Discovering the way to Taoism
The Tao Te Ching is attributed to the legendary author Lao Tzu. In tracking down this mythical figure we learn a lot about the book he supposedly wrote and the lessons it contains for living today.
Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism are the three central pillars of traditional Chinese thought. “Taoism” refers to both a philosophical tradition and an organised religion, which in modern Chinese are identified separately as taojia and taojiao respectively. Philosophical Taoism traces its origins to Lao Tzu who probably lived during the sixth or fifth century BCE. It is debated, however, whether he may have lived much later, in the third century BCE, or whether he lived at all but may only be a legendary figure. In religious Taoism, Lao Tzu is revered as a supreme deity.
The name “Lao Tzu” is best translated as “Old Master”, and the ancient philosopher is said to have written a short book, which may originally have been called simply the Lao Tzu. In later centuries when the Lao Tzu was recognised as a “classic” (ching or jing) and significant philosophical work it acquired the title Tao Te Ching, which means “Classic of the Way and Virtue”.
Taoism deals with the individual’s relationship to the world and represents a way of living in harmony with the laws of the universe derived from observing natural things.
The influence of these writings is immense on Chinese culture and, in recent centuries, around the world. Next to the Bible, the Tao Te Ching is the most translated work in world literature. It is concerned with the Tao or “Way” and how it finds expression in “virtue” (te), especially through what the text calls “naturalness” (ziran) and “non-action” (wuwei).
The Tao Te Ching is an enduring philosophical work that has held its power across the centuries, and as we search for its author, Lao Tzu, we discover a lot about Taoism along the way.
Searching for Lao Tzu
The Shiji (Records of the Historian) of the Chinese Han dynasty court historian Sima Qian (145–86 BCE) offer a “biography” of Lao Tzu. Like many historical documents it may well be a mixture of fact and fiction, but it offers a starting point for discovering Lao Tzu. According to the Shiji, Lao Tzu was a native of Chu, a southern state of China, during the Zhou dynasty. His surname was Li, his given name was Er, and he was also called Dan and then later, Lao Tzu.
Lao Tzu apparently served as a keeper of archival records at the court of Zhou. Confucius (551–479 BCE) is reported to have consulted with him and a meeting, or meetings, between Confucius and Lao Tzu is also reported in other primary Chinese historical sources.
Sima Qian wrote that Lao Tzu cultivated both Tao and virtue and that his teaching was devoted to self-effacement and not having fame. He lived in Zhou for a long time and witnessed the decline of the Zhou state. When he left Zhou, he departed by the northwest border then separating China from the outside world. As Lao Tzu was attempting to leave the account tells us that Yin Xi, the official in charge of the border pass, asked that he put his teachings into writing. The result was a book consisting of just 5000 Chinese characters, divided into two parts, which discusses “the meaning of Tao and virtue”. Having written the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu apparently departed China, no one knowing where he had gone and with no record of his return.
Who wrote the Tao Te Ching?
There is a healthy debate as to exactly who wrote the Tao Te Ching and when it was written. Some scholars maintain that we should largely accept Sima Qian’s account that Lao Tzu wrote the book in the sixth or early fifth century BCE. However, a second view traces the Tao Te Ching to the fourth century BCE, while a third argues for an even later date, not earlier than the mid-third century BCE.
What cannot be denied is that the work represented in the Tao Te Ching is the basis of Taoist thought. However, even if a man known as Lao Tzu did write it, the ideas in it are not necessarily original. Certainly, Taoist thinking dates back earlier than the Tao Te Ching. Whether it was Lao Tzu, or a collection of people, what happened with the Tao Te Ching was that Taoist thinking was collated and codified. Exactly when that happened is also a matter of disagreement.
The issue is complex because the Tao Te Ching may turn out to be a composite work involving a long process of formation and contribution by many hands. Quotations from the Tao Te Ching in other classical works are often cited as evidence regarding when it was written. For example, a book called the Mozi quotes explicitly from the Tao Te Ching, and if the Mozi can be dated to the fifth century, then the Tao Te Ching would have been current by that time. Debate however, also exists as to whether the version of the Mozi that existed in the fifth century does in fact quote the Tao Te Ching.
The most that can be said with certainty is that parts of the Tao Te Ching were available around 300 BCE and that the work became widely recognised by around 250 BCE, when it was quoted extensively in such works as the Hanfeizi and chapters of the Zhuangzi.
What Lao Tzu advocates in the Tao Te Ching is how to learn from, and appreciate, what happens in everyday life.
Another clue, beside the archaeological evidence, to the date of the Tao Te Ching lies in the language that it uses. Much of the text is rhymed. Analysis suggests that the rhyme patterns used in the Tao Te Ching are closer to that of the Shijing (Classic of Poetry) than that of the later Chuci (Songs of Chu). Although the dating of the Shijing and the Chuci itself is by no means precise, generally the poems collected in the Shijing are agreed to be not later than the early fifth century BCE and not earlier than the close of the “Spring and Autumn” period (770–481 BCE). Based on this, some scholars agree with Sima Qian that the Tao Te Ching does indeed date to the fifth century BCE or earlier, making Lao Tzu, if he existed, a possible contemporary of Confucius as the legend states.
A final theory is that the Tao Te Ching was written later, perhaps around the fourth century BCE, but is a collection of the “preserved” ideas of Lao Tzu. So it is possible that the Tao Te Ching may embody the ideas of the man Lao Tzu but not have been written down by him.
There are those who still do see the Tao Te Ching as an anthology, a collection of Taoist thought put together over centuries and drawn from varying sources. Other scholars though say that the style of the Tao Te Ching is too consistent for this to be true.
Perhaps Lao Tzu’s disciples had kept alive the teachings of the master orally before some later students committed them to writing. This has happened in many other religious traditions. Perhaps Lao Tzu did write the Tao Te Ching himself at the Chinese border at the behest of a local official.
The absolute truth of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching remain unknowable. What is undeniable, however, is the impact of the writings. The principles of the Tao Te Ching have touched billions and have much wisdom to offer us today.
Philosophy of the Tao
The Tao Te Ching is the main source of inspiration for students of Taoism. All the focus of Taoist thought springs from it. The book itself centres around the principles of wuwei (non-doing) and wu (emptiness). It explains the Tao and what the disciple should do to follow it. This task is the very core of the Taoist philosophy of life.
In its modern form, the Tao Te Ching comprises two sections: Book One: The Book About Tao (Chapters 1-37), and Book Two: The Book of Te (Chapters 38-81).
Taoism, as it is presented in the Tao Te Ching, presents a kind of counterbalance to the teachings of Confucius. If Lao Tzu and Confucius did coexist, they would certainly have had some disagreements, as some texts suggest did happen. Confucianism concerns itself mostly with social and political rules for relations between humans. It deals with many things, but Confucianism boils down to the individual’s place within the group. Taoism, as represented by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, is very different. Taoism deals with the individual’s relationship to the world and represents a way of living in harmony with the laws of the universe derived from observing natural things.
As we already mentioned, the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching centres on Tao, wu and wuwei. The Taoist must follow the Tao, and in order to do this she must empty her ego. She should practise the wuwei (non-doing) which is the main goal of Taoist discipline. The power of non-doing is set out clearly in chapters like Chapter 58 in Book Two. Here Lao Tzu writes:
The most submissive thing in the world can ride roughshod over the hardest in the world — that which is without substance entering that which has no crevices.
That is why I know the benefit of resorting to no action. The teaching that has no words, the benefit of resorting to no action, these are beyond the understanding of all but a very few in the world.
The word tao has two main meanings, namely “way” and “method”. These two meanings refer, respectively, to the way in which something is or functions, and to the way of doing something. In his book The Tao of Pooh (Methuen, 1982) author Benjamin Hoff says, “A basic principle of Lao Tzu’s teaching was that this Way of the Universe could not be adequately described in words, and that it would be insulting both to its unlimited power and the intelligent human mind to attempt to do so.”
This does not seem to have stopped Lao Tzu attempting to do so. As Hoff observes, “Still [the Way] could be understood, and those who cared the most about it, and the life from which it was inseparable, understood it best.”
What Lao Tzu advocates in the Tao Te Ching is how to learn from, and appreciate, what happens in everyday life. Although the Tao might be impossible to confine in words, living in harmony with it is to find serenity and happiness.
Although unknowable, the Tao Te Ching does describe certain characteristics of the Tao. It has no form and therefore does not undergo change, it is constant, and is invisible, inaudible and imperceptible. Yet the Tao, despite being indistinct and vague, contains an “essence” (ching) that gives rise to the world. The Tao is the beginning of the world and also nurtures the world. In Chapter 32, Book One it says, “The way is to the world as the River and the Sea are to rivulets and streams”.
… te is not a sort of goodness that is the same in each person who has it. Rather, it is a special character or spiritual strength unique to the individual. By cultivating te you are able to follow the Tao.
The quality that the Tao gives life to and which nourishes the individual is its te (pronounced “deh”), which is translated as “virtue”. As Hoff points out in his second book The Te of Piglet (Methuen, 1992), “In classical Chinese [te] is written two ways. The first joins the character for ‘upright’ to the character for ‘heart’. Its meaning is virtue. The second way adds the character for ‘left foot’, which in Chinese signifies ‘stepping out’. Its meaning is virtue in action.”
Importantly, te is not a sort of goodness that is the same in each person who has it. Rather, it is a special character or spiritual strength unique to the individual. By cultivating your te you are able to follow the Tao. How to cultivate that is of course central to the teaching of the Tao Te Ching.
Living the Tao
Just as the Tao does nothing, so is “non-doing” or “non-action” (wuwei) the way to attain to it. Non-action is the practice of ziran in the human world: you fully respond to circumstances and events, doing no more and no less than what is required, without being moved by personal desire, interest, or advantage.
Within this there is no need of striving to perform what is “good” and even less need to attempt to impose your way on others. The person who has “returned to the Tao” or who is completely attuned with the Tao is called in the Tao Te Ching the shengren, a term that in a Taoist context may be translated as “saint” to distinguish him from the Confucian “sage”.
You may not be able to become an instant shengren, but you can certainly learn a lot about how to live from the principles of Taoism laid down by Lao Tzu, whoever he was.