Lao Tzu (Dates estimated by scholars that he lived between 300 and 600 B.C.)
The biography of Lao Tzu is difficult to trace, and several people questioned whether or not one actual person or many were responsible for the teachings recorded in the Tao Te Ching. It is not clearly known who Lao Tzu actually was. He is, however, thought to have been a Great Sage who recorded the Tao Te Ching, one of China’s most studied and oldest manuscripts of ancient wisdom. Some scholars believe that the Tao Te Ching may be an anthology of wisdom compiled from ancient teachings of many different Chinese sages. In this course, we will treat Lao Tzu as if he existed, and look at some of those stories surrounding his life, as well as presenting some of the teachings of the Tao Te Ching
The name Lao Tzu is thought to be a title rather than a proper name, and denotes “the old son,” “the old man,” “the old philosopher,” or “old master.” One of the accounts of the life of Lao Tzu claimed that he lived to be over 160 years old, and thus earned the title. Another, more dramatic and seemingly mythological story tells that Lao Tzu’s mother carried him in her womb for 62 years, and thus he was born with white hair, and appeared as an old man, hence his name. Some accounts recorded his actual name as Lao Tan, or Li Er. A work by Ssu-ma Ch’ien, recorded around 90 B.C., tells us that sometime in the sixth century B.C. Lao Tzu was born, and was appointed Keeper of the Imperial Archives by the Emperor of Zhou, in Luoyang, now the Honan Province. He studied intensively in the Royal library, growing in wisdom and insight.
Lao Tzu became known as a sage, and soon Confucius heard of this wise man, and came to visit him. At the time, Confucius placed great importance on performing rituals and rites, and honoring ancestors. He asked Lao Tzu to comment on these practices. It is said that Lao Tzu told him, “The bones of the people you are talking about have long since been turned to dust! Only their word lingers on. If a man’s time comes, he will be successful; if not he will not be successful. A successful merchant hides his wealth and a noble person of character will feign foolishness. Therefore you should give up your proud airs, your desires, vanity and extravagant claims! They are useless to you.”
Later, Confucius tells his students, “Birds can fly, fish can swim, animals can run, so they can all be snared or trapped. But Lao Tzu is like a flying dragon, un-trappable.”
Ssu-ma Ch’ien next records that Lao Tzu, unsettled with the cultural decline of the state, decides to travel into the western mountains. At the gate of the outer entrance to the state, the keeper of the gate, recognizing him, asks Lao Tzu to allow his teachings to be recorded. At this time it is said that he stayed with the gatekeeper for two days, during which time he recorded the Tao Te Ching. After this, it is said that he was not seen or heard from again.
Lao Tzu’s status was to change and transform through the centuries of Chinese history. He was thought of as an inspiration for political philosophy. Eventually he was thought to be immortal, even deified as Lord Haung-Lao, Lord Lao, and later, Li Hung, The Perfect Lord. He was believed to maintain harmony and to be intimately connected with the Tao, the way of the cosmos.
Dr. Chalmers, who translated the Tao Te Ching, did not try to translate the word Tao. He says, “No English word is its exact equivalent. Three terms suggest themselves the way, reason, and the word; but they are all liable to objection. If we were guided by etymology, the way would come nearest to the original, and in one or two passages the idea of a way seems to be in the term; but this is too materialistic to serve the purpose of the translation.” In subsequent translations, the Tao is translated as “the way.” For the sake of this study, the Tao Te Ching could be called “The Way of Virtue,” yet this is a simplistic translation, communicating only a shadow of the true meaning of the Tao. The Tao seems, as a mere word, to symbolize that which existed before language, and cannot be named, for when the naming occurs, the Tao becomes manifest, and no longer in its pure, undifferentiated form. The symbol of Yin and Yang, with its white part and black part representing the manifest world of opposites, represents that which is beyond separation and contains all opposites. The Yin and Yang symbol can be meditated on to understand the Tao.