It’s difficult to know much for certain
about the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Even his name can be a little confusing; it
is also sometimes translated as Laozi or Lao TzeLao Tzu is said to have been a record keeper
in the court of the central Chinese Zhou Dynastyin the 6th century B. C. , and an older contemporary
of Confucius. He may also have been entirely mythical—much
like Homer in Western culture. Lao Tzu is said to have tired of life in the
Zhou court as it grew increasingly morally corrupt. So he left and rode on a water buffalo to
the western border of the Chinese empire. Although he was dressed as a farmer, the border
official recognised him and asked him to writedown his wisdom. According to this legend,
what Lao Tzu wrote became the sacred textknown as the Tao Te Ching. After writing this piece, Lao Tzu is said
to have crossed the border and disappearedfrom history, perhaps to become a hermit. In reality, the Tao Te Ching is likely to
be the compilation of the works of many authorsover time. But stories about Lao Tzu and the
Tao Te Ching itself passed down through differentChinese philosophical schools for over two
thousand years. Lao Tzu was the leading figure in the spiritual
practice known as Daoismwhich is more than two thousand years old,
and still popular today. There are at leasttwenty million Daoists, and perhaps even half
a billion, living around the world now, especiallyin China and Taiwan. They practise meditation,
chant scriptures, and worship a variety ofgods and goddesses in temples. Daoists also make pilgrimages to five sacred
mountains in eastern China in order to prayat the temples and absorb spiritual energy
from these holy places, which are believedto be governed by immortals. Daoism is deeply intertwined with other branches
of thought like Confucianism and Buddhism. There is a story about the three great Asian
spiritual leaders . All were meant to have tasted vinegar. Confucius found it sour, much like he found
the world full of degenerate people, and Buddhafound it bitter, much like he found the world
to be full of suffering. But Lao Tzu foundthe world sweet. This is telling, because
Lao Tzu’s philosophy tends to look at theapparent discord in the world and see an underlying
harmony guided by something called theDao 道 = the pathThe Tao Te Chingwhich describes the Dao, is somewhat like
the Bible: it gives instructions
on how to live a good life. It discusses the“Dao” as the “way” of the world, which
is also the path to virtue, happiness, and harmony. “The way” isn’t inherently confusing
or difficult. But in order to follow the Dao,we need to go beyond simply reading and thinking
about it. Instead we must learnflowing, or effortless action. It’s a sort of purposeful acceptance of
the way of the Dao and living in harmony with it. This might seem lofty and bizarre, but most
of Lao Tzu’s suggestions are actually verysimple. First, we ought to take more time
for stillness. “To the mind that is still,”Lao Tzu said, “the whole universe surrenders. ”We need to let go of our schedules, worries
and complex thoughts for a while and simplyexperience the world. We spend so much time rushing from one place
to the next in life, but Lao Tzu reminds us“nature does not hurry, yet everything is
accomplished. ” It is particularly importantthat we remember that certain things—grieving,
growing wiser, developing a new relationship—onlyhappen on their own schedule, like the changing
of leaves in the fall or the blossoming ofthe bulbs we planted months ago. When we are still and patient we also need
to be open. “The usefulness of a pot comes from its
emptiness. ” Lao Tzu said. “Empty yourselfof everything, let your mind become still. ”If we are too busy, too preoccupied with anxiety
or ambition, we will miss a thousand momentsof the human experience that are our natural
inheritance. We need to be awake to the waysounds of the birds in the morning, the way
other people look when they are laughing,the feeling of wind against our face. These
experiences reconnect us to parts of ourselves. This is another key point of Lao Tzu’s writing:
we need to be in touch with our real selves. We spend a great deal of time worrying about
who we ought to become, but we should insteadtake time to be who we already are at heart. We might rediscover a generous impulse, or
a playful side we had forgotten, or simplyan old affection for long walks. Our ego is often in the way of our true self,
which must be found by being receptive tothe outside world rather than focusing on
some critical, too-ambitious internal image. “When I let go of what I am,” Lao Tzu
wrote, “I become what I might be. ”Nature is particularly useful for finding
ourselves. Lao Tzu liked to compare different parts of
nature to different virtues. He said,”The best people are like water, which benefits
all things and does not compete with them. It stays in lowly places that others reject.
This is why it is so similar to the Dao. “Each part of nature can remind us of a quality
we admire and should cultivate ourselves—thestrength of the mountains, the resilience
of trees, the cheerfulness of flowers. Of course, there are issues that must be addressed
by action, and there are times for ambition. Yet Lao Tzu’s work is important for Daoists
and non-Daoists alike, especially in a modernworld distracted by technology and focused
on what seem to be constant, sudden, and severechanges. His words serve as a reminder of the importance
of stillness, openness, and discovering buriedyet central parts of ourselves.

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