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Laozi was a Chinese philosopher best known for Taoism, the Daodejing, and for becoming a deity of religious Taoism and Chinese folk religion. A legendary figure of Chinese culture, Laozi is considered to have lived during the Warring States period from which both Tang emperors and people of the last name "Li" have called a connection. Laozi's work has been studied by both anti-authoritarian and Chinese Legalism philosophers.
Laozi's traditional personal name is given as "Li Er", his courtesy name as "Boyang", and a name of respect given to him after his death was "Li Dan"; an act which was normal in parts of East Asia during this period. "Laozi" is also a name of respect meaning "old master", and comes from the accepted Hanyu Pinyin system of translation, with "Lao-tzu" and "Lao-tse" being of past use. As a religious figure he is known as "Supreme Old Lord", or as one of the "Three Pure Ones", and during the Tang period was given the interesting name of "Supremely Mysterious and Primordial Emperor".
Laozi's position as a real person has been questioned by philosophers, with some stating that the Daodejing was "a compilation of Taoist sayings by many hands", to which others reply that this thinking came from a trend in studying religious figures, and that not enough could be known for sure.
The earliest certain figure of Laozi is found in the "Records of the Grand Historian" by Sima Qian. Appearing in one account, he was an official who lived during the same time as Confucius with the name "Er Li" or "Dan Li", and who wrote a book in two parts before leaving for the west. In another, he has the name "Lao Laizi", and the book has 15 parts. In a third, he appears as a royal astrologer named "Lao Dan" living at the time of Duke Xian during the Qin Dynasty. The oldest Daodejing, to which Laozi is connected, comes from around -375 CE.
In traditional accounts, Laozi was the royal Keeper of the Archives during the Zhou period, allowing him to study the philosophy of the Yellow Emperor and other works. He gained a large number of followers without opening a school, and the best known story of his meeting with Confucius comes from the Zhuangzi book of the Warring States period. Another story has Laozi leaving China by riding west on a water buffalo.
Sometimes said to have come from the village of Chu Jen in Chu, also said to have a son who was a good soldier, and also said to be connected to many clans of the Li family and Tang emperors. This family connection was known as the Longxi Li lineage, and although it's since been thought that many of these lineages raise questions about the truth, they at least show how much Chinese life was changed by Laozi.
The third story in Sima Qian states that Laozi grew tired in Chengzhou, noting what he saw as bad living and a kingdom in decline, and so traveled west to live alone in the wild at the age of 80. At the city gate he was recognized by the guard, who asked the old master to note down some wisdom for the good of the country before allowing him to pass. In answer, Laozi wrote was said to be the Daodejing, and although later periods added to the text, the guard was said to be so touched by the work that he followed Laozi, never to be seen again. In other stories the "Old Master" traveled to India and became the teacher of the Buddha, while other ideas hold Laozi was the Buddha himself.
The "Pearly Bag of the Three Caverns" was a story which gave a new form to this meeting with the guard. In it, Laozi pretends to be a farmer when reaching the gate, but was recognized by the guard Yinxi, who asked to be taught by the great master. Laozi was not happy by what he saw as simply being noticed and asked the guard to explain. In answer, Yinxi spoke of his deep desire to find the Tao and explained that his long study of astrology had allowed him to see Laozi's approach, and so Yinxi was then accepted by Laozi as a disciple. This is considered as an ideal interaction between a Dao master and disciple, showing the way of test and acceptance in which the point is to show drive and skill in the journey towards seeing and being one with the Tao.
The story of Laozi has taken on strong religious ideas since the Han dynasty, in which some beliefs paint Laozi as the Celestial Master of the Way who can help those looking to reveal the Tao. Later tradition sees Laozi's memory and the Tao becoming the same thing, where he appears disguised through history in many forms. In all, the "Old Master" does not disappear after writing the Tao Te Ching but rather spends his life traveling and showing people the Tao's truth.
Some stories say that Laozi's life began after his mother looked upon a falling star, but that he remained inside her for 62 years and was then born while she was leaning against a plum tree. Further, Laozi was said to have appeared like this as a grown man with a full grey beard and long ear lobes, both of which are considered traits of knowledge and long life. Other stories state he was born again 13 times after his first life during the days of Fuxi, and in his last showing as Laozi, lived for 990 years while traveling and revealing the Tao.
Laozi is viewed as the writer of the Daodejing, traditionally known as the "Tao Te Ching", and in it the workings of the world are shown, although its true origins have been questioned through history. As with most other Chinese philosophers, Laozi explains his ideas using a number of writing forms such as analogy, repetition, rhyme, rhythm, and understanding of ancient sayings. Traditional Chinese language and ideas are also questioned by the way of paradox, where they are shown as being human and far from perfect. In fact, the whole book can be read two different ways, in that the ruler of the stories could actually be the mind or identity, and the empire could be the body or desire.
The Daodejing, sometimes simply called "Laozi", states the Dao as something which creates the world, but also has two halves, the other half being something which holds all the ideal forms of the world, kind of like a store of the world's best ideas. The Dao is the start of all things; it can't be seen or felt but is still there, it is full of power but is still respectful, and through it people can use their desire to create change. However, many act against nature by doing so, and this hurts the balance of the Dao. Instead, the work tries to lead students to a "return" of their natural state in becoming one with the Dao and viewing change seriously.
Wu wei, meaning "not acting", is an important idea in the Daodejing. It has many parts of many meanings and so is hard to translate, but can mean "not doing anything", "not forcing", or even "creating nothing", "acting through desire", and "going with the moment."
This idea is used to explain ziran, the act of living life without hurting the Dao, which holds that all value in the world is a matter of seeing, and that human desire can be learned. For Laozi, being simple and showing respect are key ways of living, and acts which only help the self hurt the world in the end. For rulers, this means avoiding war, heavy taxes, and laws which mostly help the ruler over the people. Some Taoists also see a connection between wu wei and zuowang, meaning "sitting in oblivion", an act of meditation which sees the emptying of mind and world awareness.
The ideas behind some of Laozi's sayings are as follows; "A good traveler has no fixed plans.", "All becoming begins with a single step.", "An empty place is of greatest use.", "Beautiful things make others ugly, good things make others bad.", "Lies need the truth, but the truth needs no lies.", "More forms of law create more forms of crime.", "Music in the soul can be heard by the world.", "Nature does not hurry, and everything still happens by the end.", "The best people are like water, staying in low places and helping without forcing.", "The darkness alone cannot understand the light.", "Those who know it don't say, and those who say it don't know.", "Try to change it and you will hurt it, try to keep it and you will lose it.", "When the light is lost, things become action.", and "When you realize everything can be appreciated, the whole world belongs to you.".
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Laozi is seen as the first philosopher of Taoism, and he, together with the Daodejing, is important to the ideas of traditional Taoism. Some later forms of Taoism name the Jade Emperor as head deity, while others such as the Celestial Masters consider "Lord Lao" to be on top of all things as one of Three Pure Ones.
Many official Chinese people through Chinese history have studied the non-Confucian masters, especially Laozi and Zhuangzi, which has caused them to take a position of choice in being able to decide which rulers they serve. Zhuangzi, Laozi's traditional student, has been an important part of Chinese writing and culture. Politicians following Laozi have taken a respectful and restrained approach to their work as a matter of ethics or strategy. In a different way, some anti-authoritarian groups have studied the Laozi teachings from the view of people who have no power.
By all accounts, Laozi believed in light government. Libertarians have noted he understood the action between politics and culture, and that order can appear in places without laws. Other academics have noted Laozi was among one of the earliest people who believed in anarchist ideas, and that anarchism and Taoism are the same in many places. In one study of the Daodejing, Laozi is said to not see political power as a force, but rather that a good power is deserved and a bad power is defeated, that sacrifice of others is bad, and power can be had for anyone who follows the Way.
- Article by Bing YeYoung "The Shamanic Origins of Laozi and Confucius"
- True Tao Home Page: articles, stories focused on practical applications of Tao teachings.
- A reconstructed portrait of Laozi, based on historical sources, in a contemporary style.
- Lao Tzu Page that provides teachings on Laozi, his life and philosophical concepts.
- A collection of resources on Laozi by Patrick Jennings: Critical Thinkers: Lao Tse & Daoism.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry
- 老子 Lǎozĭ 道德經 Dàodéjīng - 拼音 Pīnyīn + 王弼 WángBì + 馬王堆 Mǎwángduī + 郭店 Guōdiàn
- Works by Lao Zi at Project Gutenberg