In January, my selection for this year’s themed reading project (world religions) was the Tao Te Ching: A New English Version edited by Stephen Mitchell and published by HarperPerennial. I read a few verses each day, which turned out to be a great path. Each verse is a page or less, with 81 total verses in the collection. Reading about three per day not only kept me on track, but gave me a very manageable “bite” of things to think about each morning (or evening).
Ultimately, I found the Tao to be calming and reassuring. It provides and reinforces some very simple, straightforward ideas for living a good life, many of which I found were similar to the teachings of Buddhism (no surprise there considering its an ancestor) and Stoicism (a bit more surprising).
Simply put, the Tao was there before anything else existed and will remain after everything else is gone. It lives in everything, and if one is in harmony with the Tao, she is in harmony with everyone and everything. To do this, one must put aside ambition, possession, and mastery in order to lead not by force, but by example; to be wealthy not in profit or consumption, but in spirit.
Interestingly, while much of the Tao Te Ching was about the self, its final verses are about nations and governments. The Tao demonstrates how governments who are one with the Tao are good for the people, and what this might look like. It was a particularly profound way to end my first engagement with this philosophy, considering all that’s been going on in the United States.
Here’s one particular favorite, Verse 56:
Those who know don’t talk.
Those who talk don’t know.
Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity.
Be like the Tao.
It can’t be approached or withdrawn from,
benefited or harmed,
honored or brought into disgrace.
It gives itself up continually.
That is why it endures.
Finally, much like Buddhism has “the middle way,” Taoism repeatedly speaks of “balance” in all things. I truly enjoyed reading these verses and will keep my copy of the Tao Te Ching on my desk for easy and regular reference, for a long time to come.
If you recall from my original post, I’m planning a kind of intercalary approach to my themed reading this year. For each short text, like the Tao Te Ching, which I read in one month, I add a longer text. The next one is Buddhist Scriptures published by Penguin Classics.
Here’s my reading path in case anyone would like to join:
• February 1-7: The Buddhist Universe chapters 1-7 (pages 3-59)
• February 8-14: The Buddhist Universe, Chapters 8-12 & The Buddha, Chapters 13-15 (pages 60-128)
• February 15-21: The Buddha, Chapters 16-22 (pages 129-199)
• February 22-28: The Buddha, Chapters 23-24 and Monastic Life, Chapters 25-28 (pages 200-268)
• March 1-7: Monastic Life, Chapters 29-35 (pages 269-334)
• March 8-14: Monastic Life, Chapters 36 and Meditation & Other Rituals, Chapters 37-43 (pages 335-393)
• March 15-21: Meditation & Other Rituals, Chapters 44-48 and Enlightenment, Chapters 49-50 (pages 394-449)
• March 22-28: Enlightenment, Chapters 51-56 (pages 450-512)
• March 29-31: Enlightenment, Chapters 57-60 (pages 513-548)