Saturday, February 6, 2010

Pre-Printing Press Challenge: Tao Te Ching

I think my mind is very Western. It shouldn't surprise me, as I am steeped not only in the standard public school education and a degree in World Literature (which meant that I read European works for four glorious years), but also in a degree in Liberal Studies, meaning more of the same. I have a blind spot for anything non-Western that's as big as, well, maybe as big as China.

(Note to self: Must find reading challenge to deal with this glaring oversight!)

Meanwhile, there's this. I don't know if I got it. I think you could read it all your life and not get it. But you would always have plenty to think about. It's 81 short poems and they are ambiguous. This is the kind of book that speaks to you, that you could pick up one day and open at a random page and get a clear message like a thunderbolt.

I read this in several sittings, and I think that was a mistake. It would have been better to read one poem at a time and ponder. I marked several interesting pages to use as an excerpt, but just now I dropped it open at a random page, and boom, there was the thunderbolt. This poem so applies to what I am struggling with lately: change and control and uncertainty, and the very Western impulse to make something happen instead of letting it happen.

I still have a lot to learn. I'll be reading this one again, on and off, and doing some thinking. Starting with how little the human condition--Western or otherwise--has changed in the 2,500 years since it was written. West and East have floated a lot of answers, but the question remains: How should we live?


If you want to grab the world and run it
I can see that you will not succeed.
The world is a spiritual vessel, which can't be controlled.

Manipulators mess things up.
Grabbers lose it. Therefore:

Sometimes you lead
Sometimes you follow
Sometimes you are stifled
Sometimes you breathe easy
Sometimes you are strong
Sometimes you are weak
Sometimes you destroy
And sometimes you are destroyed.

Hence, the sage shuns excess
Shuns grandiosity
Shuns arrogance.


  1. One can go back to this book again and again and never have the same thought twice.


  2. I didn't know it was a bunch of poems. I like that middle bit Sometimes... I read on a blog somewhere (can't remember where now) there was a guest post of this author (again, can't remember which author) who said she printed out quotes and framed them. And ever since I read that I've been collecting quotes that I think of as frame-worthy. And I think this applies.

  3. Given that this one's poetry, would it be safe to guess that there are some translations that are better than others?

  4. Malcolm, you are so right! That's one definition of "good stuff," in my world.

    Clover, quote-keeping has been a long-time hobby. I started a notebook of favorites years ago, and it's almost full now. But framing them would take it to a new level.

    Elena, I'm sure the translation makes a difference. I also read that because Chinese characters are very subtle to interpret, and because the original text has no punctuation, it's something of a guess what it says (much less what it means!), even to a scholar.


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