Taoism is based on the teachings of the Tao Te Ching, some short verses that were written in the 6th century BC in China. It places its emphasis on spiritual harmony. There are two main strands and schools within Taoism, usually labeled “philosophical Taoism” and “religious Taoism” Philosophical Taoism focuses on the philosophical writings of Lao-Tzu, Chuang-Tzu and other ancient sages. At Pure Mountain Zen Center, we concentrate on philosophical Taoism.
The Tao encompasses all opposite and complementary forces, which are collectively referred to as yin and yang. Yin is associated with darkness, femininity, passivity and water, while yang is light, masculinity, activity and air. Yin and yang are always in perfect balance within the Tao. The goal of the Taoist, therefore, is to keep these opposites in balance within his or her own life. Taoism takes its name from the word “Tao” (”the Way”), the ancient Chinese name for the ordering principle that makes cosmic harmony possible. The Tao is found in the world (especially in nature) and can be encountered directly through experiences. It is the proper natural way of life humans should follow. Taoism prizes naturalness, non-action, and introspection.
The Tao-te Ching is the main text of Taoism. It was written it is said by Lao-Tzu. Whether it actually was or not is of some question. Some believe that it was compiled over a period of centuries by different authors. Whether Lao-Tzu even existed has been doubted, but most scholars now believe he was likely a historical figure. The Tao-te Ching’s 81 verses are thoughtful, paradoxical, vague, yet practical. There are many translations and interpretations of the TTC. Some are easier to understand than others. You will notice some interpreters see things slightly differently than other interpreters. Even so, they are close in spirit.
The ideal person in philosophical Taoism is the sage who understands and lives in accordance with the Tao. Knowing that all opposites are relative and interdependent, and that the best way to live is in harmony with the natural course of things (the Tao), a Taoist does not struggle, oppose, or strive. Instead, the sage practices wu-wei, or “non-action.” In the Tao Te Ching, this is the central virtue of the wise ruler. Wu-wei does not mean doing nothing or doing things only in moderation. To practice wu-wei is to so orient oneself with the Tao that one’s actions go unnoticed, for the perfect traveler leaves no trace,. In yet another paradox, wu-wei “never acts, yet there is nothing it does not do.”
Life and death are merely two aspects of reality, the unchanging Tao. Death is simply a transformation from being to non-being; from yang to yin. Taoism teaches that humans ought to accept life and death as complementary aspects of the Tao. Death should be neither feared nor desired. The one who knows how to live is not afraid of death. All waters return to the sea. From whence we came, we shall return. It accepts death as a natural returning to the Tao. “Since life and death are each other’s companions, why worry about them? All beings are one.” (Chuang-Tzu)
Lao Tzu, also known as Laozi, Lao Tsu, Lao Tse, Lao Zi, or a variety of other names is reported to have lived in the sixth century BC according to Chinese tradition. However, recent scholars believe that Lao Tzu may have actually been born in the fourth century BC.
Although precious little is known about the life of Lao Tzu, his cultural significance is important to the lives of generations of Chinese. According to Chinese tradition, Lao Tzu was born in the Chŭ state, which today is named Lù yì County of the Henan province during the Spring and Autumn Period, roughly between 722 BC and 481 BC.
Some legends state he was born with white hair, having spent more than eighty years in his mother’s womb, giving him his title Laozi, which means “the old master”. Obviously, this is the fable-like version of a story.
According to tradition, Lao Tzu was an elder contemporary of Confucius and worked as an archivist in the Imperial Library of the Zhou Dynasty. Confucius supposedly met Lao Tzu near modern Luoyang where he was going to study library scrolls. Reportedly, the two discussed many issues.
Lao-Tzu strongly opposed many of Confucius’s ideals. It is said that Confucius left the meeting rather befuddled at Lao Tzu. Some doubt whether this meeting actually occurred, but if it did it would reason that the two would have differences in philosophy.
When he was eighty years old, it is said that Lao-Tzu decided to leave his work and head west on a water buffalo through the state of Qin, which is now modern day Tibet. He then disappeared into a vast desert never to be seen again.
However, before his entrance into the great desert, Yin Xi (Yin Hsi), a guard at the western-most gate of the Great Wall convinced Lao Tzu to write down his wisdom and his response to the soldier was Dao De Jing, also spelled Tao Te Ching, which means “The Law of Virtue and Its Way”.
Lao Tzu’s work, Tao Te Ching, was a testament to his rationalism and beliefs. The work later led to the creation of both philosophical Taoism and religious Taoism, with the help of Chuang Tzu, which is most associated with harmony and leading a simple life.
Some believe Lao-Tzu was fictional and that the Tao Te Ching was actually the work of several authors. No matter what the truth of the authorship is, the truth of the Tao Te Ching speaks to all and continues to find an audience today, thousands of years later.
Whether there actually was a Lao-Tzu is really rather irrelevant to today’s practitioner. Those who wish to believe can believe, and those who question can question. There is no questioning the wisdom set forth in the verses.