Sunday, March 28, 2010

Book Review

There are numerous translations of Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching." Every time I come across one that I haven't read, I go to straight to verse 25 to see how it is rendered. No translation, in my view, has excelled Stephen Mitchell's Tao Te Ching: An Illustrated Journey (Francis Lincoln Publishers /1988 /$10.17 paper from Amazon). For Mitchell's interpretation of the aforementioned verse reads, in part:

There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Solitary. Unchanging.
Infinite. Eternally present.
It is the mother of the universe.
For the lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.

Here are just a three salutary things to consider from the above: "Formless and perfect" points precisely to what awareness is; its being "the mother of the universe" tells us that form arises from the formless, and yet, remains unchanged and "eternally present"; and a plethora of nondual exegeses and dissertations could readily be done on that sumptuous and pause-worthy "For the lack of a better name..."

Like the earlier Harper & Row edition of this work, this volume contains Mitchell's concise and informative Foreword, in which he covers everything from Lao Tzu himself (about whom "all that has come down to us is highly suspect") and the classic manual's style to Mitchell's translation method (he worked from Paul Carus's literal version and "consulted dozens of translations into English, German, and French") and the proper way to pronounced the title ("more or less,
Dow Deh Jing").

Dr. Stephen Little, the Pritzker Curator of Asian Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, selected the artwork. In addition to providing a "visual foil to the text," he judiciously chose not only paintings from practicing Taoists, but he selected works that were "direct expressions of Taoist belief" and which "symbolically depicts the emptiness that characterizes the Tao itself." I was particularly moved by "Listening to the Bamboo," [Verse 20] by Wen Cheng-ming (1470-1559), and "Immortal's Dwelling Among Plum Trees," [Verses 46-47], by Ch'ien Tu (1763-1844).

But nearly all of the paintings are imbued with a beautiful and near-palpable clarity. And this, of course, relates to the Tao itself, which "answers without speaking a word/arrives without being summoned."

Tao Te Ching: An Illustrated Journey can be purchased either from Amazon or directly from the publisher at:

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