The Tao Te Ching is complex and paradoxical. It’s up to you to decide whether you see it as art, wisdom or ancient Chinese mumbo-jumbo.
(DC Lau Translation)
For the uninitiated (which included me before I read the book), the Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese text that covers a myriad of topics from statesmanship to philosophy. From what I understand, it’s also quite central to Taoism. Similar to the Art of War, it reads like a collection of paradoxical poems but with much shorter chapters and with a lot more literary depth. It isn’t too long either, under 100 pages; so I read it twice in the last week for good measure.
I can’t say I really understood it, but in my attempts to do so I feel like I gained something. The Tao Te Ching is often cryptic and paradoxical and while the language is simple, the messages are quite complex. To many, I’m sure the verses might even seem like ancient Chinese mumbo-jumbo; in fact, the book even acknowledges that the ‘The Way’ wouldn’t be ‘The Way’ unless there existed people who laughed and mocked at it.
As for me, from what I did understand there were some verses that made me think and some that I didn’t really agree with. Much of the ideas behind the ‘The Way’ mentioned in the book involve a philosophy of inaction rather than of action; of prevention rather than cure. A ‘Sage’, as the book calls them, does not meddle needlessly in affairs of state and deals with problems by stopping them in their infancy while they are weak. ‘Sages’ also free themselves of desire and need for gratification and thus make themselves worthy of merit.
There’s quite a lot of praised heaped as those who can let things be and to act only when it is truly necessary. There’s also a lot of discussion on ‘The Way’, the ‘Heavens’ and the ‘Nameless’ but these didn’t really strike me as of yet.
On the whole definitely worth the read because of the thoughts it provoked but I feel as though my thoughts here can’t really do the book justice. I suppose I’m still in the process of understanding it all. To conclude, here are some extracts from the verses in the book that I found really interesting and I think are worth sharing:
From Verse 11: “Thirty spokes share one hub. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand and you will have use of the cart. Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand and you will have use of the vessel. Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand and you will have use of the room.
Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.”
From Verse 17: “The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects.”
From Verse 38: “A man of the highest virtue does not keep to virtue and that is why he has virtue. A man of the lowest virtue never strays from virtue and that why he is without virtue.”
From Verse 42: “Thus a thing is sometimes added to by being diminished and diminished by being added to.”
From Verse 46: “There is no crime great than having too many desires;
There is no disaster greater than not being content;
There is no misfortune greater than being covetous.
Hence in being content, one will always have enough.”
From Verse 53: “The court is corrupt, the field is overgrown with weeds, the granaries are empty; yet there are those dressed In fineries, with swords at their sides, filled with food and drink, and possessed of too much wealth. This is known as taking the lead in robbery. Far indeed is this from the way.”
From Verse 71: “To know yet to think that one does not know is best; not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty.”
From Verse 81: “Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful. Good words are not persuasive; persuasive words are not good. He who knows has no wide learning; he who has wide learning does not know.”
In closing, the Tao Te Ching is complex and paradoxical. It’s up to you to decide whether you see it as art, wisdom or ancient Chinese mumbo-jumbo.
See you next week