The Daodejing emerged at a time in Chinese history that was every bit as turbulent as the one we live in now.
During the five centuries that comprised the Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (403 – 221 BCE), rulers of a veritable patchwork of feudal states and fiefdoms vied with each other for supremacy while the traditional culture and civilization of the ancient Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 771 BCE) collapsed around them. Wars were waged, armies were slaughtered, and alliances were broken almost as soon as they were forged, while the common people were left to lead miserable lives of endless poverty, back-breaking labor, and relentless suffering.
The main reason for my interest in the Analects and the Daodejing is that they focus on providing practical solutions to real-world problems.
Unlike many of the works in the Western philosophical cannon, they don’t feature any agonized searches for a universal “truth” or any promises of eternal salvation for ascribing to the “right” set of values or behaving in the “correct” manner. Instead, they are concerned with dealing with the challenges of the here and now, exploring how you can improve your character to make a greater contribution to the stability and prosperity of your family, community, and society overall.
How are the teachings of Confucius and Laozi relevant to the modern world? This is the question I have been asking myself as I have been reviewing my translations of The Analects and the Daodejing.
On one level, this is an easy question to answer. Given China’s growing global political and economic influence, it makes practical sense to learn more about the two seminal philosophical texts that provide the underpinnings of a nation that President Xi Jinping pointedly reminded President Trump yesterday has the longest uninterrupted culture in the world. What could be a more effective way of understanding China’s traditions and customs than reading two of the most influential and enduring works in world history? Continue reading Two reasons for reading the Analects and the Daodejing→
Weapons are instruments of doom.
Everyone hates them.
Therefore, followers of the Dao avoid them.
When residing at home, a gentleman favors the left side.
When waging a war, a gentleman favors the right side.
Weapons are instruments of doom,
Not the instruments of a gentleman.
When compelled to use them;
He should do so without relish.
Even in victory there is no glory.
Those who celebrate victory are gloating over killing others.
Those who gloat over killing others must never be allowed achieve their worldly ambitions.
In times of joy, the left side is given precedence;
In times of grief, the right side is given precedence.
In times of war, the second-in-command stands on the left;
The general stands on the right;
This the same way as the mourning rites are conducted.
When great numbers of people are slaughtered,
We should mourn them all with heartfelt grief.
When victorious in war,
We should observe the occasion with the mourning rites. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 31: instruments of doom→
The Dao takes no action,
But leaves nothing undone.
If princes and kings are able to stay true to it,
All things will be transformed of their own accord.
If, during their transformation, desire should arise within them,
I will calm them down using the nameless uncarved block of wood.
This will free them of desire.
Being free of desire, they will be tranquil;
And the world will find peace of its own accord. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 37: The Dao takes no action→
If you want to shrink something, you must first stretch it.
If you want to weaken something, you must first strengthen it.
If you want to destroy something, you must first raise it up.
If you want to take something, you must first give it.
This is called subtle enlightenment.
The soft and weak overcome the hard and strong.
Fish cannot leave deep water;
A state must not make a show of strength. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 36: subtle enlightenment→
Grasp the great image,
The whole world will flock to you;
Flocking together but causing no harm to each other,
Living in comfort, peace, and tranquility.
Music and good food may make a passerby pause.
But when you speak of the Dao,
It leaves a bland and flavorless taste.
When you look at it, you cannot see it.
When you listen to it, you cannot hear it.
But when you use it, you cannot exhaust it. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 35: grasp the great image→
The great Dao flows everywhere,
Both to the left and to the right.
All things depend on it for life;
It never turns away from them.
It accomplishes its work,
But it claims no credit for it.
It provides for and nourishes all things,
But it does not claim to be the master them.
Since it is without desires, it can be called small.
All things return to it;
But it doesn’t act as their master.
It may be called great.
Because it never claims to be great,
It achieves greatness. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 34: achieving greatness→
Those who know others are wise;
Those who know themselves are enlightened.
Those who conquer others have force;
Those who conquer themselves are strong.
Those who know they have enough are wealthy.
Those who persevere have willpower.
Those who do not lose their roots endure.
Those who die but are not forgotten live forever. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 33: Those who know themselves are enlightened→
The Dao forever has no name;
Although the uncarved block of wood is small,
No one in the world can subordinate it.
If princes and kings are able to harness it,
All things will submit of their own accord.
Heaven and earth will come together,
And cause sweet dewdrops to fall.
The people will share them fairly without being ordered to.
Only when the whole is divided are names required for each part.
When there are names,
You need to know when to stop.
Knowing when to stop averts trouble.
For the Dao is to the world,
What streams and rivulets are to the rivers and seas. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 32: streams and rivulets→