Lao-Tze reminds all who wish to govern, “The hard and mighty lie beneath the ground, while the tender and weak dance on the breeze above.”

These are not the words of a 20th-century politician. They are attributed to a legendary Chinese mystic named Lao-Tze (“Old Master”). He believed that busybodies who try to run things cause most of the world’s problems.

Tradition holds that Lao-Tze lived in the 6th century B.C. in China and was the older contemporary of Confucius. Lao-Tze kept the royal archives in his home state. He strove for simplicity and eventually became convinced that all government was harmful and that all “book learning” was fruitless. Both government rules and imposed ways of thinking kept people from cultivating a natural way of living.

At age 80, Lao-Tze became disillusioned by people’s failure to follow his philosophy of simplicity. He also desired solitude for his own reflection. He set off on a water buffalo for China’s western border. At the border pass, the gatekeeper begged him to turn back. When Lao-Tze refused, the gatekeeper asked him to at least put his beliefs into writing. So Lao-Tze penned his entire philosophy in 5,000 Chinese characters. The book was called the Way and Its Power (Tao Te Ching).

Modern scholars say Lao-Tze is a legend. Even if he is not a historical figure, he is still a vivid myth that personifies the teachings of the Tao Te Ching. The book describes the Way (Tao) that leads to simplicity (wu-wei) and thus to power (Te) for real life. The Way has three dimensions: ultimate reality; the course of nature; the true path of human life.

The Tao is the Womb from which all of life springs and the Matrix in which all of life thrives. The Tao Te Ching describes this Way as “a mystery … silent, depthless, alone, unchanging, ubiquitous and liquid, the mother of nature.” It is nameless, mysterious, intangible, and yet is the ground and source of all things.

This Tao is the way nature operates, the way the universe runs. Human beings should seek the harmony of being in tune with nature and its way. The Tao Te Ching says: “The Way flows and ebbs, creating and destroying, implementing all the world, attending to the tiniest details, claiming nothing in return. It nurtures all things, though it does not control them … The sage would not control the world; the sage is in harmony with the world.”

This Way is also the path that human beings should follow. Nature teaches people to live in creative simplicity (wu-wei, literally non-doing). Like water, the simple person flows along with life but has great power: “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water, yet nothing can better overcome the hard and strong.”

Lao-Tze was interested in politics like his contemporary Confucius. But his view of politics was to have the least government possible so that people could live naturally. “A leader is best,” he said, “when people barely know he exists.”

Simplicity is the only true way to rule, even though it seems contrary to typical views of power valuing control. But Lao-Tze notes: “The more regulations there are, the poorer people become. … The more picky the laws are, the more thieves and gangsters there are. Therefore the sages say: ‘I do not force my way and the people transform themselves.'”

The Tao Te Ching warns that over-doing is the path to unhappiness: “If you want to grab the world and run it, I can see that you will not succeed. The world is a spiritual vessel, which can’t be controlled. Manipulators mess things up. Grabbers lose it.”

In the traditional story, Lao-Tze lived up to his philosophy by shunning everything contrived and by riding away from the business of civilization. The Tao Te Ching’s natural and mystical philosophy represents a complementary balance to the Confucian emphasis on society and ethical relationships.

Lao-Tze reminds all who wish to govern, “The hard and mighty lie beneath the ground, while the tender and weak dance on the breeze above.”

James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.

Click here for Browning’s introduction to this series on world religion founders, and here for his column on Confucius.

Click here for a traditional biography of Lao-Tze.

Read two versions of the Tao Te Ching: Click here for a contemporary language interpolation and here for a translation by Charles Muller.

For more about Taoism, read Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions.

Share This