there was something really important being missed.

I'll give you two very brief examples of that. The Tao Te Ching talks about "the master" in many chapters. The master is someone who lives completely in harmony with the way things are, without any concepts getting in the way. Every single English version talked about the master as a he. It seemed to me absurd for a book that was perhaps the wisest book ever written, certainly a deeply mature and wise work of art, to be sending out an archetype of a spiritually mature person as a male. I thought that Lao-tzu could not possibly have done that. Then, when I checked with a friend of mine who is a Chinese scholar, later on, lo and behold, the personal pronoun in Chinese is not gender-specific.

London: You mean that up that that point every single rendition of the book had translated "the master" as a male figure.

Mitchell: Every single one. My solution was to alternate chapters about the master — one chapter "he," one chapter "she." In the foreword, I said that people should of course feel free to mix and match. They can read "he" wherever it says "she" and vice versa. In any case, that was one thing that I was sure of without knowing Chinese.

Another thing, just to pick another easy example: Some of the chapters about "the master" portray her or him as wanting to "keep the people ignorant" and "fill their bellies," as if the master were a kind of proto-fascist leader. I thought, that is nuts. This is the most gentle, non-controlling book ever written, perhaps, and it can't possibly be correct. So when I did my version, I was sure that it had to be talking about teaching the people to not know and filling their cores with what is important. Again, when I checked it out, my Chinese scholar friend said, "Yes, that sounds right."

London: Your new book has just been published. It’s called The Second Book of the Tao. But as we know, Lao-tzu never wrote a sequel to his great masterpiece.

Mitchell: There are actually books purporting to be the later writings of Lao-tzu. Beware, do not buy them. They are books that were written many hundreds of years later from a consciousness that is extremely inferior to the Tao Te Ching. Anyone with even a minimally open inner eye, after reading one or two lines of these later writings of Lao-tzu, can tell they are fake. So, no, there is nothing else by Lao-tzu.

London: So in effect this is a book that follows in the spirit of the Tao Te Ching, without actually being by Lao-tzu himself. What we have here is a collection of writings by his disciple Chuang-tzu as well as Confucius's grandson Tzu-Ssu. You've basically anthologized their work and added commentary of your own.

Mitchell: Yes, that's exactly right. I had wanted to do something with Chuang-tzu for a dozen years — to play with him, dance with him, or somehow engage in that very intimate relationship that a book creates. I had never found a way. It was always kind of hanging out in the back of my mind.

Then, four or five years ago, I had the idea of reading the Tao Te Ching to my wife, Byron Katie, chapter by chapter and line by line and writing down her reactions. I thought that this would be a wonderful book because Katie is somebody who completely embodies that consciousness. To have her bounce off Lao-tzu in every possible way really excited me. So we did that. This is a book that eventually became A Thousand Names for Joy. It was about a year of immersion in the Tao Te Ching as seen through Katie — really engaging with it for the first time since I had published the book in 1988.

That must have planted a seed because one day about a year later, I was reading some earlier prose versions that I had done from Confucius's grandson Tzu-Ssu. It occurred to me that this would be really wonderful in verse. It would be more concise and lyrical and would allow me to be witty in a way that I couldn't be in prose. So I did about a dozen versions. Then I thought, why don't I try to do Chuang-tzu in verse. And those started to work too, in a way that really pleased me. And I threw in about a dozen stories and dialogues as well. Then, I thought I was just about finished. I had 64 chapters. And one day on the phone with my old friend and literary agent, Michael Katz, he said, "Why don't you make it really personal and bring it into the present?" So that resulted in the commentaries which face the text on the other side of the page.

London: You mentioned some earlier prose translations, and I remember seeing them in a collection of yours called The Enlightened Mind.

Mitchell: That's where it was, yes.

London: I had that book at my bedside for a number of years. I used to dip into it whenever I had trouble sleeping.

Mitchell: Yes, I've been known to put people to sleep. [Laughs] My wife saves on sleeping pills because of my voice.

London: It’s a voice I happen to love. At any rate, the passages in The Enlightened Mind were each preceded by short commentaries of your own — often no more than a few lines long — and they were quite wonderful. So what we have here is a more expanded version of that same thing.

Mitchell: Yes, I just had so much fun with it. I felt that I had permission from these old Chinese sages — especially Chuang-tzu — to play all sorts of games with the text. For Chuang-Tzu there is nothing sacred. It's the most wonderful freedom and spontaneity. Especially about his own writing, he would have been very light-hearted, I feel, as the whole book is probably the most light-hearted thing you'll ever read. So I could expand, elucidate, contradict, go off in a completely different direction that turns out to be not so completely different. All sorts of wonderful games. I just had ball.

scott london & stephen mitchell

London: At one point you say that Lao-tzu is like a smile, and Chuang-tzu is like a belly-laugh.

Mitchell: Well, that's my experience. He has the most wonderful, all-embracing humor. It's just a great joy to sink into. I'm always suspicious of spiritual people without a sense of humor. And most of what he have that's called "spiritual" is pretty serious stuff.

London: There are 64 chapters in the book. Why 64?

Mitchell: Yes, well, originally my plan was to write a book with 81 chapters, like the Tao Te Ching. But after searching assiduously, I couldn't find 81 that were really of the highest quality. Then I thought, what other number would work here? 81 is 9 times 9, so I thought maybe 8 times 8, which was 64. I later found out that 64 has many fascinating qualities. I didn't realize at the time that, of course, there are 64 chapters in the I Ching, and 64 squares in a chessboard, and 64 basic positions in the Kama Sutra. And, you may not have realized this, but it's the only two-digit number ever to star in a Beatles song. And the only one-digit number to star in a major song is the square root of 64.

London: Imagine that. Now, you were born in Brooklyn and raised in the Jewish tradition. How did it happen that you set off on this incredible journey through so many and such diverse traditions?

Mitchell: When I was 22 years old, I was at Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. My girlfriend at the time, someone I had been together with in Paris and then back in the States, introduced me to Rilke. She gave me a little volume of Letters to a Young Poet in French. I felt as though the top of my head had been taken off. It was the most amazing experience of hearing a depth of truth for the first time in my life, hearing this great poet talk about beauty and solitude and love.

Two years later, my girlfriend unceremoniously walked out on me. I was devastated and didn't know what to do, where to go, or how to deal with the pain in my heart. And over the next few months, I found myself magnetically attracted to the Book of Job from the Bible. I didn't know anything about Taoism or Buddhism or anything but the Judeo-Christian tradition. But it seemed to me that that was the place that dealt most profoundly with the question of human suffering. I heard, at the end of The Book of Job, in the voice from the whirlwind, an answer that seemed absolutely genuine to me and that shook me to my toes. I thought, if I could somehow understand what kind of answer that answer was, I would have a way to deal with the pain in my heart.

So, I kept reading it and after a while I decided I would have to learn Hebrew to get closer to it. So I did; I taught myself Hebrew. About six months later I discovered that the text was in so much disrepair in the original Hebrew that I would have to learn textual scholarship and brush up my Greek — well, I don't even want to get into that! — and then learn ancient Semitic comparative philology.

One thing led to another and I got deeper and deeper into this amazing hole, except I loved it. And I was translating it into verse. It had never been translated into verse in another language. After a few years, I had the beginnings of something that really delighted my inner ear.

London: You studied literature at Amherst College and Yale University. But you’ve said that your true education began in 1973 when you first bumped into a Zen master. Tell me about that experience.

Mitchell: Six years into the project with the Book of Job, one day I had the sobering realization that I was never going to understand this from words on a page, as magnificent and profound as the words might be. I knew I would have to meet the answer in the flesh. So I started to learn Hindi. My intention was to fly to India and meet a teacher, somehow, who knew. But before I could even buy my plane ticket, a friend of mine said, "Why don't you go to Providence, Rhode Island" — I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time — "there is a Korean monk who just moved there six months ago. He says he's a Zen master. I don't know whether he is a Zen master, but he has very strange eyes."

So I went to Providence. He was living in the slum in a very funky apartment. On the front door of the apartment was this big handwritten sign that said, "What am I?" I thought that was auspicious. I walked in and went into the kitchen, and here was this rotund little Asian man in an undershirt and a sailor's cap, of all things, sitting at the kitchen table, just delighted. I looked into his eyes and I was sure that he knew what I needed to know. So I stayed.

After a year of extremely intensive meditation practice, I found myself in the middle of Job's whirlwind. It all became clear. So clear. I never had a doubt after that moment. And that was just the beginning. It was a little peep of what they call an enlightenment experience. But it changed the whole world for me.

To me, that was connecting with the essence of things. It wasn't Jewish, or Asian, or anything. It had no categories. It just connected me to the point where I began to understand, and to have a way out of this suffering that I had been immersed in.

London: You’ve published an astonishing number of books since that time. In fact, the list of your works on the inside cover of your new book runs a full three pages. There must be 30 or 40 titles there. You’ve translated the Bhagavad Gita, the epic of Gilgamesh, the poems of Pablo Neruda, and several books from the Bible. You’ve written your own poetry and fiction and edited countless anthologies of sacred writings. You’ve even written seven or eight children’s books. And you’ve co-authored a couple of best-selling books with your wife, Byron Katie. And what is noteworthy here, and obvious to anyone who spends any time with the adaptations, is that they are not mere translations. What you bring to your work is not just literary expertise, in other words. There is an inner wisdom that you draw from and that shines through in each of your books. In a sense, they aren’t just classics of spiritual literature, but are vehicles for the expression of your own unique wisdom and insight. So what was it that propelled you forward in all these different directions?

Mitchell: Katie calls all the people I’ve translated my "dead friends." [Laughs] I think there was a period in my 20s and early 30s where I was consciously going around and looking for people to include in my little paradise at the top of Mount Parnassus — people who saw through to reality in a more or less complete way. I mean, there is a whole range of awareness here. Rilke was an amazing poet and clear in many ways, but a mess in many ways too. His consciousness is really not the dazzling, transparent consciousness of Lao-tzu or Chuang-tzu or some other the other things I've done. But in one way or another all of these people that I've been hanging out with have connected with the essence of reality — more deeply or less deeply. That’s why I was attracted to them, I think. So I have this little family of dead people that I've been working with.

London: You mentioned your wife, Katie. You've co-written a couple of books with her. You mentioned A Thousand Names for Joy (which I’ve just been rereading). The other one is Loving What Is. It's an interesting story how the two of you met and came to do those books together.

Mitchell: Well, first I want to say that while it’s true that I "co-wrote" them, they are really Katie's books and Katie's words. I was just the midwife. We like to say that I translated her into English. [Laughter] But really, it's translating the spoken word into the written word. And, she's the only person I've translated who is not dead. [Laughs] Though she might say that she's not alive either.

At any rate, here's the story of meeting her. Michael, my literary agent, who also is an old-time Zen student, discovered Katie’s work in 1999 and was just blown to smithereens by its power and simplicity. He started to do her practice of self-inquiry as a daily practice. It's a most powerful method of inquiring into the things that cause all of our stress and misery. Once you have an insight into the unreality of these thoughts and the cause and effect of how they work in the mind, what always happens is that the thoughts unravel by themselves. It's not that you "let go" of the thoughts — it's not possible to let go of a thought, as Katie says, because you didn't create it in the first place. But the clarity, the insight into the workings of the mind, results in the thought letting go of you, once you've seen through it. After that, Michael, in his understated English way, sent me some audio and video tapes of Katie.

London: At this time, as I understand it, Katie hadn't written any books.

Mitchell: She had a little mimeographed thing that was maybe 16 or 20 pages. It gave the essence of The Work. That was her book. Actually, Michael attended a number of her talks (this is a story I heard later) and came up to her and said, "I want to be your literary agent." Katie said, "I don't have a book." And Michael said, "Oh, yes, you do." He was very persistent. Finally, as Katie says, "I thought he was a very nice man so I finally said yes."

I did listen to the audio tape and watch the video. They were extraordinary. Then Michael said to me, "Now I'd like you to go see her in person because it's ten times as powerful." Of course, I said yes. I trust Michael always. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to go and see her before the event. So I was able to call her assistant and make an appointment.

So here it was, January 23rd, 2000, at 10:03 a.m. I walked into this living room and looked into her eyes and it was, I would say, the most astonishing experience of my life. I used to think of myself as something of a connoisseur of eyes, because with my Zen master my experience was just of seeing what he knew. And I'd had a number of these experiences. And what I saw when I looked into her eyes was a heart that was completely opened. I'd never seen that before, even though I'd studied with and hung out with some very great Zen masters and known lamas and spiritual big shots of all sorts. But I had never seen anybody totally undefended before, and the radiance of it was just dazzling.

There was also an element of embarrassment in that split second. I might even say mortification. Because I had thought that I was pretty darn mature with almost 30 years of Zen practice under my belt and with a very ripe understanding, it seemed to me, at the time. And when I looked into her eyes, you know, it wasn't that. There was a place in my heart that was so defended, I realized, in looking into her eyes... I'd say it was more a feeling of humility than humiliation. But there was that other element in it as well. But again, within that split second I realized that somehow through that encounter I had a way to arrive at that vast, radiant place that I saw — even if I never saw her again, and I didn't suppose that I ever would.

So it was an experience of falling in love. But it wasn't personal. It certainly wasn't anything sexual. It was way beyond the personal. And many other people, both men and women, have had the experience of falling in love with her in that way.

London: So, it devolved into a romance at some point.

Mitchell: [Laughs]. Not at that point. And the romantic relationship was never primary, and still isn't primary.

London: Well, the two of you seem pretty romantic together.

Mitchell: Well, that's true. It's a part of it, but it's not the essence of it.

scott london & stephen mitchell

London: I don't know how many people are familiar with Katie's work, but my understanding is that it grows out of an experience she had in the mid-1980s where she was in a very painful crisis and had a powerful awakening.

Mitchell: Yes, it was the full Monty. [Laughs] There is a chapter in A Thousand Names for Joy — Chapter 63 — that describes the experience in great detail. It's not describable.

London: I'm curious about your relationship with Katie because her process has been so very different from your own. Where you draw inspiration and spiritual sustenance from the rich repository of the world’s wisdom traditions, she seems to draw it from direct perception. It’s unmediated. The contrast is interesting — quite striking, really.

Mitchell: I have to say that I'm delighted that Katie is so illiterate. She knows nothing about Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism. The first few months that I was with her, it would make me chuckle, even laugh out loud sometimes, hearing these things coming from her mouth that were almost exactly verbatim from some old sutra or Upanishad. It was the most wonderful thing. And then, when I would read to her from the Tao Te Ching, there was no searching for understanding or explanation. It was there without any effort, because that's her life, that's who she is. It's as if this pure, American dharma came through a woman who grew up in a tiny little town in the California desert.

London: It seems to suggest that you don't need years of Zen training, or a painstaking meditation practice, or yoga classes. You can "have it" without all that stuff.

Mitchell: Well, I love that. I think I was a particularly difficult case. I had put in all of this effort for years, including many hundred-day solitary retreats where the regime is twenty hours of meditation a day. That's really tough. Then I found a woman who completely embodied this, someone who at the time of her awakening was given a method that's so simple that even children can do it, that cuts out all these years and decades of effort. You know, people can access what I was so hungry to access in a fraction of the time. I think it's the most marvelous thing in the world.

London: Does that mean you’ve abandoned your Zen practice in favor of The Work?

Mitchell: [Laughs] My Zen practice is in my bones and the cells of my body. There is no way that I could ever abandon it. It made me who I am. But, certainly, I've been to Katie's school, I've done The Work intensively, and I don't have high enough praise for it.

London: Do you think you’ll ever reach a point where you're fed up with words, or where everything worth saying has already been said well enough?

Mitchell: Yes, I keep thinking that the book I'm working on will be my last book. But then something else pops up.

London: What’s next for you?

Mitchell: What I'm working on now is the Iliad, which is a wonderful project and will keep me busy for a year and a half or so.

London: Have you translated from the Greek before?

Mitchell: This is the first time — except for the Greek of Jesus in a book I did called The Gospel According to Jesus. But New Testament Greek is a whole different animal from Homeric Greek. It's much easier. So this project is something that's marvelous. I walk around some of the day with these great oceanic rhythms of the Homeric verse in my ear, just kind of riding the waves. When I get back to my study, it's magical what happens, without my knowing how it happens, to let these rhythms rise into English and to see them in English as I imagine Homer might have seen them.

But as for running out of projects, it's interesting to see whether that will happen. It hasn't so far. I love it that books like the Tao Te Ching and The Second Book of the Tao are really about what lies beyond words. They are all about the inadequacy of words. But they say that in the most marvelously satisfying and brilliant words! It's a great delight.

London: How did your Zen training prepare you for the rigors of doing these kinds of very detailed literary translations?

Mitchell: That's an interesting question. I can tell you a couple of ways. From beginning to end, the Book of Job took me 17 years. That's before Zen training, mostly. After Zen training, the Tao Te Ching took me four months. So I think my own case is a very good advertisement for the efficiency of a meditative practice. For me, it was really like night and day, before and after.

London: When you're in the throes of translating, how do you know when you've gotten it right?

Mitchell: There is always an inner sense, a perfectly harmonious feeling. And when I have that feeling, the whole book is there even if there's not even a word.

London: This is the experience that craftspeople and artists often describe. When asked how they know they are done — that they have put the final brush stroke on a canvas, for example — many of them describe a similar feeling. They "just know." There is that feeling of completion.

Mitchell: Yes, it's the most obvious thing in the world. It's totally straightforward.

There's a wonderful story about that in The Second Book of the Tao. It goes like this:

Ch'ing the master woodworker carved a bell stand so intricately graceful that all who saw it were astonished. They thought that a god must have made it. The Marquis of Lu asked, "How did you art archive something of such unearthly beauty?" "My Lord," Ch'ing said, "I'm just a simple woodworker — I don’t know anything about art. But here’s what I can tell you. Whenever I begin to carve a bell stand, I concentrate my mind. After three days of meditating, I no longer have any thoughts of praise or blame. After five days, I no longer have any thoughts of success or failure. After seven days, I'm not identified with a body. All my power is focused on my task; there are no distractions. At that point, I enter the mountain forest. I examine the trees until exactly the right one appears. If I can see a bell stand inside it, the real work is done, and all I have to do is get started. Thus I harmonize inner and outer. That's why people think that my work must be superhuman."

This interview was adapted from the transcript of a dialogue held at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, California, on March 2, 2009. The event was part of the "Mind & Supermind" lecture series presented by Santa Barbara City College’s Continuing Education Division. (Photos from the event were taken by John Wiley. The top photo of Stephen Mitchell is by Scott London.)