Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

Last night, I was looking for something short to read and came across the Tao Te Ching. It's only a little over 100 pages long, and most of the pages are only about half-full, plus it has the added benefit of being the primary text for Taoism and an influential one on other Eastern religions, including Buddhism. 

The introductory material by the translator mentioned that the Tao Te Ching is sometimes considered to be the wisest book ever written, and that, within it, an answer can be found for any problem life may present. It's a weighty burden for a mere 100 pages, but, upon my reading, I can see how it's true to an extent. The guidelines given in the Tao Te Ching are very general, and focus exclusively on change within the individual. There are a lot of passages that sound like you'd expect ancient Eastern wisdom to sound:

True words aren't eloquent;
eloquent words aren't true.
Wise men don't need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren't wise.
True words seem paradoxical.

While much of the wisdom contained in the Tao is immensely practical, I can't help thinking that a literal interpretation of some of it would lead to a life of apathy and carelessness. For example:
Other people are bright;
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharper;
I alone am dull.

Other people have a purpose;
I alone don't know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind. 

The lifestyle the Tao seems to suggest is one of letting the world pass you by, refusing to be either happy or sad about anything that happens because it's all transitory and pointless. The hope is that Tao, the road of life, will eventually lead you to its best end. In some ways, this mirrors the systems of most of the world's other religions, Christianity included, but the command to inaction makes aspects Taoism seem like a philosophy without a point. There are passages that are difficult, like the following:
Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit,
and there won't be any thieves. 

I'd be interested in seeing commentary on this, because the conclusions in the above statements don't seem to logically follow the hypotheses. People are happier without wisdom? They are more likely to do the right thing if there is no justice? It doesn't seem to mesh for me, but in spite of these misgivings, the Tao Ching was interesting, with some beautiful poetry at certain points, and well worth reading. I just don't think I'd call it the wisest book ever written.


Carlton said...

Spoken like a true jingoist, you jingoist.

Carlton said...

Also, congratulations, you introduced four new tags!

Elizabeth said...

I couldn't believe I was the one to introduce "wisdom."

Carlton said...

Way to be signed on as Elizabeth, Brent.

Christopher said...

Yeah. Girl.