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Lao Tzu (6th-5th Century-531 BC)

Lao Tzu PhilosophyLao Tzu (given name Li Er) was an ancient Chinese philosopher, born sometime around the 6th-5th Century BC in Chu, a southern state in the Zhou dynasty and is considered to be the father of Taoism.

Lao Tzu was a senior contemporary of Confucius, who was said to have consulted him (Confucius) on certain ritual matters; however, their respective philosophies, Taoism and Confucianism, were two distinct responses to the social and political conditions of life in China during that time.

While Confucianism addresses conduct, social relationships and society, Taoism deals more with individualistic character and a spiritual, nature-centered approach to life.

When Lao Tzu was eighty years old he left Chu, for what is now Tibet, to retire, saddened and disillusioned that society, at large, was unwilling to follow the path to natural goodness. Before he left, upon the request of a guard Yin Xi, he recorded his teachings in the form of the Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power).

One of the premises of Tao Te Ching, as written by Lao Tzu, is that all straining and striving in life are not only vain, but counterproductive and one should endeavor instead to do nothing. Of course, this does not mean to literally do nothing, but instead, learn to recognize and then follow natural forces, in other words - flow with the shape of events rather than resist or fight the natural order of things. Endeavor to be spontaneous in your actions.

By being natural and reacting spontaneously, one can master circumstances by understanding their fundamental nature and then shaping one's action appropriately. Taoist philosophy suggests that by 'doing nothing', one could 'accomplish everything'.

Lao Tzu writes:

The Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
If they still desired to act,
They would return to the simplicity of formless substance.
Without form there is no desire.
Without desire there is tranquillity.
In this way all things would be at peace.

Lao Tzu also writes:

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

By this he means that the eternal way is not a particular way of doing things, but the way of the infinite universe itself. Lao Tzu regards eternal reality as - all that has existed, and all that will exist and that it is ordered into an eternal pattern or process.

tao te ching

Likewise, when it comes to the language to describe and express aspects of existence and this eternal reality, it has its limits. It consists of sounds, words, thoughts and ideas, but it cannot describe the entirety of reality. Lao Tzu is also skeptical of the reliability of language to describe reality because of its conventional and changeable nature.

Lao Tzu also wants us to 'abandon knowledge' in the form of social systems which make distinctions and guide desires and actions. He favors instead a path through which we utilize our natural, authentic and spontaneous impulses. He delineates a contrast between the natural and conventional approaches.

Similarly, when we use the words, or names of things, we learn to make distinctions about them. When we make these distinctions, we classify things in one way or another and we are being drawn into a social design. Thus, society shapes our desires through words and distinctions and it is through these artificial desires that strife increases; first of all, because social structures increase the number of our desires and secondly, because acquired desires are more competitive than natural ones. Desires that are socially instilled create a thirst for status and power, while desires that are naturally and authentically acquired are simple and few.

Lao Tzu's philosophy advocates naturalness, spontaneity and freedom from social conventions and desires. In the Tao, which means the way, Lao Tzu refers to the ultimate order of things and ultimate basis of reality. He instructs us how to live a pleasant life in the here and now without causing unnecessary turmoil or distress. He tells us that one who can harmonize with Tao will be at peace with existence.

Here are some of Lao Tzu's most significant teachings according to Derek Lin and his translation of the Tao te Ching:

  • Non-contention - Lao Tzu contended that violence controlled, or otherwise, can only cause negative consequences. The Tao ideal is to solve problems peacefully.
  • Non-action – The foolish expend a great deal of time and energy trying to do everything and end up achieving nothing. Conversely, those who are truly wise appear to do very little, yet they achieve whatever they want. This seemingly magical circumstance is possible when one is in tune with the Tao and acts without attachments.
  • Non-intention – We often perform virtuous deeds hoping to garner praise or recognition, however, this is not virtue at all. True virtue occurs when actions flow forth naturally and without conscious effort or thought.
  • Simplicity – The basis for our reality and existence is fundamental and uncomplicated. We humans create a lot of trouble for ourselves by making everything more complex than it needs to be. If we learn to simplify our lives, we can experience profound satisfaction that is infinitely more meaningful than the rewards of the material world.
  • Wisdom – While logic has application in human affairs, it isn’t everything. There are limits to what we can understand through rationality and reasoning. To transcend those limits, we must connect fully to our intuition. That is the key to insight as opposed to knowledge and the difference between living the Tao and reading about it.
  • Humility - The more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn. This realization invariably makes you humble. On the other hand, arrogance and egotism come from ignorance, that is, knowing a little and assuming you know a lot.
  • Duality - Lao Tzu pointed out that every quality possesses meaning only by the existence of its opposite. Something can only be big if there is something else that is small by comparison. "Good" exists in the world so long as "evil" exists as well. One cannot do without the other.

Lao Tzu's rich work contributed significantly, not only to Eastern philosophy, but to the development of literature, art, music, martial arts and other cultural traditions in China, Japan and Korea.

Related:
Lao Tzu Quotes
Confucius Philosophy
Philosopher Archives

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