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Newsletter - January 2024

Did Lao Tzu Meet Confucius?

This newsletter is going to be a bit factual. It’s the result of trying to answer a question I’ve wondered about from time to time. Lao Tzu and Confucius are two giants of Chinese philosophy and their lifespans overlapped—so did they meet? And, if so, what happened? If you’re curious, read on.


There are various accounts of exactly when the two men lived and what they did, which is not surprising as it was a long time ago. Confucius lived from 551-479 BCE and it seems Lao Tzu was his senior by about 20 years. And yes, apparently they did meet. Here's how.


For a period of time Lao Tzu served as keeper of the archival records at the court of Zhou. The Zhou dynasty was a royal dynasty of China which lasted 790 years (1046-256 BCE) making it the longest dynastic regime in Chinese history. Lao Tzu later became disillusioned with the dynasty, left his job, and started on a journey to leave China through the Western pass toward India—during which time he wrote his Tao Te Ching (but that’s another story). However, while Lao Tzu was still at the Imperial Archives, Confucius apparently visited him there to consult him on the topic of mourning and funeral rites.


According to legend, they also chatted about how to attain the Tao. At first glance, this is a curious topic because Lao Tzu tells us the Tao is not something to be “attained.” The Tao Te Ching says “Honors can be bought with fine words, respect can be won with good deeds; but the Tao is beyond all value, and no one can achieve it” (chapter 62). Nonetheless it seems their conversation included Confucius saying he had sought the Tao through rules and regulations for five years and could not find it.


Lao Tzu asked if he had tried anything else. Confucius replied he had sought it in the Yin and the Yang for twelve years, and still could not find it. Lao Tzu said he wasn’t surprised. Apparently, this caused Confucius to be silent for three days (after all, it seemed he had been looking in the wrong places for a long time). When he went home, his disciples asked Confucius what advice he had given to Lao Tzu. He is supposed to have said:


“Birds fly, fishes swim, animals run. These things I know. Whatsoever runs can be trapped; whatsoever swims can be caught in a net; whatsoever flies can be brought down with an arrow. But a dragon riding the clouds into the heavens—that is quite beyond my comprehension! Today I have seen Lao Tzu. He is like a dragon!”


Is the story true? Who knows. But it makes you smile, doesn’t it? It reminds me of another great quote. This one is from Chuang Tzu, who lived 369-298 BCE (after both Lao Tzu and Confucius). He wrote: “Nets are to catch fish. When the fish are caught nets are forgotten. Traps are to catch rabbits. When rabbits are caught traps are forgotten. Words are to communicate that which lies behind them. When that is done words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?” What a great question!


Is Lao Tzu a man who has forgotten words? He’s certainly aware of where their usefulness ends. Here he is taking a shot at using words to communicate that which lies behind them. “There was something formless and perfect before the universe was born. It is serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. It is the mother of the universe. For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao” (chapter 25). Not a bad shot, is it? Are we any wiser? If nothing else, we’re aware of what happens when we try to wrap words around something that’s too big and we fail.


But to return to our original question, yes, apparently Lao Tzu did meet Confucius and the story about their conversation on how to “attain” the Tao is at least part of what happened. By the way, I think we can be forgiven for thinking Lao Tzu was teasing Confucius by asking him where he’d looked for the Tao. After all, “The Tao is nowhere to be found. Yet it nourishes and completes all things” (chapter 41). Or “When you look for it, there is nothing to see. When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear. When you use it, it is inexhaustible” (chapter 35).


If someone said that to me, I think I too would likely be silent for at least three days.


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The audiobook format of In Harmony with the Tao is scheduled for release in the next few months. I will keep you posted.

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