Lao Tzu – ‘Old Master’
The little we know about lao tzu comes from the shi shi (records of the historian) compiled towards the beginening of the 1st century BC by the Han historian Ssu ssu – ma Ch’ien (145 – 85 BC). The name ‘Lao Tzu’ is actually an honorific title meaning ‘Old Master’- thats according to Ssu-mma Ch’ien his name was given Li Er Tan. Born in the vilage of Chu Jen in the state of Ch’u, in later life he became an archivist at the court of the Chou Dynasty. Ssu-ma Ch’ien also recounts two events from Lao Tzu’s life.
The first of these was a visit by Confucius, who asked Lao Tzu to tutor him in the the traditional rites. Lao Tzu replied in words that express some of the central themes of the Tao Te Ching, saying:
‘Those you talk about have turned to dust . All that remains is their words. When a nobleman lives in good times, he goes to court in carriage. But when times are hard he goes where the wind blows. Some people say that a wise merchant hides his wealth and thus appears to be poor. Likewise the sage: if he has great inner virtue, he appears outwardly to be a fool. Stop being so arrogant with all your questions, your self importance and your overbearing obsessions. None of this is the real you. That is all i have to say to you.’
When Confucius rejoined his followers, he described his meeting with Lao Tzu thus:
‘I know that that birds fly, fish swim and animals run.
Creatures that run can be trapped; those that swim can be caught in nets; those that can fly can be shot down. But what to do with a dragon.’
The second event related by Ssu-ma Ch’ien is the final journey of Lao Tzu. Despairing at the moral decline of the kingdom and people’s obsessive desire for possessions nd status’ Lao Tzu off on a water buffalo to travel to the west. ( According to some traditions he was withdrawing from the world to become a hermit. But the story takes on a slightly different meaning when we concider that in Chinese mythology ‘the west’ is the land of the afterlife.)
When he reached the western gate of the kingdom in the mountain pass at hang-ku, he was recognized as a sage by Kuan Yin, the keeper of the Pass, who asked Lao Tzu to write down his knowledge of the Tao before retiring from the world. Lao Tzu duly obliged and, according to tradition, wrote the book in one night. The next day the sage presented the book to Kuan Yin, saying,
‘This book is no different from other books in that it is a dead thing, but you can bring it to life if you put into practice what is written in it.’
with that, Lao Tzu mounted his water buffalo and departed for the west never to be seen again.
Excerpt from: Introduction, Tao Te Ching translated by John H McDonald