Lao Tzu, or Laozi, is a huge Chinese identity and icon. He wrote a book called the Tao Te Ching and because of this became the founding father of Daoism.
There is a lot of myth surrounding the man, who was supposed to live sometime around 5BCE, maybe around the same time as Confucius. Some even say he taught Confucius or that he was Confucius.
Legend has it that when Lao Tzu was born in 601 BCE, he was already an old man. He was conceived when his mother saw a falling star. He is also supposed to have lived for hundreds of years. Okay, so that might be stretching it a bit.
There is not a lot known about the man himself and the earliest mention of him is in a document by Sima Qian (145-89BCE), called Shiji, which was written much later in the Han dynasty. This is pretty much like the New Testament, which was written years after Christ’s death.
According to Qian though, Lao Tzu was born in Chu, a southern state, during the Zhou dynasty. His family name was Li and Dan was his given name.
He worked in the Zhou royal court as an astrologer, scholar and philosopher. His job was also to be the kind of librarian at the court. Apparently he had an argument with Confucius here as he thought the younger man was self-important.
‘The journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath your feet’
It is true that he left the court on a water buffalo apparently to go to the west. He was eighty years old and the Zhou dynasty was crumbling and full of corruption.
Lao Tzu traveled across China to the western border disguised as a farmer. He had to go through the Xiangu pass to enter Qin state, towards Tibet. But the gatekeeper, Yinxi, recognized him as the famous philosopher and insisted he should write a book so he could share his wisdom.
So he did, or so the story goes. He stayed at the Xiangu pass with his pupil Yinxi until he had finished the book. Then Lao Tzu went through the pass and was never heard of again.
Another mythical story about Lao Tzu is that he went to Nepal from China and became the Buddha. Others think he may have become a hermit for the rest of his life, which wouldn’t be surprising given his disillusionment with the royal court.
Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching (or Daodejing) means ‘way of life/law of goodness’. The book tells us about the Tao – the source of all existence. If we can harmonize with the Tao then we can live good lives (as in returning to nature).
Most people believe the Tao Te Ching was not written by just one man. They think a lot of it was written later and by other people who used the name, Lao Tzu. This is because the name actually means ‘old master’ or ‘wise man’, so there would have been a few of them around.
There is also a lot in the book that seems to have been written by Confucius, whose central ideas related to family, respect and social interaction, whereas the parts written by Lao Tzu have a slightly different focus.
The Tao Te Ching is made up of 81 poems on subjects ranging from nature to politics. But the most important idea for Lao Tzu and Daoism is perhaps ‘wuwei’. This literally means ‘doing nothing’, or non-doing.
While doing nothing seems like a cop out or just plain lazy, it is still a kind of action. With wuwei you do things without effort or struggle.
The second poem in the book explains this a little:
‘When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other’.
Daoism is really simple in some ways. It is about letting go. Slowing down, and just being. Instead of rushing about and not being aware of the world around us. It is a model that people around the world are adopting, as we seem to be lunging towards too much action. Lao Tzu said, ‘nature does not hurry, but everything is accomplished’.
In other words, things get done without much effort at all, especially if we bend like bamboo in the wind. ‘The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to’. So let’s all be as free flowing as water…
Death and after death
Lao Tzu supposedly died in 531BCE. But death was not something he was bothered about at all. He was going to go down in history. In chapter 33 of the Tao Te Ching, he says, ‘Those who die without being forgotten get longevity.’
Lao Tzu was clearly worried about the way people at the time had turned away from a path of goodness and nature to corruption. Qian summarized Lao Tzu’s life in the Shiji: ‘He cultivated the Tao and its attributes – the chief aim of his studies being how to keep himself concealed and remain unknown’.
In 733BCE Emperor Xuanzong decreed that all households should have a copy of the Tao Te Ching.
By the time of the Han dynasty (206BCE-220CE), Lao Tzu was being worshiped throughout China. He became a kind of god. Today Taoism in China and Taiwan is both a religion for millions of people as well as a way of life. Many Chinese people might not even call their belief Taoist, as it is an accepted part of their everyday lives.
There are a lot of English translations of the Tao Te Ching, online and in book form, and some are better than others. This is partly due to difficulties translating Classic Chinese but also because the book is full of word play and contradictions. Lao Tzu was asking us to question our language as well as ourselves. It is only a short book so it is worth checking out if you are interested in Taoism.