Life of Laozi:
The chapter Bibliographies of Laozi, Zhuangzi, Shenzi, and Hanfeizi in The Records of the Historian records that “Laozi was a native of Qurenli of the town of Lixiang, in Ku County, in the State of Chu (i.e., to the east of Luyi, present-day Henan province). His family name was Li, his given name was Er, he was styled Boyang, and his posthumous title was Dan (which means the large flat outer edge of the ear). He was head of the imperial library of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.”
When Confucius went to Zhou and consulted Laozi about rites, Laozi said, “As for the person you mentioned, when his body and bones have dissipated, only his words continue to exist. A gentleman travels in a carriage when he is successful and walks downheartedly when he is not. I’ve heard that a good merchant hides everything and seems as if he has nothing, and a virtuous gentleman appears slow-witted. Get rid of your overbearing airs and excessive desires, of your posturing attitude and greed. They will do no good to you, and I tell you that just as it is.” Confucius left and said to his disciples, “As for birds, I know they are able to fly; as for fish, I know they are able to swim; as for beasts, I know they are able to run. What runs can be stopped with nets, what swims can be stopped with fishing lines, and what flies can be stopped with arrows. As for dragons, I have no idea of their ascending to heaven by wind and clouds. Today I met Laozi, who’s just like a dragon!”
Laozi cultivated Dao and its virtue. His learning focused on concealing oneself.
Having inhabited Zhou for long and seeing its decline, Laozi set off westward and arrived at the Pass (Hanguguan). Yin Xi, the official in charge of the pass, said, “Since you are going to live in seclusion, please write a book for me.” So Laozi wrote a book of two parts, explaining Dao and its virtue in 5,000 words. Then he left, and it is unknown where he went.
Later, Zhuangzi wrote The Book of Nanhua to elaborate on Dao and its virtue. His significance to Daoist philosophy can be compared to that of Mencius in Confucian philosophy. Zhuangzi’s contemporaries, such as Liezi, Huishi, Shendao, Tian Pian and Song Yan, carried forward Laozi’s teachings. They made the learning of Laozi the origin of philosophical Daoism.
Laozi’s Theories in the Qin and Han Dynasties:
The Bibliographical Records of The History of the Han Dynasty written by Ban Gu says, “People of the Daoist School probably originate from historians (maybe it indicates that Laozi was once a historian). They record successes and failures, what survives and what perishes, fortunes and misfortunes, the Dao of both ancient and contemporary times, and then they come to know the essentials and principles. Guard emptiness, and keep humble. This is the Art of Government. It is identical with Yao’s conceding his throne to Shun and to what the trigram of Qian says in the Book of Changes. Humility itself leads to four benefits. (The Qian trigram combining Upper Earth and Lower Hill in The Book of Changes says, “It is the way of Heaven to diminish the full and augment the humble. Spirits and demons inflict calamity on the full and bless the humble. It is the way of men to hate the full and to love the humble. Humility in a position of honour makes one still more brilliant; and in a low position men will not (seek to) pass beyond it. Thus it is that the superior man will have a (good) issue (to his undertakings).”) Humility is the advantage of sovereigns. As for those with no restraint, they do not care about rituals or kindness. Thus, it is said that purity and emptiness alone can help government.”
Ban Gu summarizes the Daoist philosophy from the Confucian point of view and makes no subjective criticism. His summary shows a historian’s manners, and Ban Gu makes a pertinent report. The books written by scholars of the Daoist School around that time which are recorded in the Bibliographical Records can be counted in the dozens. This fully shows that the theories of the Daoist School were already prosperous in the Qin and Han dynasties.
During the reign of emperors Wen and Jing at the beginning of the Han dynasty, the mother of the emperor, Lady Dou, who was interested in the Huang-Lao school, and Minister Cao Shen governed the country by using the theories of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi. They reduced penalties and taxation and let the people recuperate and multiply. The people benefited and the state was well governed. Laozi’s teachings had good effects at the beginning of the Han dynasty. This fully shows that they were not empty talk.
It is recorded in The History of the Later Han Dynasty that “Liu Ying (son of emperor Guangwu), king of Chu, had a good command of the subtle words of the Huang-Lao school and worshipped the Buddha’s benevolence. He cleaned himself and fasted for three months, and took an oath with spirits.” Wang Fu, the local official of Yizhou, inscribed The Tablet of the Venerable Master’s Saintly Mother , where he identified Laozi with Dao, who, born before the time of shapelessness and the supreme commencement, was a spirit prior to Heaven and Earth.
In the middle of the Han dynasty, the first Celestial Master Zhang Daoling founded the Orthodox Oneness Tradition (also called the Celestial Masters Tradition ) in Shu (Sichuan), and wrote Xiang’er’s Commentary on Laozi , saying that “Dao dispersed into the Vital Breath and condensed into the Supreme Venerable Sovereign (13)”. Laozi is venerated as the Supreme Venerable Sovereign by the Orthodox Oneness Tradition.
During the reign of emperor Huandi of the Han dynasty, Bian Shao wrote The Inscription in Honor of Laozi , saying, “Laozi obtained Dao and attained Immortality, freed his body and was saved. He has been the master of sages through the ages since the time of Fuxi and Shennong.” Afterwards, Daoism regarded Laozi’s Dao as its highest belief, revered Laozi as the “Heavenly Lord of Dao and its Virtue” and ranked him as one of the Three Pristine Ones (the other two Pristine Ones are the Primeval Lord of Heaven and the Heavenly Lord of the Numinous Treasure ). During the reign of emperor Gaozong of the Tang dynasty, Laozi was venerated as the Supreme Emperor of the Mysterious Origin.
The 5,000-word Book of Dao and its Virtue written by Laozi discusses ways of personal cultivation, political opinions, and philosophical explanations to Dao. Examples are given below for a brief explanation:
Laozi’s explanations to Dao:
“There is a whole formed and born earlier than Heaven and Earth. Silent and empty, it relies on nothing, moving around forever. We may regard it as the mother of all things. I do not know its name, so I name it as Dao, and further name it as the Great. The Great is moving forward without stopping, extending to the remotest distance, and then returning to where it was. That is why I say Dao is Great, Heaven is Great, Earth is Great, and Man is Great. There are four things that are Great, of them Man is one. Man takes Earth as his model, Earth takes heaven as its model, Heaven takes Dao as its model, and Dao takes Spontaneity as its model.” — Chapter 25
More than 2,500 years ago, in the whole world, only Laozi could imagine that the original earth was but chaotic breath. Heaven and Earth are not divided, and the earth revolves in circles along a certain orbit, silently and permanently. This idea coincides with the phenomenon of the beginning of the earth observed by scientists today. We can only say that Laozi is a sage, a superman.
Laozi called the first phenomenon of the earth he imagined as the “Great Dao”. The Great Dao constantly moves, it is the endless movement of the brain. The Great extends distantly, it is the imagination of the remotest nature and even the imagination of the truth — Dao. One can return to simplicity and perfection after attaining Dao.
Therefore, Dao is limitless, and Heaven, Earth and Man are all limitless. This limitless phenomenon is called Spontaneity. Man takes Earth as his model, Earth takes Heaven as its model, Heaven takes Dao as its model, and Dao takes what is Spontaneous as its model. We study Dao from spontaneity, while spontaneity is limitless without any artificial thoughts or behaviors. To get rid of bad thoughts and behaviours that are harmful to the human body and mind means “Non-Interference”. When this is achieved, the mind and nature are omnipotent and can take every action. Being able to take every action is Dao expressed through spontaneity.
Laozi Teaches People How to Cultivate Themselves and Study Dao:
It is said in Chapter Three of Laozi that ” ¡K (the ruler) simplifies their minds but fills up their stomachs, weakens their wills but strengthens their bones. By keeping the people from knowledge and desires, he disables wise men from taking any active action. Act in accordance with this principle of Non-Interference, and the world will be kept in order everywhere.” This is the principle of the education of the people advocated by Laozi:
Simplifying their minds — so that they could receive Dao (study nature objectively)
Filling up their stomachs — for themselves (enrich their learning)
Weakening their wills — so that they would act with reason and not interfere (not be influenced by what is unreasonable)
Strengthen their bones — so that they would act independently (one can do anything with a strong body)
The above four explanations were given briefly by Yan Fu in modern times. Don’t have any improper ideas. Even the cleverest person dares not resort to cleverness in trivial matters. If no one does bad deeds, the country can surely be governed.
Chapter twelve of Laozi says, “The five colors make man blind, the five sounds make man deaf, and the five tastes make man lose his sense of taste. Riding and hunting make man wild with excitement, and rare goods goad man into stealing. Thus the sage does not satisfy his eyes with colors, but satisfies his stomach with enough food. He discards the former and takes the latter.”
Seeing too many pictures painted green, yellow, red, white and black, one gets dazzled and loses one’s ability to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly.
Listening to too much music made up of the Five Sounds of Gong, Shang, Jiao, Hui and Yu, one becomes numb in hearing.
Eating too much food of the Five Flavours of sourness, sweetness, bitterness, spiciness and lusciousness, one becomes numb in taste.
Too much riding and riding make one crazy.
Rare goods make one afraid of them being stolen and uneasy all day long.
Therefore, sages (people who have attained Dao) make a living not to satisfy their eyes and ears, but to satisfy their stomach. Hence they discard the former and take the latter.
Chapter twenty-eight of Laozi says, “Though you know what is honor, you are ready to play the role of the disgraced and content to be a valley in the world. Content to be a valley in the world, you will no longer lack the eternal virtue, and will return to simplicity.” This chapter indicates that worldly people only love honour and long for wealth and rank by showing themselves off. I am the only one who is content with poverty and destitution and with situations which others regard as disgraceful. I would rather stay at the bottom of a valley and let others stand on the summit. The bottom of a valley will never become lower, while the summit will gradually sink and fill the valley. Then I will be in a higher and higher position, while those who used to stand on the summit will slide down.
This manifests Laozi’s idea of retreat as a means of advance, a principle man must
follow when conducting himself.
Laozi’s Political Ideas:
“Those ancient men of the profound Dao did not use Dao to enlighten the people, but used Dao to make them simple. The people are unruly because they are too clever. Thus to govern a state by cleverness is bound to ruin the state, and not to govern a state by cleverness is a blessing to the state” (chapt. sixty-five). This opinion is identical to the Confucian view that governing in ancient times resulted in people’s peaceful and joyful life. Hence a ballad says, “I begin work at sunrise and rest at sunset. I dig a well for water and till my field for food. What is the Emperor’s virtuous power to me?”
“When the people are not afraid of death, what is the point of threatening them with death?” (chapt. seventy-four).
Felons will be sentenced to death, but the people are not afraid of it. Many people still commit crimes for money at the risk of death. Harsh punishments and strict laws thus lose their effect.
“Hunger on the part of the people is the result of exorbitant taxes on the part of the ruler. Thus the people are hungry.” Even today the situation has not yet changed in many places.
“The state should be small, and the population should be sparse. Tools, though of many kinds, should not be used. Teach the people to fear death and not to migrate to remote places. Although they have ships and carts, they will have no need to use them. Although they are well armed with weapons, they will have no place to make them effective. Encourage the people to return to the condition under which the knotted rope was used to record things. The world best ruled is a place where the people will have delicious food, beautiful clothes, comfortable living quarters, and cheerful customs. Though within easy reach of neighboring states, the dog’s barking and the cock’s crowing in one state are heard in another; the people of one state will never have dealings with those of another, even if they get old and die.” (chapt. eighty)
Chapter twenty-five says, “The Great is moving forward without stopping, extending to the remotest distance, and then returning to where it was.” Having made limitless observations (moving), Laozi puts thought in limitlessly distant places (remotest distance), and finally returns to simplicity and the Utopia mentioned above, achieving the realm of Non-Interference. The people of several ideal states all understand the great Dao.
Besides, we can find Laozi’s hatred of wars in his work.
Chapter thirty says, “He who assists the ruler by means of Dao does not conquer other countries by military force. Military actions usually invite retaliatory aftermath (the people resist oppression to regain freedom): wherever armies station, thistles and thorns grow; a great war is always followed by a great famine.”
Chapter thirty-one says, “Arms are tools of ill omen detested by everybody (a good weapon is a tool of evil omen) ¡K not the instruments of the gentleman. Even if compelled to use them (identical to what is said in Sunzi’s Art of War), the gentleman does not use them with pleasure. Even if he is the victor, the gentleman does not glorify his victory. He who glorifies his victory is such one as takes delight in killing ¡K On occasions of auspicious celebration the left is favored; on occasions of mourning the right is favored. A lieutenant’s position is on the left; a general’s position is on the right. That is to say, mourning rights should be observed in military operations. War brings about heavy casualties, so one should take part in it with deep sorrow. When winning the victory, victors should treat the dead by observing the rites of mourning.”
The above words express Laozi’s hatred of wars, which can be compared to Mozi’s pacifist doctrine. It can be concluded from these words that Laozi was a person who understood military affairs, for those who do not understand know nothing about the harm of war. A sage is omnipotent. It’s no wonder Confucius admired Laozi as a dragon.
Author: He Bingcong
Translator: Chang Hong
(Courtesy of: Taoism Culture & Information Centre)