If Laozi (Lao Tzu)–the old sage usually associated with Daoism–existed, he lived during the Golden Age of Philosophers. The book attributed to him–The Way and Its Virtue (Dao De Jing)–represents the ideal man living agreeably with nature. A legendary figure, Laozi’s (600 BCE) influence on Chinese history, thought, and culture has been substantial. He insisted on living in a harmonious and spontaneous manner rather than exploiting the earth and other beings.
Laozi’s vision was one of interconnectedness over self-centeredness. Laozi was probably a librarian in the Zhou dynasty Hall of Records. Realizing the dynasty was failing, Laozi headed off to retire in the wild west. When he reached the western border of the kingdom, a guard recognized him as a great philosopher and asked him to share his teachings. The Dao De Jing is the result of this conversation. Laozi is said to have rebuked Confucius, stating that without the correct attitude of non-attachment, all ritual action is pointless. The tale ends with Confucius lamenting the difficulty of following Laozi’s wisdom:
“When it comes to the dragon, I have no means of knowing how it rides the wind and the clouds and ascends into heaven. Today I have seen Lao-tzu who really is like unto a dragon.”
Laozi was important to the development of Daoism through the text of the Dao De Jing and later historians criticism of it. Sima Qian, a Han historian, selected the Dao De Jing as the quintessential example of a primitivism philosophical movement. The Dao De Jing’s central concepts are Wu Wei, De, and Pu.
Wu Wei is effortless action and is associated with water. Water is soft, but through its unrelenting nature can move earth and carve stone. The Way (Dao) of the Universe works on its own rhythm. Individuals striving to form their own way disrupt this rhythm, and pay the price through suffering and an early death.
De is virtue or integrity and is the active expression of effortless action. Aligning your efforts with the unrelenting flow of the Universe is virtuous behavior.
Pu is the uncarved block, or simplicity. Pu represents a state of receptiveness, without preconceptions, and is the true nature of mind when it is unburdened by knowledge or experiences. Pu is achieved through effortless action.