The facts of Lao Tsu's life are open to considerable debate. Historians have stewed over this problem since the first century BC when Ssu-ma Ch'ien tried to be the first to write Lao Tsu's biography. He gave up in despair at the lack of materials he had to work with. The situation has not changed much in 2000 years. Materials are even sketchier and more hotly debated by scholars.

We do have a colorful myth about Lao Tsu, however, which is not likely ever to be substantiated by the "facts." Myths tend to be passed orally from generation to generation until someone troubles to write them down. By then the story stands a good chance of being changed numerous times. This version comes from Holmes Welch's, Taoism: The Parting of the Way.

The Life of Lao Tsu

During the seventh (604 BC) century BC, a woman gave birth to a son while she was leaning against a plum tree. As is customary in heroic myths, such births are surrounded by unusual circumstances: he had been in the womb for 62 years. The immaculate conception had occurred when the mother was inspired by a falling star. Having spent an extended time in gestation, he was born with gray hair and full speaking ability. He pointed to the plum tree and announced that he would take his surname from this plum tree (Li) and added ear (Erh) to become Li Erh or Plum tree ears. The surprised neighbors had no part of that and from the beginning called him "old one" or Lao Tsu as we know him today.

During his later years, Lao Tsu served in several capacities in the Chinese capital at Loyang in the Court of Chou, the ruling dynasty from the sixth to the fourth centuries BC. Prior to becoming the court's Chief Archivist, he served as the Palace Secretary. Lao Tsu is reported to have had a son Tsung who distinguished himself by serving as a successful soldier in the Army. Later nobility traced their ancestry to Lao Tsu through the son, Tsung. This version of the myth doesn't say anything about who would be the wife of such an unusual person.

Meeting with Confucious

His remarkable manner, bearing, and philosophy gradually drew a following of disciples. Lao Tsu did not seek this out and did not make a special fuss over this following. Among those who came to visit him and hear his wisdom was Confucius. This meeting did not turn out well because the two gentlemen were of such different minds. Lao Tsu chastised Confucius during the visit, "Abandon your arrogant ways and countless desires, your suave demeanor and unbridled ambition, for they do not promote your welfare. That is all I have to say to you!" Confucius returned to his disciples and said that he really couldn't figure the man out. He compared Lao Tsu to a dragon that soars through the sky while no one can figure out how this can be.

Our mythical philosopher lived to a ripe old age given his belated birth. When he was 160 years old, he despaired of the decadence and decay of the Chou dynasty and made his way to the western border to a self-imposed exile in the mountains. As we know he was accosted by the border guard Yin Hsi who persuaded him to record his wisdom before going into the mountains. This legend doesn't say anything about what happened to him after he passed beyond the border.

From this story we see that Lao Tsu's life is shrouded in mystery. But an accurate account of his life is not important to our purpose. The fact that someone had these ideas is more significant than specifically who authored them. The message depends on substance not source.

Composite Tao Te Ching

Assuming there was some person that can be associated with the name Lao Tsu, in all likelihood the Tao Te Ching we have today is the thinking of people before and after Lao Tsu as well as the man himself. This is especially true since the first existent written version dates from about 500 AD. As a result the book contains many of the sayings of Lao Tsu and his disciples who carried on the oral tradition after his departure. Complicating the matter, the first two centuries AD are noted in Chinese history as a period of forgery. Many authors wrote another's ideas claiming them as their own. As a result, the Tao Te Ching we have today is probably the product of the minds of several philosophers. So much the better. The material has probably matured and developed over the centuries to our benefit.

A discussion of Lao Tsu must recognize the contribution of Chuang Tsu to the development of Taoist thought. Chuang Tsu lived during the fourth century BC and was a major interpreter of the Tao Te Ching. While Lao Tsu spoke in short aphorisms that appeal to the intuition, Chuang Tsu wrote essays and dialogues that convey Taoist ideas in a form more suitable for the rational mind. Chuang Tsu's writings consist of 33 chapters of which the first seven, or inner chapters, are thought to be from his own hand. The others were probably added by later commentators on the prior work of Lao Tsu as well as the dialogues of Chuang Tsu in the first seven chapters.

The value of the Chuang Tsu Inner Chapters compared to the Tao Te Ching is the presentation of the same ideas in the form of stories and allegories. For instance there are eight imaginary conversations between Confucius and Lao Tsu. (Chuang Tsu originated the story about Confucius' visit to Lao Tsu). By choosing the right characters and topics, Chuang Tsu illustrates the ideas of the Tao Te Ching in a concrete fashion. Our own dialogues between George and Michael transfer the context to today's business world while retaining the ideas which Confucius and Lao Tsu debated.

Basic Themes

The richness of the 81 chapters of the Tao Te Ching tempts many to classify the key ideas. One translator of the Tao Te Ching, Lin Yutang, identifies the themes in terms of headings for each group of chapters:

Theme Chapters
The Character of Tao 1-6
The Lessons of Tao 7-13
The Imitation of the Tao 14-25
The Source of Power 26-40
The Conduct of Life 41-56
The Theory of Government 57-75
Aphorisms 76-81

Holmes Welch identifies three central themes which capture the essence of the Tao Te Ching: Inaction, the Uncarved Block, and Tao. This interpretation says more about the philosophy and is worth examining closely.

Doing-Not Doing

The concept of inaction has also been stated as non-action and anti-action. At best it is an elusive concept in English. In Chinese the term is wei wu wei or "doing-not doing." Among Westerners, the first reaction to this notion is that Lao Tsu recommended that we all sit around and do nothing. But notice that just sitting around is not doing nothing, we are in fact doing something, namely sitting around. This is more than just a game with words. The question is whether just sitting around is appropriate to the situation. If the dynamics of the situation dictate just sitting around then that is the appropriate inaction.

Water, a simile for many of the ideas of the Tao Te Ching, can help us understand inaction. Even though water is the most yielding of all natural substances, it has the power to overcome the most resistant, as the formation of the Grand Canyon testifies on a monumental scale. Water seeks the low ground by flowing around rather than over or through. In a way, water succeeds through inaction rather than by taking action. Expressing its nature, water achieves feats that cause men to marvel at its power.

Wei Wu Wei

In human affairs adopting wei wu wei or doing-not doing is really a question of attitude, an attitude that others can readily perceive in you. Inaction assumes you have confidence in others and the ways of nature. This confidence can only be felt when you understand a situation well enough to leave it alone. This is the hardest part of inaction – having the intuitive awareness that things will be OK without active intervention. It means that we should spend more time with our eyes open, paying attention to what is ongoing, and less time trying to change things. Such an attitude is what George has tried to instill in Michael, but George is also aware enough to realize that Michael must learn it on his own. Teaching is not possible without learning.

When two people adopt an attitude of wei wu wei, our initial fear is that even less will get done than when one person does not act. This is not true. As George himself learns through his work with Lynda Reese, tasks have a way of almost choosing who is to do them when both parties are open and aware. One person does not have to push the other if both understand the situation well enough. The closer they come to an attitude of nonaction, the more each will receive from the other without asking for it and without giving anything up.

Idealistic? Of course. That's philosophy. Paradoxical? To be sure. But remember that the Tao is like water. Water is content with its low place that others hold in contempt. But all things eventually flow to the low place.

The Uncarved Block

The concept of the uncarved block is easier to understand if we imagine returning to the state of a newborn child. In this state we are naturally good and simple, without pretense and pretext. The symbol of the uncarved block represents wood as it is before man shapes it into something of his own making. In a similar way, it symbolizes man's state before parents and society shape him in the image that society and parents think children should become.

In our complex modern civilization, it is difficult if not impossible to find an adult that has retained this naiveté. Our entire educational system seeks to mold the child into the shape that we deem "good." For the Taoist this process does not achieve goodness – it drives the inherent goodness out of man. Of man living today, primitive people in an uncivilized society are closer to this natural state. Desires are few: food, shelter, and clothing only in measures necessary for basic physical satisfaction.

For these simple people, aggression is not necessary since there is nothing to be aggressive about. Each gathers the plants and kills only those animals required for the family's food. Animals are not killed for sport. Such behavior would not enter the mind of the "savage." The sport of killing animals did not develop in the human community until competition in its various forms emerged. As territory became important – (this is our space and that is yours and you stay off of ours) – killing was used to protect our "possessions."

Perils of Socialization

In the process of socialization, our parents and our educational institutions, both state and church forms, use "aggression" to "force" our conformance to the goodness norm held by society. As aggression is used against us, we store up aggression that we will express against others to compensate for the treatment that we have received. According to the Tao Te Ching in our original uncarved block state, we are free of hostility and aggression. Today many would debate this premise. But studies of primitive societies do offer some support for the theory. Often the most primitive societies are closest to man's natural state.

It is easy to misunderstand the Tao Te Ching to favor the life of the recluse, with no desires of the flesh and the very minimum of material possessions. In fact it considers desires of the flesh to be very natural. It is cravings beyond the flesh that corrupt man's nature: money, power, and the possessions that go with money and power. The acquisitive nature is detrimental since it turns us away from the search for the uncarved block within. To find The Intuitive Self, we need only satisfy the body's natural capacity for food, shelter, and clothing. Once the physiological needs are met, any more represents a sociological (Lao Tsu might say pathological) desire.

The symbol of the uncarved block presents us with yet another Taoist paradox. The only way that we can return to our true nature is not to care if we do so or not. To do otherwise would mean that we desire to become our natural self again. When we don't care whether we have achieved this state we will have achieved it.

We cannot successfully return to our true nature if we do so for ulterior motives. The ideal is to be your true self without acting like you know that you are being your true self. The state is an inner change that is not associated with outward signals (unusual dress, incense) that call attention to your enlightenment. Many discoverers of the Tao Te Ching do not understand this and pretentiously carve new blocks to show others how aware they are.

A Mystical Concept

The third major theme of the Tao Te Ching requires a shift in level from the pragmatic aspects of inaction and the uncarved block to a more esoteric consideration of the Tao. In the Prologue we defined Tao as "way." That seems practical enough when interpreted in the sense of a path to be followed. But Lao Tsu's doctrine of the way is one of the most challenging ideas to grasp. It does not yield to rational understanding. The best we can do with a verbal description is to hint at the deeper meaning of the term.

The ideas in the Tao Te Ching carry many levels of meaning simultaneously. To speak of the way as a path is to approach the Tao on a practical level. An esoteric meaning considers Tao as "the One" or "the Ultimate." This sounds religious or mystical since these phrases are used in the East to speak of what is named God in Western traditions. To understand Tao we must realize that it is a mystical concept that parallels the Western meaning of God. But there are subtle differences between Tao and God.

The first line of the Tao Te Ching is

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

Lost in Words

Some translators use "absolute" instead of "eternal" in this phrase. This sentence alludes to the Tao in two meanings. The first Tao relates to "being" in our physical world. It is the Tao that we know through experience even though we may struggle in our understanding and awareness of it. The second eternal Tao lies beyond present experience and is the source of "non-being."

Very quickly we slip into obscure language that does not have tangible links to everyday human experience. But to get at the essence of the Tao Te Ching, an experiential understanding must be reached. This quest is not easy nor does it come quickly, for the Tao is also a spiritual concern. It transcends earthly experience, though we must merge with that spirit in order to discover the Tao within ourselves. Again, this presents a paradox which must be worked through.

Power in the Way

The two senses of Tao, "being" and "non-being," have been linked to concepts in modern physics. In its original form, the universe is thought to have been a vacuum in which nothing existed. Out of this vacuum particles become separated from the void to form our physical universe. The vacuum is the antecedent non-being out of which the physical being arose. Something (Tao) arose from nothing (eternal Tao).

Where is the power in this "way" where something comes from nothing? It comes from recognizing that we are the eternal Tao. Being eternal gives us the power to rise above the desires of the non-eternal manifestations of the ultimate. This does not mean that we must go to the mountains and abandon all interest in the physical manifestations of the eternal. We need only provide ourselves with some solitude to get in touch and stay in touch with the source from which all else flows. A practitioner of the Tao is both in and not in this world at the same time.

The power of this way comes when we really discover in our deepest selves who we really are. All desires, fears, and attachments fall away in favor of compassionate engagement in life. The wisdom acquired in this search for The Intuitive Self must be shared with those who have not made the same progress in this discovery. For this reason, George considers Mike as a friend and unobtrusively guides him in his own discovery.

Path of the Mystic

This path is the path of the mystic. First the mystic must discover the eternal. With this discovery he or she will understand Tao at the highest level and will see the order of the universe. Such a person unlearns the teachings of parents and society and returns to the uncarved block which acts vigorously in non-action.

Carl Jung's view is that personality is Tao.

"The undiscovered vein within us is a living part of the psyche; classical Chinese philosophy names this interior way 'Tao,' and likens it to a flow of water that moves irresistibly towards its goal. To rest in Tao means fulfillment, wholeness, one's destination reached, one's mission done; the beginning, end, and perfect realization of the meaning of existence innate in all things. Personality is Tao."

In a similar vein, Holmes Welch concludes that the follower of the Tao:

" . . . whatever his place in life, he was a 'perfected man' who taught the imperfected with a wordless, but unmagical, teaching: by example, by love, humility, and compassion, and by a mysterious, but natural power of his personality."

Variety of Translations

For the dialogues of George and Mike, we have chosen to use one of the numerous versions of the Chinese classic now available in English:

Lao Tsu. Tao Te Ching. Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

The first English language translation of the classic appeared in 1868 as The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity and Morality of "The Old Philosopher," Lao Tsze by John Chalmers. Of the numerous versions that have appeared since then, one of the more popular has been Arthur Waley's The Way and its Power published in 1934. We chose the Feng and English translation because of its simple and direct language and the beautiful pictures that illustrate each page of the book.

The Tao Te Ching represents a famous puzzle which many scholars would like to feel they have solved. The source materials for translating this work into English are many. There are nearly 100 editions in Chinese. It is the most translated of all Chinese texts. These multiple interpretations in Chinese stimulate variety in the English editions. The variety is heightened because the English and Chinese languages are so different. In the archaic Chinese of the Tao Te Ching, the language has no passive or active voice, no singular and plural, nor case, person, tense or mood. Therefore a translator has extreme flexibility and license in their interpretation of the original materials.

No English translation is really satisfactory because it will not be as ambiguous as the original. The looseness of interpretation in the Chinese accounts in part for the attraction the material draws. In this context the prudent translator seeks the spirit rather than the literal meaning of the work. This approach is consistent with the principles of the Tao.

Acquire Your Copy

The home page for this site includes two quotes from Steven Mitchell's version of the Tao Te Ching. This recent rendering has received general acclaim for its simplicity. As a long time student of Zen, Mitchell has imbued the text with personal sense of inner knowing from years of practice in the discipline. One reviewer said "The obscure has been made transparent and available." Any good size bookstore will have several translations for you to browse as you select one that is most appealing for your sensibility.

In your further study of the Tao Te Ching, we recommend that you obtain a copy of your own. Look over several versions before deciding which to acquire. Since the variety is so great, find one that suits your fancy. To amplify the material, we also recommend a study of the first seven chapters of Chuang Tsu. This text elaborates on the ideas in the form of stories and allegories. You may find the latter easier to read before taking on the Tao Te Ching.

A recent adaptation of the material by Benjamin Hoff explores the meaning of this philosophy in the Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. Using Pooh Bear from A. A. Milne's classic children's story, in these two books Hoff interprets the ideas of the Tao Te Ching in modern terms. You may find this writing helpful in grasping the meaning of the "watercourse way." Good luck in your study of these Chinese classics that have so much to say to our age 2500 years later.

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