Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tao Book: "Chronicles of Tao, The Secret Life Of A Taoist Master" by Deng Ming-Dao

Chronicles of Taois a wonderful book. It’s the true life story of a Taoist master who comes to America. It’s a biography, but it’s written like a novel. The author, Deng Ming Dao, who has written many books on Taoism, has masterfully woven the story of his true life Master, Kwan Saihung. It takes us to another world of sages, immortality, fights to the death and mystical powers and is full of exotic locations and characters. Kwan Saihung goes from one adventure to the next through his inner and outer journeys as a Taoist monk and martial artist. The story is one part Kane from Kung Fu and one part Bruce Lee. When Deng Ming-Dao first met Kwan Saihung, the master was already in his sixties, but looked twenty years younger and was in peak physical condition. At the time, Kwan said his own master was still alive in China and was over 140 years old. It is actually three books in one. Deng Ming-Dao originally wrote his story of Master Kwan as a trilogy. Here, all three books have been collected in one volume.

Part one: The Wandering Taoist

Part two: Seven Bamboo Tablets of the Cloudy Satchel

Part three: Gateway to a Vast World

When the story opens, we see Saihung as boy in 1929, attending the Festival of the Jade Emperor on top of Taishan, one of the holiest mountains in China. Kwan is a naughty boy who only cares about having fun at the festival and eating candy. He comes from a wealthy family and is attending the festival with his grandfather and relatives. It is during the festival however, that he meets the man who would eventually become his master, the Grand Master of Huashan, another famous mountain. As he grows older, he takes up Taoist training and goes against the wishes of his family to become a Taoist monk. He was renamed “Little Butterfly” by his master.


The book is full of memorable characters. There was another acolyte also named Butterfly who was like a big bother to Saihung. However, the older Butterfly takes up a life of crime and flees from the authorities. His crimes eventually threaten the monastery on Huashn and Saihung is sent to bring him back. He is finally brought back to face their master. Without a word, the Grand Master strikes the man in the heart and using the power of his chi, kills him instantly. The reader is left to believe that it was not just a punishment, but a mercy killing. It was quicker and more humane than what he would have received in the hands of the Chinese authorities. At another time, Saihung has a battle with another martial artist, an incredibly fat man. The fat man is very good, but Saihung seems quicker. The fat man has to resort to using his secret weapon, a stunning “fart” attack which ends the battle. Afterward, it turns out that the man is a friend of Saihung’s master and they all have a good laugh.

The book also teaches us about modern Chinese history. Through the story, the book shows us the changes and upheavals in China. The Sino-Japanese war in the late 1930’s divides the monastery, with some monks advocating non-involvement and others wishing to fight for their country. Taoists are not pacifists and are skilled martial artists. The Grand Master says it is up to each monk to decide for himself and Saihung leaves the mountain to fight. Later we see the coming of the Second World War and eventually the changes brought by the Cultural Revolution that result in Huashan being closed.

It is the story of one man on a path. Saihung faces many challenges on his path to personal enlightenment, none of more difficult than Saihung himself. His own personality often works against him. He is hot-headed, impatient, and overly prideful of his abilities as a fighter and martial artist. We see him many times stray from his path. It seems no matter how much he accomplishes, he still has more to learn. This is also why the reader can identify so well with his character and what makes the story so engaging. At one point, he gives up the life of a Taoist and takes up acting. He has decided to build the “mind palace” and fill it with beautiful images, experiences, and memories. He then meets two Taoist sages traveling the country and joins their company. They instruct him in meditation and internal alchemy and tell him in order to advance he must destroy the mind palace. Eventually, the pair are ready to “merge with the void”. It is a spiritual death and through meditation and power of will, send their spirits to heaven. Saihung is saddened, but also honored to have witnessed such an event. Later, in one of the most memorable scenes in the book, we see Saihung in America, impatient for immortality and weary of life on Earth. He decides he will send his spirit to the void just as the two Taoists did. He sends a letter to his master in China declaring his intention. His master forbids him from leaving before his time. He has not fulfilled his destiny. Saihung writes back that he will do it with or without his master’s blessing. His master’s reply is short. “No, I will stop you.” Saihung rips up the letter and starts the process of meditations to join with the void, but in the last stages, he is stopped by a loud radio blaring rock music. Who’s to say it wasn’t his master.

The story is also full of great philosophical nuggets and advice on how to live. Yin Yang theory is fundamental to Taoism. It is the swirls of black and white which represent the feminine and masculine principles respectively. Yin is dark and mysterious. Yang is bright and powerful. However, Master Kwan’s knowledge runs deeper. At one point he says while discussing the meaning of the universe in a parked car, “Yin is like all these moving cars and rushing people. Yang is like that phone pole.”

When asked for an explanation, he says, “Yin represents ambition, drive, movement. It is the female, the ultimate fertility. Yang, by itself is so strong, but in its pure form, it has no drive, no motivation. Thus it is static: Without yin, it cannot move. Without yang, yin will have neither direction nor form.”

This seems to go against the popular concepts of yin and yang. This is the difference between book knowledge and experience. Life is the only true classroom.

In another part of the book the Grand Master is instructing Kwan about destiny and fate. “Good and evil exist as destiny and fate.”, the Grand Master says.

“Aren’t they the same?”asks Kwan

“No, they aren’t. Destiny is that which you must fulfill in this lifetime. You are born with a task. During your lifetime, you must continually strive to identify it and complete it to the last detail…Fate is an active agent that exists solely to deter you from fulfilling your destiny. It struggles against you, impedes your path. Fate functions through illusion. It is temptation. It tricks you, fills you with grand notions and proud thoughts. Give and fate has won. Resist and it has lost.”

This book is a treasure. It brings the hidden and mysterious world of Taoism to life. The book is easy to read and moves along quickly. Deng Ming-Dao has done a wonderful job. Just as with an ancient Taoist text, you will get something new every time you read it.

Tao Book: "Taoist Master Chuang" by Michael Saso, A Book Of Taoist Magic

Taoist Religion

There are many books about Taoism. Most are about philosophical Taoism or are translations of ancient Chinese texts. Taoist Master Chuangis different. It’s about religious Taoism, not how it was in some ancient past, but the living, breathing religion of today. The focus of the book, Master Chuang, until his death in 1979, was a Taoist priest in Hsinchu City in Northern Taiwan. He was probably the most learned and accomplished priest on the whole island. In specific, the book examines in great detail, the religious rituals and magic performed by Taoist priests and the liturgies and canons they use. Taoism has existed as a religion for well over two thousand years. The rites performed by Taoist priests are extremely complex, sometimes lasting several days and require the up most discipline and training.

The author, Michael Saso is a western scholar who has devoted his life to the study of religious Taoism. Not content to simply read books and observe from the outside, he took the ultimate step for his study and became an initiated Taoist priest himself and is one of the world’s for most authorities on Taoism. In Taoist Master Chuang, Saso reveals a hidden world, previously unknown to westerners. It is a world where magic is a reality and spiritual possession and exorcisms are commonplace. Perhaps even more interesting than the religious aspects of the book, is the intimate look into the life of Master Chuang himself as well as a behind the scenes look at religious Taoism and where it fits in modern Taiwanese culture. The book is divided into two parts and six chapters.


In the east and the west, religious Taoism is a relatively new subject of study for scholars. This is due to the fact that a copy of the Taoist Canon was not widely available until the 1920’s. The Taoist Canon is a massive collection of religious books and liturgies containing well over 1,000 volumes. The most famous books of philosophical Taoism, the Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu are basic texts which all novice priests must study. The are used as a guide for Taoist living and also for meditation. However, that’s just the first step of their training. Interestingly, the study of philosophical and religious Taoism can be quite different. Philosophical scholars assert that the Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu have little to do with religion and Priests would say that being an expert on philosophical Taoism does not make you an expert on religious Taoism. One of the major problems in studying the Canon is that scholars couldn’t understand the esoteric terminology. This was solved by fieldwork with Taoist priests who could not only understand and explain the texts, but who had their own manuals which were more complete that the official versions of the canon, with notes and commentaries to explain the texts. Saso outlines the canon and also gives an overview of the major sects of Taoism and their relative importance.

In Chapters one and two, Saso gives us a detailed history of the development of religious Taoism as well as the history of the texts in Master Chuang’s library.

The Taoist Master Chuang

Chapter three is probably the most interesting of the whole book. In Taoism, as in many religions, there are two main groups of practitioners. There are the monks who live a monastic life often on mountain tops removed from the world, and there are priests who live in the community, in the temples and who serve the needs of the people. Master Chuang belongs to the later group. Taoist priests marry and Master Chuang has a large family. The position of head priest of the temple is a family affair and passed down from father to son. In the book, Master Chuang was in the process of grooming two of his sons to follow him. Running a temple is also a business and each rite or ceremony costs money. Nearly all the people who live in the alley around his house depend on him for their livelihoods. Taoist ceremonies require assistants, musicians, a whole entourage. Most of them worked for him, at least occasionally and others get the business that he couldn’t handle.

Far from being the image of a quiet, pious man, Master Chuang is famous for his short temper and firey personality. He is also a heavy drinker. However, when it comes to vocation, he has the upmost conviction and seriousness. He is completely devoted to those he aids and is extremely loyal to those close to him. In one example, in the middle of a festival celebration, a very busy time, a drunkard burst ino the crowd and started hurling insults at Master Chuang. His sons were enraged and ready to pounce on the man, but Master Chuang simply said, “He is my friend”, though he’d never seen the man before. In the mists of the pressing commitments of the festival, this drunken man, in his confusion, was the most important man there. He was in need and Master Chuang personally guided him home.

There is a lot of competition and jealously among Taoists. Master Chuang is the most sought after because of his expertise and almost flawless performance of the rites. It’s no only the superficial performance, but his deep knowledge of the Taoist Canon and meditation. He is also the only one around qualified to certify others in the rituals. Many come to him and take classes to learn the rites. They are only interested in learning the rituals and liturgies to perform them in order to turn a profit at their own businesses. They have no interest in the deeper meditative practices. The ultimate goal of a true Taoist is union with the Tao, not for himself, but so he can then serve the people. Being a Taoist is not necessarily an enviable job. Taoist rites are associated with illness, possession, or death. He does not have many friends. He is respected and feared. Because of this he often gets special treatment and often doesn’t have to pay at bars or shops, but he is not really liked. Master Chuang’s close friends are from his youth, to whom he is extremely loyal. Master Chuang’s spiritual power is unmatched, especially for exorcisms. Saso gives two examples. In case one, a man comes to him and says his relative is being attacked with black magic by another Taoist. Master Chuang immediately goes to him and finds the man bed ridden and extremely ill. He performs a ceremony to reverse the magic and send it back to the antagonist. The man soon recovers. Master Chuang later returns home, quite drunk and happy after celebrating with the family. Almost immediately, a pale and very distraught man appears at the house and says he was the Taoist who performed the black magic and vowed never to do such a thing again. In case two, Master Chuang was preparing for a cleansing and renewal ceremony for a small community. In Taoism, there are proper times and hours to perform ceremonies. The Taoist uses his almanac to calculate the correct time. Master Chuang was aware of the correct time, but chose to start the ceremony earlier for other reasons. One, the local leaders wanted to attend and two, Master Chuang was tired and had other ceremonies to perform the same evening. This fact was only known to the author and Chuang’s son. After he began the ceremony, a local medium became possessed by the temple god. He followed Chuang and taunted him, “The ceremony’s not begun at the proper time.” At first, Master Chuang ignored it, but then turned, eyes wide with rage and expelled the spirit on the spot saying as the priest, he reserved the right to start the ceremony at a time of his choosing and continued to finish the rite. At no time in the book does Saso ever question the reality of possession or the effectiveness of magic. Nor does he use non-commital language like, “The people believed he was possessed.” They are simply facts.

Taoist Magic

In part two, Saso gives detailed descriptions of three types of ceremonial magic, step by step, complete with diagrams and the calligraphy-like talismans and seals.

The Tao of the Left

This is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. To expel demons and harmful spirits, the Taoist often calls upon the aid of a group of six extremely powerful spirit generals called the Six Chia Generals. This is officially considered black magic by the Taoist orthodoxy, but is commonly performed by many Taoists. This is like something out of Lord of the Rings. There is a ceremony for the young Taoist adept trainee to practice summoning these six spirits. Over a period of sixty days, he performs the rites to call forth one or two spirits a day. In total, he invokes them twelve times. After that, he has memorized the rites and can call summon them at will whenever he needs. The most closely guarded secret of the Taoist is the specific names and detailed descriptions of these spirits. It’s the last thing he will teach his disciples. Each Chia Spirit General has one or more names and very specific appearance down to their uniform and weapons. One is twelve feet tall, with horns on his head, the face of a rat and the body of a man. Another has the face of a man and the body of a snake. Yet another, looks like a beautiful woman. Each commands an army of hundreds of thousands of spirit soldiers. Throughout the book, Saso shows us that in these ceremonies, visualizing the spirits is extremely important. Without this, the rituals are empty. It makes me think of when I was a kid I had imaginary friends. I could see them in my minds eye perfectly. They even helped me when I needed them. I think it is an inate power of children. The mind has a way of making things real. In Taoism, the gods or spirits are often not summoned from heaven, but from within the Taoist’s own body. There are specific gods residing in specific organs of the body’s microcosm. This gives new meaning to the expression, “The body is a temple.”

The Tao of the Right

This is the higher form of magic of the Taoist orthodoxy. It is a type of liturgical meditation leading to union with the Tao. This has three purposes: one, it leads to immortality for the adept, two, it brings blessings and renewal for the people of the community, and three, it brings salvation to the souls of the departed. There are two main types of ceremonies. “Chiao” ceremonies win blessings and renewal for the living. They always begin with meditations of union with the Tao. The other are “Chai” ceremonies to free the souls of the dead from hell. Here, the Taoist reads lengthy canons of merit and liturgies of repentance. The meditative rituals are complex and require years of training. Saso goes into great detail describing each step of these ceremonies.

Thunder Magic

The highly developed meditative magic of the Tao of the right is the hallmark of orthodox Taoism. However, it has one major drawback. It requires complete purification to perform the rites of union with the Tao properly, purification of the adept as well as the setting. Also, the demons and spirits called forth by the heterodox magic of the Tao of the Left could never be admitted to the pure area of the temple during the Chiao ritual of renewal. For these reasons, the orthodoxy needed a new ritual. One that was less austere. This new Thunder Magic is a neo-orthodox ritual and represents a kind of middle ground between the pure Tao of the Right and the profane Tao of the Left. Thunder magic is a fusion between Taoism and tantric Buddhism. It is so called because it uses the power of thunder to cure sickness and exorcise spirits. The Taoist performs meditations similar to those in the Tao of the Right, but the purpose is not union with the Tao, but rather to prepare his body and inner microcosm to receive the power of thunder. The Taoist first must perform a meditation in the spring during a thunderstorm. He faces in the direction of the storm and breathes deeply. The power of thunder circulates through his organs and is stored in the body. He can then call upon this power at anytime to perform the thunder magic rituals. There are different forms of Thunder Magic from different Taoist sects and each has its own history and forms.

Taoist Master Chuangis not for everyone. I wouldn’t recommend this book if you’re new to Taoism. For me, the most interesting parts were the look at Master Chuang’s life and Taoism in modern Taiwan and also the descriptions of the Six Chia Generals. I have to admit, I skimmed through much of the book. Saso is very thorough and goes into a lot of detail. However, if you want a deeper understanding of Taoism as a religion or the more esoteric aspects, this book is for you. It may be particularly interesting for those studying meditation or chi-qong. Unfortunately, at the time of writing this, it appears that the book is currently out of print. It is available, but at many times the original price. You may be able to find a copy through your local library.

Tao Book: "The Taoist Body" By Kristofer Schipper

There are a great many books on philosophical Taoism, but not as many about Taoist religion. The Taoist Body is a very complete overview of the practices and function of religious Taoism, which is an inseparable part of traditional Chinese culture. To study Taoism as a religion is also to study the sociology of China. The author, Kristofer Schipper is a Dutch born scholar who has dedicated his life to the study of Taoist religion. So much in fact that he lived in Taiwan for several years and became an ordained Taoist priest. This parallels the life of another Taoist scholar, Michael Saso, author of Taoist Master Chuang. Saso's book goes into great detail describing the rituals of Taoist magic. The Taoist Body however is much broader in scope.

One of the most fascinating parts is the chapter that deals with puppets and mediums. Puppet shows are popular throughout China and can be enjoyed anytime of year. However, these are not just shows for children and have a much more serious purpose. Puppet dramas are almost always held around festivals or religious events. Puppet theater is one of the oldest art forms in China. Puppets and puppeteering are a very powerful form of magic. The seventh month of the Lunar calendar in China is known as ghost month. This is when the ghosts of the dead wander the earth. Most feared are the "hungry ghosts". These are the souls of people who died unnatural or violent deaths or who have no family to conduct the funeral and ceremonial rites to appease their souls. These ghosts can cause sickness or even death in those they afflict. It is during ghost month that many puppet dramas are held in outdoor venues. However, the seats in front of the stage are empty. No one watches these dramas. They are not for the living, but to help calm and appease the hungry ghosts. Not just entertainment, they are a liturgical magic to help free these souls. Proper puppet troupes have thirty-six puppets with seventy-two heads making a total of 108, which is the total number of constellations. 108 is also significant as the number of sins or temptations that someone must overcome to reach nirvana in Buddhism. Behind the stage there is an altar for the puppets were ceremonies are performed before the show can begin. Most powerful are the clown puppets. Puppet dramas are sponsored by local communities in response to disasters such as fire, floods, and epidemics. The puppets also exorcise demons. But for all their magic, it is the unseen master puppeteer who wields the real power.

Mediums are also common in China. They are called "children" by the local communities. They go into trances and are possessed by spirits and the gods speak to the people through them. trances are quite common during religious ceremonies and there may be several mediums in trances at the same time. The mediums are half naked, and are often symbolically dressed as babies. They poked needles into their bodies and perform stunts like walking over hot coals or climbing a ladder of knives to show their spiritual power. They may wield swords or other weapons to chase evil spirits away while in their rapture. The mediums are always accompanied by an "assistant" who dresses them, helps them up and interprets the unintelligible speech for those who seek the gods counsel. He is often dressed very similar to the medium and wears a red turban. He is, in fact the medium's master and a shaman. Like something out of Star Wars, he is often the one who trained the medium and the master controls the entire seance. The master will summon the Gods for these ceremonies or trances. Interestingly, if called upon, the Gods cannot refuse. The master wields his power through the medium. Actually the medium is just a substitue for a puppet and performs a very similar function. These shamans are known as "red headed" Taoists and their magic and power are considered a lower form of Taoism. A higher sect are the "black headed" Taoists. These are ordained Taoist priests with their higher liturgical, meditative magic.

As mentioned above the hungry ghots are restless spirits that cannot pass on and are feared. Ironically however, it is only these hungry ghosts that have the potntial to become gods. There are many examples of this such as Ma-tsu, patron saint of sailors and protector of children. She began life as a real person and lived a pure life and appeared as a vision to save her brothers at sea.. After her death, and over years of worship, she was elevated to god status. Another is the hero Lord Kuan, a fierce warrior, who was executed by his enemies. Afterward, he avenged his own death by possessing the body of his enemy, killing him.

Schipper gives an overview of the various kinds of Taoist rituals. In every ritual there is always the burning of ceremonial papers. These have different functions. Some consecrate the temple grounds and others are powerful talismans to banish evil. They are written in calligraphy style on narrow strips of yellow paper. Chinese horror-comedy movies often show the taoist fighting a horde of undead vampires. The priest writes one of these talismans and slaps it onto the vampires forehead immobilizing it. The Taoist heaven and pantheon of the gods is envisioned as a great imperial bureaucracy. Messages must be sent and heavenly clerks must be paid. A great deal of these ceremonial papers are paper money.

Later, the books describes Taoist meditation and internal alchemy, the circulation of chi. All of this is squarely centered in the teachings of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. This book is required reading for anyone interested in Taoist religion. Whereas Saso's Taoist Master Chuang gives us a close up look at a few rituals, The Taoist Body takes us a few steps back and offers us a broader view of the Taoist landscape. It makes it a real place and shows us the cultural backdrop that Taoism developed in and still lives on today.

Tao Book: "Seven Taoist Masters" by Eva Wong

There are many books about Taoism, many of them translated from ancient Chinese texts, but few novels. Seven Taoist Mastersis both. It is a folk novel about Taoism written during the Ming Dynasty(around 1500). It's author is unknown. This book is a jem. It is a manual for Taoist training in the form of a popular novel. It is fiction, but all the characters were real historical figures from the Chinese middle ages. The story follows the life and development of Taoist Master Wang and also the lives of his seven disciples on their respective paths to the Tao. The book instructs about the Tao in two ways; first, directly as Master Wang gives several lectures throughout the book about different aspects of Taoist training. Second, indirectly through the story and the experiences of the masters in their pursuit of enlightenment.

Master Wang has seven disciples including one woman. MaTan-yang and his wie Sun Pu-erh both have an intense interest in Taoism. They decide to follow the Tao. After that, they no longer live as husband and wife, but remain friends and help one another. Each of the seven masters has different obstacles to overcome and follow different methods of training. For example, for Master Liu Ch'ang, it is sexual desire. He dreams of going to visit the Palace of the Empress of Heaven, yet unable to control his desire, he steals a glance of the court ladies out of the corner of his eye and therefore shows his unworthiness. To overcome this, he takes an unorthodox approach and lives in a brothel until he can control his desires and master himself. It is a story of the sacrifices each of the disciples must make, giving up wealth and comfort for their goal.

In one interesting scene, we are shown the dark side of the Tao; what happens to those you leave behind. Like many Taoist masters and Immortals, Master Wang starts out as a regular person. At the beginning of the story he is already middle aged. He has a family and some measure of wealth. He also is a community leader and serves in many local capacities. Later however, he feels and irresistible calling to follow the Tao. His family does not understand and finally he pretends to be deathly ill and then quietly escapes into the night. This is the life of a Taoist, to leave behind all attachments to the world on the path to enlightenment. Many years later, and after Master Wang has ascended to heaven, his disciples visit the hometown of their master. They see broken down buildings and abandoned farms. They meet a man who turns out to be Master Wang's cousin in front of a shrine dedicated to their former master. After Wang's departure his wife died of grief and his son moved away. The spirit went out of the community. His accomplishments as a great Taoist Master are well known including his saving local communities from fire and plague. But for the residents of his hometown, it is very bittersweet as the village slowly dies. It's ironic that in the pursuit of the Tao, one must be selfless and disciplined, but maintain a constant resolve in your ultimate goal above any commitments to community or family that is in a way, selfish.

Eva Wong has brought her mastery of translation here again. The book is easy and enjoyable to read and the story moves quickly. The only difficult part of the book is getting around all the Chinese names of people and places. Seven Taoist Mastersis a delightful book for anyone interested in Taoism or Chinese history. In addition, I highly recommend Eva Wongs wonderful translation of Lieh-Tzu, a collection of stories and parables and one of the greatest works of Taoist philosophy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tao Book: "Lieh-Tzu, A Taoist Guide To Practical Living" by Eva Wong

After the Lao-tzu, or the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang-Tzu, the Lieh-Tzu is the third most important text in philosophical Taoism and is probably the most enjoyable to read. It is a collection of stories and fables that give very practical advice on taoist living. It is also required reading for anyone interested in Taoism.

Lieh-Tzu was a real person who lived around 400 BCE, about 200 years after Lao-Tzu. However, the text contains writings over a span of some six hundred years. The stories take place during the volatile Warring States period, when life was precarious and politics were deadly and full of intrigue. It is in this setting that Lieh-tzu offers us an alternative life of the hermit. Historically, there were many different kinds of taoists with different approaches to life. Some held high government posts and were active in politics as advisers. Some tried to bring about change within the system through reforms. Still others tried to force change from without through rebellion. And some Taoists withdrew from society altogether and lived as hermits. But even among hermits there were different reasons for doing so. Some withdrew out of protest against the established government and others were disillusioned with society and worldly life. Lieh-tzu wasn't a hermit for any of these reasons. He simply wanted to live the quiet life close to nature.

Lieh-tzu stands apart from other great taoist sages. Unlike many other sages he never held a government post. He is also the only sage I know who is married. He lives apart from government and society, but he has very concrete problems to deal with in everyday life. When people start to read about Taoism, usually they first read the Tao Te Ching, then later the Chuang-Tzu, and finally they find Lieh-Tzu. However, in China or at least Hong Kong, children grow up on the stories of Lieh-tzu long before they even know what Taoism is. His stories are simple enough for children to understand and enjoy, but profound enough for adults to ponder. Even writing this review was different. For Lao-tzu or Chuang-tzu, I think in terms of philosophical teachings or great quotes. For Lieh-tzu, I think in terms of stories. His voice is quite different, too. Whereas sometimes you feel Lao-tzu is talking down at you, as if from a podium and Chuang-tzu is laughing at you in your confusion, Lieh-tzu talks to you.He is the most approachable of the sages. Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu are too high and removed, but Lieh-tzu is someone you could be friends and spend time with. Also, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu teach us about what it's like to be at one with the Tao, to be enlightened or how a sage thinks; the end result, but Lieh-tzu shows us how the sage lives. He shows us the path to enlightenment and the struggles along the way. His teachings are humorous and he isn't afraid to make himself the fool of his own stories and show us his mistakes.

This is an excellent rendering by Eva Wong. It's not a literal translation, but focuses on readability and understanding. It is divided into eight sections, each with its own collection of stories;

Part One, The Gifts of Heaven: All things come from the Tao. It is indivisible. Yin and yang arise from the Tao. Humanity and all things are the products of the interaction of yin and yang energies. Your life, your body, your spirit, and your children do not belong to you. These things are gifts from heaven and earth. This is the natural way of things. It is better to use your time to cultivate yourself and "forget yourself" this is how to attain the Tao.

Part Two, The Yellow Emperor:Part two teaches about yielding. Things that are rigid, break. Things that are soft and yielding survive the storm. Yielding also means openness. Throughout the Lieh-tzu, but particularly in this part there are many stories of people who attain a very high level in a particular skill, whether it be fishing, swimming, archery, or taming tigers. This is done not just come through dedicative practice, but through opening oneself to the natural flow of things. This is done to the point when the barriers between oneself and the art fall away and you become one with it.

Part Three, King Mu of Ch'ou:Part three questions the nature of reality. In this way it reflects the Chuang-tzu, "Was I dreaming I was a butterfly, or is a butterfly dreaming he's me." Our perceptions of things are what make it "real". We have the story of the man who lost his memory and couldn't remember things from one day to the next, yet was happy and free of worry, but after regaining them, became miserable. Or the story of the homesick man who became emotional when he thought he'd returned home, but was mistaken.

Part Four, Confucius:This part is all about the sages. What is the nature of the sage and who is an enlightened person? Sages have abilities far above other people and yet often prefer to remain hidden, anonymous. To the enlightened, enlightenment is an ordinary experience attainable by anyone.

Part Five, The Questions of Tang:Part five teaches about attitude and our approach to life. Our attitude to things greatly affects the outcome. One of the best stories of Lieh-tzu is about the Old Fool. The Old Fool was so-called because he was always coming up with impossible or impractical ideas. One day, tired of walking around the two mountains which blocked his valley, the Old Fool proclaimed he would move them out of the way. But the Old Fool was in his nineties and frail and could hardly pick up a bag of dirt. Everyone mocked him, including his wife. But the Old Fool said even if he couldn't finish the project his descendants would carry on, until one day the mountains would be gone. Every day he set out with his son, grandson, and another boy to dig away at the mountain. Eventually, the gods heard about his plan. They were so impressed with the Old Fool's will and tenacity that they intervened on his behalf.

Part Six, Effort and Destiny:Fortune and misfortune, success and failure, life and death are things beyond our control, so why fret and worry about things we can't change. Better is to try and control our reactions to events. Here we have the story of Kuan-Chung and Pao Shu-ya who were both powerful ministers, but never let fortune or misfortune affect their friendship. The always kept work and friendship separate and were honest and true.

Part Seven, Yang-chu: Life is short, so why not make the best of the time you're given. Names, titles, and social status are empty and gone with death. My favorite story comes here. There was once a powerful Prime Minister who worked tirelessly for the betterment of his country. He also had two brothers. The first brother was a drunkard. He lived in a brewery and spent all his time drinking and partying. The second brother kept a harem of beautiful women and spent all of his time making love. to them. Which is worse, to damage one's health in pursuit of idle pleasures or to damage one's health in pursuit of titles and power?

Part Eight, Explaining Coincidences: Cause and effect, retribution and reward, coincidence and accident. Are these things real or simply the meanings that we give to events? It's all in how you think.

This book is a treasure. It's full of ancient wisdom in concise little stories that are both highly entertaining and profoundly thought-provoking. With Lao-tzu or Chuang-tzu, you have to be in a certain state of mind to read and listen to them. Lieh-tzu you can read anytime and get something. And you will, time and time again. I highly recommend this delightful book.

Tao Book: "The Essential Chuang Tzu" By Sam Hamill

In philosophical Taoism, the Chuang Tzu is the second most important book after the Tao Te Jing itself, which is the source of all Taoism. These two books, in addition to the Lieh Tzu, comprise the core of philosophical Taoist thought. Chuang Tzu is required reading for anyone interested in Taoism. It is not only important to Taoism, but one of the most significant works of Chinese literature. It has been studied by poets and philosophers for over two thousand years. Its importance continues today and it has inspired and influenced writers both eastern and western, including the likes of Walt Whitman and T.S. Elliot. The Chuang Tzucontains 33 chapters and is an anthology of stories and parables that illustrate Taoist thought on topics such as nature, government, society, and freedom. The first 7 chapters, known as the Inner Chapters are attributed to the philosopher Chuang Chou (369-286 BCE). Subsequent chapters, known as the Outer Chapters were written by others.

There are many translations available, but The Essential Chuang Tzuis the best for readability. Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton have done an excellent job in finding a balance between literal translation and free interpretation. This volume remains true to the original text, yet is expressive, funny, and enjoyable to the modern reader in English.

Far from being a dry, treatise on philosophy, it is full of humor, wit and paradox. Chuang Tzu is a poet who is fond of rambling on. At times, he seems set on confusing and confounding the reader. His stories meander and take abrupt and unexpected turns. This acts as a karate chop that takes the reader out of himself and opens his mind to a new way of thinking. Take for example this passage from Chapter 2 about how opposites create one another.

“That arises out of this, but this is also caused by exactly that. This is the theory that this and that are born together.” And although this is true enough, where there’s birth, there’s death, where there’s death, birth. Where there’s a possible, there is the impossible; with the impossible, possible. Cause right and you cause wrong, cause wrong, cause right. Right? So be it.

Or another famous passage from the same chapter:

To use the finger to make the point that a finger is not a finger is not as good as using a nonfinger to make the same point. To use a horse to prove that a horse is not a horse is not as good as to use a nonhorse to prove that a horse is not a horse. Heaven-and-Earth is one finger. All ten thousand things are one horse Okay? Not okay. Okay? Okay.

The famous parable of the butterfly dream comes to us from Chuang Tzu.

I don’t know whether it is Chou who dreamed he was a butterfly, or whether a butterfly dreams he’s Chuang Chou.

In Taoism, the person of ideal virtue is the sage who follows in the footsteps of the Tao. He is the wise man who knows nothing, the one does nothing and yet, nothing is left undone. But what does such a man look like, how does he act? The Chuang Tzu speaks much of the ancestral teacher. Even in Chuang Tzu’s time, the sage was ancient, from long, long ago:

…such a man doesn’t permit good and bad to wound his body. He goes as nature goes and seeks no benefit from life.

The True Ones of antiquity didn’t know to take joy from life, didn’t know how to despise death….They climbed high without fear. They went into the water without sinking. They went into fire without feeling the heat. ….The had no need to sweeten what they ate, they breathed deep.

If I take life as good, I must therefore take death as equally good.

The whole world could prize him and he would work no harder; the whole world could call him wrong and yet he would persist.

..he neither pursues profit nor avoids loss…He isn’t married to the Tao.

Chuang Tzu shows us that we are the source of our own sufferings. It is our attachments to things and our insistence on judging things as “good” or “evil”. But the answer isn’t dropping out of life. The sage cares for the world, yet remains impersonal. He travel with the herd, yet is unaffected by right and wrong. He does what is required and knows when to let go. It makes me think of the Samurai of ancient Japan, who were ready for death at anytime, or the Jedi of Star Wars who fight for the good of all, but are not swayed by emotions.

The Essential Chuang Tzu is a wonderful book. It’s ancient wisdom that is so desperately needed in our world today. It sets an example for all to strive for in our daily lives. It can be read in a single sitting, yet take a lifetime to understand. You get something new every time you read it. You need this book.

Tao Book: The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu; The Greatest Book I Ever Read

Many years ago, I was living in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer. Paraguay is a small, kidney shaped country in the heart of South America. As a volunteer, you have to deal with countless delays. Because of the weather, distances, transportation, work ethics. culture; the list goes on. You find yourself with a lot of time on your hands. As a result, like most volunteers, I became a voracious reader. Luckily, the Peace Corps office in the capital Asuncion had a great lending library. One day, I went in to stock up on books. I was browsing through the shelves, when I came across a small book with an interesting title. I had heard of it before somewhere. It was about Chinese poetry or philosophy, or something. I threw it into the pile of books I had, mostly cheap novels and brought them back to my site and the tiny little house where I lived. I put the little book on my bookshelf and there it lay for some time. Later, after I had read every trashy novel in the house, and with nothing else to read, I decided to give it a try. I sat on my tiny porch one afternoon and started to read. Even after the opening pages, it didn’t make that great of an impression. But when I finally settled into the book, and really listened to the words, I started to feel a stirring inside me. I sank deeper into the book and its profound meaning. My heart started to pound and I felt as if I were on the cusp of something great. I wanted to read quickly, to find more, but I stopped myself, not wanting to miss anything. When I finished the short book, I was in a daze, my head spinning; a kind of rapture. I read it a second and third time. It’s not that the words were so new, quite the contrary, they sounded so familiar, like a voice coming from within me. This was how I had always innately felt about the world and everything.

That was the first time I read the Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tsu(the Mitchell translation) and was the beginning of a passionate interest in Taoism. The Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing) is the founding text of Taoism (Daoism). It was written in China around 500 B.C., which makes it far older than Christendom. As the story goes, its author Lao-tsu was the archive-keeper of a great library. At his retirement, he decided to travel away. At the western gate of the city, the guard asked him to leave behind a record of his life’s wisdom. He sat down and produced this little book and then travelled west, riding on an ox. Actually, historians doubt whether there ever was a single man Lao-tsu. Even his name is suspect, simply meaning “Old Master” or “Old Boy”. The book may have been the product of several writers. Almost nothing is certain about its origins. Taoism is one of the three main religions of China; Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

“ The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”

The book is a guide for living, but also a treatise on good government. It speaks of the Tao, which is not a deity, but the source of all things. It is from which all things arise and to where all things return. It is indivisible, the natural way of the universe. The Tao is impossible to know or comprehend completely. It’s too big, but it is the attempt to know it that is important, not the result. The book and all subsequent books on Taoism offer advice on how to put yourself into accord with the Tao.

“We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.”

“We work with being,
but non-being is what we use”

The Tao Te Ching speaks of being and non-being. Being are those visible things. Non-being are the intangible, invisible things. Ironically, it is the intangible things which are more “real” than the tangible. Non-being can be the spiritual aspect of things we see.

“When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.”

The book is filled with dichotomy and apparent contradiction. We think of opposites and duality as real things, yet they are only concepts which create one another. This duality is expressed in the yin-yang which is the main symbol of Taoism. Yin is black, the feminine aspect, more passive. Yang is white, the masculine aspect, active. These two can never be completely separated. They each contain a piece of the other within. Taoism says that all things are the product of the interaction of yin-yang. I had always liked this symbol. In fact, I have a small tattoo of it on my right shoulder. I got it in college, years before I ever read the Tao Te Ching!

“Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.”

The text rejects the trappings of society. It is our very expectations and desires which cause us grief. And yet, it’s not about dropping out of society, but living in a more “natural” way like the Tao. The master or sage is impersonal and lets things come and go and follows a “natural” course.

“When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.”

Taoist philosophy is a more passive approach to life, but it is not pure passivity. It’s about not forcing things. Its greatest example is water, which is powerful, yet soft which always flows downhill and takes the path of least resistance.

Later, before I left Paraguay I put another copy of the Tao Te Ching in the lending library to return the favor, so that someone else might benefit. Sometime before the presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, I quietly sent a copy of the book to each campaign headquarters with a message that any prospective leader of men would do well to read this book. We all know the result and the disasters which followed. I have no idea whether either candidate received the book. I’m guessing that Al Gore already knew of it. I’m guessing George W. Bush never has.

As far as classical Chinese texts, there are two other books that are a must read. Chuang-Tzu and Lieh-Tsu. They were both philosophers from ancient China. Chuan-Tzu has many parables and philosophical musings. The famous story of “ I was dreaming I was a butterfly or is a butterfly dreaming of me.” Comes from him. Leih-Tzu is full of even more stories and parables. Lieh-Tzu is more approachable and less intellectual than the others. His stories are a little more edgy and anti-establishment He seems particularly fond taking jabs at the philosophy of Confucius, a favorite target of Taoists. These three books comprise the core of Taoist philosophy. Honestly, I haven’t been very successful in living in accord with Taoist philosophy. I have too many vices. Caught up in the commitments of family and work, it’s been a while since I read them. Perhaps now it’s high time I revisited them.

Interestingly in Japan, most people know very little about the Tao Te Ching or Lao-tzu. Here he is known as “Roshi” which also means master, like Master Roshi of Dragonball Z. Buddhism is widespread having come to Japan via China and Confucius is well known and still studied. All Japanese know the name Roshi, but not much else. His philosophy never got a foothold in Japan. I’m not really sure why. My favorite image of Lao-tzu is of him riding West on the back of an ox. I was born in the year of the ox and I felt as if he were guiding me. There are many classical paintings of this image, but my favorite one can be seen at the National Palace museum in Taipei, Taiwan. I went to Taiwan on vacation several years ago with the main purpose of seeing that painting and visiting Taoist temples. Temples in Taiwan are amazing and so different from Japanese ones. Japanese temples are quiet, solomn places with simple dark colors and wood. Taiwanese temples are energetic, noisy places with bright reds and yellows and decorated with brightly colored, detailed dragon motifs and even neon lights! Unfortunately, when I went to the museum, the painting was not on display as the museum’s collection is too large to show all at one. However, I did find a nice, affordable reproduction in the gift shop and brought it home. It’s still hanging near my front door.

I strongly urge anyone and everyone to read the Tao Te Ching. It may not make as deep an impression on you as it did me, but you will come away with something of value, I guarantee. I guess I like the Mitchell translation the best, it was the first one I read. I have others, but any translation is good. I also have read and own many other books on Taoism. Let me know if you have any questions.