Since we looked at Confucius last week, it only makes sense to move on to his supposed contemporary Lao-Tzu. Not a whole lot is known about him, and even what is known might not be accurate. The name Lao-Tzu, or Laozi in the Pinyin Romanization, means “old master,” so it’s really more of a title. His original name is said to be either Li Er or Li Dan. According to legend, he lived in the sixth century BC, and worked as an archivist for the Zhou imperial court. Becoming fed up with the decadence and moral decline of the imperial city, he eventually set out toward the west on a water buffalo.
When he arrived at the westernmost gate of China, the guard asked him to write down his philosophy, and that’s said to be how the Tao Te Ching came to be. There are also tales of his having met with Confucius. Many modern scholars, however, think that “Lao-Tzu” might actually be a composite character, and that the Tao Te Ching was composed by different sages over several centuries. Some followers of Taoism have deified the old sage, and there are many myths about him that are much wackier than the one about his leaving China on a buffalo, like the one about how he was born an old man.
While Confucianism was intended as a practical belief system, Taoism is much more mystical. The Tao, which can be loosely translated as “The Way,” is the path to true harmony with nature. The desired state in Taoism is that of Wu Wei, which means “without action,” but isn’t meant to be taken literally. From what I’ve been able to gather, it basically means knowing when to act, and making sure your actions are natural. As with Buddhism, human desire is thought to be a negative thing, driving people away from simplicity. There’s also a sort of anti-authoritarian aspect to Taoism, in that it opposes greedy and power-hungry rulers. The old saying, “That government is best which governs least,” often attributed to Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, fits pretty well with what Lao-Tzu (if he existed) taught. Kind of odd, then, that the Tang Dynasty would claim descent from the sage, but I suppose there’s no religion or philosophy that shrewd leaders can’t use to their own advantage. And no, I haven’t read The Tao of Pooh, even though pretty much everyone else has.