Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way &mdash Finished 2010.10.12

Lao Tzu (老子).
Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way.
Translated with an introduction by Victor H. Mair.
Toronto: Bantam Books, 1990. ISBN 055334935X.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

This book is in every way a delightful read! The translation is excellent to read in English — but given my lack of ancient Chinese language skills, I'll trust the experts who claim the actual translation to be excellent.

I had very high expectations for this book because Mair's translation and commentary to Chuang Tzu's Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu is one of the books in my top ten all time favourites. Well, the Tao Te Ching translated by Mair has snuggle up to it, and surpassed the half dozen other respected translations of it I've read.

But it isn't just the translation that makes this book so good. It is the level of scholarship in the common language threads linked etymologically between ancient Chinese, Sanskrit, the Indo-European languages, and old English. Mair does an extensive look at the cognates of Tao, Te and Ching. The information is fascinating, and completely extirpates the idea that China was isolated from the world in the development of its philosophy.

Mair also draws attention to many parallels extant between the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Ghita. This discussion is equally fascinating and, for me, timely, given that I have been recently reading and re-reading the Bhagavad Ghita. His observations are well founded.

Anyway, Mair's examination of Tao, pronounced 'dow', is worth sharing, at least in part. So, from Mair's appendix, 'The Way/Tao:'

... The archaic pronunciation of Tao sounded approximately like drog or dorg. This links it to the Proto-Indo-European root drogh (to run along) and Indo-European dhorgh (way, movement). Related words in a few modern Indo-European languages are Russian doroga (way, road), Polish droga (way, road), Czech draha (way, track), Serbo-Croation draga ([path through a] valley), and Norwegian dialect drog (trail of animals; valley). The latter two examples help to account for the frequent and memorable valley imagery of the Tao Te Ching; ways and valleys, it would appear, are bound together in our consciousness.
The nearest Sanskrit (Old Indian) cognates to Tao (drog are dhrajas (course, motion) and dhraj (course). The most closely related English words are 'track' and 'trek,' while 'trail' and 'tract' are derived from other cognate Indo-European roots. Following the Way, then, is like going on a cosmic trek. Even more unexpected than the panoply of Into-European cognates for Tao (drog) is the Hebrew root d-r-g for the same word and Arabic t-r-q, which yields words meaning 'track, path, way, way of doing things' and is important in Islamic philosophical discourse (132).
The world, it would seem, has been a small place for a long time.


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