Daoism and Cct
History and Sources
Who was Lao Zi? Do people think of him as a religious founder?
Lao Zi was likely an altogether legendary figure whose “name” simply means “old teacher or master.” Tradition says he was born around 604 B.C.E., making him a much older contemporary of Confucius (Kong Fu Zi, 551—479 B.C.E.), who was in turn an almost exact contemporary of the Buddha. The legend says Lao Zi was a clerk in the archives of the Zhou dynasty who practiced the “Way and its power” and emphasized self-effacement and anonymity. When he became convinced that social disintegration and political corruption in the Zhou dynasty were irreversible, he decided to withdraw from society. Riding his water buffalo, the old man came to the frontier. There a customs officer besought him to write down his lofty teachings before departing. Lao Zi wrote the Dao De Jing, roughly translated as The Classic of the Way and Its Power, and disappeared, leaving a legacy of mystery.
Much later stories, perhaps from a time when Daoists and Confucians were in competition for followers, tell of a meeting between Lao Zi and a youthful Confucius. No use wasting so much time studying your history, Lao Zi counseled the newcomer. Observe nature and you will see that love for the Dao is all that one needs. Popular tradition tends to identify Lao Zi as the one who first taught that ordinary folk could seek and attain immortality. Some scholars suggest that Lao Zi’s legendary stature may have been enhanced as a result of his mistaken identification with the legendary Huang Di—known as the Yellow Emperor—who ruled in the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. Lao Zi was officially declared a god around 666 C.E. and eventually became part of a much-expanded Daoist pantheon.
Another man sometimes identified as the founder of Daoism was Lao Lai Zi, who also came from Chu. He is designated as a contemporary of Confucius and is credited with a fifteen-chapter book expounding on the teachings of the Daoist school. Nothing more is known about him. According to a third account, the original Lao Zi lived 129 years after the death of Confucius. This man went by the name of Tan, the historian of Chou.