Lao Tzu

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


What we call the auspicious evidences are solemnity, to which seasonable rain is the correlate; good order, to which seasonable sunshine is the correlate; wisdom, to which seasonable heat is the correlate; good planning, to which seasonable cold is the correlate; saintliness, to which seasonable wind is the correlate.

What we call the inauspicious evidences are violence, to which constant rain is the correlate; arrogance, to which constant sunshine is the correlate; dissipation, to which constant heat is the correlate; rashness, to which constant cold is the correlate; stupidity, to which constant wind is the correlate. . . .

When the seasonableness of year, month and day is unchanging, the hundred kinds of grain thereby ripen, the administration of government is thereby enlightened, talents among the common people are thereby revealed, families are thereby peaceful and healthy.

Shu Ching

The Taoist school urged men to unity of spirit. teaching that all activities should be in harmony with the unseen, with abundant liberality towards all things in Nature.


Chinese spirituality, which suffused the philosophy, religion and science of ancient China, has mighty roots which vanish mysteriously in the fog of history. H.P. Blavatsky noted that the original Chinese, now confined to the deep interior of the country and fast dying out, are remnants of the Fourth Root Race, and that China can trace its history to the First Sub- Race of the Fifth Root Race, long before the advent of written records, public archives or even language as the contemporary world knows it. The dragon, last seen officially on the imperial robe, originally represented the Sons of Wisdom and thereafter great Initiates who belonged to the oldest spiritual lineages. It came to represent profound Sages and eventually applied even to the emperor, who ruled with the "mandate of Heaven". The moral and spiritual ideas that emerge into history from the dimness beyond bear the stamp of their origins. Mysterious, at once open textured and precise, metaphorical in their essence, they offer a perspective luminous to the intuition but impenetrably vague to discursive analysis. Within the scope of recorded history, one figure towers above all others as a preserver, synthesizer and transmitter of China's ancient spiritual heritage. Known to history as Lao Tzu, he is as mysterious as the doctrines he taught.

Nothing certain is known about Lao Tzu, whose name means 'the Ancient Master' and is a reverential title rather than a name. Even the century in which he lived has been the subject of scholarly dispute. Traditionally, Lao Tzu is said to have lived in the early sixth century B.C.E. and was an elder contemporary of Confucius, but modern scholarship tends to place him in the fourth century, although some recent studies have once again preferred the traditional date. According to Ssu-ma Ch'ien, an historian who wrote the Shih-chi (Historical Records) about 100 B.C.E., Lao Tzu was born in the village of Ch'u-jen, located in the ancient state of Ch'u, now part of eastern Honan Province. His family name was perhaps Li, and he may have been known as Li Tan or, less likely, Li Erh. According to Ssu-ma Ch'ien, he was appointed shih at the imperial Chou court. Although the word shih came to mean 'historian', in Lao Tzu's day it referred to one who had mastered astrology and divination and was the custodian of sacred books. Perhaps this is why he is said to have written nine hundred and thirty books on religion and ethics and seventy on magic, constituting one thousand works in all. Of these, only the Tao Te Ching survives in public circulation. Legend holds that Lao Tzu met Confucius at least once and possibly on several other occasions.

It is said that when Lao Tzu realized that the Chou dynasty was in irreversible decline, he decided to leave China, declaring that life amongst barbarians, who at least were innocent in their subliterate life, was preferable to life amidst educated degenerates who could wantonly sink below the level of animal existence. He left for the West, leaving the culture and civilization of China behind him. Upon coming to the Hsien-ku Pass, which marked the boundary between Ch'u and Ch'in, he rested at the gatehouse with a few disciples who were travelling with him to the border. There Yin Hsi, the kuan-ling or guardian of the pass, reverently approached Lao Tzu and lamented the fact that he had never been able to descend from his post into Ch'u to hear the Master's teachings. He begged Lao Tzu to write out a motto that he might engrave on his consciousness for life. Taking pity on the faithful and neglected servant of Ch'u, Lao Tzu called for brush and paper. Within a very short time, he wrote out five thousand Chinese characters, composing the brief text called the Tao Te Ching. If the story is to be believed, humanity owes to the compassion of the Sage and the earnest plea of a forgotten gatekeeper one of its richest treasures and most sacred texts.

After entrusting his treatise to Yin Hsi, Lao Tzu continued on his journey, having bidden his disciples farewell. Ssu-ma Ch'ien remarked simply, "No one knows what became of him." He noted, however, that some Taoists believed that he lived at least one hundred and forty years, and others said he flourished for more than two hundred years. Long after Lao Tzu disappeared from the world of men, he came to be considered divine. As Lao-chun (Lord Lao) he was revered, and Taoists held that he had taken on many forms throughout history, only one of which was Lao Tzu. When Buddhist monks came to China to disseminate the teachings of Buddha, they found Taoists both their most sympathetic listeners and most adamant foes. Soon they heard a remarkable story. Lord Lao, who as Lao Tzu had vanished in the West, had journeyed to India, where he was known as Gautama Buddha. Though initially surprised, some Buddhists willingly made use of the Taoist tale to further their own work. Although Taoists, Confucians and, later, Buddhists vied for the hearts and souls of people, all joined together in veneration of a being who effortlessly transcended claims of relative greatness and doctrinal disputes. Whatever traditions the Chinese have followed, Lao Tzu has remained like the unchanging Mount Meru in their midst, reflecting from its snowy peak that spiritual light which transcends time and conditions, yet suffuses both with its eternal truth.

The Tao Te Ching, the sole accessible work of Lao Tzu, splendidly captures the multivalent subtlety of ancient Chinese thought. Admittedly arcane in many respects, it can nonetheless be pondered at several levels. The title has been translated The Classic of the Way of Power, The Book of the Way and Its Virtue and The Book of the Perfectibility of Nature. As the various translations of the title suggest, the text encompasses metaphysics and ontology, psychology and health, social theory and political thought, whilst maintaining a spiritual perspective and offering hints that formed the basis of later alchemical works. Despite the diversity of subjects touched upon, some with Heraclitean brevity, the entire text is crystallized in the enigmatic first chapter:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The Nameless is the Source of Heaven and Earth;
The named is the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things.
Desireless, one may behold the mystery;
Desiring, one may see the manifestations.
Though one in origin,
They emerge with distinct names.
Both are mysteries –
Depth within depth –
The threshold of all secrets.

The Tao is a mystery only partly because it is the origin of all manifestation and therefore transcends categories of thought arising from and used to comprehend manifestation. It is also an impenetrable mystery because it is pure, unlimited potentiality, the source of everything existing and possible, yet therefore nothing itself. Although Tao is as elusive as the parabrahm of Hindu thought, the agathon of Plato, the apeiron of Anaximander or the Buddhist shunyata, it is approximated in different ways by Lao Tzu. Tao is eternal truth, paramarthasatya, and so it cannot be told or expressed; it is the source and origin of all things and the giver of life; it is ceaseless motion, whose operation is cyclic; it pervades all things; it is the first principle and the primordial ruler; it is the ultimate standard to be followed; and it is the quintessential core of Nature. Yet these seven characterizations are not descriptions of Tao. Rather, they express seven primary facets of the mystery, like the seven rays of light emerging from a prism into which white light pours. None of the rays reveal the pristine whiteness of its source, yet all the rays of light point beyond them selves to it. Hence Lao Tzu taught that the Tao which could be named is not the eternal Tao.

Seen as the first cause, Tao is the limit of manifestation, the threshold behind which the Nameless (wu) remains forever with drawn and from which everything takes its rise. If the Nameless can be called the Source of Heaven and Earth, above and below, creative spirit and receptive matter, yang and yin, Tao as first cause is the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things, that is, of every thing that exists in its noumenal nature. Since desire is the reflection of the capacity for creative expression in the human being, it is naturally directed towards the diversity of objects which constitute the world. Thus, in desiring, one witnesses the wondrous panoply of Nature. But if one abides without desire, withdrawing from any urge to manifest, one beholds not the eternal Tao but the mystery which is the portal between the ever-unmanifest and the source of all manifestation. Here one may stand at the "thresh old of all secrets", where the two mysteries of the Nameless and the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things have their single origin. Wu and yu, non-being and being, are rooted in ch'ang tao, the eternal Tao.

Typical of Lao Tzu's thinking is the sudden shift from a meta physical consideration of the Tao to the consciousness required to understand it. Man is the microcosm of the macrocosm, and since Tao pervades every part of the universe, so it suffuses the human being, where its mystery abides just as it does at the invisible heart of Nature. Tao is therefore truly the Way (one literal translation of Tao is 'road'), for when man follows Tao, his nature is perfectly harmonized with great Nature. In becoming one with Nature, man becomes her master and magic becomes as natural as breathing. Since "returning is the motion of Tao", the Way is cyclic, and the wise man works within cycles, nurturing the contrasts – ease and difficulty, high and low, before and after – and not resisting them. "Yielding is the method of Tao", Lao Tzu taught, without suggesting passivity. Speaking of the Sage, one who has followed the Way and achieved the perfect harmony which is the dynamic balance between heaven and earth, he said:

The Sage acts without acting,
Teaches without words.
The Ten Thousand Things unceasingly wax and wane:
Nourishing them, he claims no ownership,
Doing his work, he craves no reward.
Completing his task, he calls for no commendation.
His work is finished and forgotten,
Its fruition is forever intact.

The Sage acts by wu-wei, not acting. Whilst he is ever active and never complacent, much less passive, his action so accords with the ceaseless action of the Tao that it leaves no trace. Resisting the natural flow of causes and events only leads eventually to reversals; acting in accord with Tao is to be invincible, because one is living in accordance with one's true nature. Because the Sage exemplifies wu-wei, he leaves no mark upon the Way, and yet what he accomplishes never reverses but remains forever.

The life of the Sage embodies the highest standard of action, and it represents a condition metaphorically characterized as p'u, the uncarved block, the raw material of myriad uses before it has been put to use. Once it is carved – into a bowl, a pillar, a grinding stone – it is useful, but its pristine nature is confined. So it is with human beings: to the extent they set about tasks for one or another purpose or in fulfilment of one or another desire, they cease to live in their original nature. The carved object which is worn out or broken ceases to have any use at all, whilst the uncarved block remains potentially useful. Hence the Sage seems to do nothing, being neither utilitarian nor empirical, and yet is the relevant factor in every condition and at every moment. In the sense appropriate to the Tao, only the Sage ever accomplishes anything of lasting value. He is the unperceived ruler of the world.

The best rulers are barely known to men.
The next best are cherished and extolled.
The lesser are feared, and the least are scorned.
Distrust cannot summon trust.
The Sage acts without words
And the people take all for granted.

If the Sage is the Tao in action, then it is possible to understand both falling away from Tao and returning to it – the movement towards destruction, on the one hand, and immortality, on the other. Movement away from the Tao is signalled by definition, limitation, categorization, externalization and ritualization. It can be readily seen in the social decline from a humane and spontaneous society to a formalistic and heartless one.

When Tao is lost, virtue lingers;
When virtue is lost, pity lingers;
When pity is lost, righteousness lingers;
When righteousness is lost, propriety lingers.
Propriety is the merest husk of faith and fidelity,
And the beginning of chaos and disorder.
. . . . . . .
Therefore the mature man chooses the core
And not the husk.

How can one "choose the core"? One cannot withdraw from action since the Tao is ceaseless motion, but one can withdraw from allegiance to the epiphenomenal external world, like moving from the rim to the centre of a revolving wheel. Lao Tzu advised:

Attain absolute voidness;
Preserve perfect stillness.
The Ten Thousand Things rise together, yet return:
They ramify and flourish, yet each returns to its root.
Returning to the root is tranquillity;
It is releasing one's destiny.
To release one's destiny is to know constancy.
Knowing constancy is enlightenment;
Spurning constancy is plunging into misery.
Knowing constancy points to consistency,
Consistency to magnanimity,
Magnanimity to boundlessness,
Boundlessness to the Tao,
The Tao to perpetuity,
One with Tao he endures without end.

As the Tao is eternal, consciousness which becomes fully consonant with the Tao experiences immortality. It is no longer subject to the play of opposites because it has transcended them by understanding and assimilating their operation and integrating them into the ceaseless, soundless hum of the Tao.

He who knows how to live can move
Without fear of tiger or rhinoceros.
In battle no weapon will touch him.
In him the rhinoceros can find
Nowhere to drive its horn,
The tiger finds nowhere to put its claws,
Weapons find nowhere to thrust their blades.
Why is this so?
Because he has passed beyond the region of death.

For Lao Tzu, knowing how to live involves the intimately related concepts of self-knowledge and timing; one could have neither without the other. Self-knowledge is not a mass of personal data to be learnt and stored away. It is a state of consciousness represented by the uncarved block, just as timing is not merely efficient action, but is action through seeming non-action.

Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing oneself is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires power;
Mastering oneself needs strength.
One who knows he has enough is wealthy.
One who perseveres has will.
One who stays in place endures.
One who dies without perishing is eternally present.

Self-knowledge involves stripping away all that one thinks one is – the carvings on the block which obscure the ontological priority of the block itself – until one is like the zero in the number system. One becomes increasingly like the Tao itself, which is not one but zero, the critical factor implicit in all numbers but not itself one of them. From this standpoint, the Sage recognizes that the universe is generous in that there is a time for everything and anything, but it is also ruthless in not supporting a single thing out of its place or season. "The Sage", he wrote, "shuns excess, extremes and smugness." Alert to the world around him, instead of seeking to impose some personalized purpose upon it, he remains absolutely calm. "The serene and calm", Lao Tzu taught, "set the rhythm of the world."

Only Nothing can enter into emptiness.
Hence I know the potency of non-action.
Few learn the lessons of Silence.
Few seek the fruits of non-action.

Despite the metaphorical imagery summoned to express Lao Tzu's teachings, his refusal to provide discursive or analytical accounts of his ideas, and his emphasis on the dynamic, integral unity of Nature, conspired to make his philosophy hazy and seemingly indefinite, yet, it has in truth a Pythagorean precision.

Tao gives birth to One;
One gives birth to Two;
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to the Ten Thousand Things.
The Ten Thousand Things uphold yin and embrace yang.
They harmonize through blending these vital breaths.

The Tao as a principle cannot be conceived of as a thing, and yet it is the vital essence of all things. It cannot be thought of as conscious, yet it is the living heart of consciousness. Its utter transcendence is veiled by the One which is Nameless, which in turn gives rise to the possibility of differentiation through contrast – heaven and earth – which then produce the creative interaction known as the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things. They reflect their ultimate parentage through the harmonious interplay of yin and yang, unity in diversity, the ever-hidden Tao in the dynamic efflorescence of the world. Hence, Lao Tzu affirmed:

Tao is Supreme,
Heaven is Supreme,
Earth is Supreme,
And Man is also Supreme.

Tao, the ultimate reality, is immanent as Tao, the unchanging Way, which is Tao, the law of Nature. Tao, the law or principle, is transcendental unity – the One without a second – manifest as universal harmony. There is an exact correspondence with the ultimate reflected on each plane of existence and being as hsuan te, the mysterious power, which is the radiance, so to speak, of the Tao.

Man follows the Earth.
Earth follows Heaven.
Heaven follows Tao.
Tao follows its intrinsic nature.

And this intrinsic nature, tzu-jan, is spontaneity seen in the man of self-knowledge and good timing. With mathematical precision, any attempt to break with the harmony of Nature is an effort to deny the tzu-jan of the Tao, and the consequences can only be disintegration and destruction. This is why Lao Tzu could say:

What others teach, I also teach:
A violent person will meet a violent end.
This is the core of my teaching.

That vigilant tranquillity which is the invisible signature of the Sage and arduous goal of the aspirant who would cleave to Tao is inseparably linked to wu, non-being. Humanity drifts away from the Tao not because it is involved in yu, being, but because it fails to recognize the critical role of non-being within being. Clinging to one-hall of the balance, it is unbalanced, caught in an endless struggle to right itself. Lao Tzu provided the solution through simple but telling analogies:

Thirty spokes share a single hub,
And the central void makes the cartwheel useful.
Clay is moulded into a vessel,
And the empty space makes it valuable.
Doors and windows are cut out in the walls,
And these openings make the room livable.
We benefit from Being.
We avail ourselves of Non-Being.

And in the last two lines of the Tao Te Ching he reminded humanity how this is done:

The Tao of Heaven is to help without hindering.
The Tao of the Sage is to serve without striving.

When Lao Tzu had his apocryphal meeting with Confucius, he upbraided the latter for his pride and ambition. Rather than thinking that two renowned men carped at one another, one can see in this exchange Lao Tzu's deep appreciation of Confucius's teaching, which involved rooting out just such traits in order to become a truly good man. Confucius must have understood Lao Tzu's deepest meaning, for he took his leave most reverentially and later likened Lao Tzu to a celestial dragon who rides the wind and clouds. Lao Tzu indeed seems like a dragon in his teachings which fuse the highest conceptions with the most mundane activities and testify to the presence of the Tao everywhere. When Lu-lan spoke of the dragon, he could just as well have spoken of that mysterious being known to history as Lao Tzu, the Ancient Master:

The Dragon feeds in the pure water of Wisdom and
sports in the clear waters of Life.


Just as the omnipresent aether, owing to its subtlety, is not
tainted, so too the Self
(atman), though abiding in all bodies, is