Lao Tzu the philosopher is credited with writing the "Daodejing," which sets forth the essential principles of Daoism. But Lao Tzu the man is every bit as enigmatic, just as mysterious, as his philosophies.
The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world.
Lao Tzu, or "Old Master," is an honorary title for the ancient Chinese man whose original name was Li Er. As a saint or deity, he is known by many names, including Lao Jun and Lao Dan. He is credited with founding philosophical and religious Daoism.
Lao Tzu is the presumed author of the "Daodejing," an important book of Daoism. He is admired as a philosopher by some; worshiped as a god, saint, or imperial ancestor by others. He may have lived in the 6th century B.C., but possibly the 5th or 4th. Historians debate whether he was one man or a legend, and whether the "Daodejing" was written by one author or many.
The legend of Lao Tzu features a number of origin stories. Some say he was conceived when his mother saw a falling star. His mother carried him in her womb for 8 years, 62 years, 72 years, or even 80 years, according to some, then gave birth to him through her left flank. He may have been born at the foot of a plum tree, or "li," inspiring his surname, and he may have been born as an old man with white hair, a grey beard, and long earlobes.
Some say he was born many times throughout history, with a different personality each time, in order to share Daoist principles with many disciples. He may have lived for 990 years. Some say Lao Tzu and Buddha were one and the same, or that Buddha was his reincarnation. For some, the name "Lao Tzu" represents a sage, not a specific individual.
Many traditionalists believe Lao Tzu was a "shi," or Keeper of the Archives for the royal court of Zhou. In this capacity he would have had access to important sacred texts. Such knowledge would have enabled him to formulate the philosophies of Daoism.
In some versions of his life story, Lao Tzu traveled west from Chengzhou at the age of 160, to live as a hermit. He was stopped by a guard at the gate, who asked him to record his wisdom for the good of his people. The resulting text was the "Daodejing." Some say the guard was so impressed that he left his post to become a disciple of Lao Tzu. In another version of the story, Lao Tzu traveled to India and taught Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. In the "Daodejing," Lao Tzu wrote, "A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving."
Lao Tzu may have met Confucius. According to legend, the older Lao Tzu considered Confucius to be prideful and ambitious, and he thought Confucianism contained hollow practices. Confucius, on the other hand, thought of Lao Tzu as a mighty dragon, flying across the sky.
Lao Tzu married, by some accounts. He may have had a son, Zong, who achieved fame as a soldier.
Daoism is both a religion and a philosophy, encompassing everything, with no specific primary god. According to the "Daodejing," "Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Tao. The law of the Tao is its being what it is."
Lao Tzu embraced the concept of "wu-wei" - action through non-action. He believed that, through non-action, governments could promote social and economic harmony. He wrote, "A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." He also wrote, "Governing a great nation is like cooking a small fish - too much handling will spoil it."
Also central to Daoism are the "three treasures." Lao Tzu wrote, "I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures."
In summary, the Dao is the origin of all things, and it is formless. Lao Tzu wrote, "There was something undifferentiated and yet complete, which existed before Heaven and Earth. Soundless and formless it depends on nothing and does not change. It operates everywhere and is free from danger. It may be considered the mother of the universe. I do not know its name; I call it Dao."
The earliest known versions of the "Daodejing" are from the late 4th century B.C. They were written on bamboo strips, designed to be the length of one chopstick and the width of two, then painted with single columns of Chinese characters. Those strips were then bound together, side by side, to form a sort of book.
In the "Daodejing," some concepts are illuminated through the use of paradox. For example, "All things in the world come from being. And being comes from non-being." Lao Tzu states outright that "The words of truth are always paradoxical."
Other concepts are explained through the use of analogy. For example, "Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides."
Another technique used by Lao Tzu to express ideas is the use of repetition. For example, "He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough."
Lao Tzu considered the seemingly contradictory properties of water - softness and power - in order to express Daoist principles. He wrote, "Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it."
Finally, Lao Tzu believed that people must strive find strength within the self. He wrote, "The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself."