Founder of the Taoist philosophy of life
Lao Tse is considered by most historians to be the father of Taoism, a Chinese religion which takes a variety of philosophies to form a way of living. Taoism’s main priority is to bring man to the natural order of existence. Lao Tse was the first philosopher of Taoism. In the sixth century, B.C., he is said to have created the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text also referred to as Dao De Jing. Translated, the title means “the book of way and virtue.” It is said that Lao Tse was a servant to the King of Zhou. He possessed such wisdom that the king made him keeper of the Imperial Archives.
Thought to be a possible mentor to Confucius, some historians doubt that the man, Lao Tse, actually existed. The Tao Te Ching has been rewritten and additions have been added by countless authors over the centuries. While Lao Tse is said to be the keeper of the archives, there are those that believe this refers to a mythical rather than literal keeper. Adding credence to this theory is the fact that the beginning writings of the Tao Te Ching were alleged to have been authored in the second century, B.C. and are revered as having a divine origin. This would suggest that Lao Tse was immortal. There are several stories that suggest Lao Tse could not have been a mortal man, such as the claim that he was so wise he managed to put together the original Tao Te Ching text in just a few weeks, after which he mounted a bull and rode out of China never to be seen again. Regardless of whether or not Lao Tse was a man of flesh and blood or a tale that grew into an eternal legend, there is no denying his influence on Taoism.
Taoism is heavily rooted in nature. Tao refers not to a supreme deity one would view as a God so much as a force that is part of everything. Tao is only thrown into chaos by human actions and reactions. Taoism encourages man to find his balance. From the Tao Te Ching, one of the more popular concepts of Taoism is derived, the philosophy known as Yin and Yang, the very essence of true balance in nature. Examples of Yin and Yang are good and evil, east and west, as well as male and female.
Another lesson from the Tao Te Ching is to let nature run its course and do nothing to interfere. One quote from the writings says, “Do not conquer the world with force, for force only causes resistance. Other quotes that encourage the act of doing nothing include, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists,” and “Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.” These quotes suggest that Lao Tse might have been one of the first anarchists. In fact, the Chinese Anarchist movement in the early 1900s is said to have been in some part influenced by the teaching of the Tao Te Ching.
Lao Tse’s philosophies were those of a passive soul, but not necessarily a pacifist much akin to Buddhism. He did not imply in his teachings that there was never a time to fight. He merely suggested that a wise man knows when to fight and never uses force where it is not needed. This allows man to take honor in a fight, knowing that it is a worthy one.
Taoism is still today recognized as a true religion in China as well as in Taiwan. Many of its basic fundamentals are practiced world wide, although they are not always referred to as Taoism. An example of this would be the parables taught by Jesus Christ. The Taoist belief in Karma is very similar to the Christian concept of one reaping what one sows. Another religion with similarities to Taoism is Buddhism, which was founded around the same time as Taoism. Lao Tse warned that Taoism which is spoken of is not the true way. The Buddhists likewise claim that Nirvana, true harmony with nature, is felt but cannot be described in words. What influence one religion had on another cannot be discerned, but it is certain that aspects of Taoism are followed in numerous faiths.
The life of Lao Tse is one of the more elaborate Chinese legends and has said to have spawned a vast amount of Chinese literature. Some tales proclaim that Lao Tse was created by an immaculate conception when his mother saw a shooting star. This legend has Lao Tse being born a fully grown, wise man of 62 years. It is also said that Lao Tse had thirteen reincarnations and lived to be nearly 1000 years old. These stories may continue to be embellished in future centuries, but it is unlikely that neither they nor Taoism itself will ever fade from the Chinese culture.