6th Century BCE
Related Pages: Taoism
Biographical Sketch by Universal Theosophy
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
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.
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(prior to his first biography and to the introduction of Taoism as a specific religion or philosophy) these works were withdrawn such that the true doctrine of Lao Tzu remained solely in the hands of “initiated priests”.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 (see below)
^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.
^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
Biographical Snippets from Theosophical Sources
A great sage, saint and philosopher who preceded Confucius.
The name of the philosophy of Lao-tze.
Lit., “The Book of the Perfectibility of Nature” written by the great philosopher Lao-tze. It is a kind of cosmogony which contains all the fundamental tenets of Esoteric Cosmo genesis. Thus he says that in the beginning there was naught but limitless and boundless Space. All that lives and is, was born in it, from the “Principle which exists by Itself, developing Itself from Itself”, i.e., Swabhâvat. As its name is unknown and it essence is unfathomable, philosophers have called it Tao (Anima Mundi), the uncreate, unborn and eternal energy of nature, manifesting periodically. Nature as well as man when it reaches purity will reach rest, and then all become one with Tao, which is the source of all bliss and felicity. As in the Hindu and Buddhistic philosophies, such purity and bliss and immortality can only be reached through the exercise of virtue and the perfect quietude of our worldly spirit; the human mind has to control and finally subdue and even crush the turbulent action of man’s physical nature; and the sooner he reaches the required degree of moral purification, the happier he will feel. (See Annales du Musée Guimet, Vols. XI. and XII.; Etudes sur lie Religion des Chinois, by Dr. Groot.) As the famous Sinologist, Pauthier, remarked: “Human Wisdom can never use language more holy and profound ”.
Lao-tse, the predecessor of Confucius … is said to have written 930 books on Ethics and religions, and seventy on magic, one thousand in all. His great work, however, the heart of his doctrine, the “Tao-te-King,” or the sacred scriptures of the Taosse, has in it, as Stanislas Julien shows, only “about 5,000 words” (Tao-te-King, p. xxvii.), hardly a dozen of pages, yet Professor Max Muller finds that “the text is unintelligible without commentaries, so that Mr. Julien had to consult more than sixty commentators for the purpose of his translation,” the earliest going back as far as the year 163 B.C., not earlier, as we see. During the four centuries and a half that preceded this earliest of the commentators there was ample time to veil the true Lao-tse doctrine from all but his initiated priests. The Japanese, among whom are now to be found the most learned of the priests and followers of Lao-tse, simply laugh at the blunders and hypotheses of the European Chinese scholars; and tradition affirms that the commentaries to which our Western Sinologues have access are not the real occult records, but intentional veils, and that the true commentaries, as well as almost all the texts, have long since disappeared from the eyes of the profane. — Secret Doctrine, Vol 1, Introductory, p. xxv.
Traditional Biographical Sources
Biography from the Shiji of Sima Qian
Lao Tzu was a native of the hamlet of Ch’ü-jen in the village of Li in Hu County of [the state of] Ch’u. His praenomen was Erh, his agnomen Tan, and his cognomen Li. He was a scribe in the Chou office of archives.
Confucius went to Chou, intending to ask Lao Tzu about the rites. Lau Tzu said, “Those of whom you speak have all already rotted away, both the men and their bones. Only their words are here. Moreover, when a gentleman obtains his season, he will harness his horses. When he does not obtain it, he will move on like tumbleweed rolling in the wind. I have heard that
An able merchant has the deepest storerooms, but they look empty.
A gentleman has the fullest virtue, but he appears foolish.
Cast off your arrogant airs and many desires, sir, your contrived posturing and your over-weening ambition. All of these are of no benefit to your person. What I have to tell you is this, and nothing more.
Confucius departed. He fold his disciples, “Birds I know can fly, fish I know can swim, and beasts I know can run. For that which runs, one can make snares. For that which swims, one can cast lines. For that which flies, one can make arrows with strings attached. As for the dragon, I can never know how it mounts the wind and clouds and ascends into the sky. Today I have seen Lao Tzu; is he perhaps like the dragon?”
Lao Tzu cultivated the Way and its virtue. His teachings emphasized hiding oneself and avoiding fame. After living in chou for a long time, he saw Chou’s decline, and left. When he reached the pass, the Prefect of the Pass Yin his said, “Since you are going to retire from the world, I beg you to endeavor to write a book for us.” Lao Tzu thus wrote a book in two sections which spoke of the meaning of the Way and its virtue in five thousand and some characters and then departed. No one knows where he finally ended.
Some say [Lao Tzu] was Lao Lai Tzu, also a man of Ch’u. He composed a book in fifteen sections which spoke of the ideas of Taoism and was a contemporary of Confucius.
Supposedly, Lao Tzu lived to be a 160 years old, some say over 200; his great longevity came through cultivating the way.
The scribes record that 129 years after Confucius died Tan, the Grand Scribe of Chou, had an audience with Duke Hsien of Ch’in (r. 384-362 B.C.) and said, “In the beginning Ch’in and Chou were united. After 500 years of union, they separated. Seventy years after they have separated, a Hegemon will emerge there [Ch’in]. Some say that Tan was Lao Tzu. Others say he was not. Our generation does not know the truth of the matter.
Lao Tzu was a gentleman who retired from the world. The praenomen of Lao Tzu’s son was Tsung. Tsung was a general of Wei. He was enfeoffed at Tuan-kan. Tsung’s son was Chu. Chu’s son was Kung. Kung’s great-great-grandson was Chia. Chia served as an official to Emperor Hsiao-wen of Han (r. 180-157 B.C.) and Chia’s son Chieh was the Grand Mentor to [Liu] Ang, King of Chiao-hsi (r. 164-154 B.C.), at which time he took up residence in Ch’i.
Those nowadays who study Lao Tzu denigrate Confucianism, and Confucianism also denigrates Lao Tzu. Can this be what is meant by “Those whose ways are not the same do not take counsel with each other?” Li Erh “did nothing, and [the people] transformed themselves, kept still, and [the people] rectified themselves.”
— from The Grand Scribe’s Records, Volume 7: The memoirs of pre-Han China, William H. Nienhauser
Anecdotes from The History of Sze-Ma Chien (from The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, Volume XII: Medieval China, ed. Charles F. Horne, 1917, pp. 396-398, translator not stated)
Taoism on Universal Theosophy
The Tao of China by Don Lehman Jr., chapters 4, 35 & 47
The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper, University of California Press, 1993
Lao Tzu and Taoism, Max Kaltenmark, translated by Roger Greaves, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969)
Selected Quotes attributed to Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu on His Words."My words are very easy to understand, very easy to put into practice; yet the world can neither understand nor practise them.
My words have a clue, my actions have an underlying principle. It is because men do not know the clue that they understand me not."
On Transmitting the Tao"If the Dao could be presented (to another), men would all present it to their rulers; if it could be served up (to others), men would all serve it up to their parents; if it could be told (to others), men would all tell it to their brothers; if it could be given to others, men would all give it to their sons and grandsons. The reason why it cannot be transmitted is no other but this - that if, within, there be not the presiding principle, it will not remain there, and if, outwardly, there be not the correct obedience, it will not be carried out. When that which is given out from the mind (in possession of it) is not received by the mind without, the sage will not give it out; and when, entering in from without, there is no power in the receiving mind to entertain it, the sage will not permit it to lie hid there." — Zhuangzi, Outer Chapters: The Revolution of Heaven
Lao Tzu's dialog with Nan-rong Chu
Nan-rong Chu hereupon took with him some rations, and after seven days and seven nights arrived at the abode of Laozi, who said to him, 'Are you come from Chu's?' 'I am,' was the reply. 'And why, Sir, have you come with such a multitude of attendants?' Nan-rong was frightened, and turned his head round to look behind him. Laozi said, 'Do you not understand my meaning?' The other held his head down and was ashamed, and then he lifted it up, and sighed, saying, 'I forgot at the moment what I should reply to your question, and in consequence I have lost what I wished to ask you.' 'What do you mean?' 'If I have not wisdom, men say that I am stupid, while if I have it, it occasions distress to myself. If I have not benevolence, then (I am charged) with doing hurt to others, while if I have it, I distress myself. If I have not righteousness, I (am charged with) injuring others, while if I have it, I distress myself. How can I escape from these dilemmas? These are the three perplexities that trouble me; and I wish at the suggestion of Chu to ask you about them.' Laozi replied, 'A little time ago, when I saw you and looked right into your eyes, I understood you, and now your words confirm the judgment which I formed. You look frightened and amazed. You have lost your parents, and are trying with a pole to find them at the (bottom of) the sea. You have gone astray; you are at your wit's end. You wish to recover your proper nature, and you know not what step to take first to find it. You are to be pitied!'
Nan-rong Chu asked to be allowed to enter (the establishment), and have an apartment assigned to him. (There) he sought to realise the qualities which he loved, and put away those which he hated. For ten days he afflicted himself, and then waited again on Laozi, who said to him, 'You must purify yourself thoroughly! But from your symptoms of distress, and signs of impurity about you, I see there still seem to cling to you things that you dislike. When the fettering influences from without become numerous, and you try to seize them (you will find it a difficult task); the better plan is to bar your inner man against their entrance. And when the similar influences within get intertwined, it is a difficult task to grasp (and hold them in check); the better plan is to bar the outer door against their exit. Even a master of the Dao and its characteristics will not be able to control these two influences together, and how much less can one who is only a student of the Dao do so!'
Nan-rong Chu said, 'A certain villager got an illness, and when his neighbours asked about it, he was able to describe the malady, though it was one from which he had not suffered before. When I ask you about the Grand Dao, it seems to me like drinking medicine which (only serves to) increase my illness. I should like to hear from you about the regular method of guarding the life - that will be sufficient for me.' Laozi replied, '(You ask me about) the regular method of guarding the life - can you hold the One thing fast in your embrace? Can you keep from losing it? Can you know the lucky and the unlucky without having recourse to the tortoise-shell or the divining stalks? Can you rest (where you ought to rest)? Can you stop (when you have got enough)? Can you give over thinking of other men, and seek what you want in yourself (alone)? Can you flee (from the allurements of desire)? Can you maintain an entire simplicity? Can you become a little child? The child will cry all the day, without its throat becoming hoarse - so perfect is the harmony (of its physical constitution). It will keep its fingers closed all the day without relaxing their grasp - such is the concentration of its powers. It will keep its eyes fixed all day, without their moving - so is it unaffected by what is external to it. It walks it knows not whither; it rests where it is placed, it knows not why; it is calmly indifferent to things, and follows their current. This is the regular method of guarding the life.'
Nan-rong Chu said, 'And are these all the characteristics of the Perfect man?' Laozi replied, 'No. These are what we call the breaking up of the ice, and the dissolving of the cold. The Perfect man, along with other men, gets his food from the earth, and derives his joy from his Heaven (-conferred nature). But he does not like them allow himself to be troubled by the consideration of advantage or injury coming from men and things; he does not like them do strange things, or form plans, or enter on undertakings; he flees from the allurements of desire, and pursues his way with an entire simplicity. Such is the way by which he guards his life.' 'And is this what constitutes his perfection ?' 'Not quite. I asked you whether you could become a little child. The little child moves unconscious of what it is doing, and walks unconscious of whither it is going. Its body is like the branch of a rotten tree, and its mind is like slaked lime. Being such, misery does not come to it, nor happiness. It has neither misery nor happiness - how can it suffer from the calamities incident to men?'
Selected Quotes on Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu's Philosophy in One VerseTe-Ch'ing on the first verse of the Tao Te Ching: "Lao-tzu's philosophy is all here. The remaining five thousand words only expand on this first verse." (tr. Red Pine)
HPB on Lao Tzu and the Tao Te ChingThe collective researches of the Orientalists, and especially the labours of late years of the students of comparative Philology and the Science of Religions have led them to ascertain as follows: An immense, incalculable number of MSS., and even printed works known to have existed, are now to be found no more. They have disappeared without leaving the slightest trace behind them. Were they works of no importance they might, in the natural course of time, have been left to perish, and their very names would have been obliterated from human memory. But it is not so; for, as now ascertained, most of them contained the true keys to works still extant, and entirely incomprehensible, for the greater portion of their readers, without those additional volumes of Commentaries and explanations. Such are, for instance, the works of Lao-tse, the predecessor of Confucius.
He is said to have written 930 books on Ethics and religions, and seventy on magic, one thousand in all. His great work, however, the heart of his doctrine, the “Tao-te-King,” or the sacred scriptures of the Taosse, has in it, as Stanislas Julien shows, only “about 5,000 words” (Tao-te-King, p. xxvii.), hardly a dozen of pages, yet Professor Max Muller finds that “the text is unintelligible without commentaries, so that Mr. Julien had to consult more than sixty commentators for the purpose of his translation,” the earliest going back as far as the year 163 B.C., not earlier, as we see. During the four centuries and a half that preceded this earliest of the commentators there was ample time to veil the true Lao-tse doctrine from all but his initiated priests. The Japanese, among whom are now to be found the most learned of the priests and followers of Lao-tse, simply laugh at the blunders and hypotheses of the European Chinese scholars; and tradition affirms that the commentaries to which our Western Sinologues have access are not the real occult records, but intentional veils, and that the true commentaries, as well as almost all the texts, have long since disappeared from the eyes of the profane. — The Secret Doctrine, H.P. Blavatsky, 1888
Lao Tzu and The Dark"Lao-Tzu teaches us that the dark can always become light and contains within itself the potential for growth and long life, while the light can only become dark and brings with it decay and early death. Lao-tzu chose long life. Thus, he chose the dark.
. . .
Lao-tzu's preference for darkness extended to himself as well. For the past 2,500 years, the Chinese have revered the Taoteching as they have no other text, and yet they know next to nothing about its author. — Red Pine, from Lao-Tzu's Taoteching: With Selected Commentaries from the Past 2,000 Years