The beliefs of Laozi


About Laozi

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.

The beliefs of Daosim

There are three main principles underpinning the philosophy of Daoism:

Dao:the way
Though Daoism recognises many gods there is no overarching divinity. Instead, at the heart of the very earliest Chinese vision of the cosmos, there is the Dao, the origin of all. Dao means ‘the way’. The Dao is the origin of everything and the ultimate aim of all Daoists. The Dao is Heaven, Earth and Humanity. The Dao cannot be defined because it exists beyond all forms. In the words of the great Daoist sage, Lao Zi: ‘That which can be named is not the true Dao’. The Dao teaches wu-wei, the way of no-action and no-selfishness. This means to live in a plain and modest way and not to struggle for material gain.

The importance of life:Daoism regards life as the most valuable thing and pursues immortality. Life can be prolonged through meditation and exercise. People should train their will, discard selfishness, and seek to be a model of virtue. With high moral sense and good exercise, one can maintain energy throughout one’s life. To achieve this, Daoism stresses the need for a peaceful and harmonious environment as a very important external condition. And finally Yin and Yang:The process by which the Dao gave rise to reality is defined in the classic text, Dao-De Jing, as follows:

‘The Dao gives birth to the One.
The One gives birth to the Two.
The Two gives birth to the Three.
The Three give birth to the Ten Thousand.’These words describe how the Dao, the essence of all, gives birth to Nature (the One) which in turn gives birth to Yin and Yang (the Two). Yin and Yang are opposites which must always be in balance:Yin is female, moist, cold, the moon, autumn and winter, shadows and waters. Yang is male, dry, hot, the sun, spring and summer, brightness and earth. The need to balance yin and yang can be applied to everything, including martial arts (Tai Chi), food (macrobiotics) and the arrangement of living conditions (feng shui).
From the perpetual striving of Yin and Yang arises the Three—Heaven, Earth and Humanity. Humanity must try to balance the opposites of Heaven and Earth.
The principle of balancing yin and yang is also the basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).