Laozi, Dao de jing

The Classic of the Way and Its Virtue

Review by Roy Smith, 2008

Laozi. Dao de jing (The Classic of the Way and Its Virtue). Trans. by John C. H. Wu. Ed. by Paul K. T. Sih. London: Penguin Classics, 1963.

The Laozi or “the book of five thousand characters” (vii) spans back to the sixth century B.C., and has had an enormous impact on Chinese philosophy (i.e. Daoism) since that time. Laozi may or not have been a real historical person, but tradition holds that he was “an older contemporary of Confucius” (viii) who wrote an autobiographical work left to posterity. This work is now called the Dao de jing (or Tao Te Ching).

The Chinese term Dao refers to the Way, and this book is a beautiful collection of aphoristic writings in which a sage-like writer gives lessons to the reader regarding the way. There are many paradoxes involved in discussing the way. In fact the way is often described by stating contrasts, followed with cryptic statements of how the way is neither and both of the elements contrasted. For example, opposites both move toward and complete one another, and that which produces all creatures lies in this paradox; which commands neither praise nor authority.

The way cannot be spoken or named, is both empty and full, and is followed when desires are balanced with an asceticism which is not too strict: The nameless was the “beginning of heaven and earth; The named was the mother of the myriad creatures. Hence rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets; But allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations”. (Book I:I) Further the disciple of the way must embrace inaction, like the sage writing the Dao. The balance of inaction with action is one of the secret mysteries which one seeks on the path of the way. Inaction is the key to order, discipline, and success. The sage teaches without speaking, and by the deed of inaction. Because the sage puts self last, he is first and has success. Of course (as with all things mentioned in the Tao) inaction’s opposite is also advised. One is encouraged towards certain deeds, “Beautiful deeds can raise a man above others”. (Book II LXII) Further, action is directed by discerning knowledge and yields the fulfillment of great hopes:

Should one act from knowledge … One’s action will lead to impartiality, Impartiality to kingliness, Kingliness to heaven, Heaven to the way, The way to perpetuity, And to the end of one’s days one will meet with no danger. (Book I:XVI)

Another key theme in the Dao de jing is that of nothing. Because of nothing, spokes and wheels work together, a room becomes a room (because of the nothing within the room), and a vessel is useful because of the function of nothing. In other words the nothing (i.e. empty space) enables something to be accomplished because of the nothing that operates by not operating. (I:XI)

The Dao de jing is a fascinating read. Enigmatic riddles run throughout this little book, and one is taken into a transcendent mental state of imaginative wonder while contemplating its Sphinx-like riddles. To understand the way is the task, though the problem is that the way is so ironic in character that understanding means one does not understand, and not understanding is understanding (but not quite): “To know yet to think that one does not know is best; Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty”. (Book II LXXI) This irony, coupled with the esoteric implications of the text, makes for a confusing yet intriguing read. One hopes to be among the “few” who can unearth the treasures of the Dao de jing, for it “is easy to understand”:

My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice, yet no one in the world can understand them or put them into practice … It is because people are ignorant that they fail to understand me. Those who understand me are few. (Book II:LXX)