The Tao-te ching and Lao-tzu

"The historical Lao-tzu is often depicted riding on a water buffalo and carrying a book, the Tao-te ching, thus illustrating his journey to the west. He appears as a self-contained and relaxed old man, his wisdom and longevity suggested by his white beard, bushy eye-brows, and prominent nose and long ears. These physical features are retained in Lao-tzu's divine form, T'i-shang Lao-chun, but here he is shown seated on a throne and his bearing and attire are correspondingly regal and majestic. In this form he often holds a magical palm-leaf hand fan which he uses, among other things, to help people attain immortality.”


While it is true that the aphoristic and cryptic style of the Tao-te ching lends the text easily to creative and individual exegesis, two interpretations - the metaphysical-mystical and the political - have justifiably dominated approaches to the work. Although commentators have frequently emphasised one of these themes at the expense of the other, the text itself does not require or substantiate such an opposition.

The work opens with the memorable lines:

The Tao (Way) that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;
The Named is The Mother of all things.
Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.
These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery -
The gateway of the manifold secrets.
(Chan 1963: 139; and Lau 1963: 57).

Without any preamble, then, the Tao-te ching immediately distinguishes reality into two aspects, while also being clear in lines 7 and 8 that these two aspects are in the final analysis one, and the distinction made between them conceptual rather than actual. The first aspect is ultimately beyond name or description, but for convenience the text calls it the Tao, and goes on to describe it as eternal and infinite, inexhaustible and unchanging, all pervading yet imperceptible. The Tao is the origin of the second aspect, comprising heaven and earth, and, through them, of the multiplicity of finite things. It is also the source of the te of each thing, the defining virtue or power which makes a thing uniquely what it is. The Tao sustains and nurtures all things without discrimination, bringing each to its own perfection, and doing everything which needs to be done. Because the action or doing of the Tao is tzu-jan, natural and spontaneous, and without any set purpose or preference, it is referred to as wu-wei, or"non doing.”

Problems arise in society when people have desires and discriminate between things, thus seeing only the manifestations of the Tao, and not the underlying unity of the Tao itself. Typically, they prefer and prioritise yang values over yin ones - male over female, active over passive, hardness over fluidity and flexibility, and so on. They judge the world according to their preferred values and try to force it to conform to them, seeking to promote those things that they like and to eliminate those they do not. The more sophisticated their discrimination, and therefore their social and moral code and political strategies, the more they come to rely upon them, and not upon their own innate te or virtue. The prime example of this mistaken approach is Confucianism.

The Tao-te ching tries to overcome this understanding of things in several ways. Firstly, it states that opposing values are interdependent or mutually arising - one cannot have one without the other. Secondly, partly in an attempt to redress the balance, it identifies the Tao with yin qualities. Thirdly, it criticises the ultimate usefulness and applicability of intellectual knowledge and language, the two things most necessary to maintaining the discriminatory viewpoint. Fourthly, it diminishes the differences between things and values by asserting their unity in the Tao. Fifthly, it recommends that through some sort of spiritual practice, possibly meditation, one should rid oneself of desires and discriminatory thought, and thereby return to, and become one with, the Tao.

This advice is intended in particular for the Sage-ruler, for through this identification the Sage assumes the qualities of the Tao, achieves superior te or virtue, and becomes fit to govern. However, like the Tao, the Sage has no preferences or plans of his own to impose upon the people, but instead governs by wu-wei, or non governing. He does not elevate himself over the people, nor institute laws and prohibitions, for to do so would be to increase discriminations and desires. Rather, he trusts that without these sophistications disrupting their nature the people will in time return to their own innate virtue, and live simply and peacefully. Thus the empire will be ordered again, although whether this ordering actually takes place in the empire itself, or whether it appears only to the Sage who now sees the world through enlightened eyes, is a question on which the political and mystical interpretations would typically diverge.


The Tao-te ching, also called the Lao-tzu after its reputed author, is, despite its modest length of a little over five thousand characters, both the most important text of Philosophical Taoism, and for Religious Taoism . It is traditionally attributed to Lao-tzu in the sixth century BCE, a view given credence by Ssu-ma Ch'ien's (154- 80 BCE) Shi chi, or Records of the Historian. However, the majority of scholars now regard the work as having being compiled around 300 BCE, probably from an oral wisdom tradition. The oldest manuscript of the Tao-te ching currently extant is one which pre-dates 195 BCE, found in 1973 in the Han tomb at Ma-wang-tui, near the city of Ch'ng- sha in Hunan Province.

The text began to be influential on Chinese religious and political thought from early in the Former Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 8 CE), and was often quoted or mentioned in works of the period. With the deification of its reputed author in the second century CE the Tao-te ching became regarded as a work of divine revelation, and the text came to be used in the liturgies of the then emergent Religious Taoists. In the third and fourth centuries the work's philosophy, along with that of the Chuang-tzu, was influentially re-explored by the Hsuan-hsueh movement. The popularity and status of the Tao-te ching increased as Religious Taoism flourished, most especially during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). One Tang emperor, Hsuan-tsung (712- 756), ordered that every family should have a copy of the work, and made it one of the civil service examination texts. Hsuan-tsung was also responsible for one of the seven hundred or more commentaries which came to be written on the work, the most significant being that by the Hsuan-hsueh thinker Wang Pi (226-249) which brought out the metaphysical content of the Tao-te ching. Other commentators read the text in different ways, as primarily political or religious, mystical or alchemical, and so on, thus finding within it guidance upon all manner of things, and ensuring the text's pervasive influence on Chinese culture.

Much of the little that we know of Lao-tzu, literally"Old Master", comes from the brief biography of him drawn together by Ssu-ma Ch'ien around 90 BCE, although some scholars doubt if such a person as Lao- tzu ever existed. Ssu-ma Ch'ien states that Lao-tzu was a native of the southern Chinese state of Ch'u, and that he was in charge of the imperial archives. His name was Li Erh, but he was also called Tan (the other Taoist classic, the Chuang-tzu (c. 320 BCE), also speaks of Lao-tzu and Lao Tan as one), and he lived to be over one hundred and sixty. Only two events from Lao-tzu's life are recorded. One, that Confucius (551-479 BCE) visited him to ask for instruction in the rites, but instead was advised by Lao-tzu to abandon his ambition and worldly concerns. Two, that upon observing the decline of the state he travelled to the western frontier where he was asked by the keeper of the pass to compose a book before leaving the civilised world. In response Lao-tzu wrote the Tao-te ching, then travelled on. Ssu-ma Ch'ien says that Lao-tzu was never of heard again, but he was nonetheless destined to play a number of roles in later Chinese history. To the authors of the Chuang-tzu he was simply an exemplary exponent of the art of following the Tao; to the Huang-lao thinkers of the second century BCE he was, with Huang-ti the legendary Yellow Emperor, the inspiration for their political philosophy. During the next three hundred years Lao-tzu passed from being seen as long-lived wise old man, to an immortal, to finally, by early in the second century CE, an eternal deity. The deified Lao-tzu took several related forms with different names, Lord Huang-lao, Lord Lao, and in later millenarian movements, Li Hung the Perfect Lord. These forms were interpreted in a number of ways, but beliefs common to all were that Lao-tzu was coexistent with the cosmos, that he was concerned with maintaining harmony within it, and that in order to do so he might appear to the worthy to give instruction and reveal scriptures, and even, in messianic fashion, incarnate himself in human form. It was not suprising, therefore, that both emperors and millenarian revolutionary movements appealed to the deified Lao-tzu to support their respective causes. The deified Lao-tzu was also the inspiration for what was to become the dominant sect of Religious Taoism, the T'ien-shih Tao, or Way of the Celestial Masters, when in 142 CE he appeared to Chang Tao-ling, who called him T'i-shang Lao-chun, or Lord Lao the Most High. In the centuries that followed Lord Lao became established, as he is today, as one of the San-ch'ing, or Three Pure Ones, the three highest Taoist deities.

One interesting twist in Lao-tzu's posthumous biography that could not have been unpredicted was the belief which arose that he was in fact the Buddha, and that Buddhism was merely the teaching he had imparted to the"Western barbarians"After he left China. This idea arose when Buddhism entered China in the first century, and though it initially encouraged the acceptance of the foreign religion by the culturally elitist Chinese, it later resulted in a millennium of bitter arguments between Taoists and Buddhists.


We have no evidence that the authors of the Tao-te ching represented the Tao with any visual symbol. However the text itself, in emphasising the yin qualities of the Tao, likens it to a mother or the female, to water, and to empty space. The Tao is like a mother in that it is the fecund source of all things, and in its acceptance and nurturing of them. The Tao resembles water in that it assumes the lowest position, but is nonetheless of benefit to all, and also in that although it does not contend it eventually transforms or overcomes the hard, just as water wears away stone. Like empty space the Tao is unseen and unheeded, yet it is the Tao that is truly and constantly useful, like the space in a vessel or a window.

The Tao as the One, or creative source of the universe, became equated with the T'i-chi, or Great Ultimate, of the I-ching or Book of Changes. As such it too became represented by the well known t'i- chi symbol. The t'i-chi is circular and is comprised of two tear or fish shaped figures, one black and the other white, which symbolise yin and yang, the two creative energies of the Tao. The presence of a white yang dot in the black yin symbol, and a black yin dot within the white yang, indicates the complementary and mutually transformative nature of the two energies.

The historical Lao-tzu is often depicted riding on a water buffalo and carrying a book, the Tao-te ching, thus illustrating his journey to the west. He appears as a self-contained and relaxed old man, his wisdom and longevity suggested by his white beard, bushy eye-brows, and prominent nose and long ears. These physical features are retained in Lao-tzu's divine form, T'i-shang Lao-chun, but here he is shown seated on a throne and his bearing and attire are correspondingly regal and majestic. In this form he often holds a magical palm-leaf hand fan which he uses, among other things, to help people attain immortality.


Not including the followers of Religious Taoism, there is no organised group of any note devoted to the study of the Tao-te ching. However the text continues to receive in China, as it has always done, the attention of the individual thinker, such as the philosopher, the poet, and the mystically and religiously inclined. Since its translation into European languages the Tao-te ching has captured the imagination of similar parties in the West.

Headquarters/Main Centre

Following the account of the Han Dynasty historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Lao- tzu's birthplace is held to be the village of Po chou, near the city of Lu-i in eastern Honan Province. Unfortunately during the time of the Cultural Revolution the statuary of the temple there was destroyed, while the temple itself has been appropriated for other than religious uses.

The Tao-te ching and Lao-tzu

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