Tao Te Ching: A book review by Bob Morris

Tao Te Ching: The Ancient Classic
Lao Tzu, with an Introduction by Tom Butler-Bowdon
Capstone Publishing Ltd. (2012)

The definitive examination of what is “the timeless, changeless spirit that runs through all life and matter”

There is no shortage of outstanding translations of Lao Tzu’s ancient classic and an even greater number of commentaries on what he characterizes as  “the timeless, changeless spirit that runs through all life and matter…Being that is all inclusive and that existed before Heaven and Earth.”

Those who have read one or more of the volumes that comprise Tom Butler-Bowdon’s 50 Classics series already know that he possesses superior reasoning and writing skills as well as a relentless curiosity when conducting research on history’s greatest thinkers and their major works. For these and other reasons, I cannot think of another person better qualified to provide the introductions to the volumes that comprise a new series, Capstone Classics.

Unlike so many others, he provides more, much more than a flimsy “briefing” to the given work. In his 32-page Introduction to this edition of Tao Te Ching, Butler-Bowdon discusses subjects and issues such as these in order to create a context, a frame-of-reference, for Lao Tzu’s insights:

o  What is – and isn’t – “Tao”
o  Recognizing and then being in harmony with its power
o  The value and limits of worldly power, fame, and riches
o  The need for self-restraint
o  Why we should treasure simplicity, purity, compassion, economy (i.e. frugality), and humility
o  The importance of “not doing” (i.e. wu wei)
o  The limits and perils of “striving”
o  Tao Te Ching and Tolstoy’s theory of history
o  The unique value of timelessness
o  Tao Te Ching and Plato’s concept of “Forms”
o  Lao Tzu and Confucius

When concluding his brilliant Introduction, Butler-Bowdon acknowledges attempts by major scholars to understand – and then explain – classic works such as Tao Te Ching:

“Yet as Lao Tzu himself implies in the text (‘The learned men are often not the wise men, nor the wise men, the learned.’), scholars are usually not good at grasping spiritual concepts, and moreover the Chinese language with its five thousand characters is ill-equipped for expressing the abstract idea of Tao. [Dwight] Goddard was therefore not interested in providing the most pedantically correct translation, but rather to capture the essence of a work he loved.”

This Capstone edition uses the classic rendering of the Tao Teh Ching in Dwight Goddard & Henri Borel’s Laotzu’s Tao and Wu Wei, New York: Brentano’s, 1919. According to Tom Butler-Bowdon, Goddard’s approach is the one to take. That’s good enough for me.

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