Lao Tsu and Taoism

Lao Tzu Founder of Taoism

            Lao Tsu & Water Buffalo

Lao Tsu is one of the most important men in history.  During his life, Lao Tsu inspired many people, even the great philosopher Confucius, but he inspired even more people after his death. His teachings brought to public eye from his book The Tao Te Ching inspired followings of millions first throughout Asia, and eventually the world.   He has traditionally considered the founder of Taoism (pronounced “Daoism”). 

According to tradition, Lao Tsu lived in the 6th century BCE.  He was said to be an elder contemporary of Confuscious (551–479 BCE).  According to traditional biographies, he worked as the Keeper of the Archives for the royal court of Zhou. This allowed him broad access to the works of the Yellow Emperor and other classics of the time.  It is said Lao Tsu never opened a formal school, but he nonetheless attracted a large number of students and loyal disciples. There are numerous stories depicting Confucius consulting Lao Tsu. 

Lao Tsu grew weary of the moral decay of city life and noted the kingdom’s decline.  He ventured west to live as a hermit in the unsettled frontier riding a water buffalo according to legend.  At the western gate of the kingdom, he was recognized by a guard, Yinxi.  The sentry asked the old master to produce a record of his wisdom.  This is the legendary origin of the Tao Te Ching the founding document for Taoism.

The Tao Te Ching describes the Tao (or Dao) as the source and ideal of all existence: it is unseen, but not transcendent, immensely powerful yet supremely humble, being the root of all things…  The essence of Taoism is contained in the eighty- one chapters of the book -roughly 5,000 words- which have for 2,500 years provided one of the major underlying influences in Chinese thought and culture.

The Tao Te Ching was written in China roughly 2,500 years ago at about the same time when Buddha expounded the Dharma in India and Pythagoras taught in Greece. The Tao Te Ching is probably the most influential Chinese book of all times. Its 81 chapters have been translated into English more times than any other Chinese document. The Tao Te Ching provides the basis for the philosophical school of Taoism, which is an important pillar of Chinese thought. Taoism teaches that there is one undivided truth at the root of all things. It literally means:  Tao (the way); Te (strength/virtue); Ching (scripture).

Yin And Yang 

In Chinese philosophy, the rhythm of life, which pulsates through the universe, is the action of complementary principles Yin and Yang. The T’ai-Dhi diagram illustrates this principle. The symmetrical disposition of the dark Yin and the light Yang suggests cyclical changes.  Yin is the quiet, female, intuitive, receiving force that is associated with earth. The earth is the source of life; it provides us with what we need to survive. Yang is the strong, male, creative, giving force that is associated with heaven. The heaven above us is always in motion and brings about change.

The Tao counsels natural order and peace unfolding in all things: “Do not conquer the world with force, For force only causes resistance.  Thorns spring up when an army passes.  Years of misery follow a great victory.  Do only what needs to be done, without using violence.  It is not wise to dash about.  Shortening the breath causes stress.  Use too much energy, and you will soon be exhausted.  That is not the natural way.  Whatever works against Tao will not last long.”

In just this way, the Taoist sees value and virtue in all natural processes including the natural and effortless expressions of each human being.  This is the Tao at work in every part of creation.  While the Tao is behind every part of creation it is neveretheless mysterious and intangible.  The first few verses (Chapter 1) of the Tao Te Ching say it this way:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.


For more about Lao Tsu and Taoist teachings about the nature of reality see the Understanding Reality Course

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