The Tao Te Ching is amongst the finest achievements ever in recorded human thought. The fact that I even know what it is, two thousand five hundred years later, is a testament to the truth of that statement.
Some people believe it to be a book about religion. Some say it is the epitome of Eastern philosophical thought. Still others find an epic, ancient poem. Pick one, or all. It really doesn’t matter how you categorize it. Its wisdom is as revered and celebrated as any book in history. Often cryptic, always beautiful, it reveals the very principles of the Universe and the Way humans can live in harmony with those principles.
According to the Tao Te Ching, that harmony is achieved by realizing you are connected to, not separate from, everything else in the Universe; even the source of the Universe. When you believe you are separate, you find you are missing things you wish you had. Then you set about creating a great fuss and much stress trying to achieve those things. When you see you are connected (to the Tao, or the Universe, or if you like, to God), you see you already have everything. There is nothing to “do” except act naturally, unfiltered by judgment, and live without fear. This is not a complex mystery. It is simple. Simple and yet it seems impossible. That is why the lessons of the Tao Te Ching persist.
I have read this book countless times over the last twenty five years. It is a work of true depth. I encourage everyone to find a copy and contemplate it for themselves. It is best when internalized directly.
There are many academic and historical writings tracing the lineage of the Tao Te Ching and its author. As a believer that the simplest explanation is usually the right one, however, I prefer the legend of Lao Tzu as the one true author. As it’s told, the very wise Lao Tzu was leaving China’s borders for good, at which point an outpost guard asks him to share his wisdom of the Universe, and how to live in it, before he departs. In five thousand beautifully simple words, he wrote the Book of the Virtue of the Way (or Book of the Way) and vanished forever.
Because it is so serious, you can’t take it too seriously. This sounds, again, like a paradox, but it is more like a good riddle. How do you wrap your mind around the entirety of existence? You can’t use words. The best thing is to sit back and smile in awe.
So what in the heck does this ancient book of wisdom have to do with Clint Eastwood? Quite a bit actually, when I realized how much they have in common.
I am a great fan of Clint Eastwood. I have been as long as I can remember. I don’t recall the first of his films I saw, likely some late night television broadcast of Kelly’s Hero’s. But I was 9 years old when I saw an Eastwood picture on the big screen for the first time; The Outlaw Josey Wales. I was enthralled.
From then on, I watched every Clint Eastwood movie ever made. I can’t say they are all of equal quality, but I watched, and often watched again, every single one. Even in the box office bombs and the critical flops, I was drawn to something about this guy’s movies.
My unwavering appreciation always raised a few eyebrows. However, there was so much consistency in his movies. One after the other, over such a long and storied career, whether it was his simple style or the basic storytelling or the self-composed, cool headed nature of his characters, I just flat “got it.”
Then, in 1993, came Unforgiven. Following that, a landslide of awards from the highest levels of the film industry; Oscars, Golden Globes, Directors Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, Cannes, even the National Endowment for the Arts. Clint Eastwood is now widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time; a legitimate icon.
It was of little surprise to me. Finally, I thought, everyone else could see and share what was there all along.
One day, many years later, after seeing so many Eastwood films and reading the Tao Te Ching so many times, I saw something new. I realized how the principles of the Way demonstrate themselves in our culture, through the iconic characters of one actor and filmmaker. I saw how this one contemporary artist was unintentionally, naturally, revealing these principles through his art.
So this project was born not as a commentary on the righteousness of a certain philosophy, nor a critique on the artistry of a particular filmmaker. This book is simply meant to crack open a door and create an entertaining, hopefully enlightening, read, by combining my passion for Eastwood movies and the great appreciation of these lessons.
My deepest gratitude’s to Benjamin Hoff for blazing this trail. The Tao of Pooh (Penguin Books, copyright 1982), which I’ve kept at my bedside for years, was the first book to take a familiar, contemporary character to help reveal the mind of Lao Tzu.
For the appropriate selection of quotes from the Tao Te Ching, I used a few different sources. First is Stephen Mitchell’s English language version (Harper & Row, copyright 1988). I used Mr. Mitchell’s interpretation for two reasons; one, his version is the first copy of the Tao Te Ching I ever owned. I have read it countless times and am more familiar with his words than any other of the many translations that exist. Two, his plain language notations on each verse found in the back of the book, helped me tremendously to decipher the often cryptic poetry of Lao Tzu. Insightful and humorous, Mitchell makes it as simple as it is. I also used selections from the translations of Gia-Fu Feng, Jane English and Toinette Lippe (Vintage Books, copyright 1972), J.H. McDonald (public domain, 1996), and Ron Hogan’s Getting Right with The Tao: A Contemporary Spin on the Tao Te Ching (Channel V Books, copyright 2010).
Concerning the movie quotes from Eastwood, many of you will ask, “Why did I choose the ones I did and leave others out?” The answer is there are a handful of these lines that have played through my mind for years and became the foundational spark for this project. Some others just felt right. There was no magic formula. It helps a little if you are familiar with the man’s career and these films. There are many great movies that didn’t make it into the book; The Eiger Sanction, Two Mules For Sister Sara or Firefox for example. But not everything worked, and I felt the book should be brief.
In both cases, the selections from the Tao Te Ching and lines from the Eastwood movies have been pulled from their context. Many verses from the Tao are not the entire text of the verse. All of the movie lines in the book are Eastwood character lines only. By design, there is no dialogue included as I wanted there to be only one voice on the page. As Josey Wales would say, “that’s just the way it is.”
Clint Eastwood is arguably most known for his extensive contribution to the Western film genre. When I told my brother I was going to write a book drawing parallels of an Eastern Philosophy using Western films (predominately), he laughed at the irony. Made even more ironic by the fact his name is actually Eastwood. It was so fitting, so perfect, I couldn’t believe it didn’t already exist.
When Michelangelo crafted the statue of David, legend says he described it like this, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” That is how I have always thought of this project. It was just out there, all someone needed to do is write it down.
I didn’t create it, I discovered it.—