The Wisdom of Laozi

Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, October 25, 2014.

There are those who will conquer the world

And make of it what they conceive or desire.

I see that they will not succeed.

Lao-tzu, Tao-te ching

Now is the time … to destroy those who destroy the earth.

Revelation of John

LFile:Representation of Laozi.PNG - Wikimedia Commonsao-tzu’s Tao-te ching is the chief book of the Tao-tsang, the canon of the Taoist school or sect, made up of 1,476 books in 5,486 volumes. The title may be rendered as “The Book of the Way [Tao] and Its Power [Te].” The oldest extant copy is dated to between 195 and 206 BCE, but it is surely older. Western scholars judge it to have been written no sooner than 400BCE. In Chinese custom it was written by Lao-tzu five or six hundred years before the common era, but the teachings of the Tao-te ching are surely much older than the text itself, which is a digest of old teachings going back to the primal proto-Eastern pan-wisdom centre (see “Sacred and Profane Time,” below).

The name Lao-tzu means “The Old Child” and was likely given to Lao-tzu after his death. Legend states that he was born with white hair, but it may also refer to his simple nature. He is also known as Lao Tan or Li Erh. In Chinese custom Lao-tzu was born in 604 BCE, and thus was an elder coëval of K’ung-fu-tzu (Confucius), born in 551 BCE. He was born in Hu-hsien in the state of Chu, now known as Honan Province in south-east central China. During his life, he was employed by the king of Chou as his record-keeper. At that time, that job involved the keeping of sacred books such as the I-ching and was linked with fortune-telling and star-lore (astrology). Lao-tzu tired of court politics and retired at an advanced age. Lao-tzu went west to the border, where Yin Hsi, also known as Kuan-yin-tzu, the Warden of the Mountain Pass of Hsien-ku, saw him. That he was seen and stopped shows that Lao-tzu was well-known. Yin Hsi would not allow Lao-tzu to pass till he had set down his wisdom in a book, lest it be lost. Impressed by the warden’s faith, Lao-tzu paused for two days to write down the five thousand signs of the Tao-te ching, also known as the Text of the Five Thousand Signs, although in fact the number of signs is between five and six thousand. In Lin Yutang’s English version, this works out to about eight thousand words. Right after this Lao-tzu departs from any formal annals. Some say he went to India where he taught the Buddha (b. 566 or 563 BCE, which would put Lao-tzu in his 60s or 70s), whose teachings as set down in the Pali Canon look like the teachings of the Tao-te ching. Others say he became a recluse living on the sacred mountain range called K’un-lun on the eastern border of Tibet. In Tibetan custom, the pre-Buddhist Bon faith of Shenrab Miwo comes from Lao-tzu. Some Western scholars doubt that Lao-tzu was a real person, but there is nothing far-fetched in the basic story, and the point of view of the work itself is both novel and unique. Most scholars believe that Lao- tzu was a real person, perhaps the founder of a school the teachings of which were handed down and gathered in the Tao-te ching by those who came after. Perhaps in fairness this is the truest view, since someone clearly wrote or compiled the Tao-te ching.

The Tao-te ching is made up of eighty-one chapters in two parts: The first thirty-seven chapters make up the Book of the Tao (“Way”), whereas chapters 38 to 81 make up the Book of the Te (“Power” or “Virtue”). Lin Yutang in his version has broken the book down into smaller units: Book I: The Character of Tao (Chapters 1–6), Book II: The Lessons of Tao (Chapters 7–13), Book III: The Imitation of Tao (Chapters 14–25), Book IV: The Source of Power (Chapters 26–40), Book V: The Conduct of Life (Chapters 41–56), Book VI: The Theory of Government (Chapters 57–75), and Book VII: Aphorisms (Chapters 76–81).

The Tao-te ching presents a subtle and complex system of thought with many aspects. Six major skeins of meaning can be seen in its complex, linked maxims. The major concerns of Lao-tzu fall into two groups of three topics. The first group refers to the world: being, cosmos, and what might be called “cosmic” or “sacred” time; the second group refers to people: ethics, the state, and the life of the spirit. What these topics mean for Lao-tzu will be discussed in this paper. These skeins of meaning combine to form a profound world view which still allures and puzzles people. Many English versions of the Tao-te ching have been written. According to Mircea Eliade (1982), the Tao-te ching is “the most profound and most enigmatic text in all Chinese literature.” The chapters of the Tao-te ching may be studied together, given the scheme just discussed, to grasp their linked meanings better.

The Truth of Being

The famous first line of the Tao-te ching, “The Tao that can be told of is not the Absolute Tao; the Names that can be given are not Absolute Names” (1), abstracts the vital message of the book itself. Surely, the central notion of the Tao-te ching is the Tao. Best rendered as “way,” for Lao-tzu the Tao is, quite simply, the Real. Why this word and not some other best names the Real is the main subject of the Tao-te ching, and will become clearer as we progress. Given the insight that the Tao is the Real, we can restate Lin Yutang’s version of the first line of the Tao-te ching as follows: “The real that can be talked about [i.e., the world of the senses] is not the True Real.” That is to say, the main premise of the Tao-te ching is that the Thought of the Spirit is the Real. Lao-tzu doesn’t believe that the Real is just matter. For Lao-tzu, the world of the senses and mental knowledge, the world of names and forms, is not the Real, but part of the Real. The Tao is the ground, essence, and truth of the world, but not only that which is known. The dyad of the Tao and the world also poses a problem, which the Tao-te ching seeks to explain: How is it that the world and the Tao are not just the same?

First, the Tao cannot be thought about. The Tao cannot be described (“told of”) using words or language (“the Names”). On the other hand, the Tao is the model of what can be described, since “that [which] can be told of” is also the Tao, and “the Names that can be given” have as their models the “Absolute Names.” The mention of “Absolute Names” suggests Plato’s teaching of Forms: abstract thoughts which alone make up the Real and which create the mirage of things, like shadows cast by objects on the walls of a cave in the light of a central fire.

Because the Tao cannot be thought about, it cannot be known. Why this must be true will be discussed later on. Because the Tao cannot be sensed, it cannot be studied. On the other hand, since the Tao is the ground of reason and the senses, it is known and studied all the time, but none of that reveals the essence of the Tao. Since the Tao is the essence of all things, it is also the essence of the self. Therefore, it seems that the self can know the Tao in itself. That in the self which knows the Tao is the mind. Although the Tao itself cannot be known or studied, how the Tao appears to one who knows it can be hinted at by means of symbols, which bypass logic and words to appeal straight to the mind. Thus, Lao-tzu uses many symbols and lyric turns of phrase to help describe what the Tao is like: the Mother of All Things, the Secret of Life, the Cosmic Mystery, the Mystery, the Deeper Mystery, the Gate to the Secret of All Life, a hollow vessel, the fountain head of all things, deep water, a bellows, the core, the Spirit of the Valley, the Mystic Female, the Door of the Mystic Female, the root of Heaven and Earth, water, the One, vital force, a newborn babe, Mystic vision, the Gate of Heaven, the Mystic Virtue, the nave of the wheel, not-being, empty space, non-existence, the belly, the Invisible, the Inaudible, the Intangible, the Form of the Formless, the Image of Nothingness, the Elusive, the Primeval Beginnings, a piece of uncarved wood, murky water, the basis of Quietude, the root (soil), the Eternal Law, Enlightenment, Nature, original nature, awakening, a fool, the Mother, Character, the life-force, the Father of All Things, the model of the world, Great, the original point, the Solid, the Quiescent, the Centre, the Light, the subtle secret, the mysterious secret of the universe, the ravine of the world, the eternal power, the Primordial Nothingness, God’s own Vessel, a flood, the Great Symbol, the Subtle Light, the Nameless pristine simplicity, the fruit, the life-giving power, the ennobling power, Non-being, truth, fulfilment, harmony, that-which-is-without-form, the teaching without words, no action, the highest perfection, the greatest abundance, contentment, Heaven, a harbour, the Mother of Universe, the Absolute, Austere Knowledge, the Main Path, the Mystic Unity, the Normal, the Female of the world, the treasure of the world, the Grand Harmony, jade, and the Way of the Sage.

The utter darkness of the Tao—“Invisible,” “Inaudible,” and “Intangible” (14; cf. 35) — leads to the main symbol of a primal and fecund void, empty space, or nothing. It would be a mistake, though, to posit the void as somehow above or before the world. To posit the Tao in this way leads to the absurd query: Why is there something and not nothing? Lao-tzu makes it very clear that the Tao is not other than the world. The Tao is, rather, the truth of the world, seen in and through the world of the senses, but that which is known through the senses is not all there is to know. Knowing what is known through the senses using the mind leads to the view that there is something else. Thus, the Tao and the world do not just negate each other, as in early Buddhism, but the world and the Tao are more like part (the world) and whole (the Tao), or seeming (the world) and essence (the Tao). Therefore, the Tao-te ching avoids the view that the essence of the world is twofold.

Also, there is no hint of theism in the Tao-te ching. Although in later Taoist books the Tao is often described as a person, Lao-tzu does not address or refer to the Tao as having any kind of ego, despite his use of male and, more often, female symbols: “I do not know whose Son it is, an image of what existed before God” (4); “Before the Heaven and Earth existed there was something nebulous: silent, isolated, standing alone, changing not, eternally revolving without fail, worthy to be the Mother of All Things” (25). The Tao itself is not a person: “Nature is unkind: it treats the creation like sacrificial straw-dogs” (5). On the other hand, to model oneself after the Tao is the touchstone of human ethics and the essence of our human nature, as of all else. Only in this sense can the Tao be said to be any sort of person. Truly, human nature is the self-conscious knowledge of the Tao: “Tao is Great, the Heaven is great, the Earth is great, the King is also great. These are the Great Four in the universe, and the King is one of them” (25). Yet when we search for that knowledge, there is nothing there, or at least nothing that can be spoken in words!

It is a maxim of thinking about the nature of being that only mind and matter can be known. Since it is not certain that mind and matter are the same, to avoid the view that the essence of the world is twofold one must reduce one to the other, or say that the Real transcends and combines the aspects of both. Also, if one tries to reduce one to the other one must explain how it is that they come to differ. Since neither mind nor matter implies the other as a matter of logic, the Real must come first: “These two (the Secret and its manifestations) are (in their nature) the same; they are given different names when they become manifest” (1). The sameness of mind and matter implies that the essence of mind is matter, but that the essence of matter is also mind. The latter teaching has profound results. The view that mind and matter are both real is not the view that only matter is real, which holds that mind is only matter. The belief that the Real transcends both mind and matter implies that mind and matter change into each other, and is one possible view of the belief that the Thought of the Spirit is the Real; the other view is that matter does not exist as such and is only mind, “matter” being like a shadow of the senses cast upon the mind. The former is the view of the nature of being of the Tao-te ching; the latter is the view of the nature of being of early Buddhism.


In the section above, we discussed the notion of the Absolute Tao, which we linked with zero (“the Primordial Nothingness”). In the Tao-te ching, the flux of the Tao is the primal cosmic process (as in modern physics, force and not matter comes first). The contrast between the Absolute Tao and “[t]he Tao that can be told of” implies a different view of the Tao, i.e., the being in the world of the Absolute Tao. The being in the world of the Tao, linked with the number one, is called Te. Number symbols are plain in the Tao-te ching: “Out of Tao, One is born; out of One, Two; out of Two, Three; out of Three, the created universe” (42). The Tao-te ching’s use of cosmic numbers predates but is very like the Hebrew Zohar, 1,600 years later, with its notion of ten sephiroth or “numbers” which evolve in strict series out of a primal “nothing,” the Ain, through one (kether) and a primal dyad (chokhmah or chokhmah/binah)! Te is widely rendered as “power,” “virtue,” or “character.” It is the same as the “life-force,” which is therefore the truth of the world, given in and through matter. Therefore, the Tao-te ching accounts for the riddle of life and the coming into being of living matter in a way which the Buddhist view of the nature of being fails to do, except perhaps in its errant Tantric forms, yet even the Tantric Buddhist is mainly concerned with giving up and going beyond the world of the senses. Next after the number one comes the dyad of yin and yang: “The created universe carries the yin at its back and the yang in front” (42). The two poles of yin and yang are the primal pair, which create and sustain all things. The yin is widely linked with darkness, the passive, and the female symbol. The yang is widely linked with light, the active, and the male symbol. Thus, in the Tao-te ching, sex is a primal force that runs throughout all things. According to Schuhmacher and Woerner (1989),

Originally the word yin designated the northern slope of a mountain, i.e., the side facing away from the sun—and was further associated with cold, turgid water and a cloud-covered sky. Yang denoted the mountain slope facing the sun and was associated with brightness and warmth. … yin is the feminine, the passive, the receptive, the dark, the soft. Symbols of yin are the moon, water, clouds, the tiger, the turtle, the colour black, the north, lead, and all even numbers. Yang corresponds to what is masculine, active, creative, bright, and hard. Symbols of yang are the sun, fire, the dragon, the colour red, the south, mercury, and all odd numbers.

T’ai-chi-t’uIn the Tao-te ching, the primal dyad only seem to be set against each other. This teaching is shown in a famous picture, called the T’ai-chi-t’u. In this picture, the light half of the circle represents the yin pole, the dark half the yang. However, in the light half there is a dark dot; in the dark half, there is a light dot. The dark dot is a symbol for the secret yang pole hidden in yin. The light dot represents the secret yin pole hidden in yang. The T’ai-chi-t’u is a symbol of the two poles changing into each other, which, more than two thousand years before Hegel, is a major teaching of the Tao-te ching:

When the people of the Earth all know beauty as beauty, There arises (the recognition of) ugliness.
When the people of the Earth all know the good as good, There arises (the recognition of) evil.
Being and non-being interdepend in growth; Difficult and easy interdepend in completion; Long and short interdepend in contrast;
High and low interdepend in position; Tones and voice interdepend in harmony; Front and behind interdepend in company. (2)

Also, the whole yin-yang symbol is itself a dot, which implies an endless series, like a fractal! The ceaseless ebb and flow of yin and yang, in which each changes into the other when it reaches its furthest limit, is called “enantiodromia.”

In the last section, we said that reason cannot go beyond the primal pair. Since the Real, viz., the oneness of Tao (0) and Te (1), lies beyond the poles of yin and yang, reason cannot know it. This limit is implied by the basic nature of thinking, which is based on Aristotle’s law that A and not-A cannot be the same (the “law of contradiction”). Since the Real unites and goes beyond the dyad, thinking cannot reach it. This teaching leads to a unique view, discussed below in the section on “Ethics.” Since the Tao is the essence of the self, it also implies that there is a higher function of the self than reason or sensing.

The congress of the primal pair, impelled by the guiding power of the Te and the Real, leads to the flux of things that is the story of the world. The congress of the primal pair results in ever-greater flux, which, still working out the basic law of yin and yang, appears as the two poles of “heaven” and “earth.” The main theory of the cosmos today, the teaching of science concerning the “big bang,” describes a world that begins in a tiny “singularity” (oneness, monad), to which the laws of physics do not seem to apply, of great power and mass, and over time coming out of its primal power ever more and more complex and dense beings linked with the loss of power in which, after billions of years, living beings just seem to appear out of nothing. It comes as a surprise, perhaps, to learn that the modern theory of the first cause in all its basic details is like Lao-tzu’s view of the cosmos! One must guard against the mistake of taking the symbol for the real (called “hypostatization”). The symbol of “heaven” refers to the sky, with its clockwork, rhythmic cycles and fixed laws. Today we would call “heaven” the “laws of physics.” The “earth” refers to the world of living beings, including people, with their pell-mell conduct in which one can still see the basic exchange of yin and yang, but out of sync with any higher law, implying some sort of freedom.

Out of the ebb and flow of all things the primal and fecund Tao becomes ever more and more obscured by change, so that slowly, over billions of years, all things become more and more dense and at odds (today we would call this “entropy”). Finally, the Tao is no longer seen, and perfect cosmos becomes perfect chaos, followed by death and, in accord with the notion of enantiodromia, rebirth (“negentropy”). This cyclic change between life, death, and rebirth is cosmic, endless, and works on many levels. On the largest level, it alludes to the increase and decrease of the world, a teaching that is also basic to the point of view of science today. On the social level, it alludes to the rise and fall of cultures. And on the level of the person, it alludes to life, death, and rebirth after the law of karma.

Sacred and Profane Time

In the last section, we described the flux of the Tao as a process of growing darkness. It follows from this teaching that time itself is debased. This was surely the view of Lao-tzu, who says that the rise of manners (linked with the Confucian cult, which he opposed, but which today we might call “secular humanism”) with “the decline of the great Tao” (18; cf. 32). Thus, the Tao-te ching is mainly concerned with how to return to the primal human state, which is, ipso facto, perfect. Once again, we must guard against hypostatizing this teaching into a theory of a perfect earthly state (the legend of Shambhala comes to mind), or a theory of a primal divine “soft-boned” human race of the North (see, for instance, Evola 1995), for neither of which is there any clear historical basis. The basic teaching here is that the perfect primal human state occurs outside time. The Australian blacks have a like notion in their teaching of the “dreamtime,” a primal state of oneness with nature, livened by primal forces and symbols, from which people have devolved and to which they should seek to return (and will, when the flux of time has reached its furthest limit). According to Lao-tzu, this primal state of oneness with the Tao has many useful values, including order, goodness, wealth, and wise rule, whereas the flux of the Tao throughout time results in their reverse: chaos, greed, lack, sickness, and bad rule, all increasing:

There were those in ancient times possessed of the One: Through possession of the One, the Heaven was clarified,
Through possession of the One, the Earth was stabilized,
Through possession of the One, the gods were spiritualized,
Through possession of the One, the valleys were made full,
Through possession of the One, all things lived and grew,
Through possession of the One, the princes and dukes became ennobled of the people.
—That was how each became so.
Without clarity, the Heavens would shake, Without stability, the Earth would quake,
Without spiritual power, the gods would crumble,
Without being filled, the valleys would crack, Without life-giving power, all things would perish,
Without the ennobling power, the princes and dukes would stumble. (39)

Lao-tzu also refers to how “[t]he wise ones of old” look from the point of view of the modern, base epoch:

The wise ones of old had subtle wisdom and depth of understanding, So profound that they could not be understood.
And because they could not be understood, Perforce must they be so described: Cautious, like crossing a wintry stream,
Irresolute, like one fearing danger all around,
Grave, like one acting as guest,
Self-effacing, like ice beginning to melt, Genuine, like a piece of undressed wood, Open-minded, like a valley,
And mixing freely, like murky water. (15)

It does not follow from our caution above that a primal human culture did not flourish. The standard protest against the presence of such a centre is that there are no hard facts. But, by Lao-tzu’s own account, such a culture enjoyed a state of perfect oneness with nature and may have left little or no trace. This is even truer if it is hundreds of thousands or millions of years old (current knowledge says that fire was discovered about 600,000 years ago, so we know human beings have been sentient for at least that long), instead of tens of thousands of years or small and local, or it may represent an astral, non-earthly culture which was reborn on this planet (in a recent talk the Dalai Lama said that to see Shambhala one must be able to move faster than the speed of light!). Absence of proof is not proof of absence. What do we really know of the inner state of the first people? In fact, science has found the remains of a primal global shamans’ culture which is at least tens of thousands of years old, scattered in remnants across the world: in the native cultures of North and South America, amongst the Australian blacks, in early African and European tribes, in the cults of the Middle East, and in Far Eastern Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and Shinto beliefs, most evolved in Tantra, and mainly in Tibet, all of which seem to share a strange likeness of teaching and practice, joined around the central notion of a return to a primal blissful state of being, and set against the Confucian/Semitic cult of moral law, which appears later. If the shamans’ culture were indeed primal, this would explain both its wide extent and its debased state.


In the section above on “Cosmos”, we discussed the oneness of the Tao and the Te, and compared that oneness with the primal polar pair, which comes after it. For Lao-tzu, ethics consists in copying the highest (the Tao). Therefore, good and evil are not always against each other, nor are ethics alone enough to be saved: “Between ‘Ah!’ and ‘Ough!’ how much difference is there? Between ‘good and evil’, how much difference is there? That which men fear is indeed to be feared; but, alas, distant yet is the dawn (of awakening)!” (20); “the good man is the Teacher of the bad, and the bad man is the lesson of the good” (27); “Tao is the mysterious secret of the universe, the good man’s treasure, and the bad man’s refuge…. Though there be bad people, why reject them?” (62); “The good ones I declare good; the bad ones I also declare good” (49). It follows that the Tao is beyond good and evil, and can appear to the world to be “good” or “evil” after the point of view of the subject. And since most of the world is no longer aligned with the Tao, it brands as “evil” what it does not know. Thus, there are no moral laws or rules that are always true. The sheer genius of such a teaching needs only to be pointed out. That it does not follow that evil is always really good is clear from a close reading of the Tao-te ching, which contains accounts of Taoist ethics after a second notion, which follows from the cosmic teaching of the oneness of the poles: that the world responds to one as one responds to the world. From this Lao-tzu creates a doubtless set of Taoist virtues, strangely based on the disproof of good and evil: not craving, no conflict, and the practice of meekness, shame, mildness, fairness, mercy, thrift, quiet, content, goodness, cunning, a grave nature, fineness, and modest speech. The practice of these virtues will prepare the seeker for the knowledge of the Tao, and are thus the first step in the return of the world to the Tao, but do not themselves equal the Way of the Tao itself. Who has known the Tao can appear any way they choose, i.e., they are above good and evil, but it does not follow that all evil persons know the Tao. Such a teaching really is only for those who know the Tao! Therefore, it is the highest moral teaching.

The State

The Tao-te ching talks about the art of good rule. All primal beliefs have moral meanings and therefore meanings for the state, but the meanings for the state are often inferred from the ethics later on or eschewed as not proper to the life of the spirit: in the Tao-te ching the meanings for the state are plain. Lao-tzu wants to return people back to their basic perfect state through turning away from the trappings of time and going back to the primal Tao: “Banish wisdom, discard knowledge, and the people shall profit a hundredfold; banish ‘humanity,’ discard ‘justice,’ and the people shall recover love of their kin; banish cunning, discard ‘utility,’ and the thieves and brigands shall disappear” (19); “When the world lives in accord with Tao, racing horses are turned back to haul refuse carts” (46). Lao-tzu foresees a time when the flux of time will have reached its furthest limit, at which point it shall change: an enantiodromia: “There are those who will conquer the world and make of it (what they conceive or desire). I see that they will not succeed. (For) the world is God’s own vessel. It cannot be made (by human interference). He who makes it spoils it. He who holds it loses it” (29). This is called the return to the Tao, and it seems to follow from the view of being and time of the Tao-te ching.

The Tao-te ching clearly sees that the people and the rulers complete each other, and therefore posits the need for a ruling class, with the same kinship between the people and the rulers as between yin and yang: “the nobility depend upon the common man for support, and the exalted ones depend upon the lowly for their base” (39). The ruling class shall aspire to know the Tao, and their leaders should be those who have reached this knowledge: “If princes and dukes can keep the Tao, the world will of its own accord be reformed” (37). They shall rule by means of Taoist ethics, subtly, behind the scenes, with low taxes and with great cunning and mildness, almost hidden away. The people shall be the makers of the wealth of the land, simple, scattered, untaught, and free. Complex machines are given up:

(Let there be) a small country with a small population,
Where the supply of goods are tenfold or hundredfold, more than they can use. Let the people value their lives and not migrate far.
Though there be boats and carriages, None be there to ride them.
Though there be armour and weapons, No occasion to display them.
Let the people again tie ropes for reckoning, Let them enjoy their food,
Beautify their clothing,
Be satisfied with their homes, Delight in their customs.
The neighbouring settlements overlook one another
So that they can hear the barking of dogs and crowing of cocks of their neighbours,
And the people till the end of their days shall never have been outside their own country. (80)

The Tao-te ching’s view of the state speaks strongly to the problem of modern Western people, slaves to machines, oppressed by chaos, awash in their own poisons, dazzled by glamour, controlled and used for their labour, and ever more subject to the total rule of money as the whole system declines. Now, perhaps 2,500 years after the time of Lao-tzu, it appears that Lao-tzu’s warning is coming true—the growth of work and machines—what Buckminster Fuller calls the “acceleration of ephemeralization”— is about to reach its furthest limit. The question must be asked, then, how do the teachings of the Tao-te ching help us to get through the rough waters ahead? Using Lao-tzu as a guide, it seems that a Taoist plan for the present day would have to include this list:

• give up machines;
• return to the land;
• revive hand crafts and the arts;
• make the laws simple;
• give up urban life;
• scatter the people;
• reduce the number of people;
• each locale should produce for itself;
• give up “higher” teaching for all;
• reduce work;
• make the rulers account to the people;
• give up putting law breakers to death;
• relax legal quid pro quo;
• keep taxes low;
• reduce the armed forces;
• prescribe working together;
• maintain closed borders.

In his basic notion of an ideal culture based on giving up all forms of falseness, ruled by noble sages who are bound to the people, in a closed culture of the land, Lao-tzu is close to Plato’s Republic.

The Science of the Spirit

Of the six topics described in this paper, the largest part of the Tao-te ching by far (about 40%) is about the science of the spirit, called “soteriology.” For Lao-tzu, the science of the spirit is all about going back to the Tao. Ethics alone are not enough for finding the Tao within oneself, although they are the basis. To truly know the Tao in oneself involves a basic change of the whole self, which is achieved by very few. For those who do achieve it, Lao-tzu says that one will enjoy nothing less than the knowledge of the Real, health, long life, and the deathless state after the death of the body. About the nature of the deathless state itself, Lao-tzu is silent. The deathless state is only for those who have achieved “at-one-ment” with the Tao. As to what one is in one’s essence, that will become one’s fate at the moment of death: “He who follows the Tao is identified with the Tao. He who follows Character (Teh) is identified with Character. He who abandons (Tao) is identified with abandonment (of Tao). He who is identified with Tao—Tao is also glad to welcome him. He who is identified with Character—Character is also glad to welcome him. He who is identified with abandonment—abandonment is also glad to welcome him” (23).

To achieve “at-one-ment” with the Tao, Lao-tzu prescribes a number of tasks, very like our talk above of “Ethics,” but applied inside rather than outside. Of these the first and foremost is “doing nothing”: “The student of knowledge (aims at) learning day by day; the student of Tao (aims at) losing day by day. By continual losing one reaches doing nothing (laissez-faire). By doing nothing everything is done” (48). “Doing nothing” does not mean stasis, but rather no conflict, even while living in the world (one cannot give up the world, since it is also Tao!). Allow life to move in accord with its own nature, and all things achieve the nature proper to them, and all things, oneself and the world (to the extent that one is part of it) become perfect. “Doing nothing” is like the yin pole, which is closer to the Tao than the yang and therefore the pole through which one transcends the dyad and achieves “at-one-ment.” “At-one-ment” is a real state in which all one’s knots are untied, and all things achieve perfect concord. “Doing nothing” includes being without desire, giving up the self, leading a simple life, thinking about profound things, self-control, and quiet: “Attain the utmost in Passivity, hold firm to the basis of Quietude” (16).

Those who have achieved oneness with the Tao are the proper rulers of the people. Today, they are scattered and few. No one can transmit the knowledge of the Tao to anyone else, and only one who knows the Tao can perceive it in another. Therefore, oneness with the Tao is very hard to attain. Many people have never heard of it.

This paper was originally written in 2001 for George Brown College, Toronto.