Translated by Thos. Cleary

The Essential Tao aptly characterizes itself as an “initiation” into Taoism (pronounced Dow-ism). The translator, Thomas Cleary, a Harvard Ph.D. with many translations to his credit, provides some interesting background on Taoism, tracing it back before Moses. However, as 99.9% of the population was then illiterate and since parchment (animal skins) and rocks ground for ink offered the only writing materials, there were no reliable “books” in such ancient times. The core of Taoism is still best represented by the paraphrased words of Lao Tzu (“The Old Master” to the Chinese) and his successor and most quoted of all the Chinese, Confucius. Unfortunately, the Mongol rulers in 1280 A.D. torched most of China’s books, including those related to Tao. What survives has, as with many ancient texts, been reconstructed to the optimum level that human memories and shreds of texts permit.

“Tao” means “The Way” and, unfairly oversimplified, may be said to be close cousin to the Greek Stoics, whose stoicism showed either indifference to, or acceptance of, pain and pleasure. From this beginner’s guide to Taoism, a few illustrative excerpts include:

“See the basic; embrace the unspoiled; lessen selfishness, and diminish desire.”
“Bend and you remain straight.”
“Economy is gain; excess is confusion.”
“Those who know others are wise; those who know themselves are enlightened.”
“Those of little experience cannot comprehend those of great experience.”
“To contain something, you must let it expand.”
“Flexibility and yielding overcome coerciveness.”
“No calamity is greater than discontent.”
“The more laws are promulgated, the greater the number of thieves.”
“Females prevail over males by stillness.”
“The mind of the sage is empty and open, profoundly calm, harmonious.”
“It is best to know that you do not know.”
“Those who know, do not say; those who say, do not know.”

The above samples reveal only a small portion of Taoism’s principles but capture the flavor. Such admonitions embrace the key elements of Buddhism and Hinduism as well. Eastern belief systems are less didactic, far less certain of “facts” and more concerned with thought and conduct than with their relationship to deities.

For an easy evening’s read, The Essential Tao fits the bill. Students of the subject will need to look elsewhere.