Lao Tzu – The Keeper of The Archives at The Imperial of China
Published 15 Aug 2016
Zhuangzi once gave an account of Confucius’ description of a man who was called by the following names Lao Tzu, Laozi, Lao Tsu, Lao Tse, Lao Zi or Lao Tze.
“Master, you’ve seen Lao Tan—what estimation would you make of him?” Confucius said, “At last I may say that I have seen a dragon—a dragon that coils to show his body at its best, that sprawls out to display his patterns at their best, riding on the breath of the clouds, feeding on the yin and yang. My mouth feel open and I couldn’t close it; my tongue flew up and I couldn’t even stammer. How could I possibly make any estimation of Lao Tan!” Zhuangzi, Ch. 14
Lao Tzu is one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of Chinese Philosophy. This is further complicated by many accounts and legends surrounding whether Lao Tzu is indeed a historical person or just a pen-name. Some say that he was born between 722 BC and 481 BC in Ku Prefecture of the Chu state which is now known as the Lu Yi County of the Henan province of China. Lao Tzu was a famous Chinese philosopher and considered as the legendary father of Taoism. He is also considered as the principal author of Tao Te Ching, the main text of Taoist philosophy.
Aside from this, there are many other conflicting accounts as to who Lao Tzu really is. According to some stories, Lao Tzu was the keeper of the archives at the imperial court who went to the Western border of China. Frustrated and disillusioned by the fact that the Chinese men during his time refused to follow the path to natural goodness that has led to China’s moral decadence, he attempted to leave China. Were it not for the guard at the border, Lao Tzu would have vanished without a trace in history. It was the same guard at the border who had asked Lao Tzu to make a record of all his teachings before he left. Subsequently, he prepared a document which is now called the Treatise on the Way and its Power.
Other historians say that Lao Tzu is not a historical person but a quasi-historical person. On the other hand, some say that while Lao Tzu is not a real person’s name but a complimentary name for a man who is respected and revered as a philosopher and teacher which means “old man.” However, others say that while it may be true that Lao Tzu was a mere pseudonym, there may be a real historical person who was called Lao Tzu.
Be that as it may, Lao Tzu’s philosophy had become one of the most influential philosophies in China. One of the most convincing evidence of Lao Tzu’s existence is a large number of proverbs that have become part of the Taoist teaching. Together with Confucianism, the teachings of Taoism not only became a philosophy but a religion in China. Moreover, Confucianism and Taoism were also considered as the people’s response to the social, political and philosophical conditions in China during their time. Their main difference is that Confucianism emphasized on the social development of human potential, on conduct and on human society. On the other hand, Taoism adopted a more individualistic and mystical approach with emphasis on unity with the universe. Its goal is to help the individual achieve a simple and uncomplicated life with less humanly desires and more harmony with nature.
Understanding the Philosophy of Taoism
Although Lao Tzu was not as influential as Confucius, he was acknowledged and revered by some persons as a deity. This was because of his very influential work, the Tao Te Ching or Taoism.
In essence, the wisdom behind Taoism can be summarized in the following:
“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.” (“Lao Tzu: The Father of Taoism” 2)
Taoism is based on the premise that the universe and everything that happens in it is governed by one fundamental and universal principle which is called the Way or the Tao. The Way or the Tao is the reason for the existence of everything. It also governs everything. It is the only thing that binds everyone despite all the differences, multiplicities, and the dissimilarities. The Tao is the single unifying principle. In contrast, the Pre-Socratic Philosophers in the West also grappled with the single unifying principle the binds all persons. However, the Pre-Socratic philosophers thought it was either water, air, or a combination of different elements.
The second premise is that since the Tao governs everything it serves no purpose to go against it. A person who opposes the Tao will only frustrate himself and find himself at the losing end. A person who tries to fight the Tao will only experience more difficulties and fight a losing battle. The only solution is to live life in harmony with the Tao. Thus, Lao Tzu thought that one should strive to understand the Tao and live in harmony with it.
How does not live in harmony with the Tao? According to Lao Tzu, being one with the Tao requires passivity, calmness, non-striving, humility, and lack of planning. While it may seem quite preposterous at first to think about a Chinese philosopher saying that a person should remain passive and avoid planning, Lao Tzu merely emphasized that a person should not be hyperactive so as to become quarrelsome with other persons. Forcing things are not the way of the Tao. In saying that planning is against the Tao, Lao Tzu merely wanted to emphasize that an individual’s mind should remain simple and not complex. Too much planning is not advised since after all there are so many factors and influences that may interfere with a person’s plans.
Lao Tzu also taught that individuals should understand nature and the forces that govern us and follow these natural forces. One has to follow the flow of nature and not go against it. In the contemporary society, there is a global financial crisis. Businesses refuse to make the huge investment. People are afraid to spend their money. The dollar is also weakening compared to the other major currencies. A person who believes in the Tao knows that the global financial crisis is not a permanent phenomenon. Just like what happened in the past, things will get better. Thus, a person who believes in the Tao will wait for the right time before he makes the big investment in the business. A person who believes in the Tao will not make useless purchases and try to save as much as he can for the rainy day. To go against the global financial crisis by making unnecessary investments in Stock Exchange will only lead to failure.
Lao Tzu, just like Confucius, also hoped that his philosophy will be applied to politics and governance. For Lao Tzu, passivity meant non-aggression and not going to war. It is about making peace with other nations. For Lao Tzu winning a war is not half as important as lives of the people that will be lost in joining a war.
Passivity also meant non-interference with the person’s lives and acting merely as a guide for the people. Thus, Lao Tzu supported that idea that the government should only supervise the people and avoid controlling them. Non-striving can also mean avoiding obsession with too much wealth and power.
Lao Tzu is indeed an enigma. Yet his influence continues to reverberate until now. His philosophy still finds application in the contemporary society. As one finds difficulty in trying to find happiness in the modern society, perhaps one can find refuge in the Tao. Calmness, passivity, and humility are perhaps the two things that are lacking in our society. By following this principle, we can all find peace and harmony with ourselves and with each other.