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Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu

As an ancient Chinese author and philosopher, little is known about Lao Tzu; many claims are made, but little can be definitively verified. Generally speaking, Lao Tzu is believed to be the author of the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text in the belief system known as Taoism. This philosophy requires one to live in harmony with the Tao, or the natural order that runs through all aspects of the universe. Because of his perceived authorship of this text, Lao Tzu is perceived by many to be a deity.

Yet there are many aspects of Lao Tzu's life that are still open for considerable debate.

  • The earliest reference to Lao Tzu can be found in the 1st century AD in the writings entitled Records of the Grand Historian.
  • The specific time period he is linked to is unknown.
  • Some historians suggest that he was a contemporary of Confucius in the 6th century BC; much of this can be traced to artwork created during the Han Dynasty.
  • Others, however, believe that Lao Tzu lived during the 4th century BC in a period of time referred to as the Warring States period of the Qin Dynasty.

Additionally, two prominent groups of people - those who served as emperors of the Tang Dynasty and those with the Li name - believe he is the origin of their ancestry. Even his name varies in its interpretation, including the version that became more common in the 20th century, Lao Tzu, as well as Laozi and Lao Tze.

In Lao Tzu's philosophy, the understanding of the world through objects created "unnatural" action (wei) by shaping desires (yu). This is due to the process of learning the names (ming) of objects, by which one is able to distinguish between good and evil, beautiful and ugly, high and low, and "being" (yu) and "non- being" (wu). This, in turn, formulates one's desires, which forms the foundation of unhappiness and evil. Lao Tzu's solution to the problems created by desire was to address the source of the problem, and he encouraged man to abandon knowledge by rejecting nomenclature, thus disabling the influence of dualism and desire. By turning away from desire and dualism, spontaneous behavior (wu-wei) could result, sprung directly from a person's soul.

As the father of Taoism, Lao Tzu's philosophy is summarized by this quote from Chuang Tzu: "To regard the fundamental as the essence, to regard things as coarse, to regard accumulation as deficiency, and to dwell quietly alone with the spiritual and the intelligent -- herein lie the techniques of Tao of the ancients". The Tao, or the 'path', the 'way', was the method by which one could obtain this happy state of nonattachment and spontaneous life. The Tao, the mystical way that is in essence unknowable through human cognition, must be approached by not approaching it. Thus, one allows the natural forces and flow of life to move one from place to place and action to action, as a leaf floating downstream.

Applying this to the political arena, Lao Tzu recommended that rulers allow the natural flow of life to unfold without selfish, desire-ridden action. In his poetic and beautiful prose, Lao Tzu wrote, "Why are people starving? Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes. Therefore the people are starving. Why are the people rebellious? Because the rulers interfere too much. Therefore they are rebellious. Why do people think so little of death? Because the rulers demand too much of life. Therefore the people take life lightly. Having to live on, one knows better than to value life too much".

In analyzing the current international scene, Lao Tzu would undoubtedly be as disheartened by the lack of ethics and goodness as he was in his own day. He would see war as the result of the meddling of greedy dictators who rule from self-interest rather than the natural flow of the spirit, the Tao. He would see poverty as the result of people not following the Tao, and that the simple solution for the benefit of all would be for all people, regardless of the apparent rewards of exploitation of the poor and of political power, to remain passive recipients of the Tao's movement in their lives. In regard to current political world powers, he would see much evil and misdeed in the world. He would see the bullying tactics and hatred of the Bush Administration and the Middle Eastern terrorists as flip sides of the same coin, those following the guides of power and self-interested religiosity to fuel their hatred and evil deeds. He would interpret the uncaring, profit driven actions of the current regime in China to these same evil entities, except that he would see them as fueled by greed rather than self-righteousness. The recent events of drug poisonings and pet food poisonings as the result of Chinese manufacturing "shortcuts" that increased profit would be especially disheartening to Lao Tzu.

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