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The Tao Te Ching is a jewel of a book ascribed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (6th century BC). It offers precious insights into Taoism, its central concept of the Tao, and a way of life marked by harmony and tranquility. But there’s another good reason for reading this classic text: it is rich in poetic metaphors.

The following are two excerpts from the Tao Te Ching (translation by Tolbert McCarroll) illustrated with some paintings and photographs. Both employ the image of water to expound on the principle of yin-yang, the two opposing but complementary forces that underlie everything in the universe. Water is considered as yin — soft, yielding and feminine as opposed to yan, which is hard, aggressive and musculine. (Read the full text of the Tao Te Ching here)

Nothing under heaven is
softer or more yielding than water.
Yet it has no equal for attacking things
that are hard and stiff.
Nothing can withstand it.

Everyone knows that the yielding overcomes the stiff,
and the soft overcomes the hard.
Yet no one applies this knowledge.

Seal Rock, California, circa 1872
Oil painting by Albert Bierstadt (German-American, 1830–1902)
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Sugar Loaf Islands, Farallons, 1868–69
Photo by Carleton E. Watkins (American, 1829–1916)
Image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The ancient followers of the Tao
were subtle, mysterious, and penetrating.
They were too deep to be fathomed.
All we can do is describe their appearance.
Hesitant, as if crossing a winter stream.
Watchful, as if aware of neighbours on all sides.
Respectful, like a visiting guest.
Yielding, like ice beginning to melt.
Simple, like an Uncarved Block.
Open, like a valley.
Obscure, like muddy water.

Who else can be still and let the muddy water
slowly become clear?
Who else can remain at rest and slowly come to life?

Those who hold fast to the Tao
do not try to fill themselves to the brim.
Because they do not try to be full
they can be worn out and yet ever new.

Eaton’s Neck, Long Island, 1872
Oil painting by John Frederick Kensett (American, 1816–1872)
Image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Serie fotografica : Italia, 1960
Photo by Paolo Monti (Italian, 1908–1982)
Image source: Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC)
Shared under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 4.0

~ Barista Uno

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