The Great Eastern Philosophers: Lao Tzu


15th-century Chinese painting inspired by Daoism: ‘Poet on a Mountaintop’

Little is truly known about the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (sometimes also known as Laozi or Lao Tze), who is a guiding figure in Daoism (also translated as Taoism), a still popular spiritual practice. He is said to have been a record keeper in the court of the central Chinese Zhou Dynasty in the 6th century B.C., and an older contemporary of Confucius. This could be true, but he may also have been entirely mythical—much like Homer in Western culture. It is certainly very unlikely that (as some legends say) he was conceived when his mother saw a falling star, or born an old man with very long earlobes – or lived 990 years.


Lao Tzu as a deity, carving from the 7th or 8th century

Lao Tzu is said to have tired of life in the Zhou court as it grew increasingly morally corrupt. So he left and rode on a water buffalo to the western border of the Chinese empire. Although he was dressed as a farmer, the border official recognised him and asked him to write down his wisdom. According to this legend, what Lao Tzu wrote became the sacred text called the Tao Te Ching. After writing this piece, 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 the compilation of the works of many authors over time. But stories about Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching itself passed down through different Chinese philosophical schools for over two thousand years.


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 practise meditation, chant scriptures, and worship a variety of gods and goddesses in temples run by priests. Lao Tzu has been revered for thousands of years by millions of people; one of his religious titles is even “Supremely Mysterious and Primordial Emperor.” Daoists also make pilgrimages to five sacred mountains in eastern China in order to pray at the temples and absorb spiritual energy from these holy places, which are believed to be governed by immortals. 


Daoist pilgrims visit a temple on Mount Tai, one of the five sacred mountains in Daoism

Daoism is deeply intertwined with other branches of thought like Confucianism and Buddhism. Confucius is often believed to be a student of Lao Tzu. Similarly, some believe that when Lao Tzu disappeared, he travelled to India and Nepal and either 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 entitled ‘Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one’ is artistic evidence of the way these three philosophies were mixed over time, and often believed to be fully compatible

There is a story about the three great Asian spiritual leaders (Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha). All were meant to have tasted vinegar. Confucius found it sour, much like he found the world full of degenerate people, and Buddha found it bitter, much like he found the world to be full of suffering. But Lao Tzu found the world sweet. This is telling, because Lao Tzu’s philosophy tends to look at the apparent discord in the world and see an underlying harmony guided by something called the ‘Dao’. 

vinegar tasters

"The Vinegar Tasters"

The Tao Te Ching is somewhat like the Bible: it gives instructions (at times vague and generally open to multiple interpretations) on how to live a good life. It discusses the “Dao,” or the “way” of the world, which is also the path to virtue, happiness, and harmony. This “way” isn’t inherently confusing or difficult. Lao Tzu wrote, “the great Dao is very even, but people like to take by-ways.” In Lao Tzu’s view the problem with virtue isn’t that it is difficult or unnatural, but simply is that we resist the very simple path that might make us most content.

In order to follow the Dao, we need to go beyond simply reading and thinking about it. Instead we must learn wu wei (“flowing” or “effortless action”), a sort of purposeful acceptance of the way of the Dao and live in harmony with it. This might seem lofty and bizarre, 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 ought to take more time for stillness. “To the mind that is still,” Lao Tzu said, “the whole universe surrenders.” We need to let go of our schedules, worries and complex thoughts for a while and simply experience the world. We spend so much time rushing from one place to the next in life, but Lao Tzu reminds us “nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” It is 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 leaves in the fall or the blossoming of the bulbs we planted months ago.


An 11th-century Chinese painting depicts a scholar practising stillness by 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 will observe what is really important. “The usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness.” Lao Tzu said. “Empty yourself of everything, let your mind become still.” If we are too busy, too preoccupied with anxiety or ambition, we will miss a thousand moments of the human experience that are our natural inheritance. We need to be awake to the way light reflects off of ripples on a pond, the way other people look when they are laughing, the feeling of the wind playing with our hair. These experiences reconnect us to parts of ourselves.


An open, decorated metal pot from the time of Lao Tzu

This is another key point of Lao Tzu’s writing: we need to be in touch with our real selves. We spend a great deal of time worrying about who we ought to become, but we should instead take time to be who we already are at heart. We might rediscover a generous impulse, or a playful side we had forgotten, or simply an old affection for long walks. Our ego is often in the way of our true self, which must be found by being receptive to the outside world rather than focusing on some critical, too-ambitious internal image. “When I let go of what I am,” Lao Tzu wrote, “I become what I might be.”


Deified Lao Tzu looks peaceful because he knows who he really is. A sculpture from between the 8th and 11th century

Nature is particularly useful for finding ourselves. Lao Tzu liked to compare different parts of nature to different virtues. He said, “The best people are like water, which benefits all things and does not compete with them. It stays in lowly places that others reject. This is why it is so similar to the Way (Dao).” Each part of nature can remind us of a quality we admire and should cultivate ourselves—the strength of the mountains, the resilience of trees, the cheerfulness of flowers.


This 12th-century painting depicts a Daoist temple nestled in nature

Of course, there are issues that must be addressed by action, and there are times for ambition. Yet Lao Tzu’s work is important for Daoists and non-Daoists alike, especially in a modern world distracted by technology and focused on what seem to be constant, sudden, and severe changes. His words serve as a reminder of the importance of stillness, openness, and discovering buried yet central parts of ourselves.