Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Tao Te Ching, by Lao-Tzu. Authorship approximately 6th century BCE. Stephen Mitchell translation (1988). Approximately 80 pp. Cost: Bought for $12.95, plus tax, at Border's.

The Tao is such a short read: each of the 80 pages, or chapters, contains at most a few stanzas. It is an easy read, but I wonder if I am doing justice to it by hurtling through it and archiving it away in my mind as 'having been read'; the Tao Te Ching has, after all, like the Gita, been the object of deep reverence, extensive meditation, and study for thousands of years.

This is a concern I increasingly feel with all of these books I am reading; I think of the difference between reading, say, the Bible, Tanakh, or the Qur'an, all the way through, versus poring over its verses, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, carefully and reverently extracting its lessons - itself the task and joy of a lifetime for all those religious scholars and leaders.

Nevertheless, here is a patchwork of verses that especially struck me (bolded for emphasis):

If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.

… just do your job, then let go.

In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of Tao,
every day something is dropped.

He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of Tao.
Because he believes in himself,
he doesn’t try to convince others.
Because he is content with himself,
he doesn’t need others’ approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts him.

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
Avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

We shape clay into a pot
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
But non-being is what we use.

Emptiness and detachment does not mean inaction in our lives, but a subtler way to act. We have things to do, but we do not cling to them, whether they are duties, ambitions, or impulses. We wait until we are as "clear as a glass of water." The Tao asks, "Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?” "The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone.” “The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!” “He doesn’t think about his actions; they flow from the core of his being.”

I think of the Zen calligapher who gathers himself until the perfect brush strokes naturally arise.


Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
Men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.

But do I agree with this? It's one thing to be contentious with every person one meets; it's quite another to, say, stand up for a point that needs to be defended. What about, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr.?

But perhaps, in ideal world of the Taoist, no one would need to prove any point; they would live, peacefully, in industry, in reflection, serenely aware of both life and death.

The mark of a moderate man
Is freedom from his own ideas.

Ordinary men hate solitude.
but the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is one with the whole universe.

Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
There is no end to the blame.

If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.

The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body…
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day’s work.

If you aren’t afraid of dying,
There is nothing you can’t achieve.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Homer, The Odyssey

Oxford World's Classics edition at left: 298 pages. Cost: $1, used bookstore.

Not sure how this very accessible translation rates in quality in comparison to other ones - Samuel Butler's translation seems a popular one - but the ease of reading of this particular one made for a great, immersing read.

The Odyssey is dated to the eighth century BCE. Exact authorship debated/unknown.

feels like the precursor to every grand adventure story I've ever come upon - be it on the sea, in it, or far away from it - be it Robinson Crusoe, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 40,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Star Trek. The Pilgrim's Progress. Its stories - for instance of the Cyclops - come back to me from tamed-down encounters in children's literature.

Love the dramatic prose, from the very first line (see below). From the outset, you feel a an enormity in its scope, an older, more ancient history, from a majestic pantheon of gods and their histories - all presumed to be known.

"Goddess of song, teach me the story of a hero."

According to the introduction (of this edition), The Odyssey was meant to be recited, for a largely illiterate time. The reminder is an important one; all of the lines have a very different impact when imagined as being dramatically recited. Even those lines that repeat, like, "Dawn comes early, with rosy fingers." I try repeating many lines to myself, imagined as an oration.

Feels refreshing to read something that is so purely a narrative, with all its devices (so much building of tension and then release, beneath an overarching climax and resolution) - absent of winding introspection or description. I've just read Madame Bovary; that prose warrants a very different kind of appreciation.

A few memorable, famous images and quotes:

The Cyclops, who traps Odysseus and his men in his cave, and grabbed them "two at once and battered them on the floor like puppies; their brains gushed out and soaked the ground" before he eats them. So graphic -- gratifyingly so. This until Odysseus tricks him, telling him that his was name is, "No-man," and then spearing him in his eye. "No-man did it!" yells the Cyclops, rolling open the stone to the cave.

Then there is the island of the Phaecaians that Odysseus, shipwrecked, lands upon, clinging to a single plank from his shattered ship (was this the first time this single plank imagery was used?). And this bit of cathartic prose (bold added to words that please):

"Odysseus limped away from the river, sank down among the rushes and kissed the earth that gives men grain... he crept under two bushy olives that were growing together from one stem... he heaped up at once a wide bed of leaves, because there was a great mass of them, enough to shelter two or three in the stormy season, be the weather never so wild. Patient Odysseus rejoiced to see it; he lay down in the very middle... and Athene poured sleep upon his eyes, sleep to cover his eyelids over, sleep to release him quickly from toil and pains."

Then there are the mysterious, monstrous Sirens, who sit by the sea, calling out to passing ships, with honey-sweet music from their lips that bewitch men from their ships. The men's ears are plugged, and Odysseus is bound -- even he cannot resist -- and has to be bound tighter still. I loved this painting of that scene.

Ulysses and the Sirens, by John William Waterhouse, 1891
[Waterhouse made some great paintings of literary scenes]

Then Charybdis, Scylla, and choosing the lesser of two evils.

And the underworld. I don't remember where I first read about the goddess Persephone (the "Iron Queen") as a kid, but the fantastic gray and charred images of Hades' underworld have remained with me - the floating souls, the sharp contrast of the bright crimson pomegranate seeds that Persephone eats after Hades forbids it. Again, Odysseus's travels are embedded in a rich history, and it feels so familiar to read of Odysseus's travels, even for the first time.

And finally, back at home, undercover, discovering those loyal or disloyal to him, he takes his bloody, again-gratifying revenge upon all of the suitors in his palace.

What was the purpose of The Odyssey? Was it merely entertainment? I see how the story itself, packed with such action, might survive so long, but was there something more? Were there themes that resonated with the people? Was it a kind of hero-worship, reminding people of virtues to emulate? Was it cathartic for people to see justice finally take place upon evil people and events?

Perhaps the answer is simply that these questions can be asked of any story with a quest.

Nice cover art by Anders Nilsen, a Chicagoan. Met him at some show he was holding in Hyde Park once.