Taoism > Masters > Lao-tzu

Who is Lao-tzu

Lao-tzu picture
Lao-tzu by Eskild Tjalve
(click the painting to enlarge)

Almost everything we know about Lao-tzu comes from the Historical Records of Ssu-ma Ch'ien. Lao-tzu is also one of the basic characters of the Chuang-tzu's stories although they are mostly fiction.

  • Biography

According to Ch'ien, Lao-tzu was born in the state of Ch'u, and his birthplace was in the nowadays Ho-nan province. He was a curator at the Royal Library in Chou when he met Confucius to talk about rites. This conversation offers much insight into the huge differences between the philosophy of Taoists and Confucian. Read more...

Lao-tzu surname was Li; his name was Erh (meaning ear) - this is why we find him also under the name of Li Erh. As for the "Lao-tzu" it is only a nickname meaning the Old (Venerable) Sage.

Disguised with the morals at the royal court, Lao-tzu would left and gone West. He met the Guardian of the mountain pass who asked him to compose a book of wisdom. This is how Tao-te ching took birth.

Philosophical speaking, Lao-tzu was interested only in the cultivation of Tao and Te. Read more...

Lao-tzu heading West

These notes are almost all we have about Lao-tzu from Ch'ien. There's no further indication concerning the life of the sage in the West; he simply gets out of our sight the minute he passes the boundary of the state of Chou.

  • Lao-tzu's Death

Surprisingly enough, Chuang-tzu wrote a detailed story about the death of Lao-tzu. Nonetheless - James Legge concludes - this narration might be just another of Chuang-tzu's fancies: "to give him the opportunity of setting forth what, according to his ideal of it, the life of a Taoist master should be, and how even Lao-tzu himself fell short of it".

  • Lao-tzu and Tao-te ching with Westerners

Lao-tzu's life as well as its work are continuously objets of dispute. This is why one finds many versions of his Book and controversial biographic accounts. Therefore one may believe that the entire Taoist philosophy is but a timeless speculation depending on the ideological position of the specialists or their followers.

Fact is that one can not understand the concepts preached by Lao-tzu as long as he/she doesn't have any idea about the issues related to this subject matter.

Taoist idea and concepts are not familiar with Westerners. And what is worse is that these ideas are associated with New Age philosophy which has nothing to do with Taoism.

See also

Further resources:

Learn more about Lao-tzu and Tao-te ching by taking our online course dealing with these matters. Click here to learn more.


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