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Lao-Tzu [BC 604-523]

Lao-TzuVery little is known about the historic Lao-Tzu [Laozi], who created Taoism. There are stories, but some of them are inconsistent. The life of Lao-tzu, like the book which he wrote, are enveloped in mystery; and one might almost be excused for doubting whether such a person ever actually existed. One author, indeed, has even gone the length of saying that Lao-tzu was made out of space or vacuity. Of the life of Lao-tzu very little is known. Confucius and Mencius, for instance, stand out as real personages who actually played a part in China's history; while all we can gather from the short life of Lao Tzu, a part of which reads like an interpolation by another hand, is that he was a more or less legendary individual, whose very existence at the date usually assigned to him, 7th and 6th centuries BC, is altogether doubtful. According to some modern scholars, Laozi is entirely legendary; there was never an historical Laozi.

"In an influential essay, A. C. Graham (1986) argues that the story of Laozi reflects a conflation of different legends. The earliest strand revolved around the meeting of Confucius with Lao Dan and was current by the fourth century B.C.E. During the first half of the third century, Lao Dan was recognized as a great thinker in his own right and as the founder of a distinct “Laoist” school of thought. It was not until the Han dynasty, when the teachings of Laozi, Zhuangzi, and others were seen to share certain insights centering on the concept of Dao, that they were classified together under the rubric of philosophical “Daoism” (daojia)."

Although the majority takes “Laozi” to mean “Old Master,” some scholars believe that “Lao” is a surname. He was mysterious both in his birth and his death, and through all his life he seems to have courted obscurity. The most sweemingly reliable account of him which has come down to the present is that by Szu Ma-chien, or Sze-ma-thsien, in the Shi-chi, and this is very brief and unsatisfactory. There are also occasional notices of him in other old books, but the stories told about him in the Records of Spirits and Fairies and works of a like nature are only a tissue of falsehoods which all sensible men reject.

Szu Ma-chien says Lao Tzu was a native of the hamlet Ch'u-jen of the parish Lai or Li; in the district Ku; town of the state Ch'u. His surname was Li, his name Erh, his style Po-yang and his posthumous designation Tan. He was in office at the court of Chou as Shou-tsang-shi-cbi-shi, which may be translated as "gardien dee archives." Chinese sources do not provide a reliable statement as to the date of Lao-tzu's birth; though one asserts positively that he was born on the 14th day of the 9th moon, in the year BC 604. In this he is followed by another who, however, says the date was the 8rd year of king Ting of the Chou dynasty, corresponding to BC 604. There is nothing improbable in this date, as it is known from other sources that Lao-tzu was a contemporary of Confucius, though very much his senior; and as Confucius was born about BC 650, Lao-tzu must apparently have been born about the beginning of the sixth century BC. The latter sage indeed, is usually represented as having attained to a very great age, and as having been alive much more than fifty years before the birth of Confucius.

But by digging beneath the rubbish of superstitious and fabulous accounts we find reason for the belief that he was born about B. C. 604. Unlike his princely contemporary of India, his parents were poor. They are supposed to have lived in the kingdom now inclosed within the limits of what is called the Province of Hupeh. Unless the fanciful legends which the priests of the system would impress upon the credulous are believed, one is forced to the conclusion that his life was plain and unromantic. It is probable that he made himself familiar with the fragmentary histories and ballads of his time, and which it was afterward the work of Confucius to collate. His type of mind was rather synthetic. He liked to sum up particular virtues and existences, and refer them to one all-embracing whole. He was accustomed to derive many beautiful lessons from nature, but in his manner of so doing he showed himself to be more of a poet than a scientific observer.

But his life and his book were both characterized by a depth and independence which was far superior even to the style of Confucius. He was less practical, however, than either Confucius or Gautama. He was the "philosopher at home," rather than the "school-master abroad." His disposition, if we can judge from his teachings, was marked for humility. He was charitable, even to "recompensing injury with virtue." Such, at least, was the disposition ho, sought for in others, and yet there seems to be no memory of his having applied his principles to himself, and to have devoted himself to the benefit of others.

For a long time he resided at the court of Chou in the capacity of historiographer. While thus engaged he was grieved at the misery of the people and the corruption of the court, and strove to recall those in authority to a noble and generous government. He saw the hollowness of education and government, and went to the expense of condemning all systematic education, all legislation, all official rank, and all executive government. In lieu of these, he would have governed and instructed by means of a purer example. As might be expected, he did not prove successful as a reformer.

His theories were emanations from a kind and honest heart, and his own example may have been faultless; but, notwithstanding, the morals of the people were not raised, nor was the State reformed. The fortunes of the court of Chou waned, and, so soon as the prestige of the dynasty was lost, Lao-tzu withdrew and retired into obscurity. Whither he went no one knows. Reliable tradition follows the old man as far as the Han-kuKuan—the present Ling-pao — a mountain pass in the extreme west of the Province of Honan. Just before taking his final leave he yielded to the importunities of the keeper of the Pass, and wrote the book known as the "Tao-te-King," a work declaring the meaning of Tao (the path) and Te (virtue.) After completing this work the philosopher passed on toward the west. His end is unknown. It is supposed that he died when about eighty-one years of age.

Lao Tzu's Tao Teh Ching, which dates from about 550 BC has been described as one of the most eminent masterpieces of the Chinese language: one of the profoundest philosophical books the world has ever produced. Indeed it is so profound as to be almost unintelligible to the Western mind. The philosophy which it inculcates is an anti-social philosophy. In somewhat the same way as Buddhism it finds the supreme good for the individual in quietism and indifference. Among its most famous passages are the following: "Both heaven and earth endure a long time. The cause of their endurance is their indifference to long life. Thus the wise man, indifferent to himself, is the greatest among men." "Heaven is eternally at rest, yet there is nothing that it does not do." "He who humbleth himself shall be exalted; he who exalted himself shall be humbled." "It is the way of reason not to act from any personal motive; to conduct affairs without feeling the trouble of them; to taste, without being aware of the flavor; to account the great as small and the small as great; to recompense injury with kindness."

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:12:39 ZULU