Whenever I fix lunch for myself, which is usually everyday other than weekends, I like to read something with it, since my spouse isn’t normally present to make lunch interesting. The other day I found a book on the shelf I hadn’t read since it first came out in 1990, Diane Drehler’s The Tao of Peace, predicated on Lao Tsu’s monumental Tao Te Ching, deriving back to two and a half millennia ago. Translated more than any other work except perhaps the Bible and the Koran, this brief work may just well be the wisest book ever written, though relatively brief in its 5000 words.
Rich in its gleanings of human experience, it teaches the Tao (pronounced with a d), a term difficult to translate but approximating something like Reality, or Nature, or the system of things. I like to think of its as the Way, referring to “the way of things”. You name what humans encounter, the Tao Te Ching deals with it, offering seekers an inner peace in an often troubled world through simple, balanced living that promotes a psychological equilibrium.
In its Chinese text, the Tao is essentially a poem replete with an ambiguity that actually enriches its capability for multiple interpretation. Accordingly, you can find many texts that are hardly word-for-word translations, but adaptations of what seems the salient undergrowth of each verse or numbered section. Some adaptations excel, capturing not only the essential simplicity of the original manifested through its economy, but also its rich resonance latent in its density. The very best renderings are sheer poetry, mirroring the Tao’s intent in brilliant, often modern, metaphor. Drehler’s readings constitute revisions, rather than translations, but are sumptuous and compelling in their summary eloquence. Here are a sample few:
The Tao as enduring counsel:
Why did the ancients cherish the Tao?
Because through it
We may find a way of peace,
Leaving behind a world of cares,
And hold the greatest treasure under heaven (Tao 62).
The Tao as journey:
A tree that reaches past your embrace grows from
one small seed,
A structure over nine stories high begins with a handful
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step ((Tao 64)
The Tao as synthesis:
All life embodies yin,
And embraces yang,
Through their union (Tao 42).
Yin and yang, by the way, are the composite opposites of natural phenomena that must blend to achieve an equilibrium that sustains rather than destroys.
Yin connotes the passive, creative entity associated with the earth, the feminine, valleys, streams and night (moon); yang, the assertive, or male element associated with mountains, the heavens, and the light (sun).. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung drew heavily upon yin and yang for his concepts of anima and animus, the female and male, their synthesis necessary for humans to achieve individuation, or psychical unity,
One of my favorite Drehler renderings is Tao 76.
The Tao as flexibilty:
At birth all people are soft and yielding.
At death they are hard and stiff.
All green plants are tender and yielding.
At death they are brittle and dry.
When hard and rigid,
We consort with death.
When soft and flexible,
We affirm greater life.
But as I suggested at the outset, the Tao lends itself to varied readings encompassing the canopy of human experience. I like, for example, Brian Browne Walker’s recent translation from the Chinese, Tao Te Ching of Lao Tsu. It covers all the verses poetically and with a special capacity for capturing antithesis, ever at the core of Tao’s yin-yang approach to experiencing life wholly:
Tao’s warning to Nature’s despoilers:
Those who dominate nature
And seek to possess it
Will never succeed,
For nature is a living system, so sacred
That those who use it profanely
Will surely lose it;
And to lose nature
Is to lose ourselves (Tao 29).
In closing, I’m absolutely in love with Walker’s verse tribute, here in bold, to the tenor of this great work, which I think you’ll like as well:
the wind and the rain,
the snow and the sun,
each and everyone,
the trees, the water
singing beneath the
ice of frozen rivers,
the cold ground
and warm grass
the light and the darkness,
the creatures, poetry,
the gift and
mystery of my life,
May life always find you blessed with peace, centered in the wisdom of the abiding Tao!
- A short history of Taoism and its meaning: Part1/2 (ilookchina.net)
- Tao Te Ching 15: The Way of the Enlightened (beyondthedream.co.uk)
- On Tao and not-Tao dwellings. (1home1family.com)
- Taoist Wednesday, #5 Verse 5: Yin and Yang (madmanstwilight.wordpress.com)