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Teaching the Daode Jing

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GARY D. DEANGELIS AND WARREN G. FRISINA, EDITORS

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, NEW YORK, 2008

206 PAGES, 978-0-19-533270-4, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by David Jones

Why the Daode Jing is a special text comes out clearly in Teaching the Daode Jing. In general, this volume will be more useful to college/university nonspecialists than high school teachers. Some essays, however, will be more helpful than others for teachers such as those by Judith Berling, Geoffrey Foy, and John Thompson, which offer more “nuts and bolts” classroom scenarios: “Letting the Daode Jing Teach”; “Gender and the Daode Jing”; and “The Daode Jing: An Exercise in How Interpretations Change.” Of these essays, Berling’s is most rewarding. Of special note is Hans-Georg Moeller’s “Introduction,” which pulls the book’s diverse voices together. All authors share deep passion, despite their different approaches, to this magnificent text.

Like other edited volumes, this collection has an unevenness to it, which is bound to be the case when such established scholars as Livia Kohn and Harold Roth are included in the project. As one might expect, the book tries to cover the range of terrain from the scholarly to the practical. If there is a criticism to be found, it would be this book tries to do too much in its attempt to include both ends of the spectrum.

In “Third-Person and First-Person Approaches to the Laozi,” Harold Roth strikes a compromise between attentiveness to historical accuracy (third person) and being critical (first person). Roth’s solution is to bring students into experiential learning modes through breathing exercises, which he calls “reconstructive meditation” and represents a “critical first-person” way of understanding. Although students will receive some understanding of the text, there are few passages directly germane to breathing and meditating, and such exercises may be more successful with college/university students. Nevertheless, this is one of the volume’s best essays for bridging the scholarly/practical divide.

In “The Reception of Laozi,” Livia Kohn contends that Daoism is primarily a religion and refocuses attention from its philosophical dimensions. Those who approach texts with a certain philosophical acuity may find this approach to be somewhat narrow. Kohn, however, argues her point well that the Daode Jing had for centuries been used for meditation and liturgy, ordinations of priests, and advancement of lay followers (137). Another strong chapter is Russell Kirkland’s “Hermeneutics and Pedagogy” where he reminds students the text was written for another culture. Do not “colonize the Daode Jing” is his warning. This approach is in- disputably valuable, but students will always bring their cultural moorings forward, and these preconceptions can be put to good service with ideas being lifted from their historical context for present-day creative philosophizing and religious understanding. Kirkland is aware of this because he challenges “students to question cherished beliefs” (158).

Another helpful chapter is Robert G. Henricks’ “The Dao and the Field,” where he employs the “model of a field of wildflowers passing through the seasons” for dao. We can grasp “the nature of Dao in its totality [because] we can see it . . . prior to, during, and after creation” (35). In winter, there’s no indication of the soil’s fecundity even if we were to dig down, all we would find is its stillness, silence, and emptiness in the “one, undifferentiated, homogeneous earth” (36). The cycles are present and the flowers will be replaced by other flowers and so on. In contrast to flowers, “people can and do go against the natural way of things [by turning] their backs on the mother and [becoming] uprooted” (37). This analogy will be effective for classroom use.

Norman J. Girardot and Michael LaFargue both offer some enjoyable reads. Girardot’s “My Way: Teaching the Daode Jing” takes up popular “Dao-Lite” cultural expressions (107). In this somewhat autobiographical account, there are interesting, insightful, and amusing anecdotes about politics, counterculture, and economics (108). For those new to teaching this text, it’s inevitable the “new-age Daoism” criticized by Girardot will surface. Michael LaFargue’s “Hermeneutics and Pedagogy: Gimme That Old-Time Historicism” is given the notable position of having the last word and with reason. The gulf between contemporary America and ancient China is taken up with the question of audience— what it meant to its original audience and what it can mean to contemporary readers. Following hermeneutical leads, LaFargue argues that understanding a text in its otherness is an appropriate beginning point. In this way, readers empower themselves to challenge the messages texts offer. He offers helpful strategies that teach students to become competent readers by assigning topical glossary essays and proverb-like aphorisms that include hints on how to detect the text’s polemics, such as what ren really means (“code word for Confucianism”). As other authors do, LaFargue points out the text’s political dimensions.

Some of these themes are also found in Eva Wong’s “The Daode Jing in Practice” and Gary D. DeAngelis’ “Mysticism in the Daode Jing.” In the latter essay, DeAngelis offers a standard definition of mysticism as direct experience of union that is often perceived as “transcendent, the sacred, the holy, the divine” (64). Transcendence is taken issue by David L. Hall’s “The Daode Jing and Comparative Philosophy” (49). Hall argues against this vertical dimension by asserting it’s been responsible for thinking about dao in metaphysical terms. Hall counterposes this move with the wu forms: wuwei (nonassertive action), wuzhi (knowing without principles), and wuyu (objectless desire). For DeAngelis, teaching the Daode Jing as a mystical text provides him the opportunity to discuss epistemological issues. His essay is valuable because of its teaching focus. Another beneficial essay is Eva Wong’s “The Daode Jing in Practice,” which is a more practical way of reaching the experience DeAngelis and others outline. Wong reminds readers that Daoist texts are not merely intellectual exercises but are guidelines for practice (78). Engaging in practice and accepting Daoism as a practice is “to learn to accept the natural course of things,” and the value of a text lies in its use (88).

All authors use this timeless text in their own ways and provide a number of ways to walk the way.