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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu is the reputed author of the little Chinese classic Tao Tê Ching (or Dao De Jing, as it is transliterated in the modern Pinyin system). The traditional view, one which Helena P. BLAVATSKY repeats in The Secret Doctrine, is that Lao Tzu (Laozi) was an elder contemporary of Confucius. This view is based on a passage in the Shih Chi (Records of the Historian) written at the beginning of the first century BCE by Ssu-ma Ch’ien. His account was admittedly based not on documents from Confucius’ time, but upon stories he had heard. He reports the tradition that Lao Tzu was a native of the state of Ch’u, was the archivist for the Chou (Zhou) empire, and was actually named Li Erh — that is, his family name was Li and his personal name was Erh, since the Chinese put the family name before the personal name. But the name itself is peculiar, since “Li” means “plum” and “Erh” means “ear.” The family name Li was unknown before the 4th cent. BCE as Wing-Tsit Chan observes in The Way of Lao Tzu.

Ssu-ma Ch’ien recounts a story of Confucius’ visit to Lao Tzu to learn about li or “rites” in which Lao Tzu purportedly told him:

What you speak about concerns merely words left by people who have rotted along with their bones. Furthermore, when a gentleman is in sympathy with the [affairs of his] time he travels about in a carriage; but wafts with the wind when circumstances are against him. It is said that a good merchant hides his valuables as if his store were empty, and that a superior man of great virtue seems to be stupid. Get rid of your arrogance and passions, your ingratiating manners and excessive ambition. These are all harmful to your person. That’s all I have to say to you.

Since Confucius is reported to have traveled to see Lao Tzu by carriage, this would be an implicit criticism of him during the decline of the Chou Dynasty! When Confucius returned to his disciples, he is said to have told them:

I know that birds can fly, fish can swim, and animals can run. What runs can be trapped, what swims can be netted, and what flies can be shot down. But as for the dragon, I don’t know how it rides on the winds and clouds and rises up to heaven. Lao Tzu, whom I just saw, is much like a dragon!

Ssu-ma Ch-ien then goes on to report the story that Lao Tzu, realizing that the Chou empire was declining, left China through the Western Pass, but before doing so wrote down his philosophy in “a book in two parts” at the request of the Keeper of the Pass. Ssu-ma Ch’ien reports that Lao Tzu “probably lived to over a hundred and sixty years of age — some even say over two hundred — since he cultivated tao [i.e., the Way] and was able to live to a great age” — even though Ssu-ma Ch’ien goes on to say that after Lao Tzu left China “no one knew where he went,” so no one, presumably, could have known when he died or how long he lived!

But all of this is apocryphal, in other words is highly dubious. In his account, Ssu-ma Ch’ien also reports traditions that Lao Tzu was the same person as “Tan the Historian of Chou” (who lived more than a century after the death of Confucius) or possibly was Lao Lai Tzu (who was also a native of Chu and a contemporary of Confucius) or was the father of Tuan-kan Tsung, whose descendants were still alive in Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s day. Perhaps, more tellingly, he admits in passing, “The world doesn’t really know what the truth is.” In other words, Ssu-ma Ch’ien did not take his account too seriously.

In addition to three brief references to Lao Tzu in The Secret Doctrine, he is also mentioned very briefly in passing in The Lives of Alcyone by Annie BESANT and Charles W. LEADBEATER (immediately after “Chart XLVII” following the 47th life) as follows: After the Lord Buddha resigned His physical body, the office of World-Teacher passed to his successor, the Lord Maitreya. Taking advantage of the tremendous outpouring of magnetic power left in the world by the Lord Buddha, he soon incarnated himself in the person of Shri Krishna in India, and almost simultaneously he sent Lyra to appear in China as Laotze, and Mercury to teach the Greeks as Pythagoras. A little later still he sent Pallas to Greece as Plato.

The names “Lyra,” “Mercury,” and “Pallas” are, of course, names arbitrarily given to individual souls to enable Besant and Leadbeater to refer to those same souls over many incarnations, in each of which they had a different personal name; and all three appear at various times throughout the 48 lives of “Alcyone” investigated. But the use of the verb “sent” suggests that those three mentioned here must have been highly developed individuals by this time. (Note that Confucius is not mentioned as one who was “sent” by the World Teacher!) The Lord Buddha’s death is stated as having occurred in 543 BCE. Presumably “soon” after that would be somewhere between 542 and 530 BCE.

But that presents some problems. Pythagoras was born, by the best scholarly estimates, about 570 BCE, not soon after 542 BCE) but 28 years before that date. If Lao Tzu was an elder contemporary of Confucius, whom scholars agree lived between 551 and 479 BCE, he must have been born at least 10 years, more probably over 20 years, before Confucius. In any event, he, too, according to tradition, must have been born considerably before 542 BCE.

As for Sri Krishna, most Indologists believe that the stories about his life (in the Visnu Purānas, Bhāgavata Purānas, Mahābhārata, and Harivamśa) are myth — as they can easily be interpreted. Perhaps, though, they are (like the Gospel stories of Jesus) mythic additions to the history of an actual person. There is mention in the Chāndogya Upaniad (3.17.6) of a Krishna, who is the son of Devaki, and that may be the historical figure. The dates of that Upaniad are uncertain, but it is one of the earlier ones, which even conservative estimates place before the 6th century bce. Again, well before the death of Buddha, according to theosophical tradition. So those comments in The Lives of Alcyone cannot be correct — at least as to their dates.

Most scholars now believe that the Tao Tê Ching was written — or at least compiled — during the Warring States Period (403-221 not in the 6th cent. BCE). Some, like D. C. Lau, who has studied the evidence carefully, believe, “In all probability Lao Tzu was not a historical figure at all.” They suggest that the name “Lao Tzu” associated with the Tao Tê Ching merely indicates that the book is a compilation of sayings by “wise men”, since “Lao Tzu” simply means “Old Fellow” or “Old Philosopher.”

But if a person calling himself “Lao Tzu” (or Li Erh) had been “sent” to China by the Lord Maitreya (around the time of Buddha, whether after or before 543 BCE) it is not at all improbable that he would have been “a gentleman who lived in retirement from the world,” as Ssu-ma Ch’ien puts it, and therefore would not attract the attention of chroniclers of his day. He is also likely to have been an enigmatic figure — and to have cultivated, as H. P. Blavatsky observes about the Mah€tmas, the ability to extend the life of his physical body much longer than that of the average person. So, even if some of the stories about him are apocryphal, it does not follow that all of them are — or that he never existed. It is conceivable, although not provable, that his ideas were handed down by what some modern writers term a “Laoist” or “Ancient [Wisdom]” School, eventually to get embodied in the book attributed to him.

Who, then, was Lao Tzu? An elder contemporary of Confucius, and highly advanced soul, who was sent to China by the World Teacher shortly after the death of Buddha and who wrote the Tao Tê Ching? The temporal claim is at best dubious. The historical evidence is unreliable. The text we have cannot have been written by a 6th cent. BCE author. Perhaps we will never know the answer to that question.

See also Taoism.

R.W.B.

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