Learning Tao Te Ching | Madhu Bazaz Wangu
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Learning Tao Te Ching

Learning Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu, the Grand Old Master, wrote Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way and Its Power), during the sixth century B.C.E. This slim volume of eighty-one chapters is an inexhaustible vessel of inspiration. Lao Tzu wrote it when, wise with years, he retired from his job as the archivist of his native western state. He was dismayed with the way his fellow human beings lived. In search of solitude, he rode on a water buffalo towards the mountains of Tibet. At the Hankao Pass, a gatekeeper implored him to write his views for future generations. Obligingly, Lao Tzu squatted down for three days and composed the volume of about five thousand Chinese characters now known as Tao Te-Ching. To this day, it is the basic text of Taoism.

The central topics in Tao Te Ching are Tao (see the Readings Page), and its power Te, the spiritual fulfillment that results from living in harmony with Tao.

I was introduced to Tao Te Ching by Professor Wing-Tsit Chan (1901-1994) in 1970’s at the Chatham College in Pittsburgh. In his classes, he exuded the vitality of a much younger man and taught with the wisdom of a sage. None of Tao-te Ching’s eighty-one chapters are longer than a page. But its language is esoteric; too difficult to understand at the first reading. Prof. Chan carefully explained the central idea of a chapter and then mesmerized us by showing its relevance in our lives. I imagined Lao Tzu to be like Prof. Chan who had, as if, also ridden a water buffalo towards the United States.

One day in the thick of the academic semester, my four year old daughter’s baby-sitter said she was unable to baby sit the day of Prof. Chan’s lecture. Although she gave me an advance notice I did not want to miss the class. Borrowing Prof. Chan’s lecture-notes from a classmate would be like reading notes about my own daughter’s birthday. I felt comfortable enough to tell Prof. Chan about my predicament. “Why don’t you bring her with you?” He suggested. Just like that! I was nonplussed. How could I disrespect him by bringing my four year old to his class? But I trusted his judgment.

On the day of the class my daughter and I entered the classroom with trepidation. We sat in the last row, my daughter on the isle seat. Prof. Chan entered the room, greeted us and took out his lecture notes, books etcetera. Then he walked towards where my daughter and I were seated. Watching me stand, my daughter stood up too. Prof. Chan stopped near where we were seated. He showed my daughter his cupped hand. Then opened it. On his palm rested a bright yellow chick. She beamed. He asked her to pick it up. Surprise! The chick had laid three candy eggs. Then, from his coat pocket he took out a small drawing book with a pencil attached to it. “Would you like to draw while your mommy studies?” He said.

"Yes," she said. She hugged his knees and thanked him for the book. He patted her head and returned to his desk. For the next hour and twenty minutes my daughter kept busy with the chick and drawing professor’s face and figure.

With that story I invite you to read the chapters of Tao te Ching on the Readings Page. I will continue to add more chapters until we read the whole text. I look forward to reading your comments.

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