Monday, April 20, 2009

The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu

The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu : A New Translation and Commentary on the Tao Teh Ching
© 1982 Henry Wei
234 pages

In the interests of cultural literacy, I've been trying to get a handle on major religions I have little knowledge of: this mostly extends to the "eastern" religions, as I've read on Judaism and Islam in the past -- although my Islamic literacy is still quite limited. As evidenced by previous' weeks' reading, I've been poking into Buddhism. Now, my interested piqued by a quotation from Lao Tzu posted in someone's forum signature, I turn to Taoism. The book is divided into two sections. In the first, the author addresses various topics within Taoism. Wei begins with an introduction to Taoism. The "Tao" is alternatively the way people should follow and some thing behind or underpinning the universe, although it seems to be separate from the idea of God. It is described in various "mysterious" ways.

Although I found the first section cumbersome, my interest picked up after he began writing on topics relating to meditation. Throughout this section -- and indeed, throughout the book -- Wei tries to connect the Tao Teh Ching with scripture from the Judeo-Christian bible. The second section of the book consists of the Tao Teh Ching itself with annotations and explanations provided by Wei. Because Wei had already talked about interpetations of topics within the text, I wasn't quite as confused as I might have been when reading the poetic and "mysterious" passages. The book seems to have been written for the benefit of rulers, so some of the advice is impractical for those of us who don't manage kingdoms of peasants. There wasn't as much ethical philosophy as I expected, but it wasn't terrible reading.

When the world goes in accord with Tao,
Horses are used for hauling manure.
When the world is out of keeping with Tao,
Horses are raised in the suburbs for war.
No sin is greater than yielding to desires.
No misfortune is greater than not knowing contentment.
No fault is greater than hankering after wealth.
Therefore, know contentment.
He who knows contentment is always content.

This was the only bit of the translation I copied, although there were other bits and phrases "a hallway filled with jade is not easily guarded" that I liked. I'm not exactly sure why I copied the above down: I don't agree with it fully*, and parts of it like the last line seem to state the obvious.

*Desires aren't always unhealthy to fulfill.


  1. Your forays into the eastern philosophies tickle me. They are in many ways like religion--emotional and intuitive--yet, you examine the thoughts like a scientist, as the stoic that you are. It's entertaining to see you process the..."dogma" for lack of a more immediate term. I wonder how you would fare in a templestay. Would you be able to fully participate and embrace the emotional spirituality or would you spend your time observing like a socio-historian? In any case, I'm glad that you are up on Lao Tzu. I think you could learn a lot from him.

  2. I should mention that I don't feel nearly as condescending as that last comment sounds!