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Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu is traditionally the name of a Chinese Scholar who lived circa 600 B.C.E., and who with others, Lao Tzu, et al, appears to have initiated a new covenant between mankind and the surrounding world.  

What is known about Lao Tzu personally is minimal.  There is even doubt as to whether the name is a title (e.g. “Old Scholar” or “Old Man”), or if it’s proper.  However, it may make no more difference than the question of who wrote the Odyssey and the Iliad.  There was, after all, that ancient Greek Scholar, who spent a lifetime proving that the two Greek classics had not been written by Homer, but by another Greek with the same name!  

Lao Tzu is best known for being the author of the Tao Te Ching, a book of some 81 “chapters”, known for both its profound revelations and cryptic style.  According to one authority, Stan Rosenberg, <http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/gthursby/taoism/ttcstan2.htm>, “It would seem, from historical records, that the Tao Te Ching was considered to be a perplexing book, even in the period in which it was written.”  

“Since it is not known with absolute certainty that a person named ‘Lao Tzu’ actually lived during the period of the warring states, to categorically describe the Tao Te Ching as the work of Lao Tzu would be without sufficiently valid historical foundation.  Even the ‘biography of Lao Tzu’ which may be found in the ‘Historical Records’ (Shih-chi) of Ssu-ma Ch’ien (second century B.C.) is not without its inconsistencies.  This record describes Lao Tzu as having been an archivist of the Court of Chou, and further states that he is said to have personally instructed Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius).  

“It is in this last statement that one inconsistency may be found, for other chronicles state the date of the death of Lao Tzu to precede that of the birth of Kung Fu Tzu by nearly half a century.  Even the author of the ‘Historical Records’ states his doubts as to the authenticity of the information available regarding Lao Tzu, and some scholars maintain that the Tao Te Ching does not present a distinctive or single point of view.  They argue that it is probably a compilation or anthology of sayings from various writers and schools of thought, reaching its present form in the third century B.C.  

“Conversely, according to legend, it is said that on his retirement from public office, Lao Tzu headed west, and that the guardian of the pass to the state of Ch’in requested that he write a treatise on the Tao before departing.  It is then that Lao Tzu is supposed to have sat for two days, in which time he wrote the Tao Te Ching, after which he left, some writers stating that he was never heard of again, others describing his ascent to heaven in the form of a magnificent dragon.  

“Whichever story we believe concerning the existence of Lao Tzu, we may reasonably conclude (at least) that there is much contradictory evidence.”  This is due in part to the fact that one meaning of the words ‘Lao Tzu’ is ‘Old Man’.   

“Some authorities claim that this was so in the case of the person in question, the nickname possibly being derived from the fact (?) that he was born with white hair, like that of an old man.  This theory seems to borne out by the fact that the second character, can also be used to mean ‘child’.  However, in the context of teaching and learning, it also means ‘master’ or ‘scholar’ (compared with ‘pupil’ or ‘student’).”  

“There probably was a person called Lao Tzu, but that Lao Tzu was his title, rather than his name.  It may of course be that there were many “old scholars”, all known by that title, but the existence of many has never been considered proof of the non-existence of one.”  Both Taoism and Zen (Buddhism) “use the same written characters as a teaching name or honorary title, and that this title may have been used by the author of the Tao Te Ching wishing to retain his anonymity.  

“If this was the case, it could have been either for reasons of personal safety on the part of the author, or out of deference to his own teachers.  Any reader who has knowledge of the Chinese History during The Period of the Warring States will readily appreciate, and hopefully sympathize with the first of these reasons.”  

“Carrying out one’s work in an unostentatious manner is an important aspect of Taoist teaching, as is respect for one’s teachers.  In some instances these two principles were adhered to so rigorously that a writer or painter might either not sign his work at all, or use a pseudonym compiled (possibly as an anagram) from the names of his most revered teachers.  It is therefore possible that the author of the Tao Te Ching used the pseudonym ‘Lao Tzu’ as an acknowledgment of his own teacher, using the title ‘old scholar’ to refer to that teacher as he might have been known and referred to by his own students.  

“The second factor which causes me to believe that we should not completely disregard the legend of the writing of the Tao Te Ching concerns its cryptic style.  The basis of my belief is twofold.  In the first instance, if, as legend tells us, Lao Tzu completed his writing in two days, it is not surprising that it was cryptic, since this would have required him to write at a rate of two and one half thousand words each day.  It may therefore be that he wrote as succinctly as possible in order to complete his task as quickly as possible, so that he could continue on his journey into retirement.  

“Those who know the Tao Te Ching will also know that Lao Tzu did not teach that a task should be rushed; rather, he taught that all things should occur in their natural time.  This leads to my second point regarding the cryptic style of the original work.  

“We know that the keeper of the pass, who made the request for a written copy of Lao Tzu’s thoughts, was a well known Taoist of the period named Yin Hsi, also referred to as ‘Kwan Yin’.  As a Taoist, he would certainly have been familiar with the teachings of Lao Tzu, even though, as he himself is supposed to have told the old philosopher, because of the nature of his work, he had not been able to avail himself of personal tuition from the master.  It could be that the ‘vagueness’ (or seemingly esoteric nature of the first chapter) is due to the fact that Lao Tzu would have had no reason to explain the Tao to someone who was already versed in Tao-chia.”  [emphasis added]  

“Although possibly not nationally famous, Lao Tzu would certainly have been well known in his own province.  This would certainly seem to be the case, since Yin Hsi either recognized the figure of Lao Tzu, or his name, otherwise he would not have made his request to that particular traveler.  

“Assuming the keeper of the pass to know something of the teaching of Lao Tzu, his request could have been made in the form of a list of questions, to which Lao Tzu might have written the answers in the form of brief (or cryptic) notes, as an aide memoire.  This might of course also account for the apparent discontinuity of the completed work.  If the text were written in answer to a number of questions, the sequence of the text would conform to that of the questions, which might easily have been prepared by Yin Hsi over a period of time, in the hope that the occasion might arise when he would meet with a scholar such as Lao Tzu, with whom he could then discuss his questions.  This could account for the apparent repetitions in the text, for two questions both phrased in a similar manner, would presumably be answered in a similar manner.”  

“Irrespective of the authenticity of the legend and the problem of identifying its authorship, the majority of scholars date the origin of the text of the Tao Te Ching no later than 400 B.C.  Furthermore, there is virtually no dissent among scholars as to its great value as a philosophical, literary and historical work.”  


Tao Te Ching         I Ching         Chinese History         Lao Tzu, et al

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