Lao Tzu (604 BC)

The Old Philosopher

At the same time as Pythagoras was unfolding to his disciples the Pythagoric Path to God and Buddha was expounding the Dharma, or law, in India, there was a third Master teaching spiritual truth in China. He was Lao Tzu, and his teaching is called ‘Tao-Te Ching‘.

His name means ‘old-young,’ and he has been called: ‘The Old Philosopher.’

Lao-Tzu assumes that by nature human beings are good and that evil is the result of inappropriate social interaction and activity which precipitate such vices as excessive desire, malcontent and greed. His teachings concerning human nature and purpose consist primarily of descriptions of the wise man, the sage who represents his ideal . He describes the sage as impartial (not unkind or unloving as this passage has been interpreted), but beyond petty concerns. He is like water and benefits all things without competing with them. Again and again Lao-Tzu points to the destructiveness of competition and active striving. The sage is like the infant, the uncarved block of wood, the valley–lowly, simple, all-embracing potentiality. The sage exemplifies Te (the Tao as manifested in particular; virtue). He loves the earth, humanity, loyalty, order-the substantially real, not the superficially apparent.

Lao-Tzu is suspicious of the trappings of civilization (while in no way suggesting that human beings would not enjoy a simple communal life), stating that revolutions and ways are the result of weapons and laws create criminals. The wise man, he says treats the good and evil alike with goodness, and does not accumulate for himself. He receives by giving and rules by not ruling. He discards the excessive, extreme, extravagant.

He was himself a symbol of that ‘Mysterious Virtue and Supernal Simplicity‘ belonging to the servant of Tao, of which his writings speak. The wonderful freshness of the ideas propounded by the ‘Old Philosopher‘ is a striking testimony that they are founded upon unchanging Truth: for, although twenty-five centuries have elapsed since they first held the minds of men, they are still today regarded as a corpus of thoughts of the highest excellence and profoundest significance.

Tao-Te Ching‘ was Lao Tzu’s only work, and might never have been written but for his disciple Yin Hsi, who urged him to leave some evidence of his teaching, when, at the end of his mission, Lao Tzu was on his way to the Western Haven, the Abode of Peace.

Tao‘ is the ‘Absolute’, the ‘Unmanifest One’. ‘Te‘ is the ‘Manifestation of Tao’ in the objective world-process. ‘Ching‘ means simply ‘classic‘ or ‘canon‘.

The word Tao cannot be represented by any single term since it has many aspects. Fundamentally, there are four distinct senses in which it can be understood.

Tao is the Supreme, the Absolute.
2. Tao is the All-Creative.
3. Tao is the Way.
4. Tao is the Root, the Source.

Tao is inexpressible, yet is ever being expressed. Tao is the Plenum, and yet also ‘the void‘. Tao is not to be seen, yet shines through all that is. Tao is tranquil and still, yet the source of never-ending activity. Tao is the ‘Supreme Paradox‘, ‘the Infinite Truth‘ which never can be uttered.  

Te like Tao, cannot be translated by any single term. If Tao is the ‘Supreme Ultimate‘, the ‘Unmanifested Absolute‘; then Te is the manifestation of Tao, the ‘Universal Expression of Unity‘. If Tao is the Ideal, all-creative; then Te is the ‘Actualization of Tao‘, the ‘Objective World-Process‘, the ‘Active Potentiality‘, the ‘Possible‘, the ‘Unfolding of Tao‘. If Tao is ‘Divine Providence‘, the ‘Way of the Universe‘, the ‘Giver of Grace‘; then Te is the ‘Highest Excellence‘, the ‘Grace‘, the ‘Virtue‘, the ‘Balance of Tao made Manifest‘, – the ‘Universal Nourisher‘. If Tao is the ‘Ultimate Goal‘, the ‘Root and Final Possession‘; then Te is the ‘Realization of Tao‘, the ‘Flower of Tao‘, the ‘Universal Order‘, ‘Spiritual Insight‘ and ‘Interior Self-Realization‘.

Yang and Yinthe rhythm of Life– is the action of complementary principles. This is suggestive of the ebb and the flow, the action and inter-action of life and death, of existence and non-existence, of the higher and the lower, of the inner and the outer, of the strong and the weak, of the positive and negative, of the full and the empty, of expansion and contraction, of the Universe and our World. But this does not imply dualism, in the conventional sense.

However, to understand the significance of the basic principles may lead to a fuller realization of the meaning of what only a paradox can contain. Yang and Yin constitute the Primal Forces from which the idea of unity proceeds. The ‘Manifested‘ implies the ‘Unmanifested‘: even as existence implies non- existence. This is because all things are encompassed by the ‘One Absolute‘.

From Yang is derived the idea of their existence; from Yin is the idea of their non-existence. From Yang is their activity; from Yin their passivity. From Yang is their power to give; from Yin their power to receive. In Yang is their root form or paradigm and reason of existence; in Yin is their root substance, or primal matter and basis of existence. The active composite of Yang and Yin is the efficient cause from which all things spring.

excerpts from Tao Te Ching