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5.0 out of 5 stars Opening up a space for the myriad things to advance., May 14, 2001
This review is from: Tao Te Ching, 25th-Anniversary Edition (English and Mandarin Chinese Edition) (Paperback)
Perhaps we need different editions of the Tao Te Ching for different moods. When we are in a more analytic and outward-directed mood we will turn to an edition such as that, perhaps, of Ellen M. Chen, an edition with a substantial and stimulating introduction and with very full and detailed commentaries.
When in a more receptive and intuitive mood, however, a mood in which the busy-ness of the rational intellect is stilled and the deeper levels of mind are open to more subtle influences, our needs become different. At such times we will perhaps benefit more from a stripped-down version of the Tao Te Ching, one that allows the text to advance directly and make contact with our sensibility without the distractions of notes and commentaries and suchlike.
Although it was first published in 1973, the fact that the edition of Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English has never been out-of-print suggests that it is an edition that has been working for many people, one that satisfies perfectly one side of our nature, the gentler and more receptive and aesthetic side, perhaps the wiser side.
Each Chapter of the Tao Te Ching is given on two large quarto-sized pages which hold the English translation, the brushed Chinese text, and the black-and-white photographs. The white pages also hold large areas of blank space, an 'Emptiness' or 'Openness' in which, as others have noted, the black texts and pictures are allowed room in which to breathe and be themselves.
The English translation is simple, pure, spare. Here is a brief example from Chapter 48, with my slash marks indicating line breaks in the original:
"In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired. / In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped. // Less and less is done / Until non-action is achieved. / When nothing is done, nothing is left undone."
The translation has been recommended by no less an authority than Alan Watts, himself competent in Chinese, who commented: "No one has done better in conveying Lao Tsu's simple and laconic style of writing."
The calligraphy is exceptional. It is brushed lightly and with sensitive though vigorous strokes in a range of styles whose size and weight harmonize perfectly with both text and pictures. Also noteworthy is that, in most cases, legibility has not been sacrificed to beauty for the structure of even complex characters can be readily discerned.
Even those who may not know Chinese will be subtly influenced by it, for all Chinese ideograms are characterized by an exquisite balance, and an economy and beauty which are precisely the qualities we find in Lao Tsu's text. The calligraphy floats on the page like clouds floating through a Chinese sky, and establishes a perfect mood.
The ability to appreciate Chinese calligraphy, though uncommon in the West, is not difficult to come by since all it involves is learning to open our eyes. A little application will quickly lead anyone to see that it is the world's supreme art form, a highly abstract, dynamic, and endlessly fascinating art form, and to understand what Lin Yutang meant when he said that "in the realms of art, [China] soared where others merely made an effort to flap their wings."
The spareness and beauty of both text and calligraphy are perfectly reinforced by the striking though unpretentious black-and-white photographs which are given on each page, photographs of such things as a branch poaking through the surface of a lake, a foot, a bird perched on a stump, a house on a rocky outcrop, snow heaped up on a leaf, a gull in flight, a rainstorm, a seashell, a burning candle.
These are the important things, seemingly simple though of infinite value as are the fundamental truths embodied in the lines of Lao Tsu.
Very close to the thought of Lao Tsu's Chapter 48 is an observation made by the great Japanese Zen Master, Dogen (+ 1200-1253):
"Conveying the self to the myriad beings to authenticate them is delusion; the myriad things advancing to authenticate the self is enlightenment" (Tr. F. H. Cook).
Life offers only two choices. We can reach out aggressively to grab. Or we can open up a space in ourselves and allow the myriad things of the universe to come forward and disclose themselves.
It's easy to see what Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English were trying to do in this book. It's also easy to see that they succeeded brilliantly.
By the way, not that it will matter to most but the calligraphy of Chapter 67 has been printed in reverse and what we see on the page is a mirror-image of the original...
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