Carolyn and I have long appreciated the writings of Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, and have incorporated his philosophy into our lives.
Lao Tzu (or Laozi, and there are also around 10 other possible spellings of his name) was a semi-legendary ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher. The name Lao Tzu is a Chinese term that is usually translated as “the Old Master.”
It’s difficult to separate myth from fact about Lao Tzu; little is known about his life. Traditional accounts say that his original name was Li Er or Lao Dan and that he was born in the 6th century BC, in the village of Quren, which is in the state of Chu, a southern region in China.
It’s thought that Lao Tzu served as an archivist and scholar, an official who worked as a keeper of the imperial archives, for the Zhou court at Wangcheng. Zhho was a royal dynasty of China that lasted from 1046 BC to 256 BC, and Wancheng was an ancient Chinese city that today is known as Luoyang. This position as an archivist reportedly allowed Lao Tzu to access and study the classic works of his time.
Early accounts of Lao Tzu vary. In one account, it said that he was a contemporary of the Chinese philosopher and politician Confucius during the 6th or 5th century BC and that he met Confucius on one occasion, who was impressed by him, and Confucius mentions him in his writings. Another early account said that he was the court astrologer Lao Dan, who lived during the 4th century BC reign of the Chinese ruler Duke Xian of Qin.
In another account, it is said that Lao Tzu married and had a son who became a celebrated soldier. It is also thought that Lao Tzu never opened a formal school, but that he attracted many students and loyal disciples. In the later part of his life, he moved west and lived in an unsettled frontier region of China until the age of 80.
When Lao Tzu moved to this new region in the west, it is said in one account that a guard at the gate of this region asked him to record his wisdom for the good of the country before he could pass, and the text that he wrote was said to be the initial draft for the Tao Te Ching, although the present version includes additions from later periods.
The oldest surviving text of the Tao Te Ching so far recovered was part of the unearthed tomb of Guodian Chu Slips in 1993 and dates back to the Warring States period, which was an era in Chinese history characterized by warfare and lasted from 481 BC to 403 BC. The text of this early copy of the Tao Te Ching was written on bamboo slips, which was the main medium for writing documents prior to the introduction of the paper.
Some Western scholars think that the person known as Lao Tzu is a mythical character and that the Tao Te Ching was actually authored by a group of philosophers, not a single person, although more recent archeological discoveries have provided evidence that many Chinese scholars believe affirm the existence of a historical Lao Tzu.
The Tao Te Ching is a fundamental text for Taoism. Along with Confucianism and Buddhism, Taoism is one of the main currents of Chinese philosophy. Taoism is a philosophical or religious tradition that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao. The word “Tao” doesn’t have a clear definition, because, according to the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.” However, the term generally means “way,” “path,” or “principle,” and in Taoism, it denotes something that is both the source and the driving force behind everything that exists. Some think of it as “God,” “the Great Spirit,” or “the Great Mystery,” but if it can be expressed in words, then by definition, it is not the Tao.
There are numerous myths about Lao Tzu. Some traditions worship Lao Tzu as a god and believe that he entered this world through a virgin birth, conceived when his mother gazed upon a falling star and that he remained in his mother’s womb for 62 years. According to this tradition he emerged from his mother’s womb as a grown man with a full grey beard. Other myths say that he was reborn 13 times after his first life, and in his last life, he lived for 990 years, traveling around China and teaching about the Tao.
Today there are numerous translations of the Tao Te Ching, and the influence of Taoism on Chinese culture and the Western world has been deep and far-reaching, influencing literature and the arts, as well as science. The Taoist perspective on natural elements, and observing how the natural world works, helped to create Chinese medicine. A search on Amazon currently reveals over 60 popular translations of the Tao Te Ching. Wayne Dyer created Living the Wisdom of the Tao, which contains the complete Tao Te Ching along with affirmations, and our friend Timothy Leary wrote a translation of the Tao Te Ching called Psychedelic Prayers.
Much of Carolyn’s artwork and poetry has been inspired by Taoism. Below are several of her Taoism-inspired paintings.
Some of the quotes that Lao Tzu is known for include:
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.
Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.
If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.
Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
Do you have the patience to wait until your mind settles and the water is clear?
Silence is a source of Great Strength.
Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.