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The Man Behind The Way: Lao Tzu & Daoist Spirituality

Emptying Oneself to Experience the Moment 

The Man Behind The Way: Lao Tzu & Daoist Spirituality

by Stephen Hills

Little is truly known about the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, the guiding figure in Daoism (also translated as Taoism), which is still a 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 BCE, and an older contemporary of Confucius. This could be true, but he may also have been entirely mythical. It is certainly very unlikely that (as some legends say) he was conceived when his mother saw a falling star – was born an old man with very long earlobes – or lived 990 years.

Lao Tzu is said to have tired of life in the Zhou court as it grew increasingly morally corrupt and was saddened and disillusioned that men were unwilling to follow the path to natural goodness. At the age of 80 years old he set out for the western border of China, toward what is now Tibet. Although he was dressed as a farmer, the border official recognized 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 (The Way and Its Power). After writing it, 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 the compilation of the works of many authors over time. But stories about Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching  passed down through different Chinese philosophical schools for over 2000 years.

Today there are at least 20 million Daoists, 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. Lao Tzu has been revered for thousands of years by millions of people; one of his religious titles named him “Supremely Mysterious and Primordial Emperor.” Daoists make pilgrimages to five sacred mountains in eastern China in order to pray at the temples and absorb the spiritual energy from these holy places, which are believed to be governed by immortals.

Daoism is deeply intertwined with other branches of thought, particularly 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. Confucian practices to this day not only respect Lao Tzu as a great philosopher but try to follow many of his teachings. Whatever the truth, Daoism and Confucianism have to be seen side-by-side as two distinct but deeply compatible responses to the social, political, and philosophical conditions of life two and a half millennia ago in China. Whereas Confucianism is greatly concerned with civic life, social relations, conduct, and human society, Daoism has a much more individualistic and mystical character, greatly influenced by nature.

Confucius Lao-tzu and Buddhist Arhat – Photo:    Wikimedia Commons

Confucius Lao-tzu and Buddhist Arhat – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A story about the three great Asian spiritual leaders, Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha, is instructive. All were meant to have tasted vinegar. Confucius found it sour, much like he found the world full of degenerate people. Buddha found it bitter, much like he found the world to be full of suffering. But Lao Tzu found the world sweet. 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 or Tao – a term which means “way,” “path,” or “principle.”

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” 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 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.

First, we ought to take more time for stillness. “To the mind that is still,” he 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.

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.

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.”

Nature is particularly useful for finding ourselves. 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.

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.


This article was originally published on February 7, 2015 by Spirituality Ireland.

Header Photo: Kevin Dooley, C.c. 2.o