Chinese ancient legends and figures 9- Lao Tzu, a myth or reality?

Chinese ancient legends and figures 9- Lao Tzu, a myth or reality?

This time I wont write details about Taoism and values deeply but I will speak about basic ideas of Lao Tzu, his life and his core ideas. Lao Tzu alongside Confucius is biggest Chinese philosopher. It cannot be determined who is more important of these two great people. While Confucius was busy with concept of state, society and social norms Lao Tzu was busy about living in harmony with nature and  observing natural changes. He was also thinking about how people should live in harmony with each other and nature and how people should perceive happiness, changes, sadness and how to deal with challenges. Basically was searching meaning of life and giving a meaning to it.

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What is even more interesting is that no one is completely sure about existence of Lao Tzu and most details about his life. Most of historians believe that Lao Tzu lived between 601BC  and 531BC.  Its known very little about his life actually. There are many different and contradictory stories about his life which are very unclear and brief. Even most famous Chinese ancient historian Sima Qian  145BC-86BC) didn’t leave one conceptualized story about Lao Tzu but several shorter often not completely reliable. It is believed that Lao Tzu was born in state of Chu, in  present day  Luoyi Henan province. His real name was Li. Er while  Lao Tzu actually means Old Master. There is legend that he was held in mothers womb for 62 years and that he was born with long beard and large eyebrows or in other words old and wise. Other legends suggest that he lived for 129 years.  There are suggestions that he worked as historian or librarian on royal court of Zhou dynasty in Luoyang. Records of Sima Qian suggest that Lao Tzu was married and had one son Zong who later became legendary warrior.

Some parts of Records of Sima Qian state that he  had few followers while other parts say that he didn’t have any followers before he went to west. It is stated that he travelled a lot observed nature, visited many villages and towns where he was both learning but also teaching wisdoms. There is also an unreliable story that he once met with Confucius and that they spoke to each other in respectful way despite  differences in ideas of these two philosophers. According to Records of Grand Historian Lao Tzu told Confucius that he should be more flexible and spontaneous and less ambitious.  While Confucius told him that he perceives Lao Tzu as dragon which rides over sky with wind and clouds.


Now even more  mysterious thing is where Lao Tzu left and whether he left at all. In some writings of Sima Qian Lao Tzu was becoming more and more disappointed by ignorance of people and hard life during Spring and Autumn Period. Lao Tzu was also disappointed with moral decline of various rulers and often wars between states for their dominance and recognition by Zhou court. Also there are suggestions that he wanted to observe and discover harmony, nature and Tao deeper without interruption.  It is often suggested that he didn’t get single disciple and was sad that people don’t want to live according to natural goodness. There is also possibility that he went with the flow, followed his Tao and wanted to live in harmony with all  statics and dynamics in nature and Tao. Simply it can be said that he went to observe stillness of mountains and flexibility of rivers without interruption.  According to story he took an ox and was riding him towards west from  Zhou capital Luoyang.

Legend says that he wanted to leave some trace before he disappears and left the collection of his wisdoms to the border security guard. While getting out of city at western gate Lao Tzu was noticed by one of guards. Lao Tzu was stopped by one of guards. Guard told that his name is Yin Xi and that he recognized Lao Tzu and wants to be his disciple. Lao Tzu wanted to test his devotion and asked about his life. Yin Xi told him that he was interested in astronomy and in all processes of nature, 5 elements and living with virtue. Thus Lao Tzu got sure that he is truly devoted to Tao and that he respects 3 virtues of Lao Tzu. According to legend Lao Tzu still decided to leave but ordained Yin Xi as his disciple. Instead of mentoring him Lao Tzu left him on a bamboo slips his main wisdoms what became known as Tao Te Qing. Lao Tzu went without a trace to the west riding and ox.  This action can be perfectly seen as example of Wu Wei.

Lao Tzu riding an ox

Further according to legend Yin Xi followed the Tao and preserved and rewrote Tao Te Qing several times and was speaking teaching of Lao Tzu to the people.  He left more followers than his teacher Lao Tzu. If we follow this story there were more and more Taoist individuals and smaller movements until 2nd century CE.

Significance of Lao Tzu is very big. Lao Tzu was core person in conceptualizing Taoist teaching. Lao Tzu collected previous ideas about nature, worship, way of living and called it Dao or Tao.  It can be translated as Way. Tao Te Qing is collection of his main ideas and views on nature, time, actions, love, competition, spirituality, astronomy, mind, body,  morality, justice,  contrasts and their balance, harmony with nature, power of mind, balance between people in way of harmony,  and many other things. All this things mentioned above and concept of yin yang were systematized by Lao Tzu existed long before in traditional Chinese spirituality, shamanism and astronomy.  Lao Tzu named this teaching as Tao meaning way. Tao Te Qing can be translated as Classic Way of Virtue.


Lao Tzu updated this concept with concept of Wuji and Taiji. Wuji is considered as eternal space and eternal emptiness that is everywhere around us. Wuji represents constant stillness, non changes and statics. Second is Taiji which is translated as supreme ultimate. It is something that  constantly changes, moves, circles and is constantly flexible. Taiji is constant change of day and night, winter and summer, spring and autumn, good and bad, flowing water, rain and sun,  beautiful and ugly, new and old, love and hate…It is considered that Taiji is name for all relative things and that nothing is absolute that there is thin line between all contrary things.  Wuji and Taiji together give a Yin Yang which symbolizes contradictious harmony as I spoke before.   Yin symbolizes- night, woman, moon, earth, passive, evil and yang symbolizes-  day, man, sun, heaven, active, good. Lao Tzu also added his main virtues to Tao Te Qing such as are simplicity( spontaneity, no competing, wisdom, tranquility, peaceful mind,) , patience( stillness) and compassion( kindness).  He considers Tao as Way with no name and no shape but that it can be personified in way of harmony and path of wisdom. Also Lao Tzu added famous concept of Wu Wei.


Systematized Taoism and its followers during this period still didn’t function as organized association but several centuries later. Later it became organized and systematized teaching only by middle of 2nd century CE.  It never became official state philosophy but  was widely respected by various dynasties mostly by Han, Tang Song and Ming. Taoism deeply influenced life of people. Lao Tzu definitely left great significance on Chinese people. Maybe not him directly but Tao Te Qing and inspired Taoist teaching on it. Taoism not only as a organized movement but as a spiritual concept and way of life had and has great impact on life, culture, arts, medicine, architecture, perception of life, relations between people, virtues, perception of nature, understanding changes and unchangeable things and much more. Together with Confucianism Taoism is core of minds and hearts of Chinese people, Chinese civilization and Chinese nation.  Maybe not Lao Tzu that much but inspiration by Tao Te Qing created Taoist movements.


Still existence of Lao Tzu and origin of Tao Te Qing is mystery as there are suggestions that he actually didn’t write it but that book was written by his followers and that its collection of things that he taught them. There are also ideas that Yin Xi wrote only what Lao Tzu was telling him. It is often believed that Tao Te Qing was a compilation of works of more philosophers who systematized Taoist ideas. Some think that they cooperated on it while others that even different contributors lived in different centuries. It is believed that they had in common that they were signing their works as Lao Tzu what means old master and that later misunderstanding appeared and people thought it was one person. Oldest found examples of Tao Te Qing were found only by late 4th century BC.  Some Taoist followers worship Lao Tzu as deity while in past some schools considered him as individual deity such as Way of Celestial Masters. Todays schools of Taoism Zhengyi and Quanzhen consider Lao Tzu as incarnation of Taishang Laojun one of 3 Pure Ones an important deities in Taoism.  Generally Taoists think that Lao Tzu is personification of Tao. Mostly Taoists do not worship Lao Tzu alone but he is considered as incarnation of 3 Pure Ones who are often worshiped together with other deities.


Traces of  burial site of Lao Tzu do not exist as it was believed that he went to the West somewhere far completely alone. Some rare suggestions exist that he went to Tibet or India. During Han dynasty( 206BC-220CE) with arrival of Buddhism to China  via Silk Road some scholars thought that Lao Tzu actually went to India and that Buddha was his disciple. It was believed like that because of some similarity between two teachings. They believed that Buddha during his retreat met Lao Tzu in mountains who showed him the Tao. Even at beginning Buddha was considered  that he found Tao instead of term Buddhahood by Taoist scholars  Taoist scholars understood the best Buddhist teaching and using their terminology they were able to translate it to Chinese. Chinese version of Buddhism was created by Taoist adaptation. Chan( Zen) Buddhism appeared in 4th-5th century under influence of Taoism.

So its up to you to read, think and decide if Lao Tzu is myth or reality.