Books for an introduction to Taoism
A Short Form student asked a great question last month as to whether I could recommend any books or other resources that I felt were a good introduction to Taoism. At first I thought, ‘that’s easy’. But the more I look through what I have, the harder it is. By definition, ‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao’. My feeling after over twenty years on this path is that only by doing and non-doing do we ‘know’ Tao, and that the Taoist arts are the main practices in which to know Tao, (for instance T’ai Chi, certain forms of poetry, calligraphy, ikebana, butoh, some kinds of improvisational music, etc). Anyone with 10 years sincere practice yielding to real pushes in pushing hands will know more in their bones of Tao than someone who has spent 10 years studying books. That said, here’s a few books I like, I will add more this week as some are hidden in the shed and must be re-found. Most Taoist writings I love are very old, or by Liu-I-Ming from 17C, translated into English from the original Chinese by Thomas Cleary and only ‘make any sense’ after you already know in your body what they mean! If you have books or online resources you would like to recommend, please leave a comment or get in touch.
All the Thomas Cleary translations of Taoist Classics texts for Shambala Editions: especially the Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu and as a great general intro to Taoism, the introduction the ‘The Taoist I Ching’ is perfect.
Lieh Tzu translated by Wong, Shambala Editions.
I seem to remember Al Chung-Liang Huang’s book ‘Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain’ on Tao and T’ai Chi being very approachable and good. It was the first book on T’ai Chi I read, given to me by my second T’ai Chi teacher in 1988. It left an impression, though I have not had a copy for over 25 yrs.
Penguin edition of Chuang Tzu is very good.
‘Daoism Explained’ by Hans Georg Moeller is great, just in no way a beginner’s book, but it is full of insights and avoids the usual inappropriate western theocentric definitions of ‘Heaven’ amongst other important concepts. It also shears the superimposition of early 20th century Euro-centric psychoanalytic terminology onto the famous Chuang Tzu butterfly tale, and the chapter about this is worth the entry price alone.
The books of Ursula K LeGuin contain superb rethinkings of worlds with Tao as a living major component of her imagined civilisations, especially: ‘Always Coming Home’, ‘The Word for World is Forest’, and ‘The Telling’, most of all. Sadly, LeGuin’s own version of the Tao Te Ching is best avoided. Her deep understanding of Tao is best found in her fiction.
For a real beginner’s beginners guide then the famous ‘Tao of Pooh’ and ‘Te of Piglet’ by Benjamin Hoff are actually really lovely. Funny, surprisingly deep, and nicely concise, these are worth a read, and fun to pass on to others who are wondering what you have been up to for two decades…