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  • In the Shadows of the Dao: Laozi, the Sage, and the Daodejing by Thomas Michael
  • James D. Sellmann (bio)
Thomas Michael. In the Shadows of the Dao: Laozi, the Sage, and the Daodejing. Albany: State University Press of New York, 2015. xx, 311 pp. Hardcover $90.00, isbn 978-1-4384-5897-7.

Imagine that the New Testament was being interpreted as a political text without any reference to its impact on past or present Christian beliefs or practices. In a sense most Western scholarship concerning the Daodejing has interpreted that text without any reference to its impact on past or present Daoist practices or beliefs. Thomas Michael sets the record straight with this work. He acknowledges that his academic lineage begins with Henri Maspero, who influenced Kristofer Schipper, Roger Ames, Livia Kohn, and Harold Roth with the idea that Daoist beliefs and practices existed well before the beginning of the Common Era (c.e.). Scholars such as Nathan Sivin and Michel Strickmann propose that the label "Daoism" should only be applied to the movement that began in the second century c.e. with the way of the Celestial Masters (tianshidao 天師道) and its later developments. Thomas Michael's contribution to the debate is derived from his focus on "nurturance" (yangsheng 養生) for personal cultivation and transformation. Thomas argues that there was an early form of Daoist belief and practice "hidden" in the Daodejing. [End Page 55]

Based on his own and Rudolf Wagner's study of the Daodejing, Michael offers a uniquely structured translation of the text based on "the interlocking parallel style (IPS)" (p. 3).

He offers as an example chapter 7 which is rendered as follows: The IPS structure offers a non-linear reading of only certain passages of the Daodejing. As you can see above the interlocking parallel style means that two consecutive expressions are not read in typical linear fashion. Instead of reading the first statement on top of or before the second statement, the first statement is read in the left column and the second in the right column parallel to each other. The thematic content of the first statement is usually, but not always, contrastive, complementary, or connective with the second statement, such that the content interlocks. Typically there is a middle column that progresses, contains, or links the parallel structure. Michael does not attempt to offer another critical edition of the Daodejing. His humble hermeneutical claim is that he takes "the Daodejing as a synthetic, self-referential text" (p. 5).

Heaven is long.   Earth is lasting.
  The reason why  
Heaven is long and Earth is lasting
  Is that they do not live for themselves.  
  This is why they are able to be  
long and lasting.
  Because of this, the Sage  
marginalizes his body and disregards his body
but his body is first,   yet his body lasts.
Is it not because he has no self-interest
that he is able to realize his self-interest? (p. 4)

The major contribution to the study of early China is Michael's well-supported claim that there is a viable alternative reading of the Daodejing as a self-cultivation text based on the yangsheng 養生 practices that are implicitly hidden in the text. The philosophical approaches to the text focus on either a political or a mystical interpretation. The history of religions approach focuses on an institutional religious reading. Michael explicates the implicit shadows hidden in the text. The shadows are his way of referring to the correlative, nondual and process way of thinking that dominates the Sage, Laozi himself, and the text itself. The Daodejing's world is in flux without constancy. There are no constant names; they refer to unstable changes. Life turns to death; virtue becomes vice; these revert back on [End Page 56] each other. The correlative opposites are tied to the shadow processes of the Dao's interplay of Being and Non-being. Laozi dwells in the shadows between myth and history. The Sage too lives in the shadows. "Fading, like melting ice. Vacant, like a valley. Undifferentiated, like muddy water" (p. 10; Daodejing, chapter 15). The notion of "early Daoism" is also hidden in the shadows. No one ever referred to...


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