A stillness within Stephen Mitchell

Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

“If I’m a scholar, I’m an amateur,” says Stephen Mitchell, the soft-spoken translator of Rainer Maria Rilke and the book of Job as well as “Gilgamesh,” the “Bhagavad Gita” and his all-time favorite, the “Tao Te Ching” -- “that marvel of lucidity and grace, the classic manual on the art of living.”

The Tao is Mitchell’s deep well, his Ganges. His 1988 translation has sold more than half a million copies. The New York Times ran a story on the front page of the business section after Harper & Row bought the book at auction with the headline: “Translation of Ancient Tao Text Brings $130,000.” Asked what he would do with the advance, Mitchell humbly told an interviewer he was hoping to find a workplace with heat.

Today, he lives in Ojai, in a rambling, pristine house nestled in the hills, surrounded by gardens, pools and fountains. He is so in love with his wife and occasional co-author, Byron Katie, that references to her are inextricably woven into every aspect of his world. His writing studio is spare and elegant. (Let’s just say he has heat.)


The original “Tao Te Ching” was written by Laotzu in the 6th century B.C. Legend has it that the 80-year-old, frustrated by his fellow man’s inability to follow the path of natural goodness and harmony, left China for Tibet. At the border, a guard asked him to write down his teachings. This became the “Tao Te Ching.”

Mitchell’s new book, “The Second Book of the Tao” (Penguin Press: 202 pp. $25.95), consists of adaptations from the work of two ancient Chinese scholars: Chuang-tzu, a Laotzu disciple, and Tzu-ssu, Confucius’ grandson. Mitchell chose 64 chapters, each including a text and commentary. In his commentaries, Mitchell sets out to emulate the irreverent tone of Chuang-tzu: “If Lao-tzu is a smile,” he writes, “Chuang-tzu is a belly-laugh. He’s the clown of the Absolute, the apotheosis of incredulity, Coyote among the bodhisattvas.”

Asked to elaborate, he says: “I have no pretensions to scholarship. I just love to play with the Taoist masters. For them, nothing is sacred. The best tribute is contradiction.”

Nonetheless, Mitchell has been criticized for his irreverent adaptations and translations, for his New Age style and his way of turning sacred texts into spiritual manuals for everyday living. You can’t have it all is the message implicit in these critiques. Or can you? Mitchell might say you could, if you live in harmony with the way things are.

The home Mitchell shares with his wife is luxurious, warm and spacious. In the empty, white studio, a simple table with a thin laptop faces an enormous window; outside, there is a path and a tree that resembles a Zen sculpture. An altar near the doorway holds a photo, not of an Indian guru or historical figure but of Mitchell’s wife.

Could any life really be this peaceful? Could this be the epicenter of the New Age?


‘A basic capacity’

“Whether it’s the 4th century B.C.E. or 21st century America,” Mitchell says in his backyard facing the mountains, “people suffer and find a way into freedom. There’s no difference between then and now. Humans have a basic capacity for freedom. When I was 20, I didn’t have a clue. When I was 30, I was in the difficult process of getting a clue. When I was 40, I had a clue and was clearing out the debris. Fifty, ditto. At 60, all the debris is cleared, thanks in large part to my wife.”


In many ways, Mitchell’s path began when his first girlfriend, Vicky, broke up with him. The two were in graduate school at Yale. The pain was, he says, “the seed of everything that I’ve become.”

Mitchell found solace in the book of Job, an affirmation that there was a solution to human suffering; a calm, some might say Buddhist, acceptance of the way things are.

Six years after the breakup, Mitchell bumped into a friend who mentioned that he had met a Zen master with very strange eyes. Mitchell found the man in a funky neighborhood in San Francisco. The eyes were compelling, and Mitchell spent the next several years in intensive Zen practice; days spent meditating 12 to 14 hours, solitary retreats that lasted 100 days.

“For most of us,” he explains, “there are pops of insight that are life-transforming, followed by years spent cleaning up the karmic residue.”

Vicky introduced Mitchell to the work of Rilke. Eighteen years later, he sent her a copy of his translation, “The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.” She wrote back, and the two spent four days together as friends. “I found I loved her in a better, clearer way than when we were together as young people,” he says.

“If I could have wished anything for you,” she told him, “it would have been that you might become the person you’ve become.”


Unlike writers of self-help books, Mitchell hardly thinks about his readers. He feels, unabashedly, that he has a right to the material he works with, a right to reinterpret it and keep it alive.

“Readers are not a part of my world,” he declares. “I write the books I want to read. Often I have to write them myself.” For Mitchell, great writing must be transparent. Opaqueness, in his view, is a kind of arrogance.


He was drawn in

When Mitchell’s longtime agent and friend Michael Katz introduced him to Byron Katie in 2000, it was the eyes again that drew him in. “I saw a heart that was absolutely transparent,” he says. “It was like meeting the Buddha. I thought I was a pretty mature Zen student, but after meeting her I realized I had a lot more serious work to do.”

He was struck immediately by the similarity between her work and his understanding of the Tao. The two collaborated on a book, “Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life” (2002), and then on “A Thousand Names for Joy: Living in Harmony With the Way Things Are” (2007), which he considers his “third book of the Tao.”

As he explains: “This is the book you wish every parent could give their children -- to show them that life doesn’t have to be difficult. It can be so effortless.

“Western therapy doesn’t work; I’ve never heard of it leading people to a place where life is problem-free. You need a method that can cut the Gordian knot, catapult people to a new level of experience.”


Mitchell grew up in a well-to-do family. He felt that money was a burden. After graduate school, he gave the money his grandfather had left him to a Zen center. “I had nothing. It was wonderful.” A friend pointed out that aversion was often the flip side of greed. Then came the $130,000 advance, and it’s been uphill ever since.

Mitchell doesn’t just read the work he adapts and translates -- he swims in it. These days, he is swimming in Homer and is hard at work on a translation of “The Iliad.” “Homer is like Tolstoy,” he says, “hugely open and accepting, so vast it’s breathtaking. In Homer you learn to see the enemy as you see yourself.”

He has great respect for the translations of Robert Fagles and Richmond Lattimore but hopes his version will restore the speed and drama of the myth. “I get frustrated by English that isn’t beautiful,” says the author. “I walk around with the oceanic rhythms of the Greek ringing in my ears. I think I have found a way to be clear and also lyrical.”

Mitchell knows Greek, although he feels that not knowing a language is not necessarily a disadvantage in his work.

“Not knowing Chinese allowed me to cut through the text,” he says, referring to the Tao. “I learned Sanskrit to better understand the Mahayana texts, and later, when I was practicing and studying Zen, my teacher told me, ‘The only thing of any importance is inside you.’ ”


Deeply connected

Mitchell’s connection to Laotzu is, he insists, not only intellectual but umbilical. “So often,” he says, “you feel embarrassed for translators. You want to make this marvelous insight for people who have been getting McDonald’s food.” And yet, those insights arise from a process that is mercurial at best.


“Sometimes,” he admits, “I do 20 or 30 drafts of a chapter. Sometimes it came out the way I dreamed it. But sometimes the subject matter is so dense I have to leave it for a day or a week and come back.”