Laozi – Biography, Chinese Philosopher, Founder of Taoism, Classical Philosophy, Legacy

Laozi Essay
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Laozi statue. Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Laozi Philosophy and Legacy

Yet another essay, yet another attempt at trying to write an essay on some philosopher. I have written about, or, more accurately, I have tried to write essays on Socrates and Confucius and their respective philosophies.

I am still not sure if I failed at it or even remotely succeeded at it. But that uncertainty shall not stop me from writing about another giant in the world of philosophy.

Today I shall attempt to talk about the great Laozi, also known as Lao Tzu, or Lao-Tze, and, of course, his philosophy. Yes, I am talking about the ancient Chinese sage, the great philosopher, the great writer of the great classical text Tao Te Ching, and the founder of the philosophical school known as Taoism. And if all this was not enough, he is also regarded as a deity in religious Taoism.

So who was this man, this sage with so many names, and why is he so famous and influential? you might wonder. Well, please allow me to either clear up your doubts or confuse you even more.

Laozi is usually believed to have been born sometime in the 6th century, in the so-called Spring and Autumn period in Chinese history, in Chujen village in the State of Chu, present-day Luyi, Henan, thereby making him a contemporary of Confucius. In fact, some traditional accounts even claim and retell the story of the two great sages meeting each other, and there are a few frescos and paintings depicting this encounter as well.

However, to be honest, like most things ancient and historical, this fact too cannot be stated with absolute certainty, not by me at least. Some historians are convinced that he was not born in the 6th century but sometime in the 4th century during the Warring States period in Chinese history. If this fact were true, then it would naturally imply that he was not a contemporary of Confucius and that the two never met.

Now, which one to believe then? you might ask. I do not know, I say. And which one is even remotely closer to the truth? Again, I do not know. So who am I and why the hell am I writing this essay when I don’t even know these basic facts? you might wonder, and rightly so. To answer your question, I do not know.

All I know is that serious historians who have dedicated their entire lives to this subject have failed to arrive at a consensus, so who am I to arrive at one and preach it to you falsely? After all, we are all aware of the dangers of false knowledge. It is better to have no knowledge than have false knowledge. False knowledge will ruin you.

Alright, then. Now that I have defended myself for my past and future ignorance, let us continue. I feel less guilty now.

It is amusing to see the differences in the way the lives of the two giants of Chinese philosophy were recorded. On the one hand, there is a general consensus as to when Confucius was born (including the exact date), when he lived, and when he died. And on the other hand, there is such great uncertainty regarding Laozi’s life. The difference is centuries apart.

But let us work with what we have and try to make some sense of it.

As many of you might have already suspected, Laozi was not really the man’s actual name. His actual name, according to most traditional accounts, was Li Er. And his courtesy name (a name given to one in adulthood in addition to his given name) was Boyang.

So how did he come to be known by so many different names? Well, one of his names, Lao Tzu, is actually a Chinese honorific title that means Old Master or Old Venerable. This title was romanized in the 19th century to Lao-Tse, which later gave birth to variants such as Lao-Tsu, Lao-Tze, Lao Zi, and, of course, Laozi.

Traditional accounts state that Laozi was a scholar who worked at the royal court of Zhou (the longest-lasting dynasty in the history of China) as the keeper of the archives. It was here, it is said, that he read a lot of the classics of the time, including the works of Huangdi, the famous Yellow Emperor who is a deity in Chinese religions. These texts would later influence his philosophy.

But, again, there are several other accounts that contradict this particular account. According to one account, he was a court astrologer named Lao Dan who lived in the 4th century BC during the reign of the Qin Dynasty. According to another, he was an official in the imperial archives who wrote a book in two parts. And according to a third account, he wrote a book in fifteen parts and was named Lao Laizi.

Needless to say, none of the above-mentioned accounts can be deemed to be entirely true, simply due to a lack of concrete evidence.

Laozi was never known to have opened any formal school as such to impart his teachings. But, nevertheless, he managed to attract several disciples and students who revered him and his teachings.

Anyway, according to an ancient Chinese historian named Sima Qian, when Laozi was around 80 years old, he grew tired of the moral decay of life in Chengzhou and was disheartened by the kingdom’s decline. This eventually prompted him to leave China for the west (that too, the legend says, on the back of a water buffalo!) to live the life of a hermit in the unsettled frontier.

There at the western gate of the kingdom, so the story goes, Laozi, who was pretending to be a farmer, was stopped by a guard named Yinxi, who recognized the sage. Yinxi expressed his deep desire to find the Tao and asked Laozi to accept him as his disciple and teach him. Laozi agreed.

But the guard did not stop there. He also requested the old master, for the good of the country and its people, to record his teachings and wisdom in texts before he left the country for the west. Again, Laozi agreed and wrote what is now one of the most famous philosophical texts in history, Tao Te Ching.

Some say that Yinxi was so impressed by the text that he instantly decided to dedicate his life to being a disciple of the old master and left the country with Laozi, never to be seen again.

Now, I admit, there is probably some fiction involved in this story. Maybe a lot of it. But that should not at all be surprising considering the uncertainty surrounding Laozi’s life in general. And, anyway, I am sure most of you have got the gist of it, and that is enough for now. More than enough.

Some say after leaving China, Laozi traveled to India, where he taught a certain man named Siddhartha Gautama, who would one day come to be known as the Buddha. Some who are not satisfied with the simplicity of this theory, and as if it were not suspicious enough already, take it a step further by saying that Laozi was the Buddha himself, the first Buddha so to speak. This, however, is very hard to believe.

Let us now take a deeper look at Taoism, the philosophy and religion, keeping aside the sage who would go on to be worshipped as a deity in religious Taoism.

So what is Taoism? Taoism, or Daoism, is basically a philosophical school of thought, and religion, which emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao. The basis of this philosophical thought can be found in Tao Te Ching, written first by Laozi himself, and then subsequently by other writers contributing to it.

To understand Taoism, one must necessarily understand what is Tao. Tao, or Dao, refers to the natural order of the universe whose character must be discerned and deciphered by one’s intuition in order to realize the potential for individual wisdom.

The Tao is believed to be the source of everything, the ultimate principle underlying reality. It refers to the One which is spontaneous, nameless, simple, natural, eternal, and indescribable. It is the natural flow of the universe, the way of the universe.

The oldest version of the Tao Te Ching yet discovered dates back to the late 4th century BC and was written on bamboo slips. But much like any other school of thought, Taoism was not entirely new or original in its philosophy.

Early Taoism was greatly influenced by I Ching, also known as Classic of Changes, which is one of the oldest Chinese texts and somewhat of a divination manual, written somewhere around 1150 BCE. Taoism was also influenced by the School of Naturalists, also known as the School of Yin-Yang (a philosophy that synthesized the concepts of Yin-Yang and the five elements), from which it borrowed its cosmological notions.

Then there are other writings that now form an important part of religious and philosophical Taoism, such as the Chuang Tzu, or Zhuangzi, named after its author and philosopher Zhuang Zhou.

Taoism deals with the concepts of simplicity, spontaneity, detachment from desires, naturalness, etc. But its primary ethical concept refers to something known as Wu-Wei. Wu can be translated as lacking or without, or There is no…And Wei can be translated as deliberate or intentional action. Together, Wu-Wei roughly translates to effortless action, action without intent, or non-action, or can be expressed also as action without action.

It is said that by Wu-Wei one must seek to come into harmony with the Tao, the way of the universe, which itself accomplishes by non-action. According to Taoism, the universe functions harmoniously according to its own will and way. And if one attempts to exert their will in order to achieve something that is not in sync with the natural cycles of change, they may run the risk of interfering with and disrupting the harmony of the universe. And such disruption, in turn, can lead to unintended consequences.

Instead, Taoism teaches that one must make sure to place one’s will in harmony with the natural way of the universe, that is, be in sync with it, follow it, and adhere to its rhythm. And by doing so, one can successfully achieve their will without disrupting the harmony of the universe.

Now let us look at the central value of Taoism, which can be referred to as Ziran, meaning self-organization.

Ziran is generally associated with naturalness, creativity, and spontaneity. It refers to the essential character of the Tao, to the primordial state of all things in the universe. Basically, it refers to absolute naturalness, the original nature of a substance, the state one returns to after having been altered or changed.

But, according to Taoism, in order to achieve such a state of naturalness, one must necessarily identify with the Tao, the way of the universe, and the only way of doing that is by ridding oneself of desires and selfishness and accepting simplicity and detachment.

Being influenced by the school of naturalists, Taoist cosmology can be described as being cyclic in nature, implying that the universe is constantly in motion, perpetually changing and re-creating itself. And we human beings are nothing but a microcosm of the universe or the cosmos. Therefore, Taoism says, one can gain a deeper understanding of the universe by gaining a deeper understanding of oneself.

This logic stems from the theory that everything that exists in the universe is merely an aspect of a vital force called qi that is a part of any living, changing entity.

Taoist philosophy also deals with the concept of the Three Treasures, which consists of the basic virtues of Ci, Jian, and Bugan wei tianxia xian.

The first virtue, Ci, refers to compassion, gentleness, love, benevolence, tenderness, humaneness, kindness, mercy, and all other similar-meaning words.

The second virtue, Jian, refers to moderation, frugality, restraint, economy, etc. It is often understood as describing the simplicity of desires and the economy of nature that does not waste anything.

And the third virtue, Bugan wei tianxia xian, is a phrase that literally means Not dare to be first or ahead in the world, which is often taken to mean humility.

Another interesting aspect of Taoist philosophy is their views on death, although it is still quite debatable and has not arrived at a common consensus. No one has exactly deciphered its understanding and perception of death, and it is doubtful anyone ever will. Over the centuries, many different descriptions and theories have sprung up, often contradicting each other.

In some texts, death is described as a release or liberation from the corpse. But the process after that has never been wholly agreed upon. Some accounts reveal that the person is transformed into a sword and then into a column of smoke that rises to heaven. While another text describes how the Yellow Emperor ascended to heaven directly in plain sight without transforming into anything.

Religious Taoism also holds a different view on death. Many believe in the concept of immortality, or eternal life. Death is often regarded as just another phase in one’s life and not the end of it. It is believed that such immortality can be attained by doing what one has to do and is supposed to do.

Many Taoist also believe that the dead can be contacted through meditation by an alchemist.

Taoist religion, much like almost all other religions, involves elaborate rituals and ceremonies for the dead, none of which I shall be discussing in this essay right now. People adhering to Taoism believe that the human body is full of spirits that guard the body after several rituals are performed to that end. And so, it is said that when the spirits finally leave the body, there is nothing left anymore to protect the body from illness or sickness, thereby weakening the body and eventually killing it.

So how does one actually attain immortality? you might wonder. And if not actually attain it, how does one even attempt to attain it? Well, let us dive a little deeper into this.

First of all, you must understand that Taoists who believe in immortality do not just believe it to be some kind of a superficial, metaphysical, or abstract concept and phenomenon. Not at all. They actually believe it to be a major goal of their lives, a common one. A goal they sincerely strive toward. In fact, they prefer to strive for immortality rather than look forward to some afterlife or next life.

Not surprisingly, the process to achieve immortality is not easy. Needless to say, most fail at it, and the few who probably succeed at it must be quite good at hiding it, for I have never heard of anyone attaining immortality as such. But, again, what the hell do I know?

One of the main reasons why it is so difficult is probably because it is a lifelong effort, involving various tasks that must be met during the course of one’s lifetime. And only if they accomplish these tasks successfully can they even hope to qualify for immortality.

Now, there are two categories of requirements to achieve immortality – External Alchemy and Internal Alchemy.

One could say that external alchemy, when compared to internal alchemy, is easier to accomplish. It includes yoga, physical exercises, practicing and mastering special breathing techniques and sexual practices, developing medical skills, etc. But perhaps the most interesting one is consuming complex compounds and purified metals in an attempt to produce an elixir of immortality.

Aside from this, just like every other philosophy or religion preaches, one must lead an ethical, moral, and upright life.

The logic for this goes something like this. In Taoism, one’s energy and soul are considered to be intertwined with the vital energy, which nourishes one’s soul. And practicing and mastering the external alchemy requirements can rid the body of its impurities, thereby increasing this vital energy within the body.

Now, the requirements of internal alchemy are quite different, obviously. It includes a lot of meditation, complex visualization, self-control, strict dieting, and practicing certain specific sexual exercises as well.

One needs to spend a good amount of time daily practicing different forms of meditation, concentrating on one’s breathing. One must not just blindly practice these various forms of meditation but actually master them.

Another difficult aspect of internal alchemy is the strict diet one must adhere to. The diet, it is said, is intended to kill demons and monsters existing within the body. It also includes the consumption of refined substances such as gold and jade. The diet serves to stimulate and maintain the energy within the body.

But enough now with death and immortality. Perhaps my favorite aspect of Taoism (although I admit I know very little about it) is their simple take on life. As a philosophy, Taoism places more importance on life than on the afterlife. Instead of focusing on a good and perfect life after death, it focuses on living a long, healthy, and peaceful life, through the means of simplicity, frugality, and ethical practices.

Such a view on life seems to me to be more comforting and hopeful than promises of a beautiful life in heaven after death.

Taoism is now a widespread philosophy and religion in several South-East Asian cultures, especially in regions such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Macau, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and even Singapore. Over the centuries, Taoist philosophy (and religion) and its literature have crossed borders and influenced cultures in Japan, Korea, and to some extent Brazil as well.

More importantly, Taoism has become an intrinsic part of the culture and tradition of China, along with Confucianism and Buddhism, all three of which have greatly influenced each other in philosophy and rituals, the most common factor between the three being their humanist philosophy that emphasizes moral behavior and human perfection over divine rules and laws.

All this being said, do you know what is the best part of it all? The best and most interesting part of it all is that there are high chances that Laozi, the great sage who became a deity, did not even exist in the first place.