Lao Tzu (or Laozi), an honorific title meaning “Old Sage” or “Ancient Master,” is the name used to indicate the author of the famous Tao Te Ching. Nothing is known of this master with any certainty, though he is said to have been an elder contemporary of Confucius and therefore to have lived in the 6th century BCE.
The earliest biography of Lao Tzu comes to us from the Shiji (Records of the Historian) of Sima Qian, wherein a few fragments of his life are given.1 However, as one modern biographer has noted, Sima Qian “had only uncertain and contradictory information about his subject. He frankly admits that he is puzzled, and simply presents the hodgepodge of opinions he has managed to collect with an avowal that, all things considered, no one can be sure what they add up to.”2
The central points of what we may call the “Lao Tzu Story” are:
1. He was a native of Chu, a southern state of the Zhou dynasty, and was employed as an ‘archivist’ or ‘historian’ in the imperial court.
2. He may have met with Confucius on at least one occasion.3
3. He “cultivated the Way and its virtue. His teachings emphasized hiding oneself and avoiding fame.”1
4. Witnessing the decline of Zhou, he departed westward. Upon reaching the border, an official (Yin Xi) requested that he put his teachings into writing before leaving Zhou forever. Lao Tzu subsequently composed the Tao Te Ching, then departed, never to be seen again.
These must be viewed more in the light of legend than of history, and as but glimpses into the possible life of the sage.
H. P. Blavatsky offers a unique view of Lao Tzu in her Secret Doctrine, stating that he “is said to have written 930 books on Ethics and religions, and seventy on magic, one thousand in all . . .,” 4 but that over the coming centuries (prior to his first biography and to the introduction of Taoism as a specific religion or philosophy) these works were withdrawn such that the true doctrine of Lao Tzu remained solely in the hands of “initiated priests”. We can perhaps apply a touch of Taoist philosophy in our approach to the character of Lao Tzu, by allowing the truth to be, without clinging to the crystallization of any story. We are unlikely ever to know more than what we can gather from these small fragments.
Due to the composition of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu is often referred to as the “Father of Taosim,” but we must be careful to see these teachings in their larger light. As chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching makes clear, Lao Tzu was not the sole originator of his philosophy, but rather a practitioner and transmitter. 5 He speaks clearly of “masters of the Tao” of olden times and places himself in the position of attempting to describe both these ancient masters and their philosophy. As one author observes, to trace the history of Tao we must reach back to such characters as Huangdi and Fu Hsi and look to older works such as the I Ching. 6 However, the Tao Te Ching has itself played the central role in what we would now call (both philosophical and religious) Taoism, though we must recognize that this development of Taoism occurred well after the life of the “Old Master.” In fact, we hear nothing of Taoism or Taoist Schools until the second or first century BCE. 7
Thus, as with many of the ancient sages, we must look to his words to gain some idea of who Lao Tzu was and what were his views.
The Tao Te Ching is today the second most widely translated book in human history. It forms the fundamental core of modern Taoist philosophy and has informed the beliefs of the people of China for millenia. While H. P. Blavatsky remarks that this work is “a kind of cosmogony which contains all the fundamental tenets of Esoteric Cosmo genesis.” 8 it is most commonly read in its role as a work of morality and ethics, of psychology, health, social and political life, and overall for its profound instructions on our approach to daily living. It is immediately apparent upon first opening The Tao Te Ching that it is an exceedingly practical book.
Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the 10th ‘chapter’ provides us with six central questions, which the student of the Tao may ask themselves. In these we gather a sense of just what is the “Way” of Tao.
Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?
Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue. 9
It is by living in accordance with this supreme virtue, which is the Tao, that the Sage becomes harmonized with all that is, with Nature, in the most expansive sense of the term. The actions of such a one may seem as non-action, being perfectly attuned to the motion of the Tao, and the life of such a one is not a celebration of personal achievement but a life of selfless devotion to the Tao.
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever. 9
Thus, when Sima Qian tells us that Lao Tzu “cultivated the Way and its virtue,” we can imagine the Old Master as one who resided in the Tao, acted from the Tao, and made his life to conform to the Tao. In one sense, it is significant that we know so little of Lao Tzu. It is in the very nature of the Tao Master to not impose himself upon others or upon the world, but to simply lets things come, let them go, and reside always “at the center of the circle.” While Lao Tzu did not impose himself into the history books of the world, his impact upon it has been profound.
The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself. 9
Lao Tzu did his work, and the Tao continues to speak for itself.
1. See English translation of the Shiji published as The Grand Scribe’s Records, tr. William H. Nienhauser. The biography of Lao Tzu appears in Volume 7: The memoirs of pre-Han China, beginning on p. 21
2. Lao Tzu and Taoism, Max Kaltenmark, translated by Roger Greaves, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969), p . 6 .
3. The Shiji relates one meeting between Lao Tzu and Confucious, while the Zhuangzi relates several more. However, these are more likely to be fictional illustrations, using the names of these two great teachers as exemplars of their respective traditions, than as historically accurate records.
4. Secret Doctrine, Vol 1, Introductory, p. xxv. This statement is drawn from Max Müller’s Introduction to the Science of Religion, 1870, p. 17 (p. 62 in later editions). Müller references Stan. Julien, Tao-te-king, p. xxvii, as his source. Julien in turn drew from the Shenxian zhuan of Ge Hong (see To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents, tr. Robert Ford Campany, University of California Press, 2002, p. 200.). Ge Hong attributes this enumeration of texts by Lao Tzu as being recorded in the “Central Slips on Laozi’s Origins” (Laozi benqi zhongpian), a text that does not seem to be extant.
5. “The skilful masters (of the Tao) in old times, with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep (also) 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.” — Tao Te Ching, 15, J. Legge translation.
6. See “The Real Origin of the Tao” by Derek Lin.
7. See The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper, University of California Press, 1993
“Chinese official historiography, though exact and abundant, is virtually silent on the subject of Taoism, which stands apart from, or even in opposition to, the cult of the state and its ideology. Indeed, the annalists prefer to ignore Taoism as much as possible. Therefore, the dynastic annals do not reflect its importance in the life of the nation.” p. 5
“Under Emperor Wu (140-86 BC), Confucianism was established as the state ideology, excluding all other systems … [and] became the doctrine of imperial absolutism, the moral philosophy of the central administration. With this, a deep gulf opened which, despite noticeable variations, was to remain constant throughout Chinese history. On the one hand, there was the state and its administration, the official country, claiming the ‘Confucian’ tradition for its own; on the other was the real country, the local structures being expressed in regional and unofficial forms of religion. It was then that Taoism consciously assumed its own identity and received its present name.” p. 9
8. Theosophical Glossary, H. P. Blavatsky, 1892
9. Tao Te Ching, tr. Stephen Mitchell