Lao Tzu

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Lao Tzu

(lou dzə), fl. 6th cent. B.C., Chinese philosopher, reputedly the founder of TaoismTaoism
, refers both to a Chinese system of thought and to one of the four major religions of China (with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Chinese popular religion). Philosophical Taoism

The philosophical system stems largely from the Tao-te-ching,
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. It is uncertain that Lao Tzu [Ch.,=old person or old philosopher] is historical. His biography in Ssu-ma Ch'ienSsu-ma Ch'ien
, 145?–90? B.C., Chinese historian; sometimes called the Father of Chinese History. He succeeded his father, Ssu-ma T'an, as grand historian (an office then dealing with astronomy and the calendar) at the court of the Early Han emperor Wu.
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's Records of the Historian (1st cent. B.C.) says he was a contemporary of ConfuciusConfucius
, Chinese K'ung Ch'iu or K'ung Fu-tzu, Pinyin Kong Fuzi, c.551–479? B.C., Chinese sage. Positive evidence concerning the life of Confucius is scanty; modern scholars base their accounts largely on the Analects,
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 and served as curator of the dynastic archives until retiring to the mythical K'un-lun mountains. He allegedly transmitted his teachings to a border guard who subsequently compiled the Lao Tzu, also titled the Tao-te ching [Classic of the Way and Virtue]. Scholars date the work in the 4th–2d cent. B.C., with some strata perhaps as old as the 6th cent. B.C. Its parables and verse, written in incantatory language, advocate passive and intuitive behavior in natural harmony with the Tao, a cosmic unity underlying all phenomena. It emphasizes the value of wu-wei, "nonstriving" or "non-[purposeful ]action," by which one returns to a primitive state closer to the Tao, a stage of creative possibility symbolized by the child or an uncarved block. It also promotes a laissez-faire approach to government.


See translations by J. J. L. Duyvendak (1954), W. Chan (1963), D. C. Lau (1963), S. Mitchell (1988), and V. Mair (1990).

Lao Tzu

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Lao Tzu (also transliterated as Lao-tzu or Laozi) is considered to be the architect of Daoism (also known as Taoism; see Confucianism/Daoism; Dao; Tao Te Ching). A contemporary of Confucius in the sixth century BCE, he was a native of the Ch'u Jen hamlet in the Li Village of Hu Hsian in the state of Ch'u.

It is said that Confucius once went to visit Lao Tzu, who was historian of the archives of Ch'u. Confucius was seeking instruction from the elder man. In this excerpt from Robert S. Ellwood and Barbara A. McGraw's Many Peoples, Many Faiths, we catch a glimpse of Lao Tzu's rather prickly personality:

What you are talking about, he told the young whippersnapper, Confucius, concerns merely the words left by people who have rotted away along with their bones. Furthermore, when a gentleman is in sympathy with the times he goes out in a carriage, but drifts with the wind when the times are against him. I have heard it said that a good merchant hides his stores in a safe place and appears to be devoid of possessions, while a gentleman, though endowed with great virtue, wears a foolish countenance. Rid yourself of arrogance and your lustfulness, your ingratiating manners and your excessive ambition. These are all detrimental to your person. This is all I have to say to you!

Whereupon Confucius told his disciples:

The dragon's ascent into heaven on the wind and the clouds is something which is beyond my knowledge. Today I have seen Lao-tzu, and he is a dragon!

Lao Tzu simply means "the old man." His surname was Li, his personal name was Erh, and he was styled Tan. He is known today largely because of a book that has had an influence way beyond its short length. It is called Tao Te Ching, and it was written, legends say, at the behest of the Keeper of the Pass before Lao Tzu left China for Tibet.

Although records are scanty at best, Lao Tzu seems to have been a historical person who supposedly had a good education and "kept a good table." But at the age of eighty or so he became thoroughly disgusted with the hypocrisy and striving of the world and became the world's first recorded "dropout." He mounted his water buffalo and headed for Tibet, stopping at the border only long enough to write what is perhaps the most famous book in Chinese history.

Put in a 1960s idiom, we might say he was a typical college graduate with a privileged education who enjoyed parties until, while contemplating the meaning of life, he decided to drop out, get on his Harley, and ride to California. Seen in this light, it's probably safe to say he was the original hippie.

Followers of Confucius like to belittle Lao Tzu, and Lao Tzu's followers disparage Confucius, but it seems fairly obvious that both philosophers were responding—in classic Chinese yin/yang fashion—to the same political situation (see Confucianism/Daoism). In modern terms, one was conservative, the other liberal.

Lao Tzu reveled in intuition and gentleness. When writing of the Dao, "the way," he said:

The way that can be spoken of Is not the constant way; The name that can be named Is not the constant name. The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth; The named was the mother of the myriad creatures. Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets; But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations. These two are the same But diverge as they issue forth. Being the same they are called mysteries, Mystery upon mystery— The gateway of the manifold secrets.

Words cannot explain the Dao. It must be grasped intuitively. And when grasped, it cannot be explained.

Daoism probably comes closest to expressing the attitudes of traditional Chinese religion, even though it is often downplayed. But maybe the best way to remember Lao Tzu is to listen to the final words of his classic book:

The way of heaven benefits and does not harm; the way of the sage is bountiful and does not contend.

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