The Founders of Taoist Philosophy, and Their
Lao Tzu (?604-484 BC) and Chuang Tzu (?369-286 BC ) are widely regarded as the founders of Taoism though the Taoist traditions may go some two thousand years further back. We know little about the two founders except the books they have left to us. They pursued a life of non-action, and fame was not their goal. If few knew them when they were alive, historians only had fragmentary information to write down. Lao Tzu was the curator of the royal library and was contemporary but senior to Confucius. Even the author of Historical Records, which was written in the late second century and early first century BC, did not know who Lao Tzu really was and listed three possible candidates. Now it is clear that the one who was said to have written Tao Te Ching at the request of the Strategic Pass Official lived around Chuang Tzu’s time or earlier and he only edited the book. It is equally clear that Confucius did meet Lao Tzu, and they, though different, had some views in common. (Figure 4)
Chuang Tzu was poor, and worked for a short time as a low ranking official in charge of a lacquer tree garden. We know so little that many authors fictionalized a bit to fill in the gaps. The following are two fictionalized scenes, one each for the two founders, summarizing the information provided by the book Chuang Tzu and Historical Records. The purpose is to give the reader a living impression of the two ancient scholars. (Figure 5)
Confucius Meets Lao Tzu
In Confucius’ time, China broke up into many independent states while there was still a titular king and his national government. Confucius (551-479 BC) lived in State Lu, three hundred miles south of today’s capital, Beijing.
State Lu was now in trouble. Political instability and violence might break out at any time. Confucius worried about his books which he had either edited, compiled, or read so many times that the leather string binding them had worn out. He loved them more than himself. How could he leave them at risk? His disciple Gent-Road ( Zilu ) was always resourceful, and he suggested that a parallel wall be built inside a room to form a hollow wall in which to hide the books. The room would be used as usual, and nobody would notice the difference. But Confucius wanted to send them to the national library to keep. Both Confucius and Gent-Road thought there was no problem, and the national library would take these books since they were really national treasures. Besides libraries always took books. It was what they were built for. But Gent-Road thought there was no need to trample that far just for some books.
Confucius’s books were all hand-written on bamboo strips. Those books were heavy and voluminous. A full cart of books was pulled by horses for more than two hundred miles. That was how they took the books to the national library. To their disappointment, the curator refused to take them saying there was no space, and a royal library was not a place for private books.
Once again Gent-Road had an idea: Lao Tzu worked as the curator at the national library for many years and was now retired at home. If Confucius asked Lao Tzu for help, the national library might well change their mind and take those books at their former curator’s request. Confucius was still trying to persuade the curator when Gent-Road motioned Confucius to come out. Gent-Road was afraid it would upset the curator if they pushed him too hard.
* * *
A flush of warm memory came to Confucius’s mind at Gent-Road’s mention of Lao Tzu’s name. When Confucius first saw Lao Tzu in 518 BC, he was young, thirty four, and Lao Tzu as a nationally renowned scholar, and looked much younger than his advanced age. When Confucius stepped down from his cart at the capital city gate, it was a surprise that Lao Tzu, a high official of the royal court, came to welcome him outside the city wall. According to the custom, Confucius brought Lao Tzu a large wild goose as a gift. Lao Tzu admired this young scholar’s thoughtfulness and his eagerness to learn. Lao Tzu remembered so many details of the imperial rituals, and he even knew how a funeral procession should proceed if a solar eclipse happened to occur.
With Lao Tzu as his host, Confucius literally buried himself in books for days on end in the royal library. Books were a rare possession of a few privileged people, and Confucius had never seen so many books before. It opened his eyes, and laid the foundation for his career as an educator.
At the farewell party held at the city gate, Lao Tzu said to him in a soft and clear voice, “Men of wealth give money as a gift on such an occasion while men of virtue and knowledge give advice. I had neither money nor virtue. Let me pretend as a man of knowledge only for the moment to say a few words to you, our honourable guest, Confucius. Firstly, what you are studying and teaching now is all from ancient men, who died a long time ago and even their bones have rotted away. Those written words are in fact only their footprints, neither their shoes nor their feet, let alone what was in their minds. Don’t regard their words as some sort of unbreakable dogma. Secondly, as a man of virtue and knowledge, you can have your own cart and live a luxurious life. If the time does not permit, it will be perfectly okay as long as you can manage to survive. Thirdly, once I was told of an old saying: a good merchant does not show his goods and a man of utmost virtue is always simple. It will do you good if you cut off your pride, get rid of your greed, reduce your haughtiness, throw away some of your ambitions. It will serve your family better, and it will serve your state better if you are not too stubborn no matter whenever, wherever, and whatever.”
Confucius was puzzled at the first few words and felt totally lost when Lao Tzu finished his speech. At one point, Confucius had determined to ask all the questions to get to the root of the matter. But at the end, Confucius seemed to be shrouded in thick fog and nothing was clear. He knew neither what to ask nor how to ask. His heart was still pounding, ears humming, and his throat choking when everyone at the party had dried their cups and were saying goodbye.
Was this really the same Lao Tzu whom he had stayed with in the last few weeks in the capital? Lao Tzu had been a kind, warm, and often humorous, old gentleman, treating him as his own son. There had always been a full answer whatever Confucius’s question was.
When Confucius was on his way home with the capital in the distance, a few men were hunting on horse back. A duck fell from the sky at the release of the bowstring. It suddenly dawned on Confucius who recited slowly, “Birds can fly but will fall at the hunter’s arrow. Fish can swim but will be hooked by the fisherman. Beasts can run but will drop into people’s nets and traps. There is only one thing that is out of man’s reach. That’s the legendary dragon. A dragon can fly into the sky, ride on clouds, dive into the ocean. A dragon is powerful yet so intangible to us. Lao Tzu is a dragon, and I’ll never understand him.”
* * *
From that day, Confucius knew he and Lao Tzu were on different paths and heading in different directions. Now the two, Confucius and his disciple Gent-Road, left their books in the hotel and rode on horseback to the hilly suburban area where Lao Tzu was said to have retired to. Since it was far away from the capital, the two set off so early they passed the city gate with a few stars twinkling overhead. Confucius was so happy when they reached the hilly suburb. There would be plenty of time to consult this senior scholar. Confucius had many interesting topics in mind to discuss with Lao Tzu. But it was a much more difficult task to find Lao Tzu’s house than they expected. Nobody seemed to know this former curator of the royal library or where he lived.
They were first directed by some local residents to a few mansions of government officials but none of them had the slight traceable link to Lao Tzu. Of course they knew of Lao Tzu but their minds seemed to be blanker than their faces as to the whereabouts of this former curator. It suddenly dawned on Confucius that Lao Tzu as a modest person must have chosen a plain house in which to live. They began to look for ordinary houses nearby but this turned out to be equally disappointing. The hosts had never heard of Lao Tzu’s name. But some had met an immortal man with the white hair of a hundred years but the glowing face of middle-aged man, and he was able to chat with animals. He lived deep inside the woods. Gent-Road urged his master to give it a try. He wanted to see this strange man even it was not Lao Tzu.
When it was getting dark, the two had long left their horses trudging through the dense woods on foot. They had found neither the immortal man nor Lao Tzu.
The bitter experience of their wandering years helped them to endure the physical fatigue and manage their hunger with wild fruit and eatable herbs. Confucius and his disciples had visited one state after another for 14 years to promote their political ideology: They were out of food for about a week on one occasion and encircled by hostile armed men for five days on another.
If heaven’s Tao had prevailed, we would not have needed to torture ourselves like this, Confucius would often say. This time the two had to turn back with nothing accomplished except their exhaustion. To make it worse, they lost their way and did not even know which direction was the way out of the endless woods. Heaven sympathised with them by showing a hatched hut in distance. It must be a convenient lodge for hunters who occasionally stayed there overnight. They crossed their fingers that there was somebody inside.
When the hut was near they saw an open area in front of the hut which must have been cleared out as a yard. In the middle of the yard there was a withered tree. The crown was gone, only the dead trunk stood there with cracked bark covered with whorls and branch knots. It had been an old tree, perhaps, a thousand years old.
Their faces both lit up when they saw a glittering light coming out the door. It might be Lao Tzu’s home since they saw books in the dim light. To avoid frightening Lao Tzu at this late hour, Confucius backed off three steps and then bowed towards the hut with his hands clasped: “Please pardon me for venturing to ask if Master Lao is at home?”
There was no answer. Gent-Road led the way inside: Under the light of an oil lamp on the table, the room seemed large and neat. A deer shook it head at the two strangers beside a large bed half occupied by piles of books, and then stood up and quietly, went out. A stove and other cooking utensils were in the corner. Clothes, and other odds and ends hanging on the wall. Before they finished scanning the room, there was a sonorous voice from the yard:
“Is that Con Chu ? (Confucius’s name) Please come out.”
Once outside, Confucius and Gent-Road saw nothing of the withered tree trunk but a godly old man standing in its place. His gleaning silvery hair covered his ears and draped down into his long beard covering his chest. His grey robe shifting in the dusk breeze was like the bark and twigs of a dead tree. Confucius’s heart tightened to notice Lao Tzu’s face was even younger and healthier than his. Lao Tzu had warned Confucius many times not to tax his energy and prematurely age by muddling in world affairs. Confucius heard himself saying: “Master Lao, I must have been dazed by the dim light but you looked like a withered tree trunk when we came.”
“I have just travelled to the primitive state of our universe, before the Big Bang as it will be called. Birds kiss each other, fish blow water. I have not seen you for a while since you have become so famous. You visited 72 states and spoke to their kings. What is your doing today?”
“I have a cart of books,” Confucius replied, “ a few privileged people, and Confucius had never seen so many books before. books on the six classical arts: rites or propriety, music, archery, riding, writing, and arithmetic. There are several copies of the five classics: Collection of Ancient Texts, Classic of Poetry, The Rites, The Book of Changes, and The Spring and Autumn Annals.”
“Can you give me a summary of what those books are about?” Lao Tzu asked.
“Humanity and justice.”
“What is humanity? Is it human nature?”
“The spirit of humanity is loving people. Of course it is human nature. Without humanity, gentlemen cannot be gentlemen in society, and life will lose its meaning. Humanity is not only the nature of all gentlemen but also the nature of all who cultivate the virtue.”
Lao Tzu said, “If humanity is the nature of human beings, there is no need to write a cart of books to preach about it. If humanity is not human nature, how many carts of books you have will not be enough to squeeze that information into the human mind.”
Confucius wanted to elaborate upon his worthy books but Gent-Road saw Lao Tzu’s dismay at Confucius’s lengthy speech and cut in.
“Master Con has a cart of books and seeks your help in storing them in the Royal Library, since the political situation of State Lu is unstable.”
Lao Tzu asked, “Have you asked the current curator?”
Confucius admitted that they did ask him, but he refused.
Lao Tzu said, “The current curator is my choice for the position and has the royal appointment. How can you suspect that he does not tell the truth when he says the library is full? Those who presume to preach humanity only become hypocrisy: You are ready to suspect another’s honesty. Are honesty and trustworthiness part of your humanity and justice?”
When Confucius and Gent-Road left Lao Tzu and his hut, they looked back and again they saw only a dead tree trunk in the front yard. Gent-Road wanted to go back and ask if pretending to be a deed tree was hypocritical. Confucius stopped him.
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