When the Course [Dao] is present in the world, the sage perfects himself with it.Although I obviously think highly of Dr. Ziporyn’s translation of the Zhuangzi, I’ve never been too enthused with his use of “Course” to translate Dao. Needless to say, he is better qualified to make that choice than I, but still it seems to me that to simply leave it in the original would obviate many of the problems which arise from giving it one single equivalent.
When the Course is lacking in the world, he lives his own life with it.
But in the present age, avoiding execution is the best he can do with it.
(Zhuangzi, 4:29; Ziporyn)
The problem is that Dao has many meanings, as determined by immediate and historical context. Its meaning has evolved, as these things tend to do, and meanings overlap. It can mean “road”, “path”, “to speak”, a metaphysical “Source”, or a general “course of study” intended to produce a certain skill, or “knack”, as when we say the dao of archery. Dr. Ziporyn argues that this last was its “original” meaning and thus chooses to render it “Course”. This is probably what it meant to Confucius, but is this what it meant to Zhuangzi or to subsequent interpreters of his thought? The answer, I think, is sometimes, but by no means always. Thus, to leave it as Dao would better allow the context to determine its meaning.
What does it mean in the passage above, where it can be present or lacking in the world? Certainly it does not mean Dao as I most often use it in an indeterminate metaphysical sense, that is, as Reality. But nor is it strictly a course of study, since Confucius had that, and if the world could only be receptive to his course when it already possessed it, the entire argument for the transformation of the world through his course would be nonsensical. At best, I think we can understand it as a kind of receptivity to ‘spiritual’ perspectives, which is also in keeping with the more metaphysical idea of Dao as a Vast Openness, a meaning that really has no meaning except in the context of our own experience.
If all this seems rather vague, it has the virtue of at least reminding us that this is neither science nor truth; it is not getting the doctrines right that concerns us, but simply learning how to live happily in the world. And that is something as variable and contextually determined as life itself.
You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.