Friday, September 16, 2011

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment