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Customer Review

on July 14, 2013
This is a scholarly book with a slightly different interpretation of the Tao Te Ching. Using material from the newly discovered (in 1973, that is) Ma-wang-tui texts, Henricks' translation includes some substantive textual changes. Nonetheless the overall form of the classic remains pretty much the same except that Henricks puts Book 2 ("Te" or virtue) first and Book 1 ("Tao" or the Way) second. Consequently in his title we have "Te-Tao Ching" instead of the usual "Tao Te Ching.

The book is in three main parts, the Introduction, Part One, and Part Two.

The Introduction gives the story of the Ma-wang-tui texts, which are actually two different, but very similar versions of Lao-tzu's work (dubbed Text A and Text B by Henricks). Also in the Introduction is Henricks' take on "The Philosophy of Lao-tzu," which I found very interesting. Incidentally the Ma-wang-tui texts are something like five hundred years older than the so-called standard or "received" texts.

Part One is Henricks' translation while Part Two is that translation repeated along with his commentary on each chapter and the "corrected Chinese transcripts of Text A and Text B" for readers who can read Chinese characters.

In the Introduction Henricks presents this nice explanation of the Way:

"The Way is Lao-tzu's name for ultimate reality... For Lao-tzu the Way is that reality, or that level of reality, that existed prior to and gave rise to all other things, the physical universe (Heaven and Earth), and all things in it, what the Chinese call the `ten thousand things'..." p. xviii

Also in the Introduction Henricks gives us an example of a textual change based on the Ma-wang-tui texts. Chapter 34 of the received or standard text reads like this (translation from Wing-tsit Chan):

"The Great Tao flows everywhere. It may go left or right.
All things depend on it for life, and it does not turn away from them.
It accomplishes its task, but does not claim credit for it.
It clothes and feeds all things but does not claim to be master over them.
Always without desires, it may be called The Small.
All things come to it and it does not master them; it may be called The Great.

Therefore (the sage) never strives himself for the great; and thereby the great is achieved."

Here is Henricks' Ma-wang-tui version:

"The Way floats and drifts;
It can go left or right.
It accomplishes its tasks and completes its affairs, and yet for this it is not given a name.
The ten thousand things entrust their lives to it, and yet it does not act as their master.
Thus it is constantly without desires.
It can be named with the things that are small.
The ten thousand things entrust their lives to it, and yet it does not act as their master.
It can be named with the things that are great.

Therefore the Sage's ability to accomplish the great
Comes from his not playing the role of the great.
Therefore he is able to accomplish the great."

The reader can readily see that it is a matter of opinion on how great the changes are. In my view (in this case at any rate) the changes are no more than what one would expect from a different translator. However since the Ma-wang-tui texts are older than the "received text" the changes are actually in the received versions.

I want to finish this review with a couple of observations. First note that a characteristic way of expressing something in the Tao seems at first contrary to what is meant. For example here is part of Chapter 38 in the Henricks' translation:

"...
Therefore when the Way is lost, only then do we have virtue;
When virtue is lost, only then do we have humanity..."

It appears at first blush that in losing the Way we gain virtue, which is of course contrary to our overall understanding of the Tao. However what the line really means is virtue, as wonderful as it is, is of lesser value or esteem than the Way. This becomes clear as we read further down the page:

"When humanity is lost, only then do we have righteousness;
And when righteousness is lost, only then do we have propriety.

As for propriety, it's but the thin edge of loyalty and sincerity,
and the beginning of disorder..."

One of the things that Lao Tzu is saying is the however much we value "loyalty and sincerity" they are less than "righteousness" which is less than "humanity," and so on up to the Way itself.

Finally, sometimes the Tao seems to make no sense. In such cases it is a good idea to read the words symbolically. For example here are the concluding lines from Chapter 50:

"You've no doubt heard of those who are good at holding onto life:
When walking through hills, they don't avoid rhinos and tigers;
When going into battle, they don't put on armour or carry shields.
Yet the rhino has no place to probe with it horn,
The tiger finds nowhere to put its claws
And weapons find no place to bite with their blades.
Now, why is this so?
Because there is no place in them for death."

Why are those "who are good at holding on to life" able to go about so magically? Why is there "no place in them for death"?

One way of looking at this is to read the words symbolically. In Derek Lin's book on the Tao (Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained 2006--see my review on Amazon) he resolves the difficulties by making the "road" the journey of life and the rhinos and tigers "hazards of daily existence."

All in all this is probably the best book for scholars although it was published before the Guodian textual finds of 1993. For interested readers another more recent book on the Tao is Moss Roberts' "Dao De Jing The Book of the Way Laozi" (2001). See my review at Amazon.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "Yoga: Sacred and Profane (Beyond Hatha Yoga)"
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