In 81 brief chapters, Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching, or Book of the Way, provides advice that imparts balance and perspective, a serene and generous spirit, and teaches us how to work for the good with the effortless skill that comes from being in accord with the Tao-the basic principle of the universe. Stephen Mitchell's bestselling version has been widely acclaimed as a gift to contemporary culture.
It's good to own multiple English translations, as the thing is basically untranslatable in any perfect fashion.
As for the Tao Te Ching itself... I've read many philosophical and religious texts, and this is the one that speaks to me the most. Simple, humble, strikingly conservative yet almost revolutionary in this day and age. I go back to it as often as I can.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
There is an important thought conveyed in those two lines that loses its' meaning if you try to reduce it to an objective fact.
On the other hand the following lines are simple good advice about how to live your life.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In business, be competent.
In action, watch the timing.
One of the author's favorite devices is the use of contradictions to express an idea.
When the Tao is present in the universe,
The horses haul manure.
When the Tao is absent from the universe,
War horses are bred outside the city.
The Tao Te Ching is eighty-one verses and each time I read it I discover something new. For me that is the hallmark of a truly great book. The edition I have is filled with full page pictures and has the original Chinese on the opposite page from the translation.
Ch. 20 is my favorite:
"Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles.
Is there a difference between yes and no?
Is there a difference between good and evil?
Must I fear what others fear? What nonsense!
Other people are contented, enjoying the sacrificial feast of the ox.
In spring some go to the park, and climb the terrace,
But I alone am drifting, not knowing where I am.
Like a newborn babe before it learns to smile,
I am alone, without a place to go.
Others have more than they need, but I alone have nothing.
I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused.
Other men are clear and bright,
But I alone am dim and weak.
Other men are sharp and clever,
But I alone am dull and stupid.
Oh, I drift like the waves of the sea,
Without direction, like the restless wind.
Everyone else is busy,
But I alone am aimless and depressed.
I am different.
I am nourished by the great mother."
Tao Te Ching (TTC), when read with my modern metropolis city girl mind, instructs “The Way”, “The Virtue”, and the “The Coda” as a reminder to the simplicity of life, easily forgotten as we plow forward with our day-to-day to-do list. Contrary to Chapter 41 where “Those who think that the Way is easy will find it extremely hard”, I think the Way is hard and still find it extremely hard! TTC also depressed me a bit (true statement). If life is supposed to be following the way of ‘nothing’, then I sure have been working my ass off for no good reason. If wisdom and knowledge is to be condemned and vilified, then part of my identity is evil. The unspoken expectation, then and now, was simply always be ‘more’, quite not the ‘Tao’.
Of course, I’m not taking TTC literally. The complexities of living do not readily allow for it. (Try and explain TTC to the IRS.) Instead, I take from it a few nuggets that are meaningful. Here’s an abbreviated list:
Introduction: 1) “Wu-Wei doesn’t mean just sitting about doing nothing. It means ‘being’, it means being receptive, and it means going beyond our egos in what we do and how we do what we do.” 2) “I see the essence of the Tao as poetic, with all that implies, and all we still have to learn – to really be here, and to let go.”
Ch1 (Start of Tao): “Following the nothingness of the Tao, and you can be like it, not needing anything, seeing the wonder and the root of everything.” --- Meaning that nothing is something.
Ch 2: 1) “Neither future nor past can exist alone.” --- Acceptance and remembrance of who you were and who you have become. 2) “Life is made – and no one owns it.”
Ch 20: Seek and want nothing. “What do the people want? Money and things. And yet I find I have nothing, and I don’t care. I am as unambitious as any fool.”
Ch 28: Learn to yield, learn to bend, learn to think anew. “Understand the thrust of the yang – but be more like the yin in your being… Be like a stream… Be newborn – be free of yourself…”
Ch 38 (Start of Te): Reminded me of leadership, a truly good leader. “A Man of Te rules by Wu-Wei, doing nothing for himself or of himself… A man who rules with compassion, acts through it – and no one even realizes.”
Ch 44: “If you’re not always wanting, you can be at peace. And if you’re not always trying to be someone, you can be who you really are.”
Ch 67: “I have three priceless treasures: Compassion, Thrift, Humility… These days people scorn compassion. They try to be tough. They spend all they have, and yet want to be generous. They despise humility, and want to be the best.”
I found the three jewels of Taoism appealing: Compassion, frugality (also translated as restraint and moderation), and humility (or not seeking to be first). Laozi is also persuasive in advocating selective gradual change rather than confrontation.
This book is not for the been-there-done-that crowd, who see the ideal life as a experience of episodes of serial consumption. Instead the truths here are intended to be revealed though a combination of experience and contemplation. Some have wisely recommended memorizing some of the chapters, allowing the enigmas and puzzles to remain with us and perhaps to be solved later on with the help of experiential and contextual diversity.
The edition I read was translated by Thomas H. Miles and his students. It served my purpose well, though at times I would have appreciated some additional commentary to supplement the helpful existing guidance. Miles' translation also has some useful introductory material in which key terms are defined, insofar as that is possible within Taoism. I intend to read other translations to get a better idea of the range of interpretations.
The commentary is amazing. Chen takes a philosophical rather than religious approach to the Tao Te Ching. Her commentary not only draws on Chinese texts from the Confucian, legalist, and Taoist traditions, but also on such western philosophers as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Thomas, Hegal, Proudhon, Marx, Freud, and Wittgenstein (the Tao is like that "whereof one cannot speak"). The result is a book that places Taoism in a global philosophical context, emphasizing its commonalties and, especially, its differences with other schools of thought.