09 January 2010

Book Review: Tao Te Ching

Title: Tao Te Ching
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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  1. I really love these quotes on voids! There is plenty of food for thought there.

  2. If you are an idiot, then what am I? I'm not even sure if I would have the courage to read this, let alone know that it inspired Beatles lyrics!

  3. I'm with Sandy...maybe we could start a club for poetry morons.

  4. I read and reviewed this book last January. I really enjoyed the philosophy and poetry. I don't think I would call me an idiot about poetry but I would not call me an expert by any means either. I think the more times you read a poem the more levels of meaning you can get out of it. Maybe that can help you. If you want to read my review (be gentle it was like my 2nd review ever!) you can read it here. :)

  5. Interesting book. I applaud your courage in reading it; I'm not big on poetry or philosophy. Your question is an thought-provoking one though.

    Can we ever understand the Eastern philosophy? Why not? I think if we truly choose to do so, then we can at least try. And trying is half the battle, in my opinion because it allows us to develop empathy and to be able to place ourselves in their shoes.

  6. I practice Tai Chi, which is based on the concept of Tao and Yin and Yang. My teacher often quotes from this at the end of our practice. I agree with you wholeheartedly that we must bring our own interpretation to it :)

  7. Stephanie - I agree. The idea of emptiness/void/absence/etc. is rather fascinating to me as I see our culture as one that likes to fill up all the empty spaces.

    Sandy - I really like The Beatles so it shames me that I didn't know this.

    softdrink - The PMS - Poetry Moron Society.

    Rebecca - I agree that re-reading poems really helps comprehension...then again, when something is so open to interpretation, it's difficult to ever achieve comprehension.

    Michelle - I do love to try understanding other cultures. I just have doubts that a deep understanding is possible.

    Fiona - Very cool. Tai Chi is awesome.

  8. I haven't actually read the whole thing yet, but I find your review of it interesting, and it's making me want to go look for that book again.

    I think the thing about ancient Chinese philosophy is that a lot of it is purposely kept ambiguous to allow for different interpretations by different people. It's like, it allows for the differences that all of us have - maybe in our standard of living, or family situations - so that the essence of the principle is still adhered to, without anyone feeling like they're being forced to do something out of their means. (I hope I make sense..)

    The Tao Te Ching is actually just a very old classic Chinese text, and is fundamental to a lot of the Chinese beliefs, not just Taoism. In fact, Tao Te (written 道德) is basically translated as 'morals' or 'morality'.

    And yes. Ancient Chinese people used to speak in poems and rhymes. Very difficult to understand. =)

  9. Michelle - You should write a post about all of this! I'd love to hear more.

  10. Well, you certainly bit off a lot with this one!!

    I do think us Westerners are limited in how we can understand Eastern religions but I think you can do it with enough time and practice. But I don't think anyone reading a religious text would be able to walk away with immediate and concrete understanding.

    Wonderful review ... and give yourself some credit for giving this a go. It isn't a book for idiots of any kind!

  11. Jenners - I would need a whole lot more study to figure out the Taoist philosophy with any sort of depth. And I don't think I'm ready for that yet... :)

  12. I read this in one of my religion classes in college, and going through it with my professors, it was still tough. Though your review makes me want to go back and reread it!

  13. J.T. - I will definitely re-read this one day...with a bunch of other books close by to help me understand it.


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