Lao-tzu


Lao-tzu
/low"dzu"/, n.
1. (Li Erh, Li Er) 6th-century B.C. Chinese philosopher: reputed founder of Taoism.
2. (italics) See Tao Te Ching.
Also, Lao-tse /low"dzu"/; Pinyin, Laozi /low"zue"/.

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▪ Chinese Taoist philosopher
Introduction
Pinyin  Laozi (Chinese: “Master Lao,” or “Old Master”) , original name (Wade-Giles romanization)  Li Erh,  deified as  Lao-chün, T'ai-shang Lao-chün , or  T'ai-shang Hsüan-yüan Huang-ti , also called  Lao Tun , or  Lao Tan 
flourished 6th century BC, China

      the first philosopher of Chinese Taoism (tao) and alleged author of the Tao-te Ching (Daodejing) (q.v.), a primary Taoist writing. Modern scholars discount the possibility that the Tao-te Ching was written by only one person but readily acknowledge the influence of Taoism on the development of Buddhism. Lao-tzu is venerated as a philosopher by Confucianists and as a saint or god by some of the common people and was worshiped as an imperial ancestor during the T'ang dynasty (618–907). (See also Taoism.)

The life of Lao-tzu
      Despite his historical importance, Lao-tzu remains an obscure figure. The principal source of information about his life is a biography in the Shih-chi (“Historical Records”) by Ssu-ma Ch'ien. This historian, who wrote in about 100 BC, had little solid information concerning the philosopher. He says that Lao-tzu was a native of Ch'ü-jen, a village in the district of Hu in the state of Ch'u, which corresponds to the modern Lu-yi in the eastern part of Honan province. His family name was Li, his proper name Erh, his appellation Tan. He was appointed to the office of shih at the royal court of the Chou dynasty (c. 1111–255 BC). Shih today means “historian,” but in ancient China the shih were scholars specializing in matters such as astrology and divination and were in charge of sacred books.

      After noting the civil status of Lao-tzu, the historian proceeds to relate a celebrated but questionable meeting of the old Taoist with the younger Confucius (551–479 BC). The story has been much discussed by the scholars; it is mentioned elsewhere, but the sources are so inconsistent and contradictory that the meeting seems a mere legend. During the supposed interview, Lao-tzu blamed Confucius for his pride and ambition, and Confucius was so impressed with Lao-tzu that he compared him to a dragon that rises to the sky, riding on the winds and clouds.

      No less legendary is a voyage of Lao-tzu to the west. Realizing that the Chou dynasty was on the decline, the philosopher departed and came to the Hsien-ku pass, which was the entrance to the state of Ch'in. Yin Hsi, the legendary guardian of the pass (kuan-ling), begged him to write a book for him. Thereupon, Lao-tzu wrote a book in two sections of 5,000 characters, in which he set down his ideas about the Tao (literally “Way,” the Supreme Principle) and the te (its “virtue”): the Tao-te Ching. Then he left, and “nobody knows what has become of him,” says Ssu-ma Ch'ien.

      After the account of the voyage of Lao-tzu and of the redaction of the book, Ssu-ma Ch'ien alludes to other men with whom Lao-tzu was sometimes identified. One was Lao-Lai-tzu, a Taoist contemporary of Confucius; another was a great astrologer named Tan. Ssu-ma Ch'ien adds, “Maybe Lao-tzu has lived one hundred and fifty years, some say more than two hundred years.” Since the ancient Chinese believed that superior men could live very long, it is natural that the Taoists credited their master with an uncommon longevity, but this is perhaps a rather late tradition because Chuang-tzu, the Taoist sage of the 4th century BC, still speaks of the death of Lao-tzu without emphasizing an unusual longevity.

      To explain why the life of Lao-tzu is so shrouded in obscurity, Ssu-ma Ch'ien says that he was a gentleman recluse whose doctrine consisted in nonaction, the cultivation of a state of inner calm, and purity of mind. Indeed, throughout the whole history of China, there have always been recluses who shunned worldly life. The author (or authors) of the Tao-te Ching was probably a person of this kind who left no trace of his life.

      The question of whether there was a historical Lao-tzu has been raised by many scholars, but it is rather an idle one. The Tao-te Ching, as we have it, cannot be the work of a single man; some of its sayings may date from the time of Confucius; others are certainly later; and the book as a whole dates from about 300 BC. Owing to these facts, some scholars have assigned the authorship of the Tao-te Ching to the astrologer Tan; while others, giving credit to a genealogy of the descendants of the philosopher, which is related in the biography by Ssu-ma Ch'ien, try to place the life of Lao Tan at the end of the 4th century BC. But this genealogy can hardly be considered as historical. It proves only that at the time of Ssu-ma Ch'ien a certain Li family (see above) pretended to be descended from the Taoist sage; it does not give a basis for ascertaining the existence of the latter. The name Lao-tzu seems to represent a certain type of sage rather than an individual.

Hagiographical legends.
      Beyond the biography in the Shih-chi and sporadic mentions in other old books, several hagiographies were written from the 2nd century AD onward. These are interesting for the history of the formation of religious Taoism (Tao-chiao). During the Eastern, or Later, Han dynasty (AD 25–220), Lao-tzu had already become a mythical figure who was worshiped by the people and occasionally by an emperor. Later, in religious circles, he became the Lord Lao (Lao-chün), revealer of sacred texts and saviour of mankind. There were several stories about his birth, one of which was influenced by the legend of the miraculous birth of Buddha. Lao-tzu's mother is said to have borne him 72 years in her womb and he to have entered the world through her left flank. One legend gives an explanation of his family name, Li: the baby came to light at the foot of a plum tree (li) and decided that li (“plum”) should be his surname. Two legends were particularly important in the creed of the Taoists. According to the first, the Lao-chün was believed to have adopted different personalities throughout history and to have come down to the earth several times to instruct the rulers in the Taoist doctrine. The second legend developed from the story of Lao-tzu's voyage to the west. In this account the Buddha was thought to be none other than Lao-tzu himself. During the 3rd century AD an apocryphal book was fabricated on this theme with a view to combating Buddhist propaganda. This book, the Lao-tzu Hua-hu ching (“Lao-tzu's Conversion of the Barbarians”), in which Buddhism was presented as an inferior kind of Taoism, was often condemned by the Chinese imperial authorities.

      Lao-tzu has never ceased to be generally respected in all circles in China. To the Confucianists he was a venerated philosopher; to the people he was a saint or a god; and to the Taoists he was an emanation of the Tao and one of their greatest divinities.

Max Kaltenmark
Additional Reading
Holmes Welch, Taoism: The Parting of the Way, rev. ed. (1966); Max Kaltenmark, Lao Tzu and Taoism (1969).

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Universalium. 2010.

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