Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Taoist Faith/Philosophy: Laozi (Installment #1 H2)

            Throughout my life, I have been interested in many cultures and religious/philosophical ideals. Studying them extensively or just a quick google search when I find myself in a moment of curiosity enraptures my entire being. It has always been an enjoyable pass time to google and read about new things I did not understand before or to read the origins of an idea or person. I’m sure a lot of people tend to be like that. One philosophy I have been fond of for a long time is Taoism (Daoism), for those that may be unfamiliar with the name it is the Chinese philosophy responsible for the idea of Yin and Yang. Obviously, Taoism is much more than that but for my 1st installment I want to focus more on the Philosopher credited with the philosophy’s creation: Lao Tzu (Laozi). The origins of this man are mixed and often hard to find, that’s what makes Laozi such an interesting character. The name “Laozi” is best taken to mean “Old (lao) Master (zi),” and Laozi the ancient philosopher is said to have written a short book, which has come to be called simply the Laozi after it’s author, a common practice in early China according to Stanford’s encyclopedia of Philosophy. Most researchers can agree that he originated and flourished in the 6th century BCE. Although, some modern scholars believe Laozi is entirely legendary; there was never a historical Laozi. In religious Daoism, Laozi is revered as a supreme deity instead of an “Old sage”, but contradictory to this the only other reliable biography of him is the Shiji written by historian Sima Qian of 145 BC. 


The Shiji is also known as the Records of the Historian, it is the only record I could find that stated any kind of physical biography on Laozi. Within its pages, it states that he was a native of Chu, a southern state in the Zhou dynasty. His surname was Li; his given name was Er, and he was also called Dan. Laozi served as a keeper of archival records at the court of Zhou. He lived in Zhou for a long time, until he witnessed the decline of Zhou. The Zhou Dynasty came to an end during the Warring States period in 256 BCE, when the army of the state of Qin captured the city of Chengzhou and the last Zhou ruler, King Nan, was killed. The real power of Zhou was so small, that the end of the dynasty was hardly noted. So Laozi decided to leave. When he reached the northwest border then separating China from the outside world, he met Yin Xi, the official in charge of the border crossing, who asked him to put his teachings into writing. The result was a book consisting of some five thousand Chinese characters, divided into two parts, which discusses “the meaning of Dao and virtue.” Thereafter, Laozi left; no one knew where he had gone. This completes the main part of Sima Qian's account. The remainder puts on record attempts to identify the legendary Laozi with certain known historical individuals and concludes with a list of Laozi's purported descendants. On top of that, it is said that Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) had consulted him on certain ritual matters and praised him lavishly afterward (Shiji 63). This establishes the traditional claim that Laozi was a senior contemporary of Confucius. A meeting or meetings between Confucius and Laozi, identified as “Lao Dan,” is reported also in the Zhuangzi and other early Chinese sources. (Stanford). But the same book has also stated something strange, it gives rise to the possibility of three different “Laozi”s in history.
A website called “Notable Biographies” claimed that the Records of the Historian had an account of not one, but three men named Lao Tzu. The first Lao Tzu was a man named Li Erh or Li Tan, who came from the village of Ch'üjen in the southern Chinese state of Chu. This is pretty close to the Laozi already discussed above so it stands to reason this is the more common one people talk about. Li Erh served as historian in charge of the official records in the Chinese imperial capital of Luoyang. He was a peer of the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 B.C.E. ), and he is reported to have given an interview to Confucius when he came to Luoyang seeking information on the Chou ritual.
The second man identified as the founder of Taoism was Lao Lai Tzu, who also came from Chu. He is said to be a person of the same age as Confucius and is credited with a fifteen-chapter book explaining the teachings of the Taoist school. Nothing more is stated about the second Lao Tzu within the article.
Finally, per a third account, the original Lao Tzu lived 129 years AFTER the death of Confucius. This man went by the name of Tan, the historian of Chou. It is, honestly, impossible to prove the historical accuracy of any of these accounts. As I said before, Lao Tzu is not really a person's name but rather a title meaning "old man" or “old sage”. It was common in this period to refer to respected philosophers and teachers with words meaning "old" or "mature." It is possible that a man who assumed the name of Lao Tzu was a historical person, but the term Lao Tzu also was used as a substitute title to the supreme Taoist classic, Tao Te Ching (Classic of the Way and the Power).
The Tao Te Ching, or Daodejing, contains philosophical and religious scripts about ‘Taoism’, depicted through 81 short poems. It’s a collection of sayings describing the principal Taoist teachings. Most scholars, though, tend to agree that Lao Tzu did not write this book, mainly because it is unclear whether he was a historical person or just a legend. The most convincing theory is that there was a large number of proverbs that were part of the Taoist teaching. They were memorized and passed on from teacher to pupil. Eventually the best of these sayings were collected and edited into the book, which was then given the title Tao Te Ching. A study of the style and grammar of the work reveals that it must have been put together around the fourth century B.C.E. after Laozi’s life span. (Notable Biographies).


To explain why the life of Laozi is so shrouded in obscurity, Sima Qian says that he was a gentleman recluse whose doctrine consisted in non-action, the cultivation of a state of inner calm, and purity of mind. Indeed, throughout the whole history of China, there have always been recluses who shunned worldly life. The author (or authors) of the Daodejing was probably a person of this kind who left no trace of his life.


  1. Very interesting. Maybe you'll say a bit in your next post about the similarities and differences between Taoism and Confucianism? And/or between Taoism & eastern thought generally and western/Christian ideas about selfhood and soul. Is it an impersonal continuum with nature, or something supernatural that incurs into the phenomenal world and points to something eternal beyond it? A quote I find illuminating, from Robert Solomon's "A Passion for Wisdom":

    "In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, by contrast [with Taoism], one is holy insofar as one is not part of nature and is outside of time… The Christian soul is an intact bit of eternity in everyone. The Taoist soul is more like a drop of water in a stream. Again: Taoists believe that to be wise is to realize one’s unity with nature and to live in conjunction with nature’s rhythm, the Tao… The personal self may die, but the Tao with which the sage identifies lives on."

    And on the lighter side, check out Benjamin Hoff's "The Tao of Pooh" & "The Te of Piglet"...

    “Rabbit's clever," said Pooh thoughtfully.
    "Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit's clever."
    "And he has Brain."
    "Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit has Brain."
    There was a long silence.
    "I suppose," said Pooh, "that that's why he never understands anything.”
    ― Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

  2. Anonymous11:08 PM CST

    First off, I think it is a very good quality that when you find something interesting that you are not afraid to learn more about it yourself and do the research without having to be prompted to. So many people are willing to accept any statement as fact without any background or reliable source information, so I greatly applaud you for your initiative. Second, I think this is a very good topic as religion is becoming increasingly diverse, especially in this area, and I have met several people in Murfreesboro that follow Taoism. The more we know about the world around us, the better informed decisions we can make. This is very informative about a subject many Western countries are not as familiar with. In your second installment, perhaps, give a little bit on how this philosophy can apply to our lives here and now.

  3. Very interesting indeed. I love early Eastern culture and philosophy. It's fascinating to see how thoughts propagated in humans from different parts of the world, completely separate from one another. Most of them (I assume, confidently), did not share their thoughts and philosophies with the Greeks or Germans or Africans. It's really neat how different we as a species are in different parts of the world and at different times.