20. The Tao te Ching, or Lao Tzu (c. 490 BC)

Contents: Another small Chinese classic (just over 50 verses) supposedly written by a hermit contemporary of Confucius, the name Lao Tzu can refer to the book and/or the author.
My thoughts : It seems that the meaning behind much of the surviving religious and philosophical texts from ancient civilizations is remarkably or even deliberately vague and contradictory. The Tao, or the Virtuous Way excels in taking this to the furthest extreme by confessing to being ultimately indescribable, unnameable, inexpressible and dare I say it, inscrutable.
The Tao te ching appears to be descriptive of the proper way to live, behave and govern, as demonstrated by the Universe or Heaven. Meekness, stillness, humility and a lack of desire are recommended, as are the avoidance of action, arrogance and contention : in general, you will be more the less you are, seek contentment free of desire.
Favourite lines/passages:
In the pursuit of learning, one knows more every day;
In the pursuit of the way, one does less every day.
One does less and less until one does nothing at all,
And when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone.
Verse XLVIII

Deal with a thing while it is still nothing;
Keep a thing in order before disorder sets in;
A tree that can fill the span of a man’s arms grows from a downy tip;
A terrace nine storeys high rises from hodfuls of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath one’s feet.
Verse LXIV

Is not the way of heaven like the stretching of a bow?
The high it presses down, the low it lifts up;
The excessive it takes from, the deficient it gives to.
It is the way of heaven… The way of man is otherwise.
Verse LXXVII
The last quoted above (from verse LXXVII) is beautiful and sad – the whole book was worth reading simply for this gem.

Personal rating : 6/10, but if the whole was as beautiful and serene as the verses I have quoted above, this would be a 10/10.

Next : while I’m still in the Orient, I will continue with the Analects of Confucius. After that, we’re going to be in the Mediterranean for a long, long time.

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