It is an understatement to call this summer warmer than normal, what with the recent “heat dome” which killed hundreds of people in British Columbia. For many of us, this was a shocking event: temperatures unimagined in this part of the world followed by the outbreak of fires around the province which have claimed lives and wiped out the entire small town of Lytton, BC. The only comfort I could find during the worst of the heat was the nighttime high tides which made for ocean swims just before bed; the ability to bring my core temperature down ahead of sleeping allowed for some small relief against the stupefying heat of the day. In these times of flux and fury, only small comforts might be available to us: a good book, a bowl of ice cream, a late night swim, a spell of meditation when we rise in the morning. This doesn’t fix the problems, which we can’t ignore, but it does help us live alongside them, perhaps quieting the anxiety a notch so we can still connect and create.
Sunday recipe: Chocolate coconut “ice cream”
Many years ago I got the ice cream freezer attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer and this recipe became the go-to summer dinner party dessert. Three ingredients, dairy-free, and delicious! We had visitors and a house concert this weekend, and this made the perfect after-dinner treat for everyone last night. (If you don’t have an ice cream maker, you can freeze the mixture in ice cube trays, then blend the frozen cubes in a high-powered blender).
100 grams/3.5 oz of dark chocolate at whatever percentage chocolate you like: 3/4 cup chocolate chips, a large bar, 3 squares of high-quality bakers chocolate etc,
Two cans of coconut milk (full fat)
1/4 cup of maple syrup
Freeze your ice cream maker bowl overnight.
Pour one can of coconut milk into a saucepan and bring to a simmer on medium heat.
Chop your chocolate into chunks and put in a large bowl. Sccop the cream out of the second can of coconut milk and set aside.
Once the milk is hot, pour it over the chocolate, let rest for a few seconds until the chocolate melts and then whisk until combined.
Add the coconut cream you set aside to the bowl and stir again.
Add your maple syrup, and combine. You can add vanilla or nuts at this stage as well.
Cool this base to room temperature and then put in the fridge for a minimum of four hours (I prefer to leave all ice cream bases in the fridge overnight).
When ready, pour the mixture into your ice cream maker and churn until creamy and frozen.
Place in an airtight container and freeze. Let it sit out for 10 minutes before serving to soften.
Book notes: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way
Ursula K. Le Guin interprets the Tao Te Ching.
I was first introduced to the Tao Te Ching in my early twenties, by a group of radical hacker/activists in Toronto. The fact it came to me in my nascent adult life has meant a great deal in shaping my attitudes and approach over the years, for which I have felt very grateful. I have dipped into this work over and over again, brought its famous first lines to mind hundreds of times (“The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao | The name that can be named is not the eternal name”), and mined the verses for writing prompts and insights. It is the only spiritual work which spoke to me before some of the Zen texts I study now, with its humour, centering principles, and incisive commentary. In the introduction to her edition of the Tao Te Ching Ursula K. Le Guin expresses a similar sentiment in saying, “I was lucky to discover him [Lao-Tzu] so young, so that I could live with his book my whole life long….. It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts.”
If you do not know the Tao Te Ching, it is easy enough to find one of the many free versions online to get a taste (including Le Guin’s book in pdf). Legendarily these are the words of a man named Lao Tzu (or Laozi or Lao-tse) who was either a contemporary to Confucius or came along later. Whether or not he was a single individual or a collective who writings were ascribed to a persona is not definitively known, though modern historians believe the writings are not the work of one person. The Tao Te Ching is a short text of 81 philosophical verses, much like koans, which advise on how one may live with integrity, goodness, and openness to the way. It introduces us to the key concept of Wu Wei, which translates into non-doing but can also be understood as spontaneous action, a way of living which can be likened to understanding or enlightenment in Buddhism. It is the central work of the Taoist religion.
For many years I’ve meant to read Le Guin’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching, but it was only recently when finding a copy in a second hand bookstore that I sat down with it. Somehow, coming out of the pandemic (or possibly still in it) seems like an appropriate time for rediscovery and meditation on the words of Lao-Tzu, and Le Guin’s version the perfect antidote with its poetic beat and wry footnotes. Hers is not a translation of the classic text (she makes clear in the end notes that she does not speak a word of Chinese), but a modern interpretation based on several translations. She discusses her source translations in the end notes, including the D. C. Lau version (1963) which is the one I am most familiar with. She grew up with the early translation by Paul Carus (1898) which was a valued possession in her father’s library. That copy contained a character by character comparison alongside the English which allows her to delve deeper into some of the translation choices and meaning embedded in specific characters.
Le Guin seeks to illuminate the ancient text with modern and universalizing language, while staying true to the meaning of the original.
Scholarly translations of the Tao Te Ching as a manual for rulers use a vocabulary that emphasizes the uniqueness of the Taoist “sage,” his masculinity, his authority. This language is perpetuated, and degraded, in most popular versions. I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.
In making this attempt, I believe Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching is as accurate and beautifully rendered as many of the other classic translations, and really does provide a more accessible copy for the current reader. She brings her nuance as a writer and power as an analytic thinker to each line, sounding out with clarity in both the verses and the notes she includes alongside the text. In some instances she removes lines of text which she feels mar coherence, in others she chooses a different interpretation of a character to put the emphasis of a line elsewhere. Each of these choices is documented in the end notes so we may follow her thinking over the decades she spent on this project. Her footnotes are particularly delightful, demonstrating the humour and political commentary she was known for in her life. These notes are not necessary to understanding the verses, instead supplementing them in a way that expands our overall understanding of the Taoist moral framework.
To those who will not admit morality without a deity to validate it, or spirituality of which man is not the measure, the firmness of Lao Tzu’s morality and the sweetness of his spiritual counsel must seem incomprehensible, or illegitimate, or very troubling indeed.
There has recently been a Buddhist literary scandal around a so-called translation of the Therigatha, poems of early Buddhist nuns, in which a male translator has taken such liberties with the text that he renders these enlightened women practitioners mute. This is always a danger with modern interpretations of ancient texts: the tendency to fill in the silences with modern assumptions. But in comparing her text against the DC Lau translation, I note how faithful Le Guin is to at least the English versions (I can’t speak to the original Chinese for like Le Guin I know none). Le Guin does not stray from meaning, nor does she attempt to fill in gaps with her own understanding. She is not there to demonstrate that she has figured out the puzzle of the Tao Te Ching, but instead pares it back so that we might come to our own understanding of the text.
The Tao Te Ching has always touched the quiet place in me, that of contemplation and deep silence. Le Guin’s work carries this same quality of breath and space. She does not answer these koans; she does not get in the way of our own understanding. One gets the sense of her own meditative power through her ability to penetrate the text and offer it up in language that is fresh, intelligent, and not at all woo. The advice of the sages rings over the centuries and I find myself wishing this was the version I had carried with me through my adult life.
Instead of a vow today I have included one of the verses (after the photo below) which is speaking to me through its reference to the handling of raw material as a metaphor for plain understanding of the way. Each time I run through the text I find something new to land on, a lesson I had forgotten, a metaphor I mull over for weeks. This is the power of the Tao Te Ching and Le Guin’s version does great service to it.
It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing. Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. To me, it is also the deepest spring.
19. Raw silk and uncut wood
Stop being holy, forget being prudent,
it’ll be a hundred times better for everyone.
Stop being altruistic, forget being righteous,
people will remember what family feeling is.
Stop planning, forget making a profit,
there won’t be any thieves and robbers.
But even these three rules
needn’t be followed; what works reliably
is to know the raw silk,
hold the uncut wood.
Forget the rules.
Ursula K. Le Guin interprets Lao-Tzu
I hope that wherever you are, you find peace in some of these summer days as we emerge (or don’t, who knows) from the pandemic and think more deeply about how to live on this planet together. Finding a way to navigate this with integrity is a challenge for each of us right now, but facing the truth about our past and present is the only place to begin.
You can leave a comment or like this post below. Liking my post helps get it wider distribution in the Substack network, so if any of this resonates with you, please click the things. Sharing with others is another way to support my work.