If you love Daoism, as I do, there’s a strong possibility that one book has influenced you more than others, and that’s the Tao Te Ching (道德經).
Written around 400 BC, the Tao Te Ching is not just any book. It’s a philosophy, a path to enlightenment, and one of the best treatises on Chinese medicine I know. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Chinese (yet), so I can rely only on English or Italian translations (my favorite so far is by Alan Watts). It’s a pity because not knowing the language means missing a lot. As Holmes Welch notes, the written language “has no active or passive, no singular or plural, no case, no person, no tense, no mood.”
I feel like an Englishman trying to read Dante’s Divine Comedy. You can have everything but won’t fully understand everything.
To me, reading the Tao Te Ching is like reading The Little Prince. I always return to it occasionally. It’s a good criterion to see how my life is going and what my values are.
The story of how the Tao Te Ching came to be is as fascinating as the text itself. According to legend, Laozi, disheartened by the moral decline in his government, decided to leave the country. Disguised as a farmer, he approached the Western border, where a guard recognized him and requested that he write down his wisdom. This document became the Tao Te Ching. After completing it, Laozi disappeared on his water buffalo, probably in his search for enlightenment, never to be seen again.
It was this fortuitous encounter with the guard that gifted humanity with one of its most significant literary works.
What captivates me is not just the text but this very legend. Imagine being a genius like Leonardo Da Vinci, yet your works remain unseen, a writer like Shakespeare, yet your works are not read, or a vocal marvel like Luciano Pavarotti or Celine Dion, but your voice unheard.
That’s ego detachment at its best (spoiler alert: the best way to reach Laozi’s state).
That’s pure humbleness.
That’s the greatness of Laozi.
And who knows how many enlightened souls exist in this world, unbeknownst to us…
P.S. I know that in Daoism, even the concept of writing a book could be seen as a contradiction in itself… you know, everything changes. But that’s material for another post…