Chinese characters


Laozi (Lao Tzu)

lao tzu image (laozi)It is believed that Laozi lived in the sixth century B.C. and was the author of "Laozi" or "Daode Jing." He was born in the Chu State around 570 B.C. Most people believe Laozi was a man called Laodan. His surname was Li, his given name was Er, and he was styled as Boyang. But there have been debates on if the person, Laozi, really existed and if he was the real author of "Daode Jing."

"Daode Jing," deeply rooted in Chinese culture, is the basic doctrine of Daoism (Taoism), which is one of the three main pillars of Chinese thoughts, i.e., Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. It is interesting to note that Confucianism has played the leading role in most of the time over the long history, but there have been few conflicts among them. They are a remarkably integrated part of Chinese culture.

"Daode Jing" is divided into two parts, Dao and De. Dao literally means road or way and it is often translated into way, but it is not an accurate translation. De literally means virtue, but it is also not a perfect translation.

So what is Dao? Laozi said in Chapter one of "Daode Jing", "Dao that can be explained is not constant Dao (or real Dao); the name that can be named is not the constant name." The sentence in Chinese is rather vague so there are different translations. He also said in Chapter 42, "Dao procreates one, one procreates two, two procreates three, and three procreates everything." So Dao creates everything in the universe and it exists in everything. Thus it is also the fundamental law of the universe. However, you know Dao is there, but you cannot see it, touch it, or even give it a right name. But Dao is different from gods since it does not intend to interfere with you or things, no matter good or bad, in other words, it does not have a human face or character.

Laozi thought things are in pairs, such as big and small, birth and death, beautiful and ugly, etc. As long as there is "good," there will be "bad." All things are created from existence, and existence is created from nonexistence, then there will be existence before nonexistence. Therefore it does not make much sense to search the ultimate starting point of the universe in Laozi's mind since the cycle will go on forever. But Dao is the fundamental law for everything.

Then what are De and the relation between Dao and De? Since Dao does not have a human character, Laozi invented De for human being in particular and all things in general. As he said, "Dao bears us, De nurtures us, nature shapes us, and circumstance completes us." De is the embodiment or form of Dao.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with the First Step

Laozi, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Laozi Daodejing

"The Looks of Laozi", Livia Kohn, Boston University, pdf

The Tao and its Characteristics by Laozi

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