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6th century BC


Lao-tzu (also known as Lao Tan or Li Erh) was a Chinese sage and philosopher, and his 'name' is simply an honorific title meaning 'Old Master'. Not much is known of his life, but the Shih-chi (Historical Records) of c.1BC, written by Ssu-ma Ch'ien, contain a biography of Lao-tzu. According to this, he was born in Hu-hsien and became keeper of the archives for King Chou. It was in this position that he met Confucius for the first time, and after court politics forced his resignation, Lao-tzu traveled to the mountain pass of Hsien-ku. There, at the request of the Guardian of the Pass, Yin Hsi, he wrote one of the principle works of Taoism, the Tao-te ching (The Book of the Way and its Power). Consisting of five thousand pictograms, this work is also known as the Text of the Five Thousand Signs. It was actually compiled around three centuries after the death of Lao-tzu, and it forms the basis of both philosophical Taoism (tao-chia) and religious Taoism (tao-chiao). Ssu-ma Ch'ien describes the legend of its birth in this way:

Lao-tzu lived in accordance with the Tao and the te (the Way and the Virtue). He taught that one should live anonymously and dispel the self. He lived in Chou for a long time, but seeing its corruption, he departed. Upon reaching the Pass, the Keeper who lived there was delighted to see him and asked, 'As you are just about to leave the world behind you, would you, for my sake, write a book of your thoughts?' In response to this, Lao-tzu wrote a book of two sections, laying out the Tao and the Te in some five thousand characters, and then he departed. He was never seen again and no-one knew where he went.

Taoists explain the disappearance of Lao-tzu with the legend that he traveled on to India where the Buddha became a pupil of his, but the tradition of Lao-tzu traveling west (a metaphor for death) to a mountain pass (between life and death) is meant to express the idea of a sage writing down the wisdom of a lifetime just before his death. In his description of the first encounter between Lao-tzu and Confucius, Ssu-ma Ch'ien wrote that Lao-tzu told the sage, 'Give up your arrogance, your desires, your vanity and your zeal--for they are of no use to you.'

According to the Tao-te ching, the Tao is the pre-existing, ultimate and ineffable unity that gives rise to everything yet does not act. The te (power or virtue) of the Tao is the individual nature imparted by the Tao to each thing that manifests in the phenomenal world. Simplicity (wu), emptiness (p'u) and non-action (wu-wei) are required to become one with the Tao. Lao-tzu summed up his teachings in the following way:

'I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.'

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