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Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
February 2018
Fred's Rating: 
Lao Tzu
Ursula K. Le Guin
Total Pages: 

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) was the widely acclaimed author of more than thirty books of fiction, science fiction, poetry, and essays. This book is a rendition into English from other translations of the ancient Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. She includes how and why it differs from or agrees with existing translations.

The Amazon website for the Kindle edition, which has some valuable pages not in the paperback edition I bought.

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has a brief summary (click on 'Read more'). This brief review at the top of the home page only made me wonder if I should get this book. I needed more. And much more is given in the first review (by Wally Jasper) and the second review (by Dan’l Danehy-Oakes) in Amazon's Top Customer Reviews. I highly recommend reading first the review by Dan’l Danehy-Oakes, then that by Wally Jasper. For both of these reviews be sure to click on ‘Read more’ since there is a lot more in these excellent reviews. They caused me to immediately buy this book.

I had previously read three other books attributed to Lao Tzu. My reviews of them, which you can get to by entering Lao Tzu in the author window of Fred’s Reviews on my website. Each of these three books left me wondering what to understand in some of the 81 poems by Lao Zzu. I use the word poems here, following what Ursula Le Guin states in her 2-pp Introduction: “The Tao Te Ching is partly in prose, partly in verse; but as we define poetry now, not by rhyme and meter but as a patterned intensity of language, the whole thing is poetry.” These 81 poems usually take up less than a page, as only a few of them need a second page. (In this book the 81 poems need only 102 pages.) Many of them have a footnote that explains the choice she made in rendering the Tao Te Ching into present-day English.

I recommend you use Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ option on the Kindle edition and scroll down to ABOUT THE BOOK, a paragraph that does not appear in the paperback edition I bought. The Kindle preview ends in the middle of poem 4 – an unfortunate place to end. This preview allows you to see how she added important comments as footnotes, often with more in the Notes. I usually found myself rereading a poem after reading her added comments. Then I would sit back and contemplate what this poem means.

An excellent example is Poem 1 – Taoing – which has a very insightful footnote. The poem and the footnote revealed to me that the un-nameable is the same as the ineffable Godhead – that which human minds cannot image. Above the ‘Cloud of Unknowing' is the ineffable Godhead, where all virtues converge into one. I can think of this merging for two crucial and wonderful concepts that I can envision – God’s ‘unconditional love’ and God’s ‘unlimited compassion.’ In doing so I realize that I am leaving out much that merges into the great unity of the ineffable Godhead. Most of what I am leaving out are feelings I have encountered in meditation or in spiritual experiences but cannot find words to describe them. Part of me likes to think that what I am leaving out are beyond words, but may need to be thought of as music or art which possesses beauty and joy that can be felt within my mind but cannot be felt as mere words.

Ursula Le Guin’s footnote to Poem 1 ends with the phrase “if you see it rightly, it contains everything“, but the verb “see” is a mental seeing, not a seeing with our physical visual complex. This mental seeing, to my understanding, lies beyond our local consciousness but comes from our nonlocal consciousness. Local here means within the brain, thus dependent upon the electrochemical brain processes studied by neuroscientists. Nonlocal here means other inputs to our mind. And mind here should be thought of as the sixth sense of Buddhism, that which lies beyond the five ordinary physical inputs we get from the world ‘out there’ – that is, the ssstt (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) of humans.

Buddhists seldom inquire deeply about what mind means or contains. They often accept the idea that mind is beyond the physical senses. But I have learned to think that our ‘nonlocal’ mind inputs contain at least these three types: (1) imagination, such as when we humans use figures within our brains’ memory to create ‘new’ ideas like mermaids, satyrs or centaurs; (2) intuition, meaning things that seem self-evident to us, consisting, for example, of moral or ethical certainties that we ‘sense’ as being right (rather than construct from simple ssstt physical inputs); (3) transcendental (or spiritual or divine), thoughts upon which religions or mystical concepts are based. Our transcendental inputs often cannot be adequately described with words. But ancient Asian religions, like the way of Tao, lie within the transcendental realm of our minds that Lao Tzu was trying to describe with words in the Tao Te Ching.

After the 102-pp of the Tao Te Ching’s 81 poems, this book has another 19 pages. I give here the first of these, called Concerning This Version by the author. “This is a rendition, not a translation. I do not know Chinese. I could approach the text at all only because Paul Carus, in his 1898 translation of the Tao Te Ching, printed the Chinese text with each character followed by a transliteration and a translation. My gratitude to him is unending.

“To have the text thus made accessible was not only to have a Rosetta Stone for the book itself, but also to have a touchstone for comparing other English translations one with another. If I could focus on which word the translations were interpreting, I could begin to understand and see why they made the choice they did. I could compare various interpretations and see why they varied so tremendously; could see how much explanation, sometimes how much bias, was included in the translation; could discover for myself that several English meanings might lead me back to the same Chinese word. And, finally, for all my ignorance of the language, I could gain an intuition of the style, the gait and cadence, of the original, necessary to my ear and conscience if I was to try to reproduce it in English.

“Without the access to the text that the Carus edition gave me, I would have been defeated by the differences among the translations, and could never have thought of the following them as guides to towards a version of my own. As it was, working from Carus’s text, I learned how to let them lead me into it, always using their knowledge, their scholarship, their decisions, as my light in darkness.

“When you try to follow the Way, even if you wander off it all the time, good things happen, though you do not deserve them. My work on the Tao Te Ching was very wandering indeed. I started in my twenties with a few chapters. Every decade or so I’d do another bit, and tell myself I’d sit down and really get to it, some day. The undeserved good thing that happened was that a true and genuine scholar of ancient Chinese and of Lao Tzu, Dr. J. P. Seaton of the University of North Carolina, saw some of versions of the Tao Te Ching (scurvily quoted without attribution by myself). He reprinted them with honor, and asked me for more. I do not think he knew what he was getting into. Of his invaluable teaching, his encouragement, his generosity, I can only say what Lao Tzu says at the end of the book: ‘Wise souls don’t hoard; the more they do for others the more they have; the more they give, the richer they are’.”

The preceding Concerning This Version tells us clearly that this book is the result of many decades by Ursula K. Le Guin. I feel that she has accomplished very much. Unlike the three previous translations I’ve read and reviewed of the Tao Te Ching, her rendition, with its very important footnotes (and Notes) is a priceless gift to humanity. For her ‘rendition’ has removed my wondering about what several of the poems mean – those whose meanings had eluded me in the three previous translations I’ve read – but meanings did not elude me in this gem of a book. I give this book a rating of five stars, but I add ‘think six stars.’