Other Books

Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained

Lin, Derek - Finished Sep 08, 2016

Run-on Sentence Summary

The book behind the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which preaches humility and simplicity.


Boy, I could write a whole separate blog post about this, but lets be honest I’m not going to do that. The Tao Te Ching, pronounced closer to “Dao De Jing,” is a short spiritual book written by Lao Tzu in ancient China some 2500 years ago. Strangely, it was written nearly contemporaneously with the teachings of the Buddha, and scholars from different cultures get to compete over which one is older. Lao Tzu was not a prophet, but simply a practitioner of the by then already ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which dates back over 4700 years.

The name can be approximately translated to mean “Book of the Tao and Virtue,” which I’ll talk about separately. The Tao, as described, is a wide term which encompasses everything in the universe, and can vaguely be thought of as the natural order of things. It is variously described as an empty vessel, as water, and many other analogies.

Lin explains, "Those who have achieved a higher level of understanding will resonate powerfully with the Tao when they encounter it. Those who are not quite there yet may not feel anything.” Yeah, I unfortunately fall into that later category. The concept of the tao did not resonate that deeply with me, and felt hard to pull apart from any other form of mysticism (a term which itself means almost nothing.)

The other side of the philosophy, speaking of virtue, did resonate with me deeply. Taoism’s moral code preaches humility, equanimity, selflessness, simplicity and tranquility. As a westerner, the ideals helped me better understand China’s collectivist culture, which feels so fundamentally different from my individualistic cultural heritage.

The most challenging idea in the book was the assertion knowledge isn’t a good thing. As a dude trying to read 100 books, this one piqued my interest. The argument is that knowledge leads to arrogance and desire, which leads to anxiety and misery. Growing up indoctrinated that knowledge is power, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Even more challenging is the wider notion that one should seek to live meekly, in humble obscurity.

When you really think about it, why is it accepted as a de facto ideal in the west that one should grow up to “change the world,” whatever that means? As a westerner, and especially as an American, individualism and idealizing “progress” is in my blood. Even worse, I am a technologist. I am frankly ignorant of the spiritual component of other vocations, e.g. accountants or whatever, but I have a notion that people in technology and entrepreneurship generally have a spiritual bent to their work. Silicon Valley, the HBO show, lampoons startups for all talking about how they are going to “make the world a better place” through more marketing software.

Our society looks through a narrow lens when we assume, as most people do to some extent, that progress and technological change inevitably push us up and forward. The podcast “hardcore history” evokes some amazing imagery describing Alexander the Great, while preparing for his first great battle as he set out to conquer the Persian empire. His army was camped next to the ruins of a great Assyrian city, and Dan Carlin passionately wonders how it must have felt to one of the soldiers, preparing to wage war against the greatest empire in the world, standing in the mysterious ruins of a city that came from an unknown civilization far beyond anything that Greece or even the Persians would ever achieve.

“Progress” clearly can go either direction, but our society is conditioned by 500 years of continuous uninterrupted and unprecedented growth since the beginning of the scientific revolution. I truly believe that by any kind of measurable, now in 2016 is the best time to be alive that there has ever been. But speaking of anxiety, any person can name dozens of ways that humans can and will bring about our own demise due to our ignorance and foolish wielding of our new power, from nukes to climate change to fucking terminators or whatever. That isn’t something that ancient greeks had to deal with!

I digress, but this book has given me a lot to chew on. Westerners preach humility too but not genuinely in my experience, so trying to live by some of the ideals in this book will hopefully make me a better person. Derek Lin’s translation and interpretation are highly acclaimed, even though at times to me they felt like platitudes. Perhaps this is the world’s earliest recorded instance of the Seinfeld effect. This was the first spiritual text I’ve read since a brief stint with Methodist bible study as a kid, so it was interesting to look at such an important book in this way again. For any extreme nerds, there is a new podcast that examines Harry Potter as if it was a religious text. Yeah I’m serious. Go check it out.

Final Thoughts

Its too bad that Tai Chi is exclusively for old people, it looks kind of fun.

Favorite Quote

“Given enough time, all problems great and small will be resolved one way or another, like the unraveling of even the tightest knots. Given enough time, even the proudest achievements of humankind will be reduced to dust.”