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Lao-Tzu / Lao Tze / Laozi

6th or 4th century BC

Lao Tsu was an Ancient Chinese philosopher and writer. The writing of Tao Te Ching (or Dao Te Ching), a collection of 81 poetry chapters on which Taoism is based, is attributed to him. 

The name Lao Tsu is not his given name, but an honorific title, meaning something like “Old Master”. It is romanized and pronounced differently, sometimes as Laozi or Lao Tze.

There are different versions of the historical timing of his life  in the time frame given above and his historicity in general. Some place him as Confucius’ contemporary, others – about 200 years later, and there are those who say such a person never existed. In some versions he was married, in others – a monk; he may have been an astrologist of the emperor, or a traveling teacher, or even father to a brave warrior.

His writings detail the desirable way to behave for people and government, and the balance in all things.They call for a life of simplicity, moderation and harmony with the world around us, praising the path of the wise, who lives by the minimal intervention and influence on his surroundings.

Lao Tzu, immortal and grand master of the heavens, Ping Sien Si temple on Perak, Malaysia

According to one tradition, he was the emperor’s librarian and adviser. It is said the Confucius has one day come to study the texts in the library. When he was done, he stated that he has learned more from his conversation with Lao Tzu than from the scrolls he had read. It is uncertain whether this story is historically true, and some consider it to be created by the Taoists, to present their philosophy as superior to Confucianism.

In any case, the emperor has chose Confucius as the country’s lawmaker, and then Lao Tzu has retired from his post and left to travel to the Himalaya mountains. But the emperor has ordered his border guards not to allow him to pass, until he writes down the principles of his philosophy. Thus, a guard named Yinxi (or Yin-hsi) has found him and stopped him on the Tibetan border, according to the emperor’s order, and sat with him for 3 months while he wrote his writings.

Lao Tsu states that people have desires, ambitions and free will, and they use them with no thought for the consequences of their actions, of their interference with the surroundings, unnaturally disrupting the gentle balance of Tao, the higher power. He calls to return to the natural state of harmony with the Tao, to non-interference as much as possible, life in the here and now, flowing naturally with our environment out of wisdom and attention to Tao. His insights into government are surprisingly relevant 2,500 years after his death.

According to Taoist tradition, it is told about Lao Tzu’s afterlife, that he rode a buffalo to the West and nothing was heard from him since. He is frequently depicted in art riding a buffalo.

Selected quotes

Do the difficult things while they are still easy and the great things while they are still small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

An ant on the move does more than a dozing ox.

From caring comes courage.

Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful.

The greatest conqueror wins without struggle.

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to.

Silence is a source of great strength.

Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, and when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.

I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.

Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.

Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is Enlightenment.

Treat those who are good with goodness, and also treat those who are not good with goodness. Thus goodness is attained. Be honest to those who are honest, and be also honest to those who are not honest. Thus honesty is attained.

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.

To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.

One who is too insistent on his own views, finds few to agree with him.

To lead people walk behind them.

Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy.

For the wise man looks into space and he knows there is no limited dimensions.

At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.

To see things in the seed, that is genius.

He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.

When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.

In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.

Governing a great nation is like cooking a small fish – too much handling will spoil it.

Great acts are made up of small deeds.

The words of truth are always paradoxical.

Respond intelligently even to unintelligent treatment.

The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself.

He who does not trust enough, will not be trusted.

The more law and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be.

There was something undifferentiated and yet complete, which existed before Heaven and Earth. Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing and does not change. It operates everywhere and is free from danger. It may be considered the mother of the universe. I do not know its name; I call it Tao.

To realize that you do not understand is a virtue. Not to realize that you do not understand is a defect.

People in their handlings of affairs often fail when they are about to succeed. If one remains as careful at the end as he was at the beginning, there will be no failure.

To know yet to think that one does not know is best. Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty.

It is better to do one’s own duty, however defective it may be, than to follow the duty of another, however well one may perform it. He who does his duty as his own nature reveals it, never sins.

If you would take, you must first give, this is the beginning of intelligence.

Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.

He who is contented is rich.

All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small.

Nature is not human hearted.

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