Lao Tzu’s* Tao Te Ching is arguably the greatest philosophical writing in human history. I have read different translations, so I embarked on a varied journey into the Tao by reading simultaneously wildly different approaches to it. These included Benjamin Hoff’s combined books The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet, and also Hieromonk Damascene’s Christ the Eternal Tao. At just shy of 1,000 pages combined, there was a lot here! The books are so categorically different that they must be described separately.
Hoff’s classic, The Tao of Pooh, is brilliant. As a result of it, we can add to the English lexicon of the way we look at life of WWGLS? (What Would Geddy Lee Say?) the question on how to live life of WWPD? (What Would Pooh Do?). One of the most valuable chapters is titled, “Bisy Backson” which refers to a sign Christopher Robin placed on his door:
Hoff goes on to explain what a Bisy Backson is, and that they exist throughout a society. They are always busy, going somewhere, looking for something, trying to do something. Tigger is a Bisy Backson. Pooh is not. Hoff explains:
Our Bisy Backson religions, sciences, and business ethics have tried their hardest to convince us that there is a Great Reward waiting for us somewhere, and that what we have to do is spend our lives working like lunatics to catch up with it.
He then goes on to have an insightful conversation with Pooh about how troublesome this is. He continues:
[T]he Backson thinks of progress in terms of fighting and overcoming. One of his little idiosyncrasies, you might say. Of course, real progress involves growing and developing, which involves changing inside, but that’s something the inflexible Backson is unwilling to do. The urge to grow and develop, present in all forms of life, becomes perverted in the Bisy Backson’s mind into a constant struggle to change everything … and everyone … else but himself, and interfere with things he has no business interfering with, including practically every form of life on earth.
This book is a gold mine of Taoist thought told through the characters of Winnie-the-Pooh.
Unfortunately, following on his success, Hoff did not leave well enough alone — as is often the case when one lands on success. Like most sequels, The Te of Piglet tries too hard and pales in comparison to the origin. There were some aspects of the book that resonated with me personally, such as connecting Taoism to Nature and The Way being The Way of the Dragon, but on the whole the book may not reach others. Piglet as Te is not well presented or understood, and the writing is laced with the author’s political grievances. I can not recommend.
Christ the Eternal Tao is something unique. It is a mammoth undertaking. Hieromonk Damascene attempts to reconcile the Tao Te Ching with Eastern Orthodox Christianity in a scholarly fashion. When I read the Tao, one of my reactions was that as a philosophy it is completely compatible with Eastern Orthodoxy and many other eastern religions. Thus, I see the attraction.
I begin with warnings and criticisms, followed by my positive reactions. The Hieromonk’s version of the Tao Te Ching is a unique interpretation laced with Orthodox doctrine and writings. It is an amalgamation, and one should not think otherwise. Next, if one does not have a solid understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy through study, practice, or both, this book will be impenetrable. Even at over 500 pages, a course on Eastern Orthodoxy is not contained within. Much knowledge is assumed or necessary. Next, what the Hieromonk is attempting to do here is say that Lao Tzu is like a prophet on the road that leads to Christ as the end-all/be-all of religion and philosophy. If ones believes that, that’s fine. And for an Orthodox Christian it is, arguably, the necessary position to take. I don’t think it works, though, because religion requires far too much dichotomization than seems to be permitted in philosophical Taoism. But, in a scholarly way, there is no reason why one can not say that the Tao is complementary to, or along side, Eastern Orthodoxy. I found this lack to be the greatest weakness. Finally, in his understanding of Orthodoxy and Chinese culture there was some confusion. He seems to think that Confucianism would make Orthodoxy attractive to the Chinese culture. He says this after arguing for hundreds of pages the Orthodoxy is the fulfillment of Taoism. Yet, Confucianism and Taoism stand in opposition to each other. One could say that Orthodoxy appeals to both the doctrinaire and dogmatic Confucianist and the mystical non-rigid Taoist. I believe this is why you find both conservatives and liberals (often at war with each other) in Orthodox parishes.
On the positive side, the texts at the end are gold. In the Epilogue, he provides the account of Fr. George Calciu of Romania. I was blessed to meet Fr. George in this life at his church in Northern Virginia. This was truly a remarkable man. In Appendix One, he provides an historical account of the Orthodox Church in China. This was very interesting. Finally, the “Commentary on the Nine Enneads of Part I: ‘Christ the Eternal Tao’” was an extremely valuable way to weave Eastern Orthodox thought into the Tao. I thought it was much more useful both spiritually and philosophically than the primary text.
“Be water, my friend.” — Bruce Lee
*It is debated whether Lao Tzu was a real person or even a collection of people. For these purposes, this is irrelevant.