Tao Te Ching

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Tao Te Ching

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching (or Dao Di Jing) just may win the prize for being the shortest book with the greatest influence in the history of the world. It is sometimes called "the book of five thousand characters," although in most versions it is slightly longer than that. Chinese readers have often considered it the classic expression of Daoist thought. But its many translations have brought it to the attention of Western readers as well, many of whom heard about it through the study of the spirituality underlying martial arts. Indeed, except for the Bible, it has been translated into more languages than any other text.

Although tradition has it that the work was written by Lao Tzu in the sixth century BCE, it must be noted that many contemporary scholars believe it was written by an unknown author or authors in the late fourth century or early third century BCE.

The text is usually divided into two sections, probably because Lao Tzu wrote that he had crafted a work "in two books" at the request of the "Keeper of the Pass." By the first century CE, the work was standardized into the thirty-seven chapters of Book 1 and forty-four chapters of Book 2. It was also at this time that the work became known by its present title. Before this is was commonly called The Lao Tzu.

The Tao Te Ching is now considered to be the defining text or scripture of Daoism. It begins with an introduction of a word—Dao ("the way")—that, by definition, cannot be defined:

The way that can be spoken of Is not the constant way; The name that can be named Is not the constant name. The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth; The named was the mother of myriad creatures. Hence rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets; But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations. These two are the same But diverge in name as they issue forth. Being the same they are called mysteries, Mystery upon mystery— The gateway of the manifold secrets. (Book 1:1-3a)

When author Robert Pirsig struggled to create his "metaphysics of quality" in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he discovered that what the Greeks called arete and he called "quality" were very similar to what Lao Tzu had been writing about the Dao. Sometimes called simply "all ten thousand things," the Dao is undefinable, since it precedes even the language used to attempt a definition. But it makes for difficult reading to those accustomed only to Western thought patterns:

Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful. Good words are not persuasive; persuasive words are not good. He who knows has not wide learning; he who has wide learning does not know.

The sage does not hoard. Having bestowed all he has on others, he has yet more; Having given all he has to others, he is richer still.

The way of heaven benefits and does not harm; the way of the sage is bountiful and does not contend. (Book 2:194-196)

The countless people who have put the time and effort into studying the Tao Te Ching have been richly rewarded. But it does take time and effort, and even Confucius found Lao Tzu difficult to comprehend. After their famous meeting he was heard to exclaim, "Today I have seen Lao Tzu, and he is a dragon!"