Lao Tzu is considered by his followers as the wisest human being who has touched the earth. His word meant the evolution of this millenary culture and today it continues to touch the minds and hearts of those who dare to discover it. Lao left Taoism to the world, one of the greatest contributions ranging from erudition to religion, through politics, literature, pedagogy, ethics and more.
Few characters have permeated Chinese culture as strongly as Lao Tzu. This society is characterized by its particular beliefs and customs; it is for that reason that only when someone with a splendid exposition of his criterion and wisdom appears, does he become a legend for humanity.
In the middle of the twentieth century, a group of history scholars came to the conclusion that the existence of this person is certainly doubtful and that the book attributed to him, the “Tao Te Ching”, is really the word of several Taoists collected.
However, the famous priest and publisher Allan Watts said in this regard that one can never have the necessary information to make judgments of this category, and that this theory obeys rather a skeptical tendency toward religious figures in history. However, none of these comments prevented Lao Tzu from becoming a hero to Chinese culture.
Sometimes we think words like:
“He who obtains a victory over another man is strong, but he who obtains a victory over himself is powerful”.
They came into the world by magic and we ignore their provenance, but after knowing the history of Lao Tzu your perception will change a bit:
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Lao, along with other important Chinese characters such as Confucius, are part of Chinese idiosyncrasy and cultural identity. However, his ideal of life traveled through time to the land before our eyes in this story. Lao before leaving this earthly plane leaves us a manual of life, a set of rules and principles to adopt a quiet and happy life. He invites us to reflect through his book “Tao Te Ching”.
There are those who perceive the presence of Lao on earth as mystical and unreal, due to the 2400 years that have passed since its existence.
China was going through the period of springs and autumns; a time in history that is located between 722 and 481 B.C. and that was marked by the decentralization of power, battles, annexations of states, increase of literacy, freedom of thought and much technological advance.
An old family of fishermen brought to the ordinary world the small Erl Li, in a village in the prefecture of Ku ( 苦 縣 Kǔ Xiàn) in the state of Chu ( 楚 ), now known as the district of Luyi, in what is now known as the province of Honan. It is located in the southern region of China. His name meant “Plum Ears”, because besides being born under a silver of plums, the small one had gigantic ears.
The oldest and most mystical legend says that Lao Tzu was conceived one night when his mother saw a shooting star pass by and that his gestation period has been the longest in history, totaling 81 years. And it resulted in a baby with wrinkles so pronounced that he looked like a 62-year-old gentleman with a long beard and long lobe.
Once Erl Li became an adult man and his wisdom was discovered, he was given the name Lao Tzu, or Lao Tsu, or even Laotian, which means “old master”. Lao was a human being with an unshakable tranquility; he never wished for anything more than to make his thought known, and for it to be understood by society so that peace would reign.
His passion was for knowledge and his struggle was for peace. His stylistic conciseness and his notoriously extraordinary rhetoric, cannot be hidden, they were exposed as soon as Lao mentioned some words. These personality traits soon made him an important member of the court of the Zhou Dynasty.
The most significant moment for his evolution was when he began to develop as an archivist in the Imperial Library of the Court of the Zhou Dynasty. At that time these characters were known as “historians,” as Zhou preferred to keep his affairs well shielded from society. But the truth is that Lao Tzu was a Shi scholar specialized in astrology and divination and was in charge of the sacred texts of the dynasty.
For about 20 years, the sage absorbed all history, all concepts, all the theories and also all the experience of working for a regime like Zhou’s, for which he did not feel empathy.
All the information gathered and interpreted year after year, together with his own thought allowed Lao to find the reason and truth of life.
Only a few had had the privilege of knowing his ideas, and one of those characters was Confucius. The two met one afternoon, when Confucius was parading in a caravan of silence over the glossy halls of the imperial library and from that moment on, in that catastrophic China they met for many months. Confucius is delighted to discuss his foundations with a prodigy two years older and with very solid ideas about life.
“What do you think about morality? How do you cultivate good character?”.
Confucius was a moralist and thought cultivating character was the greatest achievement.
Lao Tzu laughed out loud, and said:
“The question of immorality only arises if you’re immoral. And only when you don’t have character do you think about character. A man with character completely forgets the fact that there is something like character. And a moral man doesn’t know what the word “moral” means. So, don’t be silly. And don’t try to cultivate yourself. Just be natural. ”
But this man is a dragon. No one knows how he walks. No one knows how he lives. No one knows how it flies. Never go near him; it’s like an abyss.
Lao Tzu’s teaching is completely different from that of Confucius. Lao’s thought is about a completely true and amoral ideal. Lao’s lessons are based on following the rhythm of nature rather than contradicting it with human attitudes that obey desires. Confucius thinking is oriented to division, and categorization. However, for none of them, these differences generated discontent, in fact the opposite was true.
The historical context of Lao China is unforgettable and absolutely essential for this figure to concentrate his thoughts.
When Lao began to discover the reality of his ideals, he found himself surrounded by the remnants of a very cracked imperial court that increasingly gave way to decadence. The kingdoms and duchies were beginning to see the light.
The reality was that China was fed up with more than five centuries of chaos rooted in the collapse of a legendary dynasty that could not accept that it had lost control. The territory was divided into several kingdoms and the pyramid of strata was simply a joke for a society as intellectually advanced as that one.
The tip of the pyramid was represented by the monarch, who proclaimed himself as a “Son of Heaven” and had complete supreme power to exercise his government. This personality was in charge of ordering everything that existed under the sky, followed by the dukes, then the lords, the knights and at the end were the poor vassals.
Lao was one of the Shi knights, who although they were not the most endowed with material wealth, they were in intellectual terms. However, Lao was not a common Shi knight, his capacity was not limited only to study. Lao could see more clearly than anyone a way of life based on the “way”, and beyond this, had the wisdom to describe it with a rhetoric never seen before.
“To be deeply loved gives you strength, while to love someone deeply gives you courage”.
In this post you will find
All of Lao Tzu’s philosophy of life is expressed through the Tao, which is also known as Taoism:
What is Tao?
“The Tao that can be called Tao is not the real Tao. The name you can give him is not his real name. Without a name is the beginning of heaven and earth, and with a name she is the mother of ten thousand things”.
The word of Lao means that the Tao is undefinable and each person can define it according to its terms. However, the closest thing to defining the Tao is the word “way”, or perhaps “path”.
The “Tao” can be perceived as the “way of our life”. It means a whole, the universe, nature, concrete figures, as well as abstract ones. Lao’s vision was that we could all live with respect for it in order to achieve true well-being.
Taoism should be understood as a system of beliefs, attitudes and practices oriented towards the service and life of a person’s nature. The correct way to understand Taoism is simply to accept yourself, to discover who you are, your frequently changing nature, and not to try to resolve the various contradictions that arise in life.
Lao Tzu proposed a morality based on following the path that determines nature without altering it. Life according to Lao must be based on virtues such as simplicity, naturalness, patience and calm.
It does not deny the existence of innumerable things. He builds without attributing anything to himself. He does his job without accumulating anything for him. He accomplishes his task without boasting about it and that is precisely why no one can take anything away from him.
One of the most important and controversial factors in Laotian thought was his perception of desire, a feeling that was clearly related to unhappiness. Ambition was interpreted as negative, because it can only fill those who feel it with emotional emptiness.
“He who does not wish is not frustrated. And those who are not frustrated do not become degraded. Thus, the true sage waits in stillness, while everything happens and desires do not command. Thus, peace and harmony take place and the world follows its natural course”.
“Empty your mind of desires and ambitions to converse peace.”
For the West, this thought did not make any sense, because they developed under the ideal that in order to achieve what you dream of you must desire it, visualize it and fight for it. Despite the contradictions, Lao always remained faithful to a vision that became increasingly solid.
Pillars of the Tao
Tao can be considered a work of philosophy, a book of instructions to achieve a life of balance, a treatise on how to govern a nation, and grow beyond the midlife crisis. It’s a reflection of a wise man in the universe. Taoism teaches people to live from their heart through the following set of principles:
The main guidelines for following the path of the Tao are calm, inactivity, self-denial, honesty, continuous learning and teaching. It is also about accepting destiny and learning to be happy with it, not forcing the way with feelings of greed that sooner or later will lead us to commit violent acts towards ourselves or towards external entities.
A life of tolerance and free from negative thoughts to those who consider themselves different. The best way to explain this concept is with ying and yang. Lao handled an ideal that establishes that absolutely every idea or mass has a figure opposite to it, it exists and cannot disappear, because without its presence we would never be able to define them. Evil is necessary in order to recognize good, and cold is necessary in order to recognize heat; that is why rejecting opposites is absurd and useless.
Everyone takes beauty for beauty, and that’s why they know what’s ugly. Everyone takes good for good, and that’s why they know what evil is. Because, being and non-being beget each other. The easy and the difficult complement each other. The long and the short form one another. The high and the low are approaching. Sound and tone harmonize with each other. Before and after follow each other.For this reason,the sage adopts the attitude of not working and practices without words. All things appear without his intervention. Nothing usurps or refuses. He does not expect reward for his works, nor does he attribute to himself the finished work, and therefore, his work remains with him.
As human beings we seek to have control of everything that influences us. Lao in his word stated that this attitude ends up taking away almost all our energy and happiness. Its principle is based on accepting what is really perfect just because it belongs to the universe.
Trying to have the domain will only make us lose it completely.
Whoever wants to dominate the world and improve it is heading for failure. The world is so sacred and vast that it cannot be dominated. Whoever dominates it makes it worse and whoever has it loses it.
Lao was passionate about the law of cause and effect, determining that “everything that exists in the universe is subject to the mutation and perpetual change established by the Tao.
A human being can only be happy when he is free and without any bondage, emotional or material. Only with detachment can plenitude be attained.In his words,Lao continually refers to the fact that to force something is to stop it and frustrate it,because what it has to be will be fluid and natural. That something is coupled with who we are and nature. Lao’s message is an invitation to rethink life’s goals and determine whether we are actually going in the opposite direction.
About anxiety Lao said:
“Favor and misfortune are equally disturbing.” “Fortune is a great pain like our body.” What do you mean favor and disgrace worry equally? Favor elevates, misfortune abbeys. To get the favor, restlessness. To lose it, restlessness”
Lao professed his thought to be taken as a philosophy of life, however, his perception of the cosmos that carried a burden of spirituality ended up becoming for many a religion.
“In life, man is elastic and evolves. At the moment of death, it is rigid and immutable. Plants in the sun are flexible and fibrous but perish dry and cracked. That is why the elastic and flexible are associated with life and the rigid and immutable give the hand to death”.
Following the philosophy of the Tao is based on the adoption of attitudes that are aligned with all these principles. Currently there are certain guide lines that allow to find this way of life,these are some of them:
- Connect with those outside our nature with decisive action.
- Connect with the world the same way we want it to connect with us.
- For those who are not willing to accept our true nature, no action is required.
- We have nothing; we are simply a passing custodian of items outside of our nature.
- Breathe when you need a break. Since breathing is being one self. Breathing allows our mind to clear, and our clear mind will allow us to look at a freer and more precious panorama of life.
“To unite body and soul in a whole from which they cannot be dissociated. To master the breath until it becomes as flexible as a newborn’s. To purify the visions until they are clean. To love the people and to govern the State by practicing non-doing. To beget and to raise, to beg without appropriating oneself, to act without asking for anything, to guide without dominating, this is the great virtue”
Lao became a master for those who were given the opportunity to observe life from a completely different point of view, even for Confucius. However, their ideals were moving in the opposite direction to what was happening in China at the time. Mainly in politics, where Lao was guided by the liberal and pacifist.
“When the government is discreet, the people are diligent. When the government is vigilant, the people are indolent.“
In his role as illustrator he suggested not to suffocate the vassals and the rest of the people with rules and obligatory conducts, because man was born free and should likewise leave this earthly plane. So, because of his disagreement with the system he decided to leave, without violence and without struggle, as he professes in his theory. That was the rhythm of the Tao, why would he have to modify it?
Lao did not accept the idea of fighting the dynasty, and so he himself gave us the best example of his own philosophy. After serving in the capital of Chu for most of his life, his discontent led him to step back and leave. He took only his knowledge as luggage and one afternoon decided to leave.
“The wise teach not with words, but with deeds”.
As Lao was passing Hanku Pass west of Loyang, over a water buffalo, a guardian named Yinji (Luayin) recognizing his face ran after him and asked him to please stop. The guard made one last request to Lao before he left all his life behind, and it was to expose all his doctrine and thoughts in a book, for this he offered him to stay in his house for a year. That same night Lao began to work on it, teaching the Tao school. Throughout his life his teaching had spread only orally.
The story was divided into 81 verses arranged in two sections. Lao begins by explaining the meaning of the Tao and its nature, and then goes on to talk about “Te” which means “virtue” or “good”, later he talked about “Ching”. All his sublime words were reflected in a text that was called “Book of the Way and the Virtue”, or what is the same “Tao Te Ching”.
5000 Chinese characters were enough to capture all his ideal with a sober and impressive rhetoric. However, the original text of this writing was done in a cryptic style, that is to say that it was not understandable to anyone, it was encrypted for the knowledge of a few.
Just after finishing it, Lao left forever, leaving the Tao as a legacy of humanity. He went west into the land of the barbarians, and there his trail was lost forever. His words are an almost surreal legend, and have enabled humanity to find peace and enlightenment through them year after year.
Over the centuries, the believers of Taoism have translated it into hundreds of languages, making it a gift from Lao accessible to all.
“He who is not happy with little will not be happy with much.”
So many versions were made, that over the years new samples have been found, the oldest was one that was discovered in 1993 in a tomb near the city of Guodian in Hubei, China. This sample was written on bamboo leaves, writing on bamboo leaves is very common in China and was more frequent at that time.
Lao managed to leave us a manual that shows the supreme path of absolute reality, the truth beyond what we know, think and understand.
Tao teaches us that accumulating knowledge to understand it does not make sense, because the more knowledge people have, the less they can understand.
As time went by, Taoism gained many followers, mainly in the 20th century. It probably has to be because it is a form of metaphysics that is not subject to any dogma or institution. Since it is an individual doctrine, the one who practices it has no obligation to worship or plebiscite, other than himself. This philosophy does not worship a God, but is about a personal understanding of life.
From Lao we learn faith and conviction in oneself and one’s ideals, respect for one’s neighbor and acceptance of life and its multiple emotions.
Today Taoism, as the school created from the philosophy of Lao Tzu was called, means for Asia, one of the main religions, and for the world a form of spirituality.
It is almost impossible to think that Lao was a normal name, and not a God disguised as a knight, but we will never be able to discover. What we do have for sure is that his ideal represents the profound nature of universal wisdom. Perhaps the Taoism of Lao will be forgotten, or perhaps it will surpass the limits of the West and the world… But we are here and now, with a road ahead to travel, a road that may become even more wonderful if we adopt a little of the philosophy of respect and acceptance that this ancestral hero gives us.
Originally Post “Lao Tse: Manual para una vida de abundancia″
Translated by Oscar Moreno.