Reviewed by Chris Faatz
Everyone needs a Taoteching. After all, Lao-Tzu's is one of the most magnificent, deep, and heady religious voices to have emerged from the world's wisdom traditions. But, there are so many to choose from! There's the Mitchell version, the LeGuin version, and the John C. Wu edition. There's the beautifully illustrated Feng and English edition, and the slightly dated
but nonetheless lovely and illuminating Witter Bynner translation. There's even the hoary Legge, if one can deal with its antiquated and clunky English. So, how does one make a choice, considering that there are literally dozens of versions in English alone? And, particularly when one doesn't read a word of Chinese?
I always advise people shopping in our store to take a few different versions and compare chapters (of which there are 81). And then make a choice based on which version speaks most eloquently to their condition. If you don't have the time or opportunity for such in-depth voyaging, though, it's my opinion that your task just got a whole lot easier with the
reissue of Red Pine's Lao-Tzu's Taoteching.
This translation, first published by Mercury House in 1996, has been out of print for several years. It draws on centuries of commentary and exegesis, and contains both facing-page Chinese text and selections in English, with 2,000 years of commentary from several different perspectives.
In his introduction, Red Pine presents an alternative means of understanding the Taoteching through the use of lunar imagery in approaching several of the more mysterious passages. He writes, "The Taoteching is at heart a simple book. Written at the end of the sixth century BC by a man called Lao-Tzu, it's a vision of what our lives would be like if we were more like the dark, new moon." He continues,
Lao-Tzu teaches us that the dark can always become light and contains within
itself the potential for growth and long life, while the light can only become dark and brings with it decay and early death. Lao-Tzu chose long life. Thus, he chose the dark.
Personally, while the introduction is fascinating — particularly Red Pine's exploration of the legends surrounding the mythic figure of Lao-Tzu — it's the text itself that really stands out. As well it should. The Taoteching is one of the world's most popular spiritual books, one that informs the life and living of millions of people. And, not just in China alone, but throughout the rest of the world, also. After all, the Taoteching, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible, is one of the most translated religious texts of all time.
Why is that?
In short, because the Taoteching is astonishing, magical, and eminently humble. Unlike most famous religious works, it's not a clarion call to a righteous life delivered from the mountain top. Rather, it's a whisper from deep within the forest, inviting us to a life of silence and deep
meaning, one that recognizes that the human being is not alone and majestic at the center of the universe, and that the mystery that lies at the core of our existence cannot be articulated in mere words. It offers hints and pointers about how we might live differently to find ourselves richer in the quiet, intuitive ways that truly matter. Take, for example, chapter 15, one of my favorites:
The great masters of ancient times
focused on the indiscernible
and penetrated the dark
you would never know them
and because you wouldn't know them
I describe them with reluctance
they were careful as if crossing a river in winter
cautious as if worried about neighbors
reserved like a guest
ephemeral like melting ice
simple like uncarved wood
open like a valley
and murky like a puddle
but those who can be like a puddle
become clear when they're still
and those who can be at rest
become alive when they're roused
those who treasure this Way
don't try to be seen
not trying to be seen
they can hide and stay hidden
This is a manifesto of a life lived in relationship with the natural rhythms of creation, an existence not spent in scrabbling after success in the accepted ways of the world, but one of serenity, reflection, and inherent, natural, unbiased kindness and openness to all things as they rise and fall in their natural progression.
In addressing this translation, one shouldn't neglect one of its salient features: the inclusion of commentaries on each chapter from the last 2,000 years of Chinese religious thought. Some of the commentaries are, to be quite frank, opaque; others are clear as day, even at the first
That pretty well sums up the book itself: sometimes clear as day, other times opaque as a stormy night. One of the most rewarding things about the Taoteching is that it rewards multiple readings in different ways. Each return to this book brings an invitation to relate to the text and to have it relate to you and your manner of living. At each approach,
different meanings will arise, will be taken away, added, and forgotten. This is the hallmark of a wisdom text of the first water.
In his "Note to the Reader," in his little book on Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton writes that the author's "philosophical temper is, I believe, profoundly original and sane. It can of course be misunderstood. But it is basically simple and direct. It seeks, as does all the greatest philosophical thought, to go immediately to the heart of things." This is as true of Lao-Tzu's little book in Red Pine's translation as it is of Chuang Tzu's in Merton's. The Taoteching is an offer of ongoing, lifelong dialogue. Read it, and be changed forever.
Books mentioned in this post