The following poem is from the ancient book known as the Tao Te Ching (pronounced “Dow Day Ching”), written by the mysterious figure Lao Tzu, over 2500 years ago. It is one of two foundational Daoist texts — the Zhuangzi being the other — and is widely regarded as one of the greatest, most wisdom-rich works ever written.
It’s easy to assume the Tao is an easy read — because of it’s short length — but even today, the true meaning, the underlying message of each poem, is heavily debated. Because it is a book of poetry, the verses can be difficult to understand and comprehend; some pages are axiomatic, some leave you deeply puzzled. Stick with the tough ones long enough though, and you’ll start to make connections and aha moments will arise. Some verses you may not fully understand for many years, perhaps never, and this is testament to a book which, even though written in the 6th Century BC, still survives today; and it survives for no other reason than it’s level of mystery, profundity and most importantly, seemingly perpetual relevance. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing with you some of my favourite poems.
Like most of the beautiful poems in this little book, this one can be interpreted in many ways, which, is a very important point; each person who reads the Tao De Ching will get something different from each poem. Furthermore, as you go through different stages in your life, the poems will take on new meanings; that is, the message you get from each one will have changed, or rather, evolved. This is good sign; it is a sign that you have grown.
This poem needs little explaining. In just four stanzas, Lao Tzu describes the perfect world — a world of peace, of beauty, of delight, of contentment. After reading 79 preceding poems dealing with human nature, life, nature and the world, this penultimate poem of the book is a joy to ponder on, a pleasure to comprehend. If there were such thing as the perfect world…
Small country, few people—
Hundreds of devices,
But none are used.
People ponder on death
And don’t travel far.
They have carriages and boats,
But no one goes on board;
Weapons and armour,
but no one brandishes them.
They use knotted cords for counting.
Sweet their food,
Beautiful their clothes,
Peaceful their homes,
Delightful their customs.
Neighbouring countries are so close
You can hear chickens and dogs.
But people grow old and die
Without needing to come and go.