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One of the Gnostic Saints listed in Liber XV, The Gnostic Mass

Lao-tzu was a famous Chinese philosopher who is believed to have lived in approximately the 4th century BC, during the Hundred Schools of Thought and Warring States Periods. He is credited with writing the seminal Taoist work, the Tao Teh Ching (alternately Dao De Jing, among others). He became a popular deity in Taoist religion's pantheon. His most famous follower, Zhuang Zi, wrote a book that had one of the greatest influence on Chinese Literati, through the ideas of individualism, freedom, carefreeness, and, even if the author never speaks about art, which may well be the cornerstone of Chinese aesthetic.

Table of contents

His life

Little is known about Lao-tzu's life. His historical existence is strongly debated as is his authorship on the Tao Teh Ching. Regardless, he has become an important culture hero to subsequent generations of Chinese people. Tradition says he was born in Ku Prefecture (苦縣 Kǔ Xiàn) of the state of Chu (state), which today is Lùyì County of Henan province, in the later years of Spring and Autumn Period. Some legends say he was born with white hair, having spent eight or eighty years in his mother's womb, which is given as an explanation for his title, which can be both read as "the old master" and "the old child".

According to the tradition, Lao-tzu was an older contemporary of Confucius and worked as an archivist in the Imperial Library of the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC) court. Confucius intentionally or accidentally met him in Zhou, near the location of modern Luoyang, where Confucius was going to browse the library scrolls. According to these stories, Confucius, over the following months, discussed ritual and propriety, cornerstones of Confucianism, with Lao-tzu. The latter strongly opposed what he felt to be hollow practices. Taoist legend claims that these discussions proved more educational for Confucius than the contents of the libraries.

Afterwards, Lao-tzu resigned from his post, perhaps because the authority of Zhou's court was diminishing. Some accounts claim he travelled west on his water buffalo through the state of Qin and from there disappeared into the vast desert. These accounts have a guard at the western-most gate convincing Lao-tzu to write down his wisdom before heading out into the desert. Until this time, Lao-tzu had shared his philosophy in spoken words only, as was also the case with Socrates, Jesus, Siddhartha and Confucius (whose Analects were most likely compiled by disciples). Lao-tzu's response to the soldier's request was the Tao Teh Ching.

Some of the modern controversies concerning Lao-tzu's life include:

His work

See main article: Tao Teh Ching

Lao-tzu's famous work, the Tao Teh Ching, has been widely influential in China. The book is a mystical treatise covering many areas of philosophy, from individual spirituality to techniques for governing societies.

If we refer to this book, we can draw in few lines what and how Lao-tzu was thinking. He emphasised a specific "Tao", which often translates as "the Way", and widen its meaning to an unnameable inherent order or property of the universe : "The way Nature is". He highlighted the concept of wu-wei, or "action through inaction". This does not mean that one should sit around and do nothing; but that one should avoid explicit intentions, strong will, and proactive action and then reach real efficiency by following the way things spontaneously increase or decrease. Actions taken in accordance with Tao (Nature) are easier and more productive than actively attempting to counter the Tao. Lao-tzu believed that violence should be avoided when possible, and that military victory was an occasion to mourn the necessity of using force against another living thing, rather than an occasion for triumphant celebrations. Lao-tzu also indicated that codified laws and rules result in society becoming more difficult to manage.

As most other Chinese ancient thinkers, his method of explaining his ideas often uses paradoxes, analogies, and the reuse or appropriation of ancient sayings. Using ellipsis, repetition, symmetries, rhymes, rythm, his writings are poetic, dense and often obscure. They often served as a starting point for cosmological or introspective meditations.

Although Lao-tzu does not have as deep an influence in China as Confucius, he is still widely respected by the Chinese. Confucius and Lao-tzu are the best-known Chinese philosophers in the Western world.


The name Lao Zi is an honorific title. Lao (老) means "venerable" or "old". Zi (子) translates literally as "boy", but it was also a term for a rank of nobleman equivalent to viscount, as well as a term of respect attached to the names of revered scholars. Thus, "Lao Zi" can be translated roughly as "the old master".

Lao-tzu's personal name was Lǐ Ěr (李耳), his courtesy name was Boyang (伯陽), and his posthumous name was Dān, (聃) which means "Mysterious".

Lao-tzu is also known as:

In the Li Tang Dynasty, in order to create a connection to Lao-tzu as the ancestor of the imperial family, he was given a posthumous name of Emperor Xuanyuan (玄元皇帝), meaning "Profoundly Elementary;" and a temple name of Shengzu (聖祖), meaning "Saintly/Sagely Progenitor."


External links


Large portions of this article came from: Wikipedia. (2004). Lao Zi ( Retrieved Sept. 20, 2004.

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