Lao Tzu: Father of Taoism

Lao Tzu meets Yin Xi, the Guardian of the Gate of Tibet.

Lao Tzu meets Yin Xi, the Guardian of the Gate of Tibet.

Although ascetics and hermits such as Shen Tao (who advocated that one 'abandon knowledge and discard self') first wrote of the 'Tao' it is with the sixth century B.C. philosopher Lao Tzu (or 'Old Sage' -- born Li Erh) that the philosophy of Taoism really began. Some scholars believe was a slightly older contemporary of Confucius (Kung-Fu Tzu, born Chiu Chung-Ni). Other scholars feel that the Tao Te Ching, is really a compilation of paradoxical poems written by several Taoists using the pen-name, Lao Tzu. There is also a close association between Lao Tzu and the legendary Yellow Emperor, Huang-ti.

According to legend Lao Tzu was keeper of the archives at the imperial court. When he was eighty years old he set out for the western border of China, toward what is now Tibet, saddened and disillusioned that men were unwilling to follow the path to natural goodness. At the border (Hank Pass), a guard, Yin Xi (Yin Hsi), asked Lao Tsu to record his teachings before he left. He then composed in 5,000 characters the Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power).

Confucius. Confucius.

Whatever the truth, Taoism and Confucianism have to be seen side-by-side as two distinct responses to the social, political and philosophical conditions of life two and a half millennia ago in China. Whereas Confucianism is greatly concerned with social relations, conduct and human society, Taoism has a much more individualistic and mystical character, greatly influenced by nature.

In Lao Tzu's view things were said to create "unnatural" action (wei) by shaping desires (yu). The process of learning the names (ming) used in the doctrines helped one to make distinctions between good and evil, beautiful and ugly, high and low, and "being" (yu) and "non- being" (wu), thereby shaping desires. To abandon knowledge was to abandon names, distinctions, tastes and desires. Thus spontaneous behavior (wu-wei) resulted.

The Taoist philosophy can perhaps best be summed up in a quote from Chuang Tzu:

"To regard the fundamental as the essence, to regard things as coarse, to regard accumulation as deficiency, and to dwell quietly alone with the spiritual and the intelligent -- herein lie the techniques of Tao of the ancients."
One element of Taoism is a kind of existential skepticism, something which can already be seen in the philosophy of Yang Chu (4th century B.C.) who wrote:

"What is man's life for? What pleasure is there in it? Is it for beauty and riches? Is it for sound and colour? But there comes a time when beauty and riches no longer answer the needs of the heart, and when a surfeit of sound and colour becomes a weariness to the eyes and a ringing in the ears.

"The men of old knew that life comes without warning, and as suddenly goes. They denied none of their natural inclinations, and repressed none of their bodily desires. They never felt the spur of fame. They sauntered through life gathering its pleasures as the impulse moved them. Since they cared nothing for fame after death, they were beyond the law. For name and praise, sooner or later, a long life or short one, they cared not at all."

Contemplating the remarkable natural world Lao Tzu felt that it was man and his activities which constituted a blight on the otherwise perfect order of things. Thus he counseled people to turn away from the folly of human pursuits and to return to one's natural wellspring.

The five colours blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavours dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.

Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.

The central vehicle of achieving tranquillity was the Tao, a term which has been translated as 'the way' or 'the path.' Te in this context refers to virtue and Ching refers to laws. Thus the Tao Te Ching could be translated as The Law (or Canon) of Virtue and it's Way. The Tao was the central mystical term of the Lao Tzu and the Taoists, a formless, unfathomable source of all things.

Look, it cannot be seen - it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard - it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held - it is intangible.
These three are indefinable, they are one.

From above it is not bright;
From below it is not dark:
Unbroken thread beyond description.
It returns to nothingness.
Form of the formless,
Image of the imageless,
It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.

Stand before it - there is no beginning.
Follow it and there is no end.
Stay with the Tao, Move with the present.

Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.

Lao Tzu has Yin Xi appear to the Barbarian as the Buddha.

Lao Tzu has Yin Xi appear to the Barbarian as the

Lao Tsu taught that all straining, all striving are not only vain but counterproductive. One should endeavor to do nothing (wu-wei). But what does this mean? It means not to literally do nothing, but to discern and follow the natural forces -- to follow and shape the flow of events and not to pit oneself against the natural order of things. First and foremost to be spontaneous in ones actions.

In this sense the Taoist doctrine of wu-wei can be understood as a way of mastering circumstances by understanding their nature or principal, and then shaping ones actions in accordance with these. This understanding has also infused the approach to movement as it is developed in Tai Chi Chuan.

Understanding this, Taoist philosophy followed a very interesting circle. On the one hand the Taoists, rejected the Confucian attempts to regulate life and society and counseled instead to turn away from it to a solitary contemplation of nature. On the other hand they believed that by doing so one could ultimately harness the powers of the universe. By 'doing nothing' one could 'accomplish everything.' Lao Tzu writes:

The Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
If they still desired to act,
They would return to the simplicity of formless substance.
Without form there is no desire.
Without desire there is tranquillity.
In this way all things would be at peace.

In this way Taoist philosophy reached out to council rulers and advise them of how to govern their domains. Thus Taoism, in a peculiar and roundabout way, became a political philosophy. The formulation follows these lines:

The Taoist sage has no ambitions, therefore he can never fail. He who never fails always succeeds. And he who always succeeds is all- powerful.

From a solitary contemplation of nature, far removed from the affairs of men, can emerge a philosophy that has, both in a critical as well a constructive sense -- a direct and practical political message. Lao Tzu writes:

Why are people starving?
Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes.
Therefore the people are starving.

Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers interfere too much.
Therefore they are rebellious.

Why do people think so little of death?
Because the rulers demand too much of life.
Therefore the people take life lightly.

Having to live on, one knows better than to value life too much.

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