little is actually known about the Chinese philosopher lao tzu (sometimes also known as laozi or lao tze), who is a leading figure in Daoism (also translated as Taoism), a still popular spiritual practice. He is said to have been a court record keeper of the Central Chinese Zhou Dynasty in the sixth century BC. c., and an older contemporary of Confucius. this could be true, but it may also have been entirely mythical, like homer in western culture. it is certainly highly unlikely that (as some legends say) he was conceived when his mother saw a shooting star, or was born an old man with very long earlobes, or lived to be 990 years old.
lao tzu as a deity, 7th or 8th century carving
Lao Tzu is said to have grown weary of life at the Zhou court as it became increasingly morally corrupt. So she went and rode a water buffalo to the western border of the Chinese empire. Although he was dressed as a farmer, the border officer recognized him and asked him to write down his wisdom. according to this legend, what lao tzu wrote became the sacred text called tao te ching. after writing this, lao tzu is said to have crossed the border and disappeared from history, perhaps to become a hermit. In reality, the Tao Te Ching is likely to be a compilation of the works of many authors over time. but the stories about lao tzu and the tao te ching have been passed down through different chinese philosophical schools for more than two thousand years and have become beautifully embellished in the process.
lao tzu leaving the kingdom on his water buffalo
Today there are at least twenty million Daoists, and perhaps even half a billion, living around the world, especially in China and Taiwan. they practice meditation, chant scriptures, and worship a variety of gods and goddesses in temples run by priests. Daoists also make pilgrimages to five sacred mountains in eastern China to pray in temples and absorb the spiritual energy of these holy places, which are believed to be ruled by immortals.
Daoist pilgrims visit a temple on Mount Tai, one of the five sacred mountains of Daoism
Taoism is deeply intertwined with other branches of thought such as Confucianism and Buddhism. Confucius is often believed to have been a student of Lao Tzu. similarly, some believe that when lao tzu disappeared, he traveled to india and nepal and taught or became the buddha. Confucianist practices to this day not only respect Lao Tzu as a great philosopher, but also try to follow many of his teachings.
A 12th-century Song Dynasty painting titled “Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are One” is artistic evidence of the way these three philosophies blended over time and often overlapped. I thought they were fully compatible.
There is a story about the three great Asian spiritual leaders (Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha). they were all destined to have tasted vinegar. Confucius found it bitter, just as he found the world full of degenerate people, and Buddha found it bitter, just as he found the world full of suffering. but lao tzu found the world sweet. this is revealing, because lao tzu philosophy tends to look at the apparent discord in the world and sees an underlying harmony guided by something called the ‘dao’.
“the vinegar tasters”
The Tao Te Ching is a bit like the Bible: it gives instructions (sometimes vague and usually open to multiple interpretations) on how to live a good life. it analyzes the “dao” or the “way” of the world, which is also the path to virtue, happiness and harmony. this “path” is not inherently confusing or difficult. lao tzu wrote, “the grand dao is very even, but people like to take separate paths.” In Lao Tzu’s view, the problem with virtue is not that it is difficult or unnatural, but simply that we resist the very simple path that might make us feel more fulfilled.
To follow the dao, we must go beyond simply reading and thinking about it. instead, we must learn wu wei (“flow” or “effortless action”), a kind of resolute acceptance of the way of the dao and live in harmony with it. This may seem lofty and strange, but most of Lao Tzu’s suggestions are actually very simple.
an immortal (here walking on water) has certainly mastered wu wei, living in harmony with the dao
First, we should spend more time in stillness. “to the mind that is still,” said lao tzu, “the whole universe surrenders.” we need to put aside our schedules, worries and complex thoughts for a while and just experience the world. we spend a lot of time running from one place to another in life, but lao tzu reminds us that “nature does not rush, but everything is achieved.” It’s particularly important that we remember that certain things—grieving, growing wiser, developing a new relationship—only happen on their own schedule, like the changing of the leaves in the fall or the blooming of the bulbs we planted months ago.
an 11th-century Chinese painting depicts a scholar practicing stillness studying nature in a meadow
When we are still and patient, we also need to be open. we need to be reminded to empty ourselves of frivolous thoughts so that we can see what is really important. “The usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness.” Lao Tzu said. “Empty yourself of everything, let your mind be still.” if we are too busy, too preoccupied with anxiety or ambition, we will miss out on a thousand moments of human experience that are our natural heritage. we need to be aware of the way light reflects off the ripples of a pond, the way other people look when they laugh, the feel of the wind playing with our hair. these experiences reconnect us with parts of ourselves.
an open and decorated metal vessel from the time of lao tzu
This is another key point from Lao Tzu’s writings: we need to be in touch with ourselves. we spend a lot of time worrying about who we should become, but instead we should take the time to be who we already are deep down inside. we may rediscover a generous impulse, or a playful side that we had forgotten, or simply an old fondness for long walks. Our ego often gets in the way of our true selves, which must be found by being receptive to the outside world rather than focusing on an overly ambitious and critical internal image. “When I let go of what I am,” lao tzu wrote, “I become what I could be.”
deified lao tzu seems calm because he knows who he really is. a sculpture from between the 8th and 11th centuries
what is the best book on philosophy one could read? for lao tzu, it was not a volume (or a scroll) but the book of nature. it is the natural world, in particular its rocks, water, stone, trees and clouds, that offers us constant and eloquent lessons of wisdom and calm, if we only remember to pay attention a little more often.
In the eyes of Lao Tzu, most of what is wrong with us comes from our inability to live “according to nature.” our envy, our anger, our manic ambition, our frustrated sense of entitlement, all stem from our inability to live as nature suggests we should. of course ‘nature’ has many moods and one can see in it almost anything one likes depending on one’s perspective. but when lao tzu refers to nature, he is thinking of some very particular aspects of the natural world; he focuses on a range of attitudes that he sees in him that, if we manifested them more regularly in our own lives, would help us find serenity and fulfillment.
Lao tzu liked to compare different parts of nature with different virtues. he said, “the best people are like water, which benefits all things and does not compete with them. he stays in humble places that others reject. that is why it is so similar to the way (dao)”. each part of nature can remind us of a quality that we admire and must cultivate: the strength of the mountains, the resistance of the trees, the joy of the flowers.
Daoism advises us to look at trees as case studies in graceful endurance. they are constantly tormented by the elements, and yet because they are an ideal blend of the flexible and the tough, they respond without some of our usual rigidity and defensiveness, and therefore survive and thrive in ways that are often we do not do it. trees are also an image of patience, because they go long days and nights without complaining, adjusting to the slow change of the seasons, not showing a bad temper in a storm, not wanting to stray from their place for an impetuous journey; they are content to keep their many slender fingers deep in the moist soil, meters from their central stems and away from the highest leaves that hold rainwater in their palms.
Water is another favorite source of wisdom for Daoists, as it is soft and seemingly gentle, yet when given enough time, powerful enough to mold and reshape stone. we could borrow some of your patient and calm determination when dealing with certain family members or frustrating political situations in the workplace.
Daoist philosophy gave rise to a school of Chinese landscape painting that is still admired today for awakening us to the virtues of the natural world.
on one level, it seems strange to say that our characters can evolve in the company of a waterfall or a mountain, a pine tree or a celandine, objects that after all have no conscious concerns and therefore seem unable to even encourage or censor behavior. And yet an inanimate object can, in order to become the lynchpin of Lao Tzu’s statement about the beneficial effects of nature, still exert an influence on those around it. natural scenes have the power to suggest certain values to us (the dignity of mountains, the resolution of pine trees, the kindness of flowers) and, in a discreet way, can act as an inspiration for virtue.
The idea that contemplation of nature is a source of perspective and tranquility is well known in theory, but it is very easy to overlook it because we take it for granted and never give it the necessary time and focus.
lao tzu in stone, near quanzhou in china
Often our heads are full of useless phrases and ideas: things that have crept into our imaginations and, by triggering anxieties, make it harder for us to cope with them. for example, ‘have the courage to live your dreams’, ‘never compromise’, ‘fight until you win…’ these can (in certain cases) be a kind of poison, for which the words of lao tzu – combined with natural scenes – they are the ideal antidote.
nature is in no hurry but everything is achieved.
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. do not resist them. that only causes sadness.
lao tzu’s words create a mood. they are peaceful, reassuring and gentle. and this is a frame of mind that we often find difficult to hold on to, though it serves us well for many tasks in life: taking the kids to school, watching our hair turn gray, accepting a rival’s greatest talent, realizing that one’s marriage will never be very easy…
be content with what you have. be happy with the way things are.
it would be a mistake to take the sayings of lao tzu literally in all cases. to be happy about how it all happens (a mediocre first draft, a car accident, a wrongful imprisonment, a brutal stabbing…) would be foolish. but what he says is, on certain occasions, extremely useful: when his daughter has a vision of life that is different from his, but which, nevertheless, is full of unexpected insights; when you don’t get asked out but get a chance to stay home and examine your thoughts for a change; when your bike is perfectly fine, even if it’s not made of carbon fiber.
We know that nature is good for our bodies. lao tzu’s contribution has been to remind us that it is also full of what deserves to be called philosophical wisdom; lessons that can make a particular impression on us because they come to us through our eyes and ears, instead of just our reason.
this 12th-century painting depicts a Daoist temple nestled in nature
Of course, there are problems that need to be tackled through action and there are times for ambition. However, the work of Lao Tzu is important to Taoists and non-Taoists alike, especially in a modern world distracted by technology and focused on what seems to be constant, sudden, and severe change. His words serve as a reminder of the importance of stillness, openness, and the discovery of buried but central parts of ourselves.