Tao Te Ching

We know practically nothing about the author(s) and the origins of the Tao Te Ching. We can only say with some confidence that the book took its final form sometime during the Eastern Chou dynasty (770-221 BC). Tradition calls its author Lao-tzu – which is not a personal name, since it only means “old master”. It is a matter of debate whether the the book actually had a single (or main) author or compiler. Many scholars consider Lao-tzu a purely legendary figure – a state of affairs that, as the sinologist Richard Wilhelm aptly pointed out, would not have displeased Lao-tzu at all – since whoever is speaking to us from these verses is certainly bent on “erasing all sense of a personal ego”, as we learn from Ssu-ma Ch’ien (163-85 BC), the author of Shih chi, the first general history of China.

The Shih chi is the main source of information about the (perhaps legendary) figure of the old master. Ssu-ma Ch’ien tells us that his name was Li Erh and that he was the historian in charge of the archives of Chou. He adds that, at the end of his long life, seeing the corruption that had come to prevail in the state of Chou, Li Erh left and went to die in an unknown place. He recounts two episodes of his life.

The first is a meeting between Lao-tzu and Confucius (K’ung Fu-tzu, 551-479 BC). Since the dates of Confucius’ life are relatively well established, this anecdote, which is mentioned in a number of texts, is the foundation of the tradition that Lao-tzu was born sometime at the beginning of the sixth century BC (in all accounts of the meeting he is depicted as being considerably older than Confucius). If the encounter really took place, it must have been quite a meeting. Both men were deeply concerned about the violence and corruption prevailing throughout China at the time, but they were of very different character and held very different views. Confucius was bent on setting society straight by recovering the traditional codes of ethics, hierarchy and rituals of a past golden age. Lao-tzu considered all codes of ethics a weak surrogate of awareness and a symptom of decay. We get a clear sense of how he felt about this from Chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching:

Therefore when Tao is lost, there arises virtue,
when virtue is lost, there arises humanity,
when humanity is lost, there arises morality,
when morality is lost, there arises ritual.
Ritual is only a thin husk of loyalty and sincerity
and the beginning of disorder.

In his view, the only way in which the sage could be an example for the world was by undergoing an existential transformation, embracing the essential unity which is the source of all things, emptying himself of all personal identification, reverting to the ‘state of the newborn’, to the ‘state without boundaries’, to the ‘simplicity of uncarved wood’.

According to Ssu-ma Ch’ien, returning from the meeting Confucius would have said to his disciples: “Birds fly, fish swim and animals run on the earth. What runs can be caught by a trap, what swims by a net, what flies by an arrow. But I don’t know how to catch this man Lao-tzu, who like a dragon rises up to heaven riding the wind and the clouds.”

The second anecdote describes how the Tao Te Ching came about. Faithful to the spirit of his teaching, Lao-tzu always refrained from consigning his thoughts to the written word. But we are told that, when in ripe old age he was leaving Chou to go die in solitude, the ‘Western gatekeeper’ asked him: “Master, since you are leaving this world, would you please write down the essence of your teachings for me?” We don’t know who this Western gatekeeper was: perhaps a sentry at a door of the palace, or at a Western pass or border station of the state of Chou. However that may have been, Lao-tzu was touched by his request. He dismounted his vehicle and before resuming his journey he wrote, Ssu-ma Ch’ien says, “a book in two parts, describing the Way (Tao) and its Virtue (Te) in approximately five thousand characters”.

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