BOOK REVIEW: Dao De Jing: A Minimalist Translation by Lao Zi [Trans. Bruce R. Linnell]

Dao De Jing: A Minimalist TranslationDao De Jing: A Minimalist Translation by Lao Zi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Available Free on Project Gutenberg

The Dao De Jing presents the core philosophy of Taoism, a philosophy that values simplification, non-action, naturalness, spontaneity, and recognition of opposites in [and their influence on] each other. There are numerous editions (this is the Wang Bi / “standard” ed.) and English translations of this Daoist tract, and the translation matters because the Dao De Jing is at once simply stated and arcane. I liked what Linnell did with this translation, which – as the subtitle suggests – he aimed to make simple and straightforward.

One nice feature of this translation is that each of the 81 chapters has four segments: the original Chinese text, a readable English translation, a word-for-word literal translation, and notes. Having the Chinese, a literal translation, and notes can be helpful when one has trouble deciphering the more cryptic passages. Another nice feature is an appendix in which the author discusses another scholar’s hypothesis that the chapters of the Dao De Jing were composed in layers, and Linnell re-orders the chapters as suggested by this hypothesis. Finally, the book ends with a Jefferson Bible-esque excerpt collection that takes all the places where Lao Zi wrote “Thus the sage:” and builds a single composition describing a wise person.

If you’re interested in Taoist philosophy, you may want to read this translation, whether you’re new to the Dao De Jing or you’ve read other translations or editions in the past.

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BOOK REVIEW: Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland

Trying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of SpontaneityTrying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This book’s paradoxical title is perfect for its paradoxical subject matter, which is famously expressed in such quotes as, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” [ver. 48 of the Tao Te Ching.]  Slingerland lays down the ancient Chinese wisdom of wu-wei and de, but provides something novel by putting it in the context of the positive psychology and neuroscience of today. Wu-wei literally means “no doing,” but can be more meaningfully defined as “effortless action.” De (pronounced “duh”) is a charisma seen in people who have mastered the effortlessness and spontaneity of wu-wei.

While the book is built around the varied approaches of four Chinese philosophers—two Confucians (i.e. Confucius and Mencius) and two Taoists (i.e. Laozi and Zhuangzi)—the author relates this philosophy to the present-day thinking found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of Flow, and the neuroscience of the subconscious.

The book consists of eight chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters outline the concepts of wu-wei and de using both Chinese and Western stories and examples to help clarify these arcane ideas and put them in the context of the social and spiritual spheres. Chapter 1 offers an extensive discussion of the operation of the brain as it relates to the discussion of effortlessness and spontaneity.

Chapters three through six make up the core of the book, and present the approach and thinking of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, respectively. This “boy-girl-boy-girl” Confucian-Taoist organization offers the reader sound insight into the varied approaches and allows one to see the evolution of thinking. Confucius gets the first cut, but his approach to effortlessness and spontaneity involves a great deal of effort and planning. It might seem that Laozi’s approach–which does away with effort and planning–might be more apropos, but it’s hard to imagine anything of benefit actually being spawned by such a loosy-goosy approach. The more nuanced approaches of Mencius and Zhuangzi offer additional insight, but do not eliminate the paradox. It’s this paradox that’s the subject of chapter seven.

The final chapter examines what the reader can take away–given that the paradox of wu-wei seems inescapable. The author proposes that, paradox or not, there is value in pursuit of effortlessness and spontaneity, and progress can be made by understanding and accepting said paradox.

The book has no graphics, but is annotated and has a bibliography–as well as an appendix table that summarizes the various approaches to wu-wei.

I enjoyed this book and found it fascinating. It’s highly readable, having humor and a wide range of examples from ancient myths to pop culture. The book offers a great value-added by considering the relevance of modern science and psychology to this ancient concept. I’d highly recommend this for individuals interested in Chinese / Eastern philosophy, as well as anyone hoping to bring a little more effortlessness and spontaneity into his or her life.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

The Way of Chuang TzuThe Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page [It’s a Kindle Monthly Deal for December 2013.]

The Way of Chuang Tzu is Thomas Merton’s take on Chuang Tzu’s lessons of Taoism. One might ask why a person should learn about Taoism from a Trappist monk any more than one would learn the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi from a Zen monk. Maybe you should and maybe you shouldn’t, but I think Merton did a remarkable job in putting this book together and that there’s a lot to be learned from it. Some may find a fresh fusion in Merton’s approach to Chuang Tzu.

What I like most about this version of Chuang Tzu’s teachings is that Merton doesn’t foul it up with a bunch of analysis. Because the lessons are short and—admittedly, in some cases—arcane, there’s a temptation to write in a bunch of explanation and analysis—both to hit a page quota and to prove how smart the translator is. Ironically, some don’t seem to see the irony of rambling on in explication of Taoism—a philosophy that advocates simplicity and rebukes the wordy for their arrogance. Merton doesn’t fall into this trap. He offers a few pages of introduction as context for the reader, and then moves straight into 62 lessons of Chuang Tzu.

I’d say the introduction is useful, particularly for individuals without a great deal of background in Taoism. In it, Merton gives insight into potentially confusing topics like wu-wei (actionlessness), the yin/yang dichotomy, and the divergence of Taoists from Confucian scholars on the four-fold Ju philosophy of virtue. However, the intro can also be skipped if you do know a about Chinese philosophy, and don’t care to read a commentary on Taoism inflected with Trappist worldview. (Taoists may want to skip the intro if they’re prone to becoming infuriated by an outsider proposing that their life philosophy took a wrong turn along the way. Merton suggests that one shouldn’t confuse Chuang Tzu’s Taoism with what the system has become, the implication being that it was a sound philosophy and became voodoo hokum in modern times.) Merton does inevitably project some of his own worldview as a Christian monk into Chuang Tzu’s teachings. Some might find this to make for a refreshing commentary on it, and others may find it a bit off the mark on occasion.

Merton’s poetic background serves him well here as many of the lessons are in poetic form—partially or totally. Translating poetry is one of the most difficult linguistic tasks imaginable. Merton has the added challenge of never having read the original. He doesn’t read any Chinese languages. He did, however, consult four different translations in three different languages (English, French, and German.) This, of course, means that besides Merton being in the text, there’s a further seepage of Western framing into these Eastern teachings. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether this is a good or bad thing, and arguments could be made either way.

One of the strengths of Chuang Tzu’s lessons is his use of the narrative form. That is, the Taoist sage liked to use stories to impart his wisdom, like the wheelwright who insults the Emperor but then ends up teaching him a valued lesson. One of my favorites is the story about the Prince of Chu sending out high-ranking emissaries to appoint Chuang Tzu to a ministerial post. Chuang Tzu explains why he is turning down the offer by way of an allegory about a turtle.

Chuang Tzu also uses dialogue to get his point across in a way that is easy to follow and clear. A prime example of this is the discussion between Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu about the happiness of fishes, which has an almost Socratic ring to it. The combination of story and dialogue makes Chuang Tzu’s lessons sometimes easier to follow than the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu tends to be more arcane by way of his use of short, declarative statements that are more vague and abstract (that could be a good thing, but given vast loss of cultural context it might be confusing as well.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in Taoism. I enjoyed the Merton’s sparse approach, and think that he does a good job conveying Chuang Tzu’s lessons.

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Wisdom in 5 Simple Lessons

Confucius statue at the Confucian Temple, Beijing

Confucius statue at the Confucian Temple, Beijing

1.) Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle –Plato

2.) If you choose, you are free; if you choose, you need blame no man.  –Epictetus

3.) …the greatest carver does the least cutting.  –Lao Tzu

4.) If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures.  –Martin Luther King Jr

5.) A gentleman wishes to be slow to speak and quick to do.  –Confucius