Author: Lao Tzu, trans. John C.H. Wu
Published: 1997 Pages: 165
Genre: Nonfiction, Spiritual Text
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The Tao Te Ching originated in the 6th century BCE during the Zhou Dynasty. Written by Laozi, the document has 81 short chapters, the majority of which are written more like poetry than prose (at least in my English translation). Here's where I have to admit that poetry is not my best subject. Most of the time I can get a feeling, a wispy idea of the essence of the poem, but when it comes to fully understanding the specifics of this beautiful, but metaphoric language, well I'm more idiot than savant. Then combine the poetic form with religious concepts, which tend to be metaphoric themselves, and you can have a confusing jumble of "huh".
That being said the Tao Te Ching was relatively specific in its language, and yet still manages to be open to varied interpretations and contradictory at multiple points. Each chapter has a basic theme - rules for behavior, advice to rulers, tenets of Tao - but the specific practical applications are ambiguous...which may be part of the point. One of the principles of Taoism seems to be a sort of humbleness of knowledge, an acceptance of your own ignorance and a comfort in ignorance; well that equates well with a religious text that can be interpreted in different ways by different people.
The text includes many discussions of emptiness, voids, absence, etc. For example, I particularly enjoyed the following:
Thirty spokes converge upon a single hub; It is on the hole in the center that the use of the cart hinges. We make a vessel from a clump of clay; It is the empty space within the vessel that makes it useful. We make doors and windows for rooms; But it is these empty spaces that make the room livable.
I think this is a good example of what I mean by the Tao Te Ching's specific ambiguity. The language above is simple, the metaphor easily recognizable, but the practical application vague. Am I to be an empty vessel? And what exactly does that mean? I choose to interpret it that I should always be ready to add something new to myself. Others may believe something entirely different.
Another interesting part of the Tao Te Ching for me was its promotion of the Feminine. I had to read the chapters including this word multiple times just to assure myself of the meaning being used. This particular philosophy is advocating "feminine" qualities: passivity, inaction, nature, etc. While I applaud any religion/spirituality/philosophy that promotes women - there are so few - it still is distressing to see the terms passivity and inaction described as feminine qualities. And yet I can not deny that they are more closely tied to the female than to the male. But I believe this to be ideological, not biological.
Finally, I just have to say I'm an idiot. I did not realize that The Beatles' Inner Light was based off of Chapter 47 in the Tao Te Ching. There I am, reading, and suddenly I come across Beatles' lyrics. Awesome.
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Question: Do you think someone raised in the Western tradition can ever truly understand an Eastern philosophy?
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