Before anybody jumps to any more conclusions, I’ll just say that “The Old Man” translates to “Lao Tzu” The rather blunt, wise man who is credited with authoring the Tao Te Ching. There has been some controversy as to whether or not Lao Tzu or Lao Tzi or Li Erh was an actual person. The latest scholarship says that he did live in the Chinese state of Ch’u in the Li village known as Hu Hsian during the 500s CE. Other experts contend that Lao Tzu is a composite character blend of the legendary early teachers.
Legend claims that Lao Tzu became discontented with the ways of contemporary life and journeyed to the distant plateau of Tibet. Supposedly, he taught his wisdom to a border guard who set about to compile the verses of the Tao Te Ching, the Way and Virtue. The work emphasizes the wisdom of “wu-wei” or non-striving or non-purposed action.
To explain the Tao in words is not possible. One can only dance around the concept loosely and non-analytically. Lao Tzu would have said that the Tao must be understood intuitively, and when understood deeply, the Tao cannot be explained. The way that can be spoken of is not the way. In modern terms, we might say the Tao is ambiguously unambiguous.
Many of the sayings attributed to Lao Tzu may remind some readers of the sayings of his contemporary, Confucius. But we should remember that Confucius was a zealous reformer and Lao Tzu was probably more like a slacker or beatnik.
Some of his sayings seem to be the foundation of present day “wisdom teachers”. “Be Content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” and “Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. Non-being is the greatest joy.” These seem to be fairly straightforward and unthreatening to the western mindset.
The more ambiguous quotes are a bit upsetting to dogmatically aligned individuals. “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Our very demonstrative politicos and pundits cannot even grasp this one: “He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.” Our information based society finds it hard to understand, “Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful. Good words are not persuasive; persuasive words are not good.”
The goal oriented people among us may seem to understand, “Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” And even more subtly, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
Universal wisdom found in most cultures, East and West, can be found in Lao Tzu’s quotes. “The wise man does not lay up his own treasures. The more he gives to others, the more he has for his own.” and “How could man rejoice in victory and delight in the slaughter of men?”
To the seeker, Lao Tzu addressed these sayings, “To realize that you do not understand is a virtue; Not to realize that you do not understand is a defect.” “For the wise man looks into space and he knows there are no limited dimensions.”Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.” and “A scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar.”
As we go about the tasks of our lives, today, I hope we remember, “Great acts are made up of small deeds.”
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders this wisdom from Lao Tzu: “In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.”