H. P. Blavatsky described Lao Tzu as a God-like being and classed him with Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus, who “united themselves with their Spirits permanently” and “became Gods on earth.” Such Personages are rare and superior to Moses, Pythagoras and Confucius, who “have taken rank in history as demi-gods and leaders of mankind.” Lao Tzu was the resuscitator of Taoism, the practical philosophy and religion of The Way.
Lao Tzu did not invent the Tao; he discovered it — obscured by the weeds of passion and the upas trees of superstition. The ancient and narrow Way of the Heart was lost in the wilderness of China, where a hundred rules of ceremony were observed and, for those who disregarded them — a thousand rules of punishment; but ceremonies failed to control the natures of men and punishments put no stop to treacherous villainies.
Born some fifty years before Confucius, Lao Tzu had to perform pioneering work of an iconoclastic nature — discarding and rejecting books and documents, rituals and sacraments, temporal and religious, non-understandingly believed in by the Chinese to their detriment. The task of Confucius, of codifying the old records for use, became easy and more defined because of the moral courage and spiritual strength which Lao Tzu dispensed by his own strict treading of the Path and his virile exposure of blind beliefs, superstitious practices and hypocritical observance of ritual and ceremony. He, too, preached of the Ancients; in fact, he set the example for Confucius himself; but Lao Tzu’s transmission was of Teh — the Virtue of the Heart. Confucius was able to justify the ancient words as Lao Tzu lived them. Among the masses of China, of the eras subsequent to the one in which these two lived and labored, their respective followers brought divisions, and pitted one teacher against another; Orientalists also fail to see the cooperative force at work in the service rendered by these two Sages. Just as in India the bond subsisting between Gautama-Buddha and Sankar-Acharya is not perceived and their later day followers are inimical, so also in the case of Lao Tzu and Confucius. They did not teach opposing doctrines, but complementing ones, though two differing creeds sprang into existence and persist to this day.
The philosophy of Tao was in existence before Lao Tzu. However degenerated and corrupted, it was there. Hwang Ti (2697 B.C.) is instanced as a seeker of the Tao and was instructed in its mysteries by Kwang Chang-Tze, who practiced Tao (i.e., walked the Path) for 1200 years. The earliest extant treatise of Taoism is Yin Fu Ching — the book about the inner Harmony between the Visible and the Invisible and belongs to this ancient period of Hwang-Ti. This treatise is the Instructions of Kwang-Chang-Tze prepared for his royal pupil. It is a short but profound treatise from which we will extract three verses:
The nature of man is here clever and there stupid; and the one of these qualities may lie hidden in the other. The abuse of the nine apertures is chiefly in the three most important, which may be now in movement and now at rest. When fire arises in wood, the evil, having once begun, is sure to go on to the destruction of the wood. When calamity arises in a State, if thereafter movement ensue, it is sure to go to ruin. When one conducts the work of culture and refining wisely we call him a Sage.
The blind hear well, and the deaf see well. To derive all that is advantageous from the one source is ten times better than the employment of a host; to do this thrice in a day and night is a myriad times better. The mind is quickened to activity by external things, and dies through excessive pursuit of them. The spring of the mind’s activity is in the eyes.
The method of spontaneity proceeds in stillness, and so it was that heaven, earth, and all things were produced. The method of heaven and earth proceeds gently and gradually, and thus it is that the Yin and Yang overcome each other by turns. The one takes the place of the other, and so change and transformation proceed accordingly. Therefore, the sages, knowing that the method of spontaneity can not be resisted, take action accordingly and regulate it for the purpose of culture.
Not only in the writings of his most celebrated disciple, Chwang Tzu (e.g. Book 33), but in the records of Lao Tzu himself, we come across the fact of the existence of Tao in antiquity. From the Tao Teh Ching itself we learn of the ancient treaders of the Paradoxical Way. It speaks of the age of perfect virtue and of the time “when the Great Tao ceased to be observed.” And yet — it makes a pointed reference to the “skilful masters,” not only of the old time, but of all times. Sometimes They become known because people arrive at knowledge; most of the time they remain unknown because people are ignorant. Says Tao Teh Ching:
The skilful masters of the Tao in old times, with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep so as to elude men’s knowledge. As they were thus beyond men’s knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they appeared to be.
Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in winter; irresolute, like those who are afraid of all around them; grave, like a guest in awe of his host; evanescent, like ice that is melting away; unpretentious, like wood that has not been fashioned into anything; vacant, like a valley, and dull, like muddy water.
Who can make the muddy water clear? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.
They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full of themselves. It is through their not being full of themselves that they can afford to seem worn and not appear new and complete
The Virtue-Age is one in which the Path of Virtue is perceived — the sage gains recognition. The rest is the Vulgar-Age. These alternate. Here we gain a deeper perception and a fresh viewpoint of the adage, “when the pupil is ready the Master appears.” The embodied Tao is always in the world; those who recognize the sages usher in the era of knowledge and begin for themselves and the world the cycle of wisdom. The age of Lao Tzu was the age of Buddha, of Pythagoras, of Zoroaster, of Mahavira, of Ezekiel, of Isaiah. To explain the phenomenon of that strikingly remarkable era of great Teachers all over the world in the Way of Lao Tzu would be to say that the vulgar, walking in the Way of Virtue, came to the sages and learnt more of the wisdom; they passed on, off the track of Virtue, forgot the Sages, and fell in the way of vulgarity. In the Vulgar-Age words of wisdom are spoken; in the Virtue-Age, they are lived. As people live Wisdom they meet companions and elders; when they only speak of it they contact passive listeners and child-souls.
The teachings of the Way and Tao existed as words when Lao Tzu incarnated to practice it in life. Here as in the narratives of other Great Lives, psychological and mythical facts have become interwoven; the student of Theosophy will be able to evaluate. In the Taoist traditions there are indications that Lao Tzu practiced Tao in previous incarnations; e.g., as Kwang Chang Tze and as Po-Chang in the eras of Hwang-Ti and of Yao respectively. In the stone tablets of Hsieh Tao-Hang it is said that “from the time of Fu-Hsi down to that of the Chou dynasty, in uninterrupted succession, his person appeared, but with changed names.” Like so many other spiritual sages, he, too, was born of a virgin mother who conceived him at the sight of a meteor — “as beneath the Bear the star shone down.” He was born with a white beard expressive of his hoary wisdom — “all dragon gifts his person graced and like stork’s plumage was his hair.” Around him was “purple air which shone bright.” His surname was Li, and his name R, which means “Ear,” and he was called long-eared, symbolic (as in the case of Buddha) of his capacity to listen to the voice of the silence, or the InnerTao. Details of his life activities are not available, and all that is known is that he spent most of his years in the state of Chou and taught by life more than by lips. He had some connection with the Royal Library of that province. He cultivated the Tao and endeavored to remain concealed and unknown. Very few really came to him, but he accomplished that for which he incarnated. In a touching fragment, affording us an insight, he says:
Alas! the barrenness of the age has not yet reached its limit.
All men are radiant with happiness, as if enjoying a great feast, as if mounted on a tower in spring. I, alone, am still, and give as yet no sign of joy. I am like an infant which has not yet smiled, forlorn as one who has nowhere to lay his head. Other men have plenty, while I, alone, seem to have lost all. I am a man foolish in heart, dull and confused. Other men are full of light; I, alone, seem to be in darkness. Other men are alert; I, alone, am listless. I am unsettled as the ocean, drifting as though I had no stopping-place. All men have their usefulness; I, alone, am stupid and clownish. Lonely though I am, and unlike other men, yet I revere the Foster-Mother, Tao.
My words are very easy to understand, very easy to put into practice; yet the world can neither understand nor practice them.
My words have a clue, my actions have an underlying principle. It is because men do not know the clue that they understand me not.
Those who know me are but few, and on that account my honour is the greater.
Thus the sage wears coarse garments, but carries a jewel in his bosom.
He did not die — he disappeared. He was last heard of at the northwest gate of his land, where the warden Yin Hsi recognized him. “You are about to withdraw from the world. Record for me your instructions.” Then Lao Tzu wrote that which is famous as the Tao Teh Ching, the Classic of the Path of Virtue. In the books of his most celebrated disciple, Chwang Tzu (Book III), there is a reference to the passing of Lao Tzu:
When the Master came, it was at the proper time; when he went away, it was the simple sequence of his coming. Quiet acquiescence in what happens at its proper time, and quietly submitting to its ceasing afford no occasion for grief or for joy. The ancients described death as the loosening of the cord on which the Tao is suspended. What we can point to are the faggots that have been consumed; but the fire is transmitted, and we know not that it is over and ended.
After the departure of Lao Tzu enormous activity under the general name of Tao took place. As in our own era of H.P.B., half-informed students, failures on the Path of Virtue, moneymakers, soothsayers and frauds, deluded large numbers; on the other hand, his seeds of thought fructified the mind-soil of ardent individuals, though most among them were mere speculators. While Chwang Tzu and Leih Tzu and Went Zu endeavored to keep the original impulse unsullied, many well-meaning persons began interpreting and improving the original teachings, till within a century and a half corruption had set in, and a little later Lao Tzu’s noble doctrine perished — in 213 B.C., the year when books and Mss. were burnt. That fire, perhaps, was the great reaction from the regions of the astral light to the imprints made thereon by the falsifiers of the doctrine who were indiscriminately accepted by the public at large — in theory, and alas! in practice also. There is a striking resemblance between the era of Lao Tzu and our own, if we note two distinct features: (1) H.P.B.’s teachings affect an international world; Lao Tzu touched China only; (2) the events which covered a period of nearly 500 years are being precipitated within a single century.
Taoism is the ancient Wisdom-Religion of Theosophy. The Great Ones of yore, the Original Teachers, are thus described and They, as all Theosophists know, exist today and ever will:
The True men of old could not be fully described by the wisest, nor be led into excess by the most beautiful, nor be forced by the most violent robber. Neither Fu-Hsi nor Hwang-Ti could compel them to be their friends. Death and life are indeed great considerations, but they could make no change in their (true) self; and how much less could rank and emolument do so? Being such, their spirits might pass over the Thai mountain and find it no obstacle to them; they might enter the greatest gulphs, and not be wet by them; they might occupy the lowest and smallest positions without being distressed by them. Theirs was the fullness of heaven and earth; the more that they gave to others, the more they had.