Newsletter - March 2021
Who was Lao Tzu?
Lao Tzu is generally held to be the author of the Tao Te Ching. Who was he? A little digging shows the answer is not simple. There is much academic research on this topic, so this newsletter can only scratch the surface. As a result, it may leave you with more questions than answers. On the other hand, it may satisfy at least some curiosity. Let’s find out.
The Tao Te Ching was written around 2,500 years ago. Evidence includes analysis of the physical remains of ancient texts and linguistic studies of the vocabulary and rhyme scheme of the words. These put the text at somewhere after 771 BCE and before 476 BCE. So, the author must have lived at least that long ago. Most people agree the name Lao Tzu simply means “Old Master.” As to exactly who this particular Old Master was, this is the stuff of either legend or controversy.
At one extreme, there is the legend that Lao Tzu was “born old,” lived for 996 years, with twelve previous incarnations before the thirteenth as Lao Tzu. By the way, don’t ask for evidence – this is why it’s a legend. At the other extreme, there are scholars who believe that Lao Tzu was not a single individual, and that the Tao Te Ching is actually a compilation or anthology of Taoist sayings reflecting the work of many authors over a period of time.
Between these two extremes are references to various people who might have been Lao Tzu. The earliest known reference to him is in the 1st-century BCE Records of the Grand Historian collected by the historian Sima Qian from several earlier accounts. In the first account, Lao Tzu was a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 BCE) and his name was Er Li. He was an official in the imperial archives and wrote a book in two parts before departing for the west. In the second account, he was a different contemporary of Confucius called Lao Laizi and wrote a book in 15 parts. In a third account, he was the court astrologer, Lao Dan, who lived during the 4th century BCE reign of Duke Xian of the Qin Dynasty – and we don’t know how many parts there were to his book.
Clearly, there’s not much certainty as to who Lao Tzu was. Do we at least know a bit more about how it came to be written? Spoiler alert: the answer is no.
How did the Tao Te Ching come be written?
Again, there are several answers. Since there’s no proof that any one of them is true, I’ll provide my favorite which is based on the first account above. According to this, Lao Tzu was a scholar who worked as Keeper of the Archives at the royal court of Zhou. (The Zhou Dynasty lasted in China from 1046-256 BCE, around 790 years, of which the last two centuries were known as the Warring States period.) Growing weary of the moral decay of life around him, the decline of the kingdom, and the constant wars between neighboring states, Lao Tzu left the court at the age of 80 and ventured west to live as a hermit on the unsettled frontier. Not a bad choice under the circumstances.
As he was leaving the city, he was recognized by a sentry at the western gate who said he would only permit him to pass if he recorded his wisdom for the good of the country. Lao Tzu must have thought this was a reasonable request because he wrote down the Tao Te Ching, taking five thousand Chinese characters to do so. (I can’t help wondering how long the sentry had to wait.) The sentry received the manuscript, and Lao Tzu continued his journey west. Pictures often show him either walking or riding on a water buffalo as he heads to the frontier.
Have we answered our two questions? Do we know who Lao Tzu was? Do we know how the Tao Te Ching came to be written? We may have satisfied some curiosity, but we cannot answer with any degree of certainty. So, I’m going to ask another question: How much does it matter?
I’m not suggesting it’s uninteresting to know who wrote the Tao Te Ching or how it came to be written. If we could be sure of them, the answers would indeed be interesting. However, what’s more interesting, I suggest, is: How do we let the words affect us? This is an entirely different question.
For me, I feel reading the Tao Te Ching is like being taken on a journey up a mountain by a wise old man. When we reach the top, he points and shows us the view. The beauty of his words is that they contain no judgment. He doesn’t say whether what we see is right or wrong. He just points at the view, steps out of the way, and invites us to let it affect us as it may. What we make of the view is entirely up to us.
Does it matter exactly who the old man was? Does it matter how he came to write down words that guide us to the top of the mountain? I suggest the answer is no, it doesn’t really matter. The view is much more interesting. In other words, who the old man was, and how he wrote down his words is not the point. The point is what he’s pointing at. And what matters is how we let the view affect what we do with our lives. That’s a question each of us has to answer for ourselves.
What do you think of the various stories as to who Lao Tzu was? Does knowing about the author affect how you read his words?
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