Wednesday, 20 January 2010

A Short Summary of the Tao Te Ching: Introduction

My reading journey culminating in the Tao Te Ching started with Salinger's "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction", and continued through "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and the "Tao of Pooh". I mention this journey because I consider it a gratifyingly successful one. The first two aren't the easiest reads, but the third certainly is, and they're all inexpressibly awesome.

This journey effectively actually began with "Catcher in the Rye", and the continuation of it seems so obvious and feels so fulfilling that I would be remiss if I were not to make this futile appeal to you and beg that, if you enjoyed "Catcher", you read at least one of these books, please please please please please.

Now that that's out of the way, I'm here to talk about the ancient Chinese text that is the foundation of the Taoist philosophy. Taoism is sometimes called a religion, but it is absent the exclusivist nature of Western religions, and therefore it seems to me a bit misguided to use that word, at least in a Western context like this.

It is true, however, that Taoism professes to be a comprehensive and all-encompassing view of the world (the idea is that every other positive notion can merge into it) and implies a need for a religious level of devotion - not in terms of promotion and protection from perceived threats, but in terms of personally, individually being deeply committed to following its suggestions.

It was with this in mind that I studied the Tao Te Ching. The original text is over 2000 years old in a notoriously ambiguous language and even back then was poetic in a rather abstruse way, so when you approach the translation with anything beyond simply recreational intentions, you have to study it in order to avoid being merely spoon-fed the particular translator's personal interpretation.

How does one do this? Well, I got me a translation that seemed a happy medium between the fiercely personal and distortive interpretation and the virtually meaningless literal and detached translation of a foreign text both ancient and poetic.

It's only 81 chapters (each chapter constituting one page) long, but in the ten months since I'd begun reading it I've only gone over it three or four times, trying to study it slowly the way a religious text is studied, and working at distilling my immediate impressions of it, trying to avoid rationalisations meant to squeeze it into what are conventional and familiar attitudes to me.

It's still, doubtless, a deeply personal interpretation, but the idea was to infer the meaning of it through its spirit, which is a major principle of Taoism itself.

Taoism insists on its being a practical philosophy with day-to-day implications, so it's a little bit problematic that its founding text is so vague and mild in its dictums. There is of course an enormous body of learning concerning this book that has developed over the many centuries since, but it was my impression that the author intended for the readers to individually determine the practical expressions of these general principles, and in any case I don't automatically trust centuries-worths of a faceless host of "prestigious" interpreters. I'd have a go at them later, but first I needed to figure out what my own understanding of the Tao Te Ching was.

So I'd decided, quite a while ago, that I'll summarise, in my own words, what it means to me, on this blog. I have concentrated a lot of effort on this more than a little presumptuous task, and as I complete it, through the coming posts, I expect to present to myself an at least partial guide on how to fulfill the teachings of the Tao Te Ching in my day-to-day life. Once this happens I can comfortably call myself a Taoist. Which will probably be expressed mainly by changing my religious status on Facebook, but who knows, maybe it will effect a profound improvement in the quality of my life. I suppose it can be part of my identity even if I don't actively proselytise, though I should probably do that as well.

So there you go. A whole post without actually saying anything. You only have yourself to blame, really. The word "introduction" in the title was a dead giveaway.

Perhaps you will forgive me if I present to you one of the greatest songs in the history of the universe:

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