Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: Deng Ming-Dao's The Lunar Tao

(click image to buy via Amazon)
Text © 2013 Sean M. Madden. All Rights Reserved.


The Lunar Tao: Meditations in Harmony with the Seasons

by Deng Ming-Dao
HarperOne/HarperCollins
464 pages
$18.99

Fans of bestselling author Deng Ming-Dao will be pleased to hear that he has a new book on offer beginning 29 January — just in time for the Chinese New Year, falling in 2013 on Sunday, 10 February. The timing couldn't be better in that Deng's new book, The Lunar Tao, explores Taoism through the prism of the lunar calendar, Day 1 of which is the Chinese New Year.

Those who have read Deng's 365 Tao — with daily meditations based on the solar calendar — might wonder what would differ in following The Lunar Tao through the year's twelve moon cycles. I was curious about this myself before receiving a galley copy of the book in early December.

Whereas each entry of 365 Tao is composed of a poetic aphorism on the topic of that day's meditation, followed by a brief prose narrative further explaining or illustrating the day's topic, The Lunar Tao provides far more cultural context with its inclusion of relevant anecdotes from history or folklore, discussions of various Chinese festivals, holidays and gods, and excerpts from classical Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian texts.

Each of the poetically named twelve moons (e.g., The First Moon, The Apricot Moon) constitutes one of twelve parts of the book. Each part, in turn, contains two fifteen-day solar terms (e.g., Spring Begins, Rain Water), and each of these terms begins with a qigong exercise. I'm rather too new school to do anything more with these than to read through them. They generally include much clicking of teeth, the rolling of one's tongue, and dividing saliva into three parts, swallowing each separately. So not a highlight for me, though Deng explains that they're included in The Lunar Tao "for cultural and historical reasons, to demonstrate the idea of bodily integration with the seasons, and to consider exercise as a prelude to meditation". What I get from walking in nature throughout the year, and as a prelude to (sitting) meditation.

The juxtaposition of Deng's latest book with his bestselling 365 Tao remains apposite. For beyond its great stores of wisdom, much of the beauty of 365 Tao — which seems to grow with you as you progress through life, as great books are wont to do — lies in the book's simplicity of design. The layout, with each daily entry cocooned within ample white space, delivers beautifully the simplicity and universality of the day's message. And 365 Tao's index makes finding the relevant day's meditation fast and simple, whether the reader lives in the northern or southern hemisphere and is, therefore, experiencing summer or winter, say. No such luck with The Lunar Tao.

The latter is also considerably bulkier than the far more compact 365 Tao, an important consideration if you happen to be slow traveling as my partner and I have been this past year. When I chose the half-dozen or so (physical) books which I'd take with me on our travels, 365 Tao — as well as Deng's Everyday Tao — made the cut, whereas his penultimate book, The Living I Ching, roughly the same size as The Lunar Tao, did not. This despite the tremendous respect I have for Deng's poetic and lovingly translated I Ching, itself the work of a lifetime.

But once you get past The Lunar Tao's lack of a convenient index — by way of figuring out where you are in the present year's lunar cycle — it's quite simple, though less so if you care about reading a passage which corresponds with the lunar calendar and your style of reading is to dip in here and there over the course of the year, rather than to follow the book day by day, with your bookmark as your guide. As adjustments need to be made to the lunar calendar based on your location, Deng suggests confirming local moon phases in newspapers or online.

What The Lunar Tao may lose in the way of ease of use is compensated for in the treasure trove of Taoist teachings supported with Chinese folklore, history and other cultural considerations packed into the book. I'm always impressed with the way Deng writes and organizes his works. His previous book, The Living I Ching, includes (similar to 365 Tao) a poem and narrative description for each of the entries for the 64 hexagrams. And all this is fleshed out with brilliant discussions on how to tap, and better understand, the age-old wisdom contained within the I Ching. Although perhaps not his bestselling book, The Living I Ching might well prove to be Deng's magnum opus.

The Lunar Tao is likewise impressive, particularly in the way Deng deftly threads together each of the daily meditations by way of poetic aphorisms at the end of each entry which shift subtly in their near-repetition at the start of the following day's meditation, with this aphorism, in turn, shifting subtly to form the day's closing consideration.

All in all, another monumental work from Deng Ming-Dao, one which will no doubt grow on me as I continue to grow with it. But Deng's 365 Tao is likely to remain the compact book of choice to keep close at hand, whether in my backpack or our car's roof box, or on my bedside table. That and The Living I Ching, depending on whether I'm on the road or nestled into a home somewhere with what's left of our rather spare personal belongings.

There's something particularly fresh and universal about 365 Tao, uncluttered as it is with the trappings of too much tradition, too many historical references, and a great number of allusions to modern-day cultural phenomena. What remains, however, is wisdom arranged simply, as if by a feng shui practitioner. What we get in The Lunar Tao, on the other hand, is a wealth of Chinese cultural particulars which while interesting, tend, for this reader at least, to diminish — if only ever so slightly — the universality of the practical Taoist message contained in Deng's other books.

Interestingly, Deng explicitly states that "this book is not about Taoism. It is a book of Taoism" (the emphasis is his). And he's right. Practical and universal teachings abound in this book, and it is helpful that these are set within a cultural context which can make the teachings come alive. Yet, still, I find the overall weight of these allusions, and even the inclusion of the photographs which accompany the text, leave me with a sometimes discomfiting feeling that I'm reading a sort of social studies textbook about Taoism rather than one of Taoism (my emphasis), albeit one chockablock with wisdom. Coming from anyone but Deng, this feeling would perhaps never arise, or would soon be forgotten. But in contrast to his other works, it is heightened like the presence of a single white hair upon a beautifully black cashmere coat set against a snow-strewn landscape.

That said, I'm thrilled to have another Deng Ming-Dao book to treasure in the years to come. And for those who have longed to know more about the man himself than is provided in the brief author's bio of his books, the personal narrative, contained within The Lunar Tao's introduction, of Deng's engagement with Taoism and Chinese culture, generally, makes purchasing and reading the book compulsory for his dedicated readers worldwide.

I'll close with a quote from another of my favorite writers, Rainer Maria Rilke, who rightly tempers the audacity of critics in their oftentimes careless, and sometimes heartless, attempts to judge works of art:
Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.
Indeed.


NOTE: I´ll be publishing an interview with Deng Ming-Dao on 29 January, to coincide with the publication of The Lunar Tao. Also, please feel free to leave comments, below, should you have anything you´d like to share concerning any of Deng´s books.