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The Second Book of the Tao

Non-Fiction Reviews

The Second Book of the Tao

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The Second Book of the Tao
The Second Book of the Tao
Compiled and adapted from the Chuang-tzu and the Chung Yung,
with commentaries by Stephen Mitchell
Penguin Press, 224 pp.

Open Secret

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury

— T.S.Eliot, “East Coker”


In 1960, I came across a new book titled OPEN SECRET, by a pseudonymous author, one Wei Wu Wei. It was to a 30-year old charming not only for its mystifications and paradoxes, but because it was written with some wit and command in a clipped style asserting authority: comprised of apothegmata and maxims offering “wisdom.” Which “wisdom” was more or less commonplace reflections derived from our experience as sentient beings, and reminiscent of proverb compilations, in this case not merely distilled sayings as in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs, but moralia turned inside out and upside down. As though one were to say of anything that can be said — “A” for instance — must be taken in this way: “A ≠ A.” Coming out of Hong Kong, the book presented itself to me as somewhat exotic, though its title suggested obvious paradox, its meaning candidly esoteric.

In those years, the Beat poets were in the habit of quoting peripatetic swamis, intoning their parables in exalted words, most often rootless mistranslations from the recently-available paperbacks of sacred texts — rootless because so much of their supposed lore was to be found in anthropological footnotes. One of their foolish favorites at that time was the ploy that fascinated: “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” It left would-be adepts agog, and encouraged them to trust to their belief that those who asked the question knew the answer [but refused to answer, leaving their disciples to take the first step on the endless journey to enlightenment’s illumination]. Part of the fascination began after the 1953 publication of Eugen Herrigel’s ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY, a monograph describing that German philosopher’s own devoted submission to a master in Japan in the 1930s, one who clearly knew the trials and method needed for his students to learn to shoot straight — without all the paraphernalia one sees today wielded by archers who compete at the Olympic games. Herrigel was in the end not enlightened, but nonetheless came away after years with awed respect for that monk’s mastery — at snuffing a candle flame … blindfolded! An American spent 7 years later on, as I recall, around the same time there, or at a similar retreat. From his disillusionment, I learned at last what the secret was, and it was quite open enough. The young men who recruited themselves to study lived a severely restricted monastic life of little sleep, regular nightlong interruptions for sutra chanting and other prayer ceremony, hard physical labor maintaining the grounds of the monastery, slaving in its kitchens, learning useful common crafts, and receiving a daily afternoon hour of instruction in a common hall, seated lotus-like in meditation, while the head of the school, perched on a dais at the front of the hall, contemplated them in silence. Naturally enough, after the first half-hour of directed mindlessness, having tried to empty their heads of random, “monkey-brain” thoughts, their eyes and ears closed to sight and sound stimuli, they would nod off. As who wouldn’t? And then came that sound of one hand clapping — the sharp crack of their teacher’s fierce, opened-palm upon the low table before him. Symbolizing what? Fools! Wake up!

What devolved into the druggy, goofy 1960s wasn’t a revival of the occult stuff of Rosicrucianism or neo-Blavatskian Theosophy, which had so enchanted William Butler Yeats for decades in the first half of the 20th Century and driven him to séances [one stunning consequence of that experience the writing of his powerful drama in one act, WORDS UPON THE WINDOW PANE]. Rather it was a new variety of stuporous slumming, a descent into the depths of alien foreign cultures visited in books, and leading to communes of all kinds, what I call “ashramisms,” which, as it seemed to me, represented the exploitative camps where my generation’s disaffected, middle-class adolescents preferred intellectual abasement to the hard work of making one’s way past the wandering rocks of foreign war, coups in the southern hemispheres, and our nuclear unthinkables amidst the regular avalanches of sudden technological change. Not altogether failures: various communes revived home arts and crafts and seem to have led to the proliferation of “eco” theories in this new millennium. Instantly commercialized, to be sure.

I recall reading OPEN SECRET attentively, hoping it would be something to turn and return to, since it seemed then something different, a sort of compendium of Nietzschean epigrams, stuffed with obscure if not obscurantist Buddhist stuff: e.g., Sense ≠ Sense. What was captivating was its provocative, assured tone of voice. In that respect, it read much like a contemporary Thoreau, the difference being that our American genius, himself steeped in the ethos of the then novel revelations of the BHAGAVAD GITA of the early 19th Century, was attentive to every turning leaf around him, every ripple on the placid surface of Walden Pond, every nuance of the rural world he lived in, its seasons, forests and their creatures. Whereas Wei offered the words of aphorisms, statements from which the very texture, the fibers of the material — and historical — human world had been extracted over millennia; they sounded as though everything we have ever known had been discarded, tossed into the depths of a universe as ours would be but for its starry lights, not to mention its visible and invisible currents of radiation. That decade of the early 1960s passed before the existence of Black Holes had been confirmed. (Although we are not told how deep a Black Hole is or how far to its bottom, the folks at CERN are spotting the constituent particles of particles of particles within an atom that flash into “existence” and out again, and leave us to wonder how it is our ramshackle ghost of a skeleton rises come morning, and walks out into the light of a new day.)1 Adepts like Wei, following the ancient Tao of Lao-tzu, might retort that our universe is one whose birth and death, even existence, has neither depth nor height when truly envisioned or properly understood; that is, for the Tao, with or at the Tao, whatever Tao is, it is not, and moreover what is not is embedded in whatever is … and oddly enough that’s where cosmography these days seems headed.

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu

In that year of 1960, though I could spot Ludwig Wittgenstein’s slim, green-covered TRACTATUS LOGICO-PHILOSOPHICUS where it sat atop my bookcase — I’d not yet perused it, or come to his devastating dictum: “Wovon mann nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss mann schweigen2 — it was held for reading saved for my valetudinarian days far off in the future. Wittgenstein, like other commentators on some of the ancient texts, went on expounding his own “sutras” until he simply stopped, having taken his own advice to shut up. Wei’s writings, have however been constantly amplified and expanded, filled with pictures and diagrams and whatnot, republished and offered as a source of “understanding” for would-be Buddhists, perhaps memorized by masseurs in Tao centers for healing that currently spring up around Los Angeles, and perhaps franchised in other California cities to the south and north as well. Its current dust-jacket blurb terms the core of Wei’s work “non-doership.” What a mangling of language! Non-doership! A state of being that is not a state of being. Notwithstanding, until the devotee has spent a youth acquiring Classical Chinese so as to prepare to parse Taoism’s texts, in what may likely be the vainest of vain hopes to grasp what is termed the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching, it may be useful to reflect that the secret advertised to be open and not secret, remains secret — anything but open. Even Chinese steeped in Classical learning find much of Lao-tzu and his later followers Chuang-tzu and Tzu-ssu, the grandson of Confucius, to pose the most formidable of challenges for the scholiast, replete as they are with obscure language, and regular allusion to even older poems embedded in the “poems” of the Tao Te Ching, which is written in the five-characters lines of classical poetic form. In short, the corpus is something presenting an insuperable, impenetrable wall to most Westerners, who cannot access those sources in one short-enough, and necessarily too-short lifetime.

Calligraphy - Lao Tzu

The 20th Century is fairly littered with the facsimiles that attempted the Tao Te Ching, sometimes by translators who perforce remain novices at writing poems that, compiled, are a montage of philosophical statements or examples of them, and sometimes by writers who depend on those transliterations to make more or less readable poems in pidgin pastiche. The latest being Stephen Mitchell’s THE SECOND BOOK OF THE TAO, a collection of 64 prosings in a flat, free verse format of unmusical language, chopped lines, what most writers of verse name “typewriter” poems, which sort of resemble the rhythms of a speech awkward for English, accompanied by facing pages of his own cheerfully complacent “Commentary.” Mitchell’s amateur comments are flip, banal, usually too-too cutesy, self-conscious pretenses at wearing “wisdom” lightly, imitating simple fable-language twisted with a wry turn of neo-Beat vernacular: as if the wit of ancients is to be represented as rustic throwaway jest. Pop Tao, if you will.

Henry David Thoreau, an American “guru,”3 a most singular person who remains in WALDEN alive to this day, is immodestly modest in his droll, dry Yankee idiom, recreated those ancient modes of perception or attitude as well as anyone ever has when he proffered his comprehension of the lived experience:

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current glides away but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky whose bottom is pebbly with stars.

Such comfortable and assured writing permeates WALDEN, the Conclusion of which is altogether a lilting prose poem, a true, beautiful, and good equivalent of Lao-tzu’s way of scattering dicta into the world. Perhaps it’s the better for our purposes because it is not the variety of pretentious mysticism or mystification attempted when China’s ancients were brought to the West in our epoch from the 19th Century on. In that masterpiece, Thoreau’s is plainest of plain English; it is nothing if not poetry in its confidential first-person speech, one we can hear as informally formal — taken from his journals and reduced to their essence. As such, though it may resemble what is familiarly and sentimentally called “cracker-barrel” philosophizing, it precedes philosophical discourse by the very nature of the difference between the poet and the philosopher. The latter a would-be successor who must always rationalize and systematize writing, though by removing passion it leaves the emotions and response to human life an etiolated husk. For, as the epigraph above by Eliot reminds us, what we are or were disappears as though it has reached the end of some algorithm describing the processes of The Second Law of Thermodynamics as witnessed and elegiacally expressed by the poet.

It’s a pity that the effort in the mid-Twentieth Century to present a neo-philosophy for the living, Existentialism, was so soon co-opted (corrupted and debased) by institutional adjectives. Before a decade passed, there paraded from the wings — maybe because of the desperation during and after World War II — such strange monsters as Christian Existentialism, Jewish Existentialism, even Marxist Existentialism — perhaps Buddhist or Hindu Existentialism. Yet, to stand and gaze in wonder at the day, awake in one’s own skin, and not in a swami-induced trance of meditational practice, to try to see the Heraclitean, or Thoreauvian, stream of time itself, moreover to live in the moment while seeing the past and present and future as seamless, when whatever one knows in one’s waking hours is present, palpable, and lit by a clear consciousness, seems to be the most difficult sort of exercise. It is, properly speaking, “doership,” not the peculiar negation of everything defined by some foolish notion as the action of “not-doing.” Even a moment’s experience of the very poetry of Time, which perishes as it passes, like the parts of the quarks of our physicists, yet which binds the world and ourselves to the world, sans dogma, sans system, is a desirable form of human action. The principle idea at the core of Existentialism was the denial of Descartes’ I think, therefore I am. Instead it was, I act, therefore I am. As for fishing, Thoreau never tells us what sort of fish there are or were in his stream; nor if he ever caught anything. It was the fishing that was his active thought, and that sky full of pebbled stars was where his thought was actively cast. That is poetry, and it is untranslatable into periphrasis for any set of maxims. Whereas the sort of profundities Stephen Mitchell sets down in this book — neatly-designed and printed withal — are for this reader rebarbative.

The open secret that is everywhere both open and secret, particularly in our Pop Culture era, is in short the principle of poetry, which is the making, the process or operation of what Socrates named as the work of the god Eros; that is, the doing which is the essence of “making” during each moment, for each moment offers novelty unforeseen, unknown. Something it seems most find themselves — if they are selves — incapable of recognizing, frozen somewhere timeless, as it were, between childhood’s nescience and the helpless vacancy of the moment before death.


(1) My nonce simile is borrowed from Robert Frost’s curious narrative poem, “The Witch of Coös.”
(2) If one cannot speak it, one must be silent.
(3) I use the term “guru” deliberately, for what our great sage Emerson said at Thoreau’s obsequies defines him as exactly such, even if Emerson himself had not the least inkling of the profounder meaning of his words: “I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this [that is, lacking ambition] instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!”

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Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Santa Monica, CA

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