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Review: Deng Ming-Dao's The Lunar Tao
on 29 January 2013
Fans of bestselling author Deng Ming-Dao will be pleased to hear that he has a new book on offer beginning 29 January -- just in time for the Chinese New Year, falling in 2013 on Sunday, 10 February. The timing couldn't be better in that Deng's new book, The Lunar Tao, explores Taoism through the prism of the lunar calendar, Day 1 of which is the Chinese New Year.
Those who have read Deng's 365 Tao -- with daily meditations based on the solar calendar -- might wonder what would differ in following The Lunar Tao through the year's twelve moon cycles. I was curious about this myself before receiving a galley copy of the book in early December.
Whereas each entry of 365 Tao is composed of a poetic aphorism on the topic of that day's meditation, followed by a brief prose narrative further explaining or illustrating the day's topic, The Lunar Tao provides far more cultural context with its inclusion of relevant anecdotes from history or folklore, discussions of various Chinese festivals, holidays and gods, and excerpts from classical Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian texts.
Each of the poetically named twelve moons (e.g., The First Moon, The Apricot Moon) constitutes one of twelve parts of the book. Each part, in turn, contains two fifteen-day solar terms (e.g., Spring Begins, Rain Water), and each of these terms begins with a qigong exercise. I'm rather too new school to do anything more with these than to read through them. They generally include much clicking of teeth, the rolling of one's tongue, and dividing saliva into three parts, swallowing each separately. So not a highlight for me, though Deng explains that they're included in The Lunar Tao "for cultural and historical reasons, to demonstrate the idea of bodily integration with the seasons, and to consider exercise as a prelude to meditation". What I get from walking in nature throughout the year, and as a prelude to (sitting) meditation.
The juxtaposition of Deng's latest book with his bestselling 365 Tao remains apposite. For beyond its great stores of wisdom, much of the beauty of 365 Tao -- which seems to grow with you as you progress through life, as great books are wont to do -- lies in the book's simplicity of design. The layout, with each daily entry cocooned within ample white space, delivers beautifully the simplicity and universality of the day's message. And 365 Tao's index makes finding the relevant day's meditation fast and simple, whether the reader lives in the northern or southern hemisphere and is, therefore, experiencing summer or winter, say. No such luck with The Lunar Tao.
The latter is also considerably bulkier than the far more compact 365 Tao, an important consideration if you happen to be slow traveling as my partner and I have been this past year. When I chose the half-dozen or so (physical) books which I'd take with me on our travels, 365 Tao -- as well as Deng's Everyday Tao -- made the cut, whereas his penultimate book, The Living I Ching, roughly the same size as The Lunar Tao, did not. This despite the tremendous respect I have for Deng's poetic and lovingly translated I Ching, itself the work of a lifetime.
But once you get past The Lunar Tao's lack of a convenient index -- by way of figuring out where you are in the present year's lunar cycle -- it's quite simple, though less so if you care about reading a passage which corresponds with the lunar calendar and your style of reading is to dip in here and there over the course of the year, rather than to follow the book day by day, with your bookmark as your guide. As adjustments need to be made to the lunar calendar based on your location, Deng suggests confirming local moon phases in newspapers or online.
What The Lunar Tao may lose in the way of ease of use is compensated for in the treasure trove of Taoist teachings supported with Chinese folklore, history and other cultural considerations packed into the book. I'm always impressed with the way Deng writes and organizes his works. His previous book, The Living I Ching, includes (similar to 365 Tao) a poem and narrative description for each of the entries for the 64 hexagrams. And all this is fleshed out with brilliant discussions on how to tap, and better understand, the age-old wisdom contained within the I Ching. Although perhaps not his bestselling book, The Living I Ching might well prove to be Deng's magnum opus.
The Lunar Tao is likewise impressive, particularly in the way Deng deftly threads together each of the daily meditations by way of poetic aphorisms at the end of each entry which shift subtly in their near-repetition at the start of the following day's meditation, with this aphorism, in turn, shifting subtly to form the day's closing consideration.
All in all, another monumental work from Deng Ming-Dao, one which will no doubt grow on me as I continue to grow with it. But Deng's 365 Tao is likely to remain the compact book of choice to keep close at hand, whether in my backpack or our car's roof box, or on my bedside table. That and The Living I Ching, depending on whether I'm on the road or nestled into a home somewhere with what's left of our rather spare personal belongings.
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