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Tao: The Watercourse Way

by Alan Watts

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7521022,377 (4.12)3
Drawing on ancient and modern sources, Watts treats the Chinese philosophy of Tao in much the same way as he did Zen Buddhism in his classic The Way of Zen. Critics agree that this last work stands as a perfect monument to the life and literature of Alan Watts.

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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
I have been reading different translations of the Tao Te Ching and found some of the chapters difficult to understand. Alan Watts has a Western perspective on the material, so in this book he was able to lead me to comprehend the Tao Te Ching better. For example he relates the Tao Te Ching's advocacy of an inert and non-interventionist government to something akin to Western political philosophy of anarchism. In this way, he explains the Taoist philosophy in terms of concepts Westerners know, and I found this helpful in confirming some of my tentative hypotheses about the meaning of the Taoist ideas. This isn't perfect because the Taoist ideas likely lose something when translated as Western concepts, but it at least brings the Western reader closer to understanding.

This was apparently Alan Watt's final book and he was not able to finish it. Al Chung-liang Huang assembled the material and added some helpful explanations of his own. ( )
  bkinetic | Mar 8, 2018 |
Published posthumously a couple years after Watts’ death in 1973 at the age of 58, and perhaps a little incomplete as a result, this is nevertheless one of the better and more readable descriptions of some of the fundamental concepts of Taoism – Tao, Wu-Wei, and Te, along with a couple of nice introductory chapters on the Chinese written language and Yin/Yang. Chinese characters and calligraphy appear in the text, page margins, chapter headings, and in groups of pages at a time; even if one can’t read Chinese, it imparts an additional spirit to the book.

On wu-wei, the strength that comes with flexibility and ‘not forcing’:
“The principle is illustrated by the parable of the pine and the willow in heavy snow. The pine branch, being rigid, cracks under the weight; but the willow branch yields to the weight, and the snow drops off. Note, however, that the willow is not limp but springy.”

On patience and keeping a level outlook, the Taoist story of a farmer whose horse ran away:
“That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, ‘May be.’ The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, ‘May be.’ And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, ‘May be.’ The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, ‘May be.’”

On the Tao, and the difficulties of an exact definition:
“Tao cannot be defined in words and is not an idea or concept. As Chuang-Tzu says, ‘It may be attained but not seen,’ or in other words, felt but not conceived, intuited but not categorized, divined but not explained. In a similar way, air and water cannot be cut or clutched, and their flow ceases when they are enclosed. There is no way of putting a stream in a bucket or the wind in a bag.”

Lastly, this one Lieh-tzu quoting Yang Chu on following one’s desires, of being natural. How refreshing, compared to ascetics and doctrines of abstinence:
“Let the ear hear what it longs to hear, the eye see what it longs to see, the nose smell what it likes to smell, the mouth speak what it wants to speak, let the body have every comfort that it craves, let the mind do as it will. Now what the ear wants to hear is music, and to deprive it of this is to cramp the sense of hearing. What the eye wants to see is carnal beauty; and to deprive it is to cramp the sense of sight. What the nose craves for is to have near it the fragrant plants shu [dogwood] and lan [orchids]; and if it cannot have them, the sense of smell is cramped. What the mouth desires is to speak of what is true and what [is] false; and if it may not speak, then knowledge is cramped. What the body desires for is comfort and warmth and good food. Thwart its attainment of these, and you cramp what is natural and essential to man. What the mind wants is liberty to stray whither it will, and if it has not this freedom, the very nature of man is cramped and thwarted. Tyrants and oppressors cramp us in every one of these ways. Let us depose them, and wait happily for death to come.” ( )
1 vote gbill | Mar 16, 2014 |
I think this book is one of his best. ( )
  DLKeur | Jul 9, 2013 |
Tao: The Watercourse Way, the final work by philosopher Alan Watts, was published posthumously in 1975. This is the first book I've read that was penned by Watts himself and I was so pleasantly surprised. The first chapter is devoted to Chinese ideograms, which made perfect sense to me. How better to understand such an abstract worldview as Taoism without also trying to understand a bit of the language in which it developed? And even without the intellectual reasons, the ideograms themselves are beautiful to see. They are the book's only illustrations.

Following the chapter on Chinese ideograms Watts covers four basic principles of Taoism: The Yin-Yang Polarity, Tao, Wu-wei, and Te. It's the most frank and light-hearted approach to the subject I've yet to run across. I read a borrowed copy, but this is definitely one I'd like to add to my personal collection and will probably re-read throughout the years. ( )
  aleahmarie | Aug 28, 2011 |
I feel like the book has helped me quite a bit in understanding Laozi, Zhuangzi, as well as the general ideas of Contemplative Taoism. It draws from various original writings on Taoism, as well as some more contemporary parallels. The author, Alan Watts, also uses mostly his own translations of Laozi as well as those of others. Footnotes often draw attention to differences in translations, which also is very helpful with something as widely translated as Dao De Jing.That said, I've read the book once and am hopeful that I understand about 50%. Definitely something to re-read once or twice. This is the point that prevents me from giving it five stars, as I feel any book on Taoism should be more straightforward and not as intellectual. For students of Chinese, the book also helpfully offers Chinese ideograms in the margins when referring to Chinese words in the main text. Moreover, the book contains a good deal of original calligraphy, used for the names of each chapter as well as quite a few quotations from Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Liezi. ( )
  rboyechko | Mar 3, 2011 |
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Drawing on ancient and modern sources, Watts treats the Chinese philosophy of Tao in much the same way as he did Zen Buddhism in his classic The Way of Zen. Critics agree that this last work stands as a perfect monument to the life and literature of Alan Watts.

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