Over the past two thousand five hundred years since China’s Spring and Autumn Period, nothing has influenced Chinese culture more profoundly than the schools of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The founders of these three schools — Confucius, Laozi, and Shakyamuni respectively — have long been respected and worshipped by succeeding generations.
Interestingly, these three sages were born within twenty years of each other. Laozi was born on 15 February 571 B.C., in Qu Ren Li, Ku County, Chu Country (now Luyi County, Henan Province). Five years later, on 8 April 566 B.C., Shakyamuni was born in today’s Nepal. Another 15 years later, Confucius was born in Qufu, Shandong Province, on 27 August 551 B.C.
Three sages came to the world in the same era. Was it just historical coincidence, or an arrangement by the gods?
Laozi’s family name was Li, his given name Er, and his courtesy name (a name bestowed on adulthood in ancient China) was Bo Yang. But people respectfully addressed him as Laozi. “Lao” means old age and great virtue, and “Zi” is a laudatory title for a man in ancient times.
I know that birds can fly, fish can swim, and beasts can run. … But dragons—I do not know how they ride on wind and cloud into the sky. After meeting Laozi, I find him as unfathomable as a dragon!
According to legend, Laozi had an extraordinary countenance and natural gifts. He was well-read in history and proficient in the systems and etiquette of ceremonial rites. He was the chief curator of the National Library (Shou Cang Shi Shi) and an imperial historian (Zhu Xia Shi).
For a long time, Laozi lived in Luoyang, the capital of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, where he witnessed the dynasty’s decline. In 520 B.C., Laozi was implicated in an internal power struggle among the royal court officials, and was dismissed from his position. Laozi was deeply disturbed from witnessing the evil side of human nature, and left the secular world. He spent many years travelling around the country to pursue the Tao, journeying as an anonymous stranger.
Writing the Tao Te Ching
In September 478 B.C., the 93-year-old Laozi went west to the Country of Qin. When he was about to travel through Han Gu Pass, the chief guard of the pass, Yin Xi, learned through a fortune-teller that an immortal was about to pass through.
Yin Xi had 40 li (20 kilometres) of the road cleaned, in preparation to welcome the immortal. When Laozi arrived, Yin Xi said, “Master, you are going to live in seclusion and we won’t be able to hear your teachings anymore. Please write a book to teach the future generations.”
Laozi had not passed on his teachings to anyone, and he knew that Yin Xi was predestined to obtain the Tao. So he stayed for a short time and wrote down the famous Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing). After that, Laozi went west and was never seen of again.
When Confucius Met Laozi
Confucius once visited Luoyang around 500 B.C., where he learned the system of ceremonial rites from Laozi.
When Confucius was 34, he rode to Luoyang on an old ox cart, hoping to learn the systems of ancient emperors, of ceremonial music, and the rules of morality. He therefore visited Laozi, who was the official-in-charge of the imperial library and an expert in Zhou ceremonial rites.
During the visit, Laozi asked Confucius what book he was currently studying. Confucius replied that he was reading Zhou Yi (The Book of Changes) as all the past sages had read the book.
Laozi said, “It is okay for sages to read it, but why do you want to read it? What is the essence of this book?”
Confucius replied, “Its essence is to promote benevolence and justice.”
Laozi then said, “These so-called benevolence and justice are things that confuse people’s hearts, like mosquitoes that bite people at night and keep them from sleeping. They can only confuse and trouble people.
“See now, a swan’s feathers naturally stay snow-white without the need to wash them every day; a crow is naturally pitch-black without the need to dye it with ink. The sky is naturally high, the earth is naturally deep, the sun and moon are naturally brilliant, the stars are naturally lined up in certain pattern, and the trees and grass are naturally different from each other.
“If you want to cultivate the Tao, you should follow the existing natural law, and you will then obtain the Tao naturally. What is the use of promoting things like benevolence and justice? Isn’t that as senseless as looking for a lost sheep while beating a drum?”
Laozi then asked Confucius, “Do you think you have obtained the Tao?”
Confucius answered, “I have been seeking it for 27 years, but I still haven’t obtained it.”
Laozi said, “If the Tao were a physical object that could be presented to others, people would compete to present it to emperors. If the Tao could be gifted to others, people would give it to their relatives. If the Tao could be clearly related, people would tell it to their brothers. If the Tao could be passed down to others, people would try hard to pass it down to their children.
“However, all these are impossible. The reason is very simple and that is, if a person does not have the correct understanding of the Tao in his heart, the Tao will never come to his heart.”
Learning From the Dragon
Confucius was deeply passionate about reviving the ancient rites and systems of China’s past, believing they could rescue the Eastern Zhou Dynasty from its current decline. But for decades, his efforts to spread his philosophy were in vain.
Confucius once said to Laozi: “I have been studying the six ancient classics and learning how our ancestors governed the country. I understand the successes of good rulers like the Duke of Zhou and the Duke of Zhao.
“But despite visiting over 70 dukes of different warring states, none of them have accepted my ideas. It seems that people are really difficult to persuade!”
After learning the Zhou system of rites from Laozi, Confucius professed his ambition to revive the Zhou system in his home state of Lu. But Laozi had his reservations. To him, although a system of rites was necessary, it was impossible to completely revive the Zhou system of rites. With the dramatic changes in the world over time, some aspects of the Zhou system were no longer appropriate.
So Laozi gave Confucius these words of advice: “Firstly, what you are studying and teaching now is all from ancient men, who died a long time ago and even their bones have rotted away. Those written words are in fact only their footprints. Don’t regard their words as some kind of unbreakable dogma.
“Secondly, a gentleman can become a government official when the political environment is suitable, but when it isn’t, he should go with the flow and be content.
“Thirdly, I have heard that good merchant do not flaunt their wealth; they appear poor when they are rich. A gentleman of utmost virtue appears like a simpleton without any strength. It would do you good to get rid of your pride and desire, reduce your haughtiness, and throw away your fervent and consuming ambitions, because those things are no good for you at all.”
Confucius did not know how to answer, but he did not give up on his ambition: “A great man will do what he knows is difficult.” When Confucius bid goodbye to Laozi and left Luoyang, he felt somewhat excited yet somewhat lost. He was excited about learning the Zhou system of rites, but was disappointed by Laozi’s advice.
After coming back from his visit, Confucius did not speak for three days. His student, Zigong, curiously asked him what had happened.
Confucius replied, “I know that birds can fly, fish can swim, and beasts can run. For those that run, I can catch them with a net; for those that swim, I can catch them with a line; for those that fly, I can shoot them down with arrows.
“But dragons — I do not know how they ride on wind and cloud into the sky. After meeting Laozi, I find him as unfathomable as a dragon!”
This encapsulates the difference between an enlightened being who can save sentient beings, and a philosopher of the human world: “There is little common ground for understanding between persons of different principles.” Laozi’s mysterious and profound Tao is the teaching of the gods, whereas Confucius’s words were just human theories and the moral standard for defining human behaviour.