Gerry's Reviews > Tao Te Ching

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
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's review
Jun 28, 2007

it was amazing

I'm an unbeliever and have been since the first time I played hooky from Sunday services and the Eye in the Sky didn’t say boo. So it may seem strange that I’m reviewing the Tao Te Ching, the widely known and influential Taoist text, written by Lao-Tzu and poetically translated in this edition by Stephen Mitchell. For me, the Tao Te Ching is more folk wisdom than religious treatise and is more useful than a million sermons.

Where the Tao Te Ching parts company with religious attempts at morality such as the 10 Commandments is in its inclusiveness. Seven of the 10 Commandments don’t mention God and are sound advice designed to facilitate peaceful community relations: respect your elders, don't kill, don't cheat on your spouse, don't steal, don't tell lies, and don't lust after another's spouse or his belongings. For me, the tragedy of the Great List is that the three that top it serve only to divide the world into believers and nonbelievers: regardless how closely you follow the last seven, if you don’t believe in God you’re not worth a fig. In doing so the first three create division where the last seven seek harmony. With Taoism, even if you don’t believe in the Force-like nature of the Tao—and in case there’s any question, I don’t—you can still consider yourself a Taoist.

Taoism seeks harmony by freeing the individual from the caustic effects of judgmental thinking, desire, and greed, and its fulcrum is the concept of “non-action,” or literally “doing not-doing.” Non-action, Mitchell writes in his introduction, is not the act of doing nothing but instead is the purest form of action: “The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance.”

This slim book is both a quick read and a long study. Mitchell’s lyrical rendering of the Tao Te Ching might read to some like silly hippie clichés, but there’s more to it than that. Take chapter 9, a photocopy of which hung on my office corkboard for years:

Fill your cup to the brim and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner.

You can almost see the hacky sack and smell the patchouli. But there’s a truth to it that, if grasped, will change the way you think.

As chapter 1 states: “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao./The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.” Analogy, then, plays an important role in understanding the Tao Te Ching, and the reader has to do quite a bit of work—the long study part—to fathom the book’s richness. Take chapter 11 in its entirety, where non-action is discussed:

We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable.
We work with being, but non-being is what we use.

There is more to the book than philosophical abstraction. In fact, common sense pervades the Tao Te Ching. Take these lines, which discuss the roots of crime: “If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal” (chapter 2) and “If you don’t trust the people you make them untrustworthy” (chapter 17). Or these, from chapter 38, which describe the toll of illusory thought:

When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
The beginning of chaos.

Therefore the Master concerns himself with the depths and not the surface,
With the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality, and lets all illusions go.

I’m telling you, had I been born into Taoism I might actually believe in something.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
June 28, 2007 – Shelved

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Janet Still FNP For me the Tao is not about belief, but rather about living one's private truth within the outer duality.

message 2: by Dalek (new)

Dalek Matheson You've simply misread or overlooked - "I know not whose son it is; it images the forefather of god."

This is the earliest statement of strong atheism I've seen. It's speaks directly to the nature of the consideration of infinite regresses, which is exactly what makes atheism a thing opposed to the popular scientific/ probabilistic agnostic-atheism.

Ahood Great❤️

Ahood Great❤️

message 5: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee There is no eye in the sky in Tao, just the consequences of constantly missing school.

message 6: by Nate (new) - added it

Nate Gatten It's so great that you got to read this. So many people become atheists simply because western religion was not for them, and books of eastern religion (which have a different style) were not readily available.

message 7: by Pilki (new) - added it

Pilki Great review!

message 8: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Thanks for your great review!

message 9: by Lance (new) - added it

Lance Hoffman This is a review of a Great Book.
Mitchell has translated a number of important
Text. He is also a First Rate Poet . He has wisdom of a first rate mind!
Lance Hoffman

message 10: by Sidney (new) - added it

Sidney Clouston The translstion by Stephen Mitchell resonates with me

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