Daoism

The way of peace

Laozi the creator of Daoism

Despite his historical importance, Laozi remains an obscure figure. The principal source of information about his life is a biography in the shiji (“Records of the Historian”) by Sima qian. This historian, who wrote in about 100 bce, had little solid information concerning the philosopher. He says that Laozi was a native of Quren, a village in the district of Hu in the state of Chu, which corresponds to the modern Luyi in the eastern part of Henan province. His family name was Li, his proper name Er, his appellation Dan. He was appointed to the office of shi at the royal court of the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046–256 bce). Shi today means “historian,” but in ancient China the shi were scholars specializing in matters such as astrology and divination and were in charge of sacred books.After noting the civil status of Laozi, the historian proceeds to relate a celebrated but questionable meeting of the old Daoist with the younger Confucius (551–479 bce). The story has been much discussed by the scholars; it is mentioned elsewhere, but the sources are so inconsistent and contradictory that the meeting seems a mere legend. During the supposed interview, Laozi blamed Confucius for his pride and ambition, and Confucius was so impressed with Laozi that he compared him to a dragon that rises to the sky, riding on the winds and clouds.No less legendary is a voyage of Laozi to the west. Realizing that the Zhou dynasty was on the decline, the philosopher departed and came to the Xiangu pass, which was the entrance to the state of Qin. Yinxi, the legendary guardian of the pass (guanling), begged him to write a book for him. Thereupon, Laozi wrote a book in two sections of 5,000 characters, in which he set down his ideas about the Dao (literally “Way”) and the de (its “virtue”): the Daodejing. Then he left, and “nobody knows what has become of him,” says Sima Qian.After the account of the journey of Laozi and of the redaction of the book, Sima Qian alludes to other persons with whom Laozi was sometimes identified. One was Lao Laizi, a Daoist contemporary of Confucius; another was a great astrologer named Dan. Sima Qian adds, “Maybe Laozi has lived one hundred and fifty years, some say more than two hundred years.” Since the ancient Chinese believed that superior men could live very long, it is natural that the Daoists credited their master with an uncommon longevity, but this is perhaps a rather late tradition because Zhuangzi, the Daoist sage of the 4th century bce, still speaks of the death of Laozi without emphasizing an unusual longevity.To explain why the life of Laozi is so shrouded in obscurity, Sima Qian says that he was a gentleman recluse whose doctrine consisted in nonaction, the cultivation of a state of inner calm, and purity of mind. Indeed, throughout the whole history of China, there have always been recluses who shunned worldly life. The author (or authors) of the Daodejing was probably a person of this kind who left no trace of his life.The question of whether there was a historical Laozi has been raised by many scholars, but it is rather an idle one. The Daodejing, as we have it, cannot be the work of a single author; some of its sayings may date from the time of Confucius; others are certainly later; and a version of the text has been recovered in an archaeological find at Guodian that dates to before 300 bce. Owing to these facts, some scholars have assigned the authorship of the Daodejing to the astrologer Dan; while others, giving credit to a genealogy of the descendants of the philosopher, which is related in the biography by Sima Qian, try to place the life of Lao Dan at the end of the 4th century bce. But this genealogy can hardly be considered as historical. It proves only that at the time of Sima Qian a certain Li family (see above) pretended to be descended from the Daoist sage; it does not give a basis for ascertaining the existence of the latter. The name Laozi seems to represent a certain type of sage rather than an individual. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/daoism/

The ways of Daoism

Daoism[1] stands alongside Confucianism as one of the two great religious/philosophical systems of China. Traditionally traced to the mythical Laozi “Old Philosopher,” Philosophical Daoism owes more to “philosopher Zhuang” (Zhuangzi) (4th Century BCE). Daoism is an umbrella that covers a range of similarly motivated doctrines. The term “Daoism” is also associated with assorted naturalistic or mystical religions. Sometimes the term “Lao-Zhuang Philosophy” is used to distinguish the philosophical from the more religious “Huang-Lao” (Yellow Emperor-Laozi) strain of Daoist thought.

Both the Daode Jing and the Zhuangzi are composite texts written and rewritten over centuries with varied input from multiple anonymous writers. Each has a distinctive rhetorical style, the Daode Jing terse and poetic, the Zhuangzi prolix, funny, elusive and filled with fantasy dialogues. Both texts flow from reflections on the nature of dao (way) and related concepts that were central to the ethical disputes of Ancient China. The concept of “Daoism” as a theme or group did not exist at the time of the Classical Daoists, but we have some reasons to suspect the communities focusing on the Zhuangzi and Laozi texts were in contact with each other. The texts share some figurative expressions and themes, an ironic detachment from the first order moral issues so hotly debated by the Mohists and Confucians preferring a reflective, metaethical focus on the nature and development of ways. Their metaethics vaguely favored different first-order normative theories (anarchism, pluralism, laissez faire government. The meta-ethical focus and the related less demanding first order ethics mostly distinguishes “Daoists” from other thinkers of the period.The meta-ethical reflections were by turns skeptical then relativist, here naturalist and there mystical. Daoism per se has no “constant dao.” However, it does have a common spirit. Dao-centered philosophical reflection engendered a distinctive ambivalence in advocacy—manifested in their indirect, non-argumentative style, their use of poetry and parable. In ancient China, the political implication of this Dao-ism was mainly an opposition to authority, government, coercion, and even to normal socialization in values. Daoist “spontaneity” was contrasted with subtle or overt indoctrination in any specific or social dao http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/daoism/