Lao Tzu is known as the author of the Tao Te Ching, a mysterious book of philosophy from China that has been around for 2,500 years, and inspired the philosophy of Taoism. The name Lao Tzu is also translated “Laozi” as well as other variations of spelling.
The word “Tao” translates literally to a “way” or “path.” However as pointed out in the book The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu: A New Translation and Commentary on the Tao Teh Ching by Henry Wei, in this case it means much more than that. “By the extension of ideas, it also means method or principle. To Lao Tzu, however, the way is not merely an ordinary way, nor merely a method or principle. It is something elusive, intangible, and mysterious. It is transcendental, infinite, and eternal, preceding even the birth of the universe.”
Appropriately, the history of Lao Tzu’s life is wreathed in mystery and legend. As the book The Legend of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching by Demi begins, “This is the legend of Lao Tzu, who may or may not have been born; who may or may not have founded Taoism, one of the greatest religions in the world… … and who may or may not have written one of the greatest books of wisdom in the world: the Tao Te Ching, or the “Way of Heaven.”” (In the above mentioned book by Henry Wei, Tao Teh Ching is translated as the Classic of the Way and its Virtue, “Teh” meaning Virtue).
According to legend, Lao Tzu’s mother carried him for eighty- one years before he was born from her left side, already a white haired old man. In Chinese the name “Lao Tzu” can be translated as “Old Son,” as well as “Venerable Master.” He lived over 150 years, working for some time as Custodian of the Imperial Archives of the Chou House. Many became his disciples; he taught through example and meditation. When the Chou House was in its decline, he decided to leave: as he exited through the western pass, the guard of the pass, Yin Hsi, asked him for a book for his own enlightenment, as he knew the sage did not intend to return. Lao Tzu agreed and what resulted was the Tao Te Ching, which was first simply known as “Lao Tzu.” It is written in eighty- one short chapters, which are grouped into two sections.
Chapter One Begins the Tao Te Ching:
“The Tao that can be stated is not the Eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The Unnameable is originator of Heaven and Earth.
The Nameable is mother of the ten thousand things.
Always be desireless, so as to discern Tao’s wonderful essence;
Always have some desire, so as to discern its manifestations.
These two come from the same source,
But are different in name.
Their identical nature is a mystery.
Mystery of mysteries-
That is the gate of all wonderful essence.”
This translation and those that follow are as stated in the book The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu: A New Translation and Commentary on the Tao Teh Ching by Henry Wei. Note that translations can be very different; Master Pearson prefers us to translate it ourselves, with the help of online dictionaries. In this case I am borrowing a pre- translated version.
The about 5,000 word book goes on to describe, in its own way, how to live in concert with the nature of life and the universe. One way to attain this way of living is a principle called “wu wei;” noninterference. Here is Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching:
“Man is soft and weak at birth;
At death he is hard and rigid.
The ten thousand things, herbs and trees,
Are soft and delicate when growing up;
In dying, they wither and look haggard.
Thus hardness and rigidity are companions of death;
Softness and weakness are companions of life.
Therefore armies, having become rigid, will not win;
Trees, having become rigid, will break asunder.
The big and rigid will be laid low;
The soft and weak will be lifted up.”
I would like to also share the beginning of Chapter 42, as it comes up often in Shin Ho Kwan:
“Tao gave birth to One;
One gave birth to Two;
Two gave birth to Three;
Three gave birth to the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry the Yin and embrace the Yang.
The two primordial breaths blend and produce harmony.”
As mentioned in the Weekly Post I wrote about the I Ching, the idea of the principles of Yin and Yang existed before the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu uses these principles in his explanations of the universe. He also writes much about emulating water, as in the beginning of Chapter 78:
“Nothing in the world
Surpasses water in softness and weakness;
Yet among things that attack the hard and the strong,
None can do a better job than water.
Nothing can serve as its substitute.
Therefore the weak overcomes the strong;
The soft overcomes the hard.
Few in the world do not know this;
Yet nobody is able to put it into practice.”
This idea is very applicable to our practice of martial arts. Often Master Pearson instructs us that we are using too much muscle; the idea is not to be rigid and push against the opponent, resulting in a battle of strength, but rather to use correct technique to make the other person’s body move the way you want it to. In many techniques also we are instructed to flow more, moving like water. This is much more effective than hard, jerking motions (and Master Pearson is especially good at making his techniques flow, so that they look very natural, and easy until I try to do them myself!)