It is hardly difficult to understand the enduring quality of the Tao Te Ching. Written by Lao Tsu in the sixth century BC is a simple, quiet book that reflects upon our true nature and our behavior. Broken up into 81 'chapters' or short poems, it comprises a mere 5,000 words. Every other sentence is a memorable quote, and one can read it in an hour and study it for a lifetime.
What I do find remarkable is the durability of this particular edition. My copy is ancient, dating back to my college days. At frequent intervals it seems to come to hand and I will peruse it again and enjoy the clarity of this translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. They have carefully chosen a simple, accessible style which I feel completely captures the nature of the Tao. "What is a good man? A teacher of a bad man.
What is a bad man? A good man's charge."
Accompanying the text are many fine examples of Gia-Fu Feng's calligraphy and Jane English's photographs. While I like Chinese calligraphy, I lack the understanding to make any judgement. I can only report that it shows flow and grace, and works perfectly with English's photographs. These latter capture, most often with natural images, a play of contrast which often is as calligraphic as the accompanying handwriting. Thus, the book itself is a careful balance between content and form.
At the end of the day, or in an otherwise tense moment, this volume has often been the source of the tiny bit of sanity that makes the next day possible. There is much to meditate on here and this edition is a precious resource for the seeking mind.
"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao."
So begins this version of the Tao Te Ching. This book provides an experience of the Tao like few others. First, there is the blank page. Lots of white space. The absence, the void.
"The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled."
"Profit comes from what is there, / Usefulness from what is not there."
Emptiness is the vessel which contains the words and images of this experience. Each chapter is written in both English and Chinese. I don't even pretend read Chinese, but the characters evoke a sense of something beyond ...
"The form of the formless / the image of the imageless / it is called indefinable and beyond imagination."
The English translation reads smoothly. This is not the awkward prose frequently stumbled over when a scholar attempts to reproduce the ambiguities of the original in a foreign tongue. These words play smoothly together. The text does
"not tinkle like jade / or clatter like stone chimes."
The final element in this alchemy is the photographs:
"Less and less is done / until non-action is achieved. / When nothing is done, nothing is left undone."
Absent in this volume are the reams of footnotes which clutter most Taos I've read. Absent, too, are chapters on historical background and the relationship to Confucianism. If you seek these things, seek elsewhere.
For me, this book has opened a way to the Tao.