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Book Review- Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching is a classic Chinese text, the foundation of Taoism, and also important to Chinese Buddhism. Tradition holds that it was written by Lao Tsu around the 6th century B.C., although there is some debate as to the actual date it was written, and even whether Lao Tsu was an actual, historical person. There have been numerous translations of the text into English. The particular translation I read was that of Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, which I've learned was the translation favored by Alan Watts. (Depending on the romanization of Tao Te Ching and Lao Tsu, or the attempt to express those words with the Roman alphabet, they can be written many different ways, with some of the most common being Dao De Jing for the text, and Laozi or Lao Tzu for the man.)

The text is poetic. It's fairly short, so you could read it pretty quickly if you wanted to, although it's probably better to take your time so you can reflect on what's being said. There are many parts of the text that make you stop and think, like the following passage from Chapter 2. This method of contrasting opposites was repeated throughout the text.

Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ungliness.
All can know good only because there is evil.

Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.

The text also makes a point about not always having to do things. Sometimes, inaction can be the best path.

Movement overcomes cold.
Stillness overcomes heat.
Stillness and tranquility set things in order in the universe.

And another passage with a similar message:

Keep your mouth shut,
Guard the senses,
And life is ever full.
Open your mouth,
Always be busy,
And life is beyond hope.

Though at times, I think the text went to far in this regard. There was one passage in particular that struck me as being rather counter to Enlightenment ideals (though I'm sure some student of Taoism will come along and tell me I could interpret this passage differently). You can't learn about the world simply by sitting inside and meditating - you need evidence, which you can only get through observation.

The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.

Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.

Here's another passage along the same lines, which seems even more explicitly counter to scientific observation.

Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.

Thus the sage knows without traveling;
He sees without looking;
He works without doing.

There were other passages describing what Tao is. A less charitable review might call them "mystical mumbo-jumbo," but this review wouldn't go that far.

Look, it cannot be seen - it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard - it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held - it is intangible.
These three are indefinable;
Thereore they are joined in one.

From above it is not bright;
From below it is not dark:
An unbroken thread beyond description.
It returns to nothingness.
The form of the formless,
The image of the imageless,
It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.

Stand before it and there is no beginning.
Follow it and there is no end.
Stay with the ancient Tao,
Move with the present.

Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.

Aside from the text itself, the book I read was also filled with beautiful photographs on every page. Considering the price I paid to buy the book used, these photographs would have been worth the price in and of themselves.

Given that the Tao Te Ching is fundamental to some of the world's major religions, and given that it is so short, it would definitely be worth reading if just to gain a deeper understanding of how a substantial portion of the world's population thinks. However, the text stands on its own accords as well, even if you don't agree with everything it says. It will at least make you think.

There are many translations available for free online. There is also a Wikipedia entry on the text, for those interested in learning more.

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