The Wandering Monk

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Eastern Philosophy: Lao Tzu

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Lao Tzu, in a nutshell, is the father of Daoism/Taoism.  This week, I’d like to talk about the great philosopher and founder of the Dao.  Lao Tzu, sometimes called Laozi, or Lao-Tze, which all literally translate into “Old Master”, was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer. He is known as the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, the founder of philosophical Taoism, and a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions.

Although a legendary figure, Laozi is usually dated to around the 6th century BCE and reckoned a contemporary of Confucius, but some historians contend that he actually lived during the Warring States period of the 5th or 4th century BCE. A central figure in Chinese culture, Laozi is claimed by both the emperors of the Tang dynasty and modern people of the Li surname as a founder of their lineage. Laozi’s work has been embraced by various anti-authoritarian movements as well as Chinese legalism.

Laozi is traditionally regarded as the author of the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), though the identity of its author(s) or compiler(s) has been debated throughout history. It is one of the most significant treatises in Chinese cosmogony. As with most other ancient Chinese philosophers, Laozi often explains his ideas by way of paradox, analogy, appropriation of ancient sayings, repetition, symmetry, rhyme, and rhythm. In fact, the whole book can be read as an analogy – the ruler is the awareness, or self, in meditation and the myriad creatures or empire is the experience of the body, senses and desires.

The Tao Te Ching, often called simply Laozi after its reputed author, describes the Dao (or Tao) as the source and ideal of all existence: it is unseen, but not transcendent, immensely powerful yet supremely humble, being the root of all things. People have desires and free will (and thus are able to alter their own nature). Many act “unnaturally”, upsetting the natural balance of the Dao. The Daodejing intends to lead students to a “return” to their natural state, in harmony with Dao. Language and conventional wisdom are critically assessed. Taoism views them as inherently biased and artificial, widely using paradoxes to sharpen the point.

Lao Tzu is credited as saying:

Watch your thoughts;
they become words.

Watch your words;
they become actions.

Watch your actions;
they become habits.

Watch your habits;
they become character.

Watch your character;
it becomes your destiny.

The Dao is literally a translation for the ‘way’, and it is a method for behavior.  It asks us to see the natural beauty in all things, not despite their imperfections but because of them.  It asks us to fundamentally challenge ourselves and our ideals to think critically about ourselves fundamentally.  After all, if watch what we think, we change our destinies.  This is instrumental in our ability to function in the modern world.

Interestingly, much of the Eastern Philosophical world has philosophies that transcend time.  It’s as though the scholars of the time knew our plight, hundreds or thousands of years later, and wrote these words for us.  In reality, they were incredibly wise men who knew that the truest sense of human existence would always be fundamentally the same.  They knew that there would always be human beings that suffer and that live in unnatural ways and that this method of living would generate their means for suffering and that there would always be a need for cultivating a better world through systems of thought.

Daoism is one such system.  It creates in us a sense of following the way.  This shouldn’t be confused with laziness, because it’s merely following the ebb and flow of the world.

Think about your life for a moment — in what you do for work or for your occupation (school, play, living, etc.) Don’t you find that when you adapt to the change of the universe and of your environment, you’re far more successful than if you tighten the grip of control around it?

Such is the way of the Dao, in its truest form.  I’m reminded of the story of the Oak and the Reed.  The oak stood strong against the winds of change and the reed bent freely.  Eventually winds came that broke the Oak, yet the Reed always stood against them, despite being far weaker in sheer strength.

It means we must learn how to bend in our lives.  We must master our adaptation of situations we find ourselves.  In Kung Fu, this is a fundamental concept and, too, in life, it should be too.  We must always bend to the blows of life, or it will knock us off of our feet.

Special thanks again to School of Life for posting the video.  Please check out their channel.

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