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April 28, 2017

"Daodejing, The Classic Book of the Way and its Power" (Best Non-Fiction)

One of the reasons I decided to study Chinese (a decision that shocked both my parents and my teachers at the Grammar School in the small town where I lived) was my discovery of philosophical Daoism. Not satisfied with what the protestant church my family officially was a member of, was teaching, already from a young age I had started looking for wisdom elsewhere. That was not easy in the pre-internet age (something now inconceivable!) – I only had the local library to rely on and that was not much in a conservative municipality.

Happily, at some time I discovered that a certain publisher at that time was bringing out so-called "esoteric" books, among them small-sized hardcover books with translations of the Daodejing, Zhuangzi and Liezi - the three central books of philosophical Daoism.

These translations were not by professional Sinologists, but they served well as a first introduction. I remember I also bought a Dutch version of Wilhelm's The Book of Changes (Yijing) and a direct Dutch translation of the earliest book of Chinese poetry, The Book of Songs (Shijing). Unfortunately, I don't have those books anymore; they have fallen by the wayside during my frequent international removals, after I had acquired better and more reliable English translations. But I still can vividly remember the pleasure those small books afforded me... especially the short Daodejing was very intriguing...
The way (Dao) that can be spoken of
is not the constant way;

The name that can be named
is not the constant name.
The Daodejing is a small book (about 5,000 characters in Chinese) of 81 aphorisms. I have re-read it in the version by D.C. Lau (Penguin Classics), which also contains an excellent introduction and other materials. The Daodejing is the principal classic in the Daoist tradition. Traditionally, it has been ascribed to one Laozi, or "Old Master," a so-called contemporary of Confucius, but as the name already indicates, Laozi is most probably a fictional figure - he is also not mentioned in the Daodejing itself. There were probably many "old masters" and their wise, guru-like sayings were compiled into one book somewhere in the 3th c. BCE (around 270 BCE the text became very influential).

This was an age in which many schools of philosophy competed with ideas about the ideal government. As D.C. Lau, the translator, indicates, that is probably also how the Daodejing was originally meant - a treatise on government and personal conduct rather than a mystical treatise (or both, the one doesn't preclude the other). It advances a philosophy of naturalness and meekness as the way to survival in chaotic and disordered times.
"In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it."
Although beautiful poetry, the work in fact is quite disordered itself: many of the 81 chapters hang together as loose sand and Lau again subdivides them by numbering certain passages, so coming to a total of 196 aphorisms. The title "Classic of the Way and the Virtue ("The Way and its Power" in the rendering of the famous Sinologist Arthur Waley) has been simply taken from the starting words of the two books into which it has been (arbitrarily) divided.
"One who knows does not speak;
One who speaks does not know."
The Dao precedes and informs all other beings in the universe and is basically indescribable. You can only be in harmony with it by an attitude of naturalness, of passivity and of yielding. This quietistic attitude can also be applied to the ruling of the state: no do-goodism or hyper-active planning, but a certain amount of laissez faire is what is necessary. Or in the words of Michael Puett:
"The Daodejing argues that the universe changes spontaneously, without a conscious will driving it. The goals of the sage should be to act in accordance with these spontaneous changes. [...] In the Daodejing the universe operates through a constant process of generation and decay: things are naturally born and then they naturally die. Everything emerges from oneness and ultimately returns to it. The act of differentiation is a movement away from oneness, from stillness, from emptiness. The goal of the true sage is to become still and empty and thus achieve a state of returning to this oneness. This is called attaining the Dao. A true sage acts without conscious deliberation [...] Moreover he is amoral, for the Dao itself is amoral - morality is an artificial human construct and should thus be opposed." (from The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, Columbia UP, 2001, pp. 76-78).
It is the mystic, rhapsodic tone that makes this book so attractive and has ensured its survival long after its political message lost its relevance. It is subtle, elusive and suggestive and can therefore also be read on a "higher level" as a book of mystical wisdom. It is not for nothing the most translated book from the Chinese, every new translator can find new meanings in it, like an ancient Rorschach test.
"Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful."
But thanks to its transcendental attitude, there are many things in the Daodejing that still can interest us personally. It can very well for the basis for a personal philosophy of life. Although I can not claim I have always followed it, to me personally it is a very inspiring book.

Here are some things we can learn from the Daodejing:
  • Force begets force.
  • Material wealth does not enrich the spirit.
  • Self-absorption and self-importance are vain and self-destructive.
  • Victory in war is not glorious and not to be celebrated, but stems from devastation, and is to be mourned.
  • The harder one tries, the more resistance one creates for oneself.
  • The more one acts in harmony with the universe (the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things), the more one will achieve, with less effort.
  • The qualities of flexibility and suppleness, especially as exemplified by water, are superior to rigidity and strength.
  • Humility is the highest virtue.
  • Know when it's time to stop.
By the way, Daoism as a religion (with a different take on the Daodejing) is discussed by Kristofer Schipper in his interesting The Taoist Body.
This post quotes from / is based on: 
Tao Te Ching, translated by D.C. Lau (Penguin Books, 1976) 
Early Chinese Literature, Burton Watson (Columbia UP, 1962) 
The Columbia History of Chinese Literature (Columbia UP, 2001) 
Also see the page on Laozi in the excellent online "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy."
 This a revision of a post I published years ago on a different site.

Best Non-Fiction


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This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.