25. Lao Tzu (602-478 BCE) & the Tao te Ching

China Page

Before proceeding out of the Chinese Bronze Age, let us examine the legendary life of Lao Tzu. Just as Confucius was the founder of Confucianism according to tradition, so was Lao Tzu the founder of Taoism. Lao Tzu was an older contemporary of Confucius, as indicated by his dates. According to many later sources, the two men interacted on many occasions.  While Confucius praised Lao Tzu as a dragon, Lao Tzu criticized Confucius for being too backwards looking. Let us look a little deeper, beginning with traditional Taoist history.

Traditional Taoist History

In traditional histories of Taoism, we find a simplistic version. At an advanced age, Lao Tzu passed on the Tao te Ching, the Taoist Bible, to a gatekeeper, Yin Hsi. After passing on the book, Lao Tzu walked into the mountains. This then became the beginning of Taoism. This occurs about 488 BCE. Under this simplistic and widely held view, Lao Tzu becomes the founder and father of Taoism and the Tao te Ching becomes the Bible upon which its truths are based.

Typical Origination Tale

The following origination story from Encyclopedia Britannica is typical.

“Another school, Taoism, had as its foundation classic the Tao te Ching and attributed this to one Lao Tzu, who is said to have been an older contemporary of Confucius. … The solution for the woes of mankind offered by the Tao te Ching was conformity to the way of the universe. The way of the universe was believed to be the absence of all man-made restraints and freedom from elaborate regulations and from what passed for civilization. This solution was, obviously, quite different from that advocated by Confucius, and the two schools engaged in frequent controversy.” 1

Makes Simplistic Sense

This traditional story seems reasonable to Westerners. There are certainly many historical parallels. A real Jesus, a real Plato, a real Aristotle, a real Mohammed, a real Buddha, were all great men that founded schools and religions based upon their teachings and/or writings. Even in recent history, the writings of Karl Marx inspired the political movement named Marxism. It makes a lot of sense for a great man to write his great ideas down in a book, which will inspire the world and influence the course of history. This makes a lot of sense, but is not true in the case of Taoism.

Lao Tzu, a mythological personage

Questionable historicity

Despite great efforts, all attempts to establish Lao Tzu’s historicity have failed, or are rendered useless due to widespread scholarly disputes. Even China’s great historian, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, writing in the first century BCE, can’t separate myth from reality concerning Lao Tzu. He offers three different historical personalities as possibilities for the real Lao Tzu. Their lives are separated by over 200 years.2 Modern Chinese scholars have argued that he lived somewhere in a 300 year time period, from 600-300 BCE.

“It may safely be said that those who believe Lao Tzu lived in the Spring and Autumn period and those who believe he lived in the Warring States period are about equal in number. Only a very, very small minority has treated him as a myth.”3

Great scholarly dispute

Of those that believe that he lived in the Spring and Autumn Era, only a fraction believes that he actually interacted with Confucius. Even a smaller number believe that he wrote the Tao-te Ching. Virtually no scholar believes the gatekeeper story.

“Suffice it to say here that few scholars believe that Lao Tzu went through a pass and wrote a book at the request of the pass-keeper.”4

Legendary Lao Tzu more important than historical Lao Tzu

While Lao Tzu might have existed as an individual, there are still many questions pertaining to the legendary life attributed to him. While there may have been a Lao Tzu, it is the legend of his life that matters. Similarly, it doesn’t matter if Jesus really rose from the dead after 3 days. But it is quite meaningful that millions of people’s lives have been affected by their belief in the Resurrection. Skirting the issue of historicity, the only historically potent reality is the legendary Lao Tzu, connected by a thread to the historical Lao Tzu. Whether he existed or not is secondary to his legendary influence.

Lao Tzu’s connection to the Tao te Ching

Lao Tzu’s primary influence is through the book that he supposedly transmitted to the gatekeeper, Yin Hsi – the Tao te Ching. 

Tao Te Ching, phrases from 3rd century BCE,

According to literary analysts, the book that Lao Tzu supposedly dictated has phrases that appeared to have been written during the late Warring States Period, 3rd century BCE. This was just before the First Emperor took charge of China. In other words, these phrases were written a century or more after any of the historical candidates for Lao Tzu lived, and centuries after the legendary Lao Tzu transmitted the Tao te Ching to the Gatekeeper.

Many historical layers

Textual analysis reveals that the Tao te Ching has many historical layers, dating from prehistoric sources of ancient wisdom to just before the First Emperor. According to Thomas Cleary, it “is an anthology of ancient sayings, poems, and proverbs”5. There are many references to the sayings of Lao Tzu in the following Warring States Period and none in the Spring and Autumn Era. The first references to Lao Tzu’s sayings are in the 4th century6. These sayings evolved and grew; finally reaching their final state in the 3rd century BCE. Although modern scholarship points to an even later date, the evidence suggests that a single historical personage did not compose the work, but that it was compiled over centuries.

Book evolution is quite common in China

This book evolution is quite common in China. The constantly evolving I Ching is attributed to three giants of the Chou period – Wen Wang, Chou Kung, i.e. King Wen, the Duke of Chou, and K’ung tzu, i.e. Confucius. However, it is unlikely that any of them had anything to do with the writing of the book. In similar vein, probably none of the books attributed to Confucius were actually written by him. As we’ve seen, it was common practice in China to attribute writings to an important personage to give the writings weight and strength. This analysis then has nothing to do with the historicity of Lao Tzu and everything to do with the nature of the Tao te Ching.

‘The Lao Tzu’

The Tao te Ching was originally called ‘the Lao Tzu’. Lao Tzu means Master Lao or Old Master. Hence they were a collection of sayings from the Old Master. Whether there was an Old Master, or whether it was an archetypal Old Master, or a group of Old Masters doesn’t really matter. This collection of sayings of the Old Master accumulated pages like a snowball over the centuries. It also acquired structure and organization. In final form, it acquired a new name, the Tao te Ching, and its own mythological transmission – the Gatekeeper.

Taoist’s deny authorship and historical context

Further it is even traditional for Taoist authors to deny authorship and historical context in the pursuit of universal truth.

“The Lao-tzu (better known as the Tao-te Ching {The Book of the Way and its Virtue) supposedly did not obtain its present form until the third century BC. The a-historical nature of the Tao-te Ching is shared by almost all the texts that make up the Taoist Canon. The latter, which comprises some 1500 works and is representative of Taoist literature throughout the centuries, abounds in works that carry no signature, no date, nor any proper name. It is as if, to their authors, linear history made no sense at all and as if individual authorship was considered contrary to the nature of things.”7

Thus it would be quite natural for a circle of Taoists to anonymously collect wise sayings under the name of the “Old Master”. Indeed in one of the wings of the I Ching, the Great Treatise, Ta Chuan, which probably precedes the Tao te Ching, there is already a tradition of the Master. Questions are posed to an anonymous Master, who responds about the meanings of the hexagrams.


In summary, the ‘Lao Tzu’, i.e. the Tao te Ching, was probably not written by Lao Tzu but instead “is an anthology of ancient sayings, poems, and proverbs”8. The ‘Old Master’ who ‘wrote’ ‘the Lao Tzu’ was probably instead a collection of Old Masters who anonymously compiled these sayings, poems and proverbs over the centuries, reaching its modern form much later. Lao Tzu, the archetype of the Wise Old Sage in the shamanistic traditions, was given a body and assigned authorship of the Tao te Ching. This book generated its own group of followers, eventually called Taoists. Scholars in the 21st century have reached the consensus that Lao Tzu was an archetype, not an individual.

Mythology of Lao Tzu

Although it might appear that this is an attack upon Taoist history, instead it is support for Taoist mythology. As we de-emphasize historicity, we emphasize the legends. Let us look at this mythology.

The Gatekeeper

Once we realize that the story of Lao Tzu and the Gatekeeper is not historical, we look to the reasons behind the propagation of the myth – the meaning of its symbolism. On the most immediate level, the Gatekeeper is like St. Peter at the Gates to Heaven. The Gatekeeper acts as the initiate who opens the gateway to truth. Through him, the Initiate is able to enter in. The Key to the Gate, of course, is the text of the Tao te Ching, transmitted by the Old Master.

Lao Tzu, Taoist Immortal

The mythological Lao Tzu, the Old Master, is a typical Taoist Immortal. The Immortals are humans that have achieved divine status through certain practices. They do not necessarily help mortal humans, but they might. Hence we have this godlike being transmitting truth before leaving civilization. He does not deliberately find a gatekeeper with whom to share his truths. Instead the Gatekeeper stops Lao Tzu and requests the truth. This corresponds to the irresponsible nature of the Immortals.

Becomes Master through physical practices

Further most Chinese Taoists know that Lao Tzu did not achieve his status as Master through the wisdom of words. They know that he achieved this state through physical practices, which probably include meditation, exercises, proper action and diet. Hence his truths are the fruit of these physical practices, rather than being independent of them. Thus for the Taoist the words of the Tao te Ching are just keys to the Gate.

Book is Key to Gate

The keys just get us past the gate. They do not walk us down the path. We must do that ourselves. We see the same theme in Journey to the West. At the river crossing of the Sand River, Piggy asks Monkey why he can’t just fly Tripitaka across with his great magic powers. Monkey responds to the effect that while he can defeat monsters and travel thousands of miles with his cloud somersault, that even he cannot carry Tripitaka one step down the path. This Tripitaka must do for himself.

Gate opens to Path: Each one different

The Gate opens onto the Path. Lao Tzu follows his own Path. We each follow our own path. This is one reason why he disappears into the mountains. The ‘Old Masters’ who originated the myth did not want the Initiates to fixate on Lao Tzu as an individual statesman, military hero, or even a wise sage. He almost reluctantly gives up his wisdom and leaves on his own path.

Finding a Key is exciting but not the End

Many never even find the Path. Many never even know that it exists. Many have heard of it, but don’t believe that it exists. For the non-Initiate, the excitement of finding a key frequently elevates the key to a place of greater importance than the Path itself. The fisherman has mistaken the net for the fish and starves to death. In similar fashion, those that view the Tao te Ching as an end are fooling themselves.

Path happens over Time

Enlightenment is the net, not the fish. The symbolism of The Journey reveals that the Path is of a temporal nature. Enlightenment is only one of the keys to the Path. It is not the goal of Path. Basically each of the members of the Quest, including the Dragon-Horse, has gone through intense self-cultivation. This has only given them the necessary powers needed to deal with the various demons, monsters, and fiends on the path. Thus self-cultivation or enlightenment is not an end in itself. Similarly the Tao te Ching is only a beginning, not the end. Becoming a specialist on the ideas behind the Tao te Ching has nothing to do with becoming a Master. Performing the practices behind the Tao te Ching has everything to do with becoming a Taoist Immortal like Lao Tzu.

A more obvious key

Here is one of the more obvious keys from the Tao te Ching. Lao Tzu says empty the mind and fill the belly. For the intellectual this comes as a curse and for the politician it might mean that they should concern themselves with the nutrition of the populace before they worry about their mental state. For the Taoist, it is very simple. It means empty the mind of thoughts and fill the belly with chi.

This statement from the Tao te Ching is not an anti-intellectual comment. Instead it is simply a suggestion for meditation, for Taiji, for life. From a state of mental stillness, we accumulate chi, readying ourselves for purified action. This state is not achieved by insight anymore than playing a flute is achieved by insight. It is a state that is achieved only through practice. Emptying the mind of thoughts is the focus of both Buddhist and Taoist mediation techniques. The insight is supplied by the wisdom of the Old Master, but initiates must perform the practices by themselves. Just as Tripitaka must take the steps himself, so must the student do his own work. The Tao te Ching only provides the keys to the Path.

Passing through the Gates of the City into the Mountains

One last part of the story of the Tao de Ching’s transmission bears mentioning. After giving the book to the Gatekeeper, the Old Master passes through the gates of the City to go to the Mountains. This plot element may symbolize the necessity of leaving the City to follow the Path. The City represents the normal way, the way that you are programmed to follow from birth. Instead of following the Tao of Heaven, one follows the tao of popular culture, wherever that might lead. The Mountains represent the heights of Heaven, wilderness, insecurity, freedom.

Leaving the Home necessary

The Journey regularly addresses this issue. Tripitaka leaves civilization and the protection of the T’ang dynasty to go to Thunderclap Mountain in India where the Buddha lives. The members of the Quest are frequently tempted to disband the Journey and go home. With an overly abundant desire for comfort and security, Piggy is, of course, tempted more than the rest. Monkey chides him that it is necessary to leave the home to achieve Immortality. Again leaving the home concerns leaving the comfort and security of the ordinary path.

Most do not choose to be Immortal

Most people prefer the ordinary path. The spiritual path is difficult and insecure. Just as most Chinese would not have left the comforts and security of the T’ang Empire to journey through the wilds to Thunderclap Mountain, most people would not choose the Path to the heights of the Mountains that Lao Tzu chose.

Taoist thought not to be confused with the Quest for Immortality

While most do not choose to align themselves with the wild and woolly Will of Heaven, many did choose to learn from the Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu. These individuals might apply Taoist principles to their lives and actions. According to Buddhist thought as represented in the Journey, if they have not left the home of popular culture, then they are not on the Path to enlightenment. This is form without essence: a self-proclaimed musician with no instrument.


Reiterating, Lao Tzu’s main importance is as a legendary semi-divine being, not as a historical personage. As such, the story of the propagation of the Tao te Ching achieves mythical significance. It contains the idea of the Gate between the Civilized City and the Wild Mountains. The words of the Tao te Ching are the Key to the Gateway opening onto the Path. The words point to body practices. Ideas by themselves alone are not the practice.


1 EB China 5, 521 d

2 To give perspective, it has been just over 200 years since the Revolutionary War in the United States. Further no one disputes the dates of Confucius, except by maybe a few years, not centuries.

3 The Way of Lao Tzu by Wing-tsit Chan, a Chinese scholar teaching Chinese culture and philosophy at Dartmouth College in the West, Bobbs-Merrill CO, Inc., 1963, p 53

4 Wing-tsit Chan, p 46

5 Cleary, Thomas, The Essential Tao, Harper San Francisco, 1993, p 2

6 Wing-tsit Chan, p 46

7 Schipper, p 5

8 Cleary, Thomas, The Essential Tao, Harper San Francisco, 1993, p 2


Home    China Home Page    Chapters    Sections    Previous    Next    Comments