Lao-Tse, also called Lao-Tzu, (604-531 BCE), is believed by many to be the founder of Taoism. An enigmatic figure of history, he preached a way of life that was part psychology and part philosophy. It was only after his passing that it evolved into a religious faith, and he was eventually venerated as a deity.
There are two contrasting stories about the life of Lao-Tse. One says he was a native of Ch’u-jen, which is today the Honan Provence in China. Originally named Li Erh, he became the Imperial Archives Keeper of the court of Chou. Some legends say the young Confucius was a pupil of his, others that they were merely contemporaries. In either case, he was searching for a way to avoid the constant feudal warfare that disrupted the life and society of his people. The culmination of his thoughts and teachings was a book – the ‘Dao De Jing’ (Tao Te Ching).
The other story is that he never existed. There is very little evidence today that a man named Lao-Tse actually lived, let alone wrote the Tao Te Ching. It is possible that he was a composite of many old philosophers of that period.
Tao (pronounced “Dow”) is roughly translated as the path, or the way. It is basically indefinable. It has to be experienced. It refers to a power that envelopes, surrounds and flows through all things – living and non-living. God is viewed as a manifestation of the one Dao. The concept of a personified deity is foreign in Taoism, as is the concept of the creation of the universe. There is no prayer, because there is no God to hear and act on them. Answers to life’s problems are found in inner meditation and outer observation. The Tao regulates natural processes, nourishes the balance in the universe, and embodies the harmony of opposites.
Alongside the development of this philosophical Taoism, a different, more religious interpretation of Taoism also evolved. This “religious” Taoism had temples, priests, rites and symbolic images. Lao Tse was venerated as a saint and sacrifices were made to him. There also developed a pantheon of Taoist deities that were often venerated as gods. Alchemy, astrology and divination became so prominent as to verge on occultism. This movement came to be known as Huang-Lao, after the legendary Yellow Emperor Huang-ti.
Whether in history or legend, the man Lao-Tse had passed long before these developments occurred. Disillusioned with Chinese society, he mounted a horse and rode west into the desert regions of China. When the guardian of the last pass to the province of Ch’in requested he write down his thoughts so they could be passed on, Lao-Tse sat down for two days and wrote the Tao Te Ching. He turned the work over to the last guardian of the west and rode into the desert, never to be seen from again.