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Introduction to the Tao Te Ching

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Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching 01/23/2004

or otherwise called the Dao De Jing.

Lao Tzu means “old man” in the sense of a sage who can impart wisdom. “Lao Tzu” can refer to the book as well as the sage. The

work is composed of two parts: Book I the Tao ching, 37 chapters, and Book II: the Te ching, 44 chapters. Tao meaning the way; its derivatives are “movement,  head, road, path, way, means, doctrine.” Te means the virtue of a thing which it gets from the tao. Its derivatives are morals, virtue, and righteousness; and ching, (I believe) means book, and its derivatives are threads, following a course, warp (of a fabric), pass through, experience, scriptures.[1]

From late sources, Lao Tzu is described as an elder contemporary of Confucius (551-479BCE), who reports of having once gone to him to be instructed in the rites. According to the legend, when Lao Tzu wanted to leave civilization for the West, the Keeper of the Pass asked him to first write a book and he wrote it in 5,000 characters. (There are really more.)

The historical Lao Tzu (old man or sage) may have been a native of the Ch‘ü Jen Hamlet in the Li Village of Hu Hsien in the state of Ch‘u. His surname was Li, his personal name was Erh and he was styled Tan. He was a historian of the archives of Chou.[2] Legend has it he became 160 years old.

That the books were written by him accords merely to legends. The Tao te ching is really an anthology, according to D.C. Lau,  showing the insertions of verses by some later schools of Chinese thought, e.g., the ying and the yang, the male and female principles of the universe, mentioned only once in LV; heaven identified with the tao, rather than the tao replacing the concept of heaven, the “one” as the tao compared to a new born babe also in LV. Lao ch‘eng tzu literally means “an old man with mature wisdom.”[3]

According to D.C. Lau, some material in the Tao te ching goes back to the time of Confucius, but the work is best considered an anthology with several editors, and was probably produced sometime between 350-300 BCE.[4] The sayings contained are not those of a particular thinker and augmented by the following school of thought, but they are no more than a collection of passages with a common tendency of thought.[5] It is representative of Taoism as opposed to Confucianism. The critique of Confucius by Lao Tzu as reported in the Analects, probably represents contention between the these two Chinese traditions.

The most important terms in the work are of course tao, the one, the way of heaven, nothing, emptiness, weakness, holding fast to the submissive, using the lower terms as opposed to the higher terms. (But that already gets into describing the tao.) The no-name, no-action emphasis, the sage, all are important terms, as well as the myriad creatures, limpidity, the uncarved block, etc.

The spirit of the work is not mystical so much as moral, but very much a contribution to the art of government as well. The Chinese in this period did not separate personal morality from the art of government. The way of Heaven, understood as the tao, is what the human being ought to follow, whether leading one’s individual life or in the government of the state. By the way, the insight does not stay at the borders of a country, but through them, to what expands and sustains an empire. So ethics and politics are two aspects of the same thing for Taoism, and “one who has the tao, will be inwardly a sage and outwardly a king.” “A sage is a ruler who understands the tao.”[6] The former statement works in our democracy, because it should describe the citizens of our form of government. The latter statement, about the sage-king, is aligned with the Greek hopes of a philosopher king, and the Hebrew Messiah. Ethically the idea of limiting desires bears weight, as well as doing nothing in order to see that nothing is left undone. [That’s like Luther’s justification by faith.] Let’s have a good time delving into the rich meaning of these Chinese texts which are over 2,300 years old and still preserved for our critical instruction.

Note: this version of the Tao te ching translated by D.C. Lau is very traditional. I discovered a new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, who spent 25 years, I believe, in translating these verses. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, (Boston: Shambhala Press, 1997). They are a fresh and wonderful read, mostly stripping away the political emphasis, however.

[1]Chinese Characters: a Genealogy and Dictionary,, text input by Xiao Li in 1992, adjusted by Dan Wei Zhang in June 2nd 1993.

[2]Lau, D.C., translator and ed., Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963), p. 8.

[3]Lau, D.C., Lao Tzu, p. 165.

[4]Ibid., p. 174.

[5]Ibid., p. 165.

[6]Ibid., p. 32.



Written by peterkrey

December 13, 2009 at 8:50 am

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