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.
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→
There is something mysterious and all-encompassing,
That came into being before Heaven and earth.
Silent and formless,
Independent and unchanging,
All-pervading and inexhaustible,
It may be considered the mother of all things under Heaven.
I do not know its name;
I call it the Dao.
If forced to give it a specific name,
I would call it “the Great”.
Great means it is boundless.
Boundless means it reaches everywhere.
Reaching everywhere means it returns to itself.
Therefore, the Dao is supreme;
Heaven is great;
Earth is great;
Humanity is great.
There are four great powers in the universe;
Humanity is one of them.
Humanity models itself on earth.
Earth models itself on Heaven.
Heaven models itself on the Dao.
The Dao follows its own nature. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 25: key characteristics of the way→
The greatest virtue is achieved by following the Dao and the Dao alone.
As a thing, the Dao is,
Elusive and intangible;
Intangible and elusive!
Yet within it is an image;
Elusive and intangible!
Yet within it is a substance;
Dim and dark!
Yet within it is an essence;
The essence is real;
And within it is something that can be trusted;
From ancient times until now,
Its name has never disappeared.
Through it, I can see the beginning of all things.
How do I know how all things began?
Because it is here within me. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 21: the greatest virtue→
Reject learning and your troubles end.
How much difference is there between yes and no?
How much difference is there between good and evil?
If you have to fear what other people fear,
Your fears will be endless!
Everyone is out having fun,
As if enjoying a holiday feast,
As if ascending a terrace in spring.
I alone am quiet and show no emotions;
Like a new-born baby who has not yet learned to smile;
Like someone who has no home to go to.
Everyone has plenty;
I alone have nothing.
I have the mind of a fool, understanding nothing.
Everyone sees things clearly;
I alone am confused.
Everyone is sharp;
I alone am dull,
Drifting like the ocean waves,
Aimless like the gusting wind.
Everyone has a purpose.
I alone am ignorant and uncouth.
I alone am different from the everyone else,
I prize being nourished by the mother.
Reject sophistry and discard knowledge;
The people will benefit a hundredfold.
Reject humanity and discard rightness,
And the people will rediscover filial piety and parental love.
Reject trickiness and renounce profit,
And there will be no thieves or bandits.
These three teachings are mere cultural adornments and inadequate.
The people need something that they can depend on.
Cherish simplicity and embrace the uncarved block of wood;
Reduce selfishness and minimize desires. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 19: back to nature or back to basics?→
When the Great Dao is abandoned,
There is “humanity” and “rightness”.
When “knowledge” and “wisdom” appear,
There is great hypocrisy.
When family relationships are not harmonious,
There is “filial piety” and “parental love”.
When a country falls into chaos and disorder,
There are “loyal” ministers. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 18: the abandonment of the great way→
The great masters of antiquity who were adept in the Dao,
Were subtle, clever, mysterious, and perceptive;
Their thoughts were too profound to be understood.
Because they could not be understood,
The best I can do is describe their appearance:
Cautious as if crossing a river in winter,
Alert as if aware of danger from all sides;
Dignified like a guest;
Yielding like a melting block of ice;
Simple like an uncarved block of wood;
Open-minded like a valley;
Opaque like muddy water.
Who can remain calm until the mud settles?
Who can remain tranquil until the right time to act arrives?
Those who embrace the Dao never seek fulfillment;
Precisely because they never seek fulfillment,
They can always renew themselves. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 15: the great masters of antiquity→
What you look at but cannot see is called the invisible;
What you listen to but cannot hear is called the inaudible;
What you touch but cannot hold is called the intangible.
These three are undefinable.
Thus, they are joined as one.
From above it is not bright;
From below it is not dark;
It is so vague as to defy description;
It reverts to a state of nothingness.
This is called the form that has no form,
The image that has no substance;
This is called the indistinct and indistinguishable.
Facing it, you cannot see its front;
Following it, you cannot see its rear.
Hold fast to the ancient Dao to master the here and now.
The ability to know the beginnings of antiquity,
This is called the essence of the Dao. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 14: the unbroken thread of the way→
Favor and disgrace are equally stressful.
High rank is a source of great trouble just like your body.
What does it mean that favor and disgrace are equally stressful?
Favor can lead to your downfall;
Gaining it is as stressful as losing it;
That is why favor and disgrace are equally stressful.
What does it mean that high rank is a source of great trouble like your body?
The reason I have great trouble is that I have a body.
If I didn’t have a body, what trouble would I have?
If you value the world as much as you value your body,
You can be trusted to govern it.
If you love the world as much as you love your body,
You can be trusted to take care of it. Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 13: caring about disaster→