Tao Te Ching Leader Resource 1: Historical Background



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Tao Te Ching

Leader Resource 1: Historical Background

The Tao Te Ching (dow deh jing) is an ancient Chinese text. The word “tao” means “way”, as in path or method; “te” means “virtue”; and “ching” means book. Thus, the title can be translated as “The Book of the Way and Virtue.”

According to tradition, the Tao Te Ching was written around the 6th century BCE, but many modern scholars have dated it to the 4th century BCE (Littlejohn.) The Tao Te Ching is said to have been written by Lao Tzu (lou dzu). This name literally means "Old Master”, or “Old Masters”, and there is speculation among scholars that he is a mythological figure or a composite of several historical people.

Popularly, Lao Tzu is believed to be one and the same as Lao Tan, a record keeper at the Zhou dynasty court and a contemporary of the philosopher Confucius. The 4th Century BCE Taoist text Chuang Tzu (jwong dzuh) recounts several dialogues between Lao Tan and Confucius, with Lao Tan usually emerging as a critic of Confucian ideas.

According to legend, Lao Tzu grew disgusted with the moral decay of life at the imperial court and eventually quit his post as record keeper to travel west and live as a hermit. At the western gate of the kingdom, he met a guard who begged him to write down his wisdom for future generations. That which Lao Tzu wrote at that time became the Tao Te Ching.

This text is not only the founding text of Taoism; it has also profoundly influenced Chinese Buddhism. When Buddhism was first introduced into China in the 1st century CE, it was largely interpreted through the use of Taoist words and concepts.

The Tao Te Ching’s influence has also spread widely outside East Asia, aided by hundreds of translations into Western languages. It is, after the Bible, the second-most translated book of all time. Due to the difficulty of interpreting ancient Chinese and the abstract and poetic nature of the text, these translations are sometimes markedly different from one another.

Sources:


Baxter, William H. (1998). “Situating the Language of the Lao-tzu: The Probable Date of the Tao-te-ching.” In Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching, edited by Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue. Albany: State University of New York Press. pp. 231-53.

Cleary, Thomas (1991). The Essiential Tao: An Initiation into the Heart of Taoism through the Authentic Tao Te Ching and the Inner Teachings of Chuang-tzu. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Graham, Angus. (1981). Chuang tzu: The Inner Chapters. London: Allen & Unwin.

Graham, Angus. [1998 (1986)]. "The Origins of the Legend of Lao Tan." In Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching, edited by Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue. Albany: State University of New York Press. pp.23-41.



Littlejohn, Ronnie (2006). “Laozi” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.utm.edu/research/ep/1/laozi.htm
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