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 was 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, 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 to be the compilation of the works of many authors over time. But stories about Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching have passed down through different Chinese philosophical schools for over two thousand years and have become wondrously embellished in the process.
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. 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’.
“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
What is the best book about philosophy one could look at? For Lao Tzu, it wasn’t a volume (or a scroll) but the book of nature. It is the natural world, in particular its rocks, water, stone, trees and clouds, that offers us constant, eloquent lessons in wisdom and calm – if only we remembered to pay attention a little more often.
In Lao Tzu’s eyes, most of what is wrong with us stems from our failure to live ‘in accordance with nature’. Our envy, our rage, our manic ambition, our frustrated sense of entitlement, all of it stems from our failure to live as nature suggests we should. Of course, ‘nature’ has many moods and one can see in it almost anything one likes depending on one’s perspective. But when Lao Tzu refers to nature, he is thinking of some very particular aspects of the natural world; he focuses in on a range of attitudes he sees in it which, if we manifested them more regularly in our own lives, would help us find serenity and fulfilment.
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.
Daoism advises us to look to trees as case studies in graceful endurance. They are constantly tormented by the elements, and yet because they are an ideal mixture of the supple and the resilient, they respond without some of our customary rigidity and defensiveness and therefore survive and thrive in ways we often don’t. Trees are an image of patience too, for they sit out long days and nights without complaint, adjusting themselves to the slow shift of the seasons – showing no ill-temper in a storm, no desire to wander from their spot for an impetuous journey; they are content to keep their many slender fingers deep in the clammy soil, metres from their central stems and far from the tallest leaves which hold the rain water in their palms.
Water is another favourite Daoist source of wisdom, for it is soft and seemingly gentle and yet, when it is given sufficient time, is powerful enough to mould and reshape stone. We might adopt some of its patient, quiet determination when dealing with certain family members or frustrating political situations in the workplace.
Daoist philosophy gave rise to a school of Chinese landscape painting still admired today for awakening us to the virtues of the natural world.
At one level, it seems strange to claim that our characters might evolve in the company of a waterfall or a mountain, a pine tree or a celandine, objects which after all have no conscious concerns and so, it would seem, cannot either encourage nor censor behaviour. And yet an inanimate object may, to come to the lynchpin of Lao Tzu’s claim for the beneficial effects of nature, still work an influence on those around it. Natural scenes have the power to suggest certain values to us – mountains dignity, pines resolution, flowers kindness – and in unobtrusive ways, may therefore act as inspirations to virtue.
The idea that the contemplation of nature is a source of perspective and tranquility is well known in theory, but so easy to overlook because we take it for granted – and never give it the time and focus required.
Lao Tzu in stone, near Quanzhou in China
Often our heads are filled with unhelpful phrases and ideas: things that have wormed their way into our imaginations and, by stirring up anxieties, make it harder for us to cope. For example, ‘Have the courage to live out your dreams,’ ‘Never compromise,’ ‘Fight until you win…’ These can (in certain cases) be a kind of poison, for which Lao Tzu’s words – combined with natural scenes – are the ideal antidote.
Nature does not hurry
yet everything is accomplished.
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes.
Do not resist them.
That only causes sorrow.
The words of Lao Tzu set a mood. They are peaceful, reassuring and gentle. And this is a frame of mind we often find it difficult to hold onto, though it serves us well for many tasks in life: getting the children off to school, watching one’s hair go grey, accepting the greater talent of a rival, realising that one’s marriage will never be very easy…
Be content with what you have.
Rejoice in the way things are.
It would be a mistake to take Lao Tzu’s sayings literally in all cases. To rejoice in the way everything happens (a mediocre first draft, a car crash, a wrongful imprisonment, a brutal stabbing…) would be foolish. But what he says is, on certain occasions, extremely helpful: when your child has a different view of life from you but one which is full of unexpected insight nevertheless; when you are not invited out but have a chance to stay home and examine your thoughts for a change; when your bicycle is perfectly nice – even though its not made of carbon fibre.
We know that nature is good for our bodies. Lao Tzu’s contribution has been to remind us that it is also full of what deserves to be called philosophical wisdom; lessons that can make a particular impression on us because they reach us through our eyes and ears, rather than just our reason.
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.