Lao-Tzu and the Origin of Taoism

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World Religions Theology / OLM 07
Lao-Tzu and the Origin of Taoism

Throughout Chinese history, Taoism has paralleled Confucianism, influencing all areas of Chinese culture, including literature, art, and government. Like Confucianism, the origin of Taosim can be traced back to one man. He is Lao-Tzu.

Lao- Tzu was a distinguished scholar and keeper of royal archives in the province of Luoyang. Interestingly, tradition has it that as a young man, Confucius met Lao-Tzu. But when he spoke to the scholar about his attempts to improve China's social order, Lao-Tzu answered thus: "This talk of duty to others drives me crazy! . Leave the world in its original simplicity. As the wind blows where it will, let virtue establish itself." Finally, Lao-Tzu told Confucius that his teachings were "of no use."

Lao- Tzu's response captures the essential difference between Taoism and Confucianism: one is con­cerned with social order and regulating behavior, while the other focuses on individual life and spiritu­ality. However, they are not mutually exclusive. In China, a person might be both a Taoist and a Confucian.

But how did Taoism begin? What are its doctrines? The essence of Taoism lies in a collection of meditations called the Tao Te Ching. These sayings set forth the virtue of Tao, the eternal "way." Although the origin of the book is disputed, legend tells us that when Lao-Tzu was preparing to leave his city for the remote West, the gatekeeper demanded that he leave the people some words of wisdom. He consented and created one of the most influential scriptures of all time.

Unlike Confucius' doctrines of moral conduct, the Way of the Tao is the way of "no action." This means allowing the universe to take its natural course, to be one with the flow of nature, and thus to penetrate the mystery and unfathomable source of all life. To be concerned with artificialities and per­sonal ambitions could only interfere with the Tao. Lao-Tzu taught that human beings are inherently good, but blinded by their opinions and their need to do things. This creates internal disharmony, which contaminates social order and nature.

Lao- Tzu felt that people should not concern themselves with the "spirit world" or the formalities and superstitions of religion. Those were merely distractions. Rather, by being quiet and following the ways of nature, one would spontaneously discover what is true and eternal. However, as Taoism evolved, magical practices continued among the people.

Like Confucius, Lao-Tzu believed that those in power should be wise. If the leaders have no personal ambition, then the country will have harmony. But Lao- Tzu's emphasis on non-action included the government. Thus, he deplored taxation and warfare and social "improvement." In fact, the whole notion of morality, he believed, was deceptive. The Tao Te Ching stresses that both good and bad are only ideas. Ultimately, the answer lies in a life of simplicity, holding close to one's heart the "three treasures." They are love, frugality, and non-ambition.

Although Lao-Tzu never intended to begin a new religion, about 700 years after his death, a group adopted him as their leader and formed Taosim. As you will see, it is questionable whether Lao-Tzu would want to be associated with the pursuit of supernatural powers and mythic islands that are now found in popular Taoism.

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