Laozi

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Mind Legends

Laozi

by Olessia Kantor
by
Legends Buddhism Daoism Laozi

Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism generally name the three main pillars of Chinese thought. In the case of “Daoism,” it designates both a philosophical tradition and an organized religion. Laozi figures centrally in both.

Philosophical Daoism traces its origins to Laozi, an extraordinary thinker who flourished during the sixth century according to Chinese tradition. To some modern scholars, however, Laozi is entirely legendary; there was never a historical Laozi. In religious Daoism, Laozi is revered as a supreme deity.

The name “Laozi” is best taken to mean “Old Master” and Laozi the ancient philosopher is said to have written a short book, which has come to be called simply the Laozi. When the Laozi was recognized as a “classic” on account of its profound insight and significance—it acquired a more exalted and instructive title, Daodejing (Tao-te ching), commonly translated as the “Classic of the Way and Virtue.” Its influence on Chinese culture is pervasive, and it reaches beyond China.

Next to the Bible, the Daodejing is the most translated work in world literature. It is concerned with the Dao or “Way” and how it finds expression in “virtue”, especially through what the text calls “naturalness” and “nonaction”. These concepts, however, are open to interpretation. While some interpreters see them as evidence that the Laozi is a “mystical” work, others emphasize their contribution to ethics and/or political philosophy. Interpreting the Laozi demands careful reconstruction, which requires both analytic rigor and an informed historical imagination.


So then I wonder, does mysticism contribute to the ethical life, or detract from it? Or is it irrelevant?