Lao Tzu, famously known as Laozi, is one of the most influential and mystical figures of 6th century China. With his book, the Tao Te Ching, he became the unrivaled founder of Taoism (or Daoism). His philosophy encourages people to follow the “most natural and ecstatic way of life (which ultimately leads to immortality)”.
There are various accounts on the early life of Laozi. The most distinguished of these come from a biography written by Sim Qian, the historian. His real name is believed to be Er or Dan with surname Li. A Li Er used to work in the imperial court as Keeper of Archives. He had a son named Zong, and thus many Li clans claim to be the direct descendants of Laozi. He had come from the state Chu, and attracted a large number of disciples during the Zhou Dynasty. One of the most popular scholarly interactions of Laozi was with Confucius. Confucius was another great philosopher of the post Laozi era. Sim Qian has crafted the story of young Confucius visiting Laozi with a history related question in mind. Here is how the eloquent Laozi responded,
“Those about whom you inquire have molded with their bones into dust. Nothing but their words remain. When the hour of the great man has struck he rises to leadership; but before his time has come he is hampered in all that he attempts. I have heard that the successful merchant carefully conceals his wealth, and acts as though he had nothing – that the great man, though abounding in achievements, is simple in his manners and appearance. Get rid of your pride and your many ambitions, your affectation and your extravagant aims. Your character gains nothing for all these. This is my advice to you.”
This is just one classic example of his extraordinary command over words and mysterious principles of philosophy that he believed in. In recognition of this and numerous other encounters, he was given the title Lao Tzu or Laozi, meaning the “old master”. There is, however, a subtle debate over the existence of this old master. Whether he existed or not, Taoism is the foundation of Chinese philosophical literature.
Over a span of 2000 years, the Chinese culture and religious tradition has sought its roots from three basic forms: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Lao Tzu reportedly taught both Confucius and Buddha. Taoism is based on the belief that there exists a way (Tao) and the entire universe adheres to this way. One should adapt to the rhythm of constant flux and transformation and all problems will automatically vanish. So, for Taoists, Tao is and should be the way. Taoism condemns every law, scale or measure because these very human interventions limit us in our abilities and perceptions which in turn create chaos. The best course of action is no action and the best way of saying is not saying. So the peasant Chinese classes have, for thousands of years, tried to align themselves with the universal rhythm, emptying themselves from worldly artifacts to get hold of the universal force and immortality.
Lao Tzu, at 80, emptied yet aligned with the Tao, set a course to west seeking a quiet life. At the western gate, Yinxi-the gatekeeper recognized him and it was as per his request that Laozi wrote Tao Te Ching, “The Book of the Way and Power”. Laozi is said to have left the city after that, never to be seen again.
“He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.”
“When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.”
“The intellectual man is a danger to the state because he thinks in terms of regulations and laws; he wishes to construct a society like geometry, and does not realize that such regulation destroys the living freedom and vigor of the parts. The simpler man, who knows from his own experience the pleasure and efficacy of work, conceived and carried out in liberty, is less of a peril when he is in power, for he does not have to be told that a law is a dangerous thing, and may injure more than it may help. Such a ruler regulates men as little as possible.”
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