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!"

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Thus, when I was asked to review this book, the first thing I did was read the Daode Jing (for the first time).
Teaching the Daode Jing, a 206 page book including the index, is divided into two parts.
Girardot's My Way: Teaching the Daode Jing and Daoism at the End of the Millenium (105-129).
After Girardot's chapter, I suggest reading the entire book from cover to cover, especially for the teacher who has never taught the Daode Jing. Even for a more advanced teacher of this material, however, I recommend this approach.
Beyond the scholarly issues brought out in the book, the chapter authors also offer an assortment of practical suggestions for teaching the Daode Jing. Good teachers continuously share ideas so that other good teachers may steal them and use them in the classroom.
I hope it is clear that I heartily recommend this book for those interested in teaching the Daode Jing, whether neophyte or veteran.
The major defect of Teaching the Daode jing is surprising in today's hermeneutic climate and warrants more extensive discussion: too many of the contributors want the text to mean just one thing.
Michael LaFargue, for example, promotes a naive historicism: in reading the Daode jing (or any other ancient text, for that matter), our assumptions should "match [those] that the original authors and audience brought to the text" ("Hermeneutics and Pedagogy: Gimme That Old-Time Historicism," p.
In delineating his historicism, LaFargue appeals to what can only be considered a false dilemma: I believe that either one is trying as best one can to reconstruct what the Daode jing meant to its original authors and audience, or one is not.
Roth takes LaFargue's "old-time historicism" even further by rereading the Daode jing as an ancient treatise of what he calls "apophatic inner cultivation techniques" ("Third-Person and First-Person Approaches to the Study of the Laozi," p.
In reading virtually any complex metaphor as a veiled reference to meditation and controlled breathing, Roth succeeds only in reducing the text, not explaining any "hidden meaning" that others have missed.4 If the Daode jing could be plausibly characterized as an esoteric treatise of "apophatic inner cultivation techniques," it would hardly have enjoyed its remarkably wide readership; and we must count it against Roth's interpretation that no traditional Chinese commentaries (including Daoist ones, such as the Xiang'er commentary [??][??][??] ever understood the text as such.
The popularity of the Daode jing is reflected in the vast number of commentaries that have been written on it: more than 350 have been preserved in Chinese, about 250 in Japanese.