Tao Te Ching – an introduction

[green_message] After describing the meeting between the two philosophers, the biography goes on to say that Lao-tzu, “viewing the decline of the Chou royal house. eventually quit the capital and journeyed to the Pass,” presumably the Han-ku Pass. far west of Lo-yang. There the Keeper of the Pass. Surmising that the old man was about to withdraw from the world, asked if he would write a book for him before doing so. “Lao-tat thereupon wrote a work in two pans expounding the meaning of tao and te in some five thousand characters, and then departed.” “What became of him afterward,” the historian adds, “no one knows.”

Scholars both in China and elsewhere have long eyed this account with grave suspicion, and many now regard Lao-tzu as a purely legendary figure. Yet the story of how the book came to be written, apocryphal though it may be, seems to hover about its pages even today, and the scene of the old philosopher taking leave of the Keeper of the Pass before setting off into the unknown has never ceased to be a favorite subject with artists of China and the other countries within the Chinese cultural sphere.

The title Tao Te Ching or , derives, then. from the fact that. as indicated is Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s account, these two concepts constitute the core of the philosophy expounded in the work. Tao (pronounced like the ‘dow’ in ‘down’), the term from which the school of Taoism takes its name, means literally a ‘way’ or “path” and is used by other schools of philosophy to refer to a particular calling or mode of conduct. But in Taoist writings it has a far more comprehensive meaning. referring rather to a metaphysical first principle that embraces and underlies all being. a vast Oneness that precedes and in some mysterious manner generates the endlessly diverse forms of the world. Ultimately, as the Tao Te Ching stresses, Tao lies beyond the power of language to describe, though the text employs a number of highly suggestive terms and similes to allude to it. kennings for the ineffable. as it were, that serve to suggest at least something of its nature and immensity. For, unknowable as the Tao be in essence, one must somehow learn to sense its presence and movement in order to bring one’s own life and movements into harmony with it. The aim of the text, then, is to impart to the reader, through hints, symbols, and paradoxical utterances, such an intuitive grasp of the tao and the vital ability to move with it rather than counter to it.

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.