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Lao Tzu for Everyone

Students, Scholars,

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph.D.

Lǎo Tzǔ

     old           teacher, master

Who was Lao Tzu?

(and does it really matter?)


1. The Name “Lao Tzu”

      A person known by the name of Lao Tzu is credited with being the author of the 道 Tào 德 Té 經 Chīng, a writing that is sometimes referred to simply as “The Lao Tzu.”  But though “Lao Tzu” gets the credit, the actual authorship of the work is quite uncertain.


     The name “Lao Tzu” comes from two characters: 老 Lǎo, meaning “old,” and the character 子 Tzǔ, meaning “child” or “son.” 子 Tzǔ may also mean “teacher” and “scholar.” It could literally be translated the “Old Boy,” the “Old Scholar,” or the “Old Master.” In short,  子 Tzǔ is an honorary title rather than a family or a personal name.*

2. What do we really know

about Lao Tzu?

​     We don’t know much. According to the 1st century B.C. records of historian Sima Qian (often spelled Ssuma Chien) Lao Tzu lived in the 6th Century B.C. His family name is said to be named 李 Lǐ, and his personal name may have been 耳Ěr,  which means ear, or 聃 Dān, meaning flat or long-lobed ear. He is said to be from the province of 楚 Chǔ.

   None of this may be true. In fact, most likely it is not. Still, there are stories, or legends, about Lao Tzu. The most repeated story goes something like this:

​   There was a  wise man who worked as the

Keeper of the Archives in the royal court of 周 Zhou.

  He had seen enough of the moral decay around

him and decided to pack it off to the hills. But the

warden of the pass recognized him and would not

let him pass until he wrote down his wisdom.


   The result, we are told, is what we have today as the Tao Te Ching, which translates into English as the 經chīng Classic Book [of the] 道tào Way [and its]  德dé Power.


3. Some other stories

    There are other stories too, about Lao Tzu being conceived after his mother saw a falling star, that he was born with a full head of white hair, and that when he met Confucius, Confucius was so taken with Lao Tzu that he immediately became Lao Tzu’s disciple. It is even said that the Emperor of China asked Lao Tzu to lead his court, and that Lao Tzu readily declined.

     But in the face of these stories and others, I think that sinologist Victor Mair is correct when he asserts that:

There is not a single shred of reliable

biographical information concerning

the identity of the Old Master. **​

     When we come right down to it, all we really know is that we have in front of us a little book called the Tao Te Ching with approximately 5,250 words or characters and 81 lessons, and which promises to hold great wisdom—but with no clear evidence of who wrote it.


*Not just Lao Tzu, but other Chinese scholars or masters are also identified with the title 子 Tzu. For example, the name of the person known to us in the West as Confucius, and who lived between 551 and 479 B.C.,  is a Romanization of  the three characters  孔 Kong + 夫 Fu + 子 Tzu . Others include Chuang Tzu,  莊 + 子, Mo Tzu,  + ), and Mencius, +.  .

**Victor H. Tao Te Ching: The classic book of integrity and the Way (New York: Bantam, 1990), 119.

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4. One Thing We Know For Sure

     The one thing we can say with good certainty is this: If the author of this work were indeed wise, his wisdom will not be here on the page. That is because wisdom, properly understood, is not information.

     Wisdom is a penetrating insight into the very nature of things, including ourselves. It is an insight so direct and discerning that it alters a person’s character and thus his or her actions.

     Such wisdom cannot be passed on from one person to another like information can. Wisdom isn’t knowledge. That’s why even an encyclopedia of many books, and even our wonderful World Wide Web won’t help us become wise. Trying to find wisdom on a page is like trying to taste an orange by reading the words “round, juicy and tangy.”  It won’t happen.

      In fact, Lao Tzu himself tells us as much in the very first words of his very first lesson he confesses that he simply can’t tell us about the Way. 

The 道tào way that we can talk about

 is not the timeless 道tào Way.

     At best, Lao Tzu, whoever he was, has left us words which—while not being wisdom in and of themselves—purport to point us in the direction of wisdom so that we might gain this wisdom for ourselves; and then, through our own direct insight express this wisdom in our daily interactions with others and with our society.

5. Were Lao Tzu's lessons

written by a single person?

​    Modern scholarship pretty much agrees that the Tao Te Ching is most likely the work of many hands, not just one. The words attributed to Lao Tzu are believed to likely result from an oral tradition that was passed down through a particular lineage (or perhaps several lineages) over many centuries, until it was finally written down.

     But some scholars disagree, and feel there is no reason why the words attributed to Lao Tzu could not have been written by a single wise person.*


6. Does it matter if there

was no Lao Tzu?

​     If Lao Tzu's lessons actually have a number of authors, does that mean that the words are inauthentic? No. But should it be a cause for our concern? No again.

​     The great works of the world are very often compilations from the words of a number of wise individuals. The New Testament, for example, is a compilation of four Gospels--Acts, the Letters, and Revelation, certainly writings by a number of persons. The books of the Old Testament were also written by many hands, too many to list here. The Buddhist and Hindu sutras, the Upanishads, and the sayings of Confucius are, likewise, the words of, or compilations by, a number of people. Even a key purportedly Confucian work, “The Doctrine of the Mean,” was not written by Confucius at all, but by his grandson, 子思 Zi Si.

     None of this should trouble us. The value of the  words in a writing does not depend on whether this person here or that person over there sat down and wrote them. The value of the words in a writing depends upon . . . well, upon the value of the words in that writing.


     If after writing Hamlet, Shakespeare asked his brother Eduard to make some editing changes, and then his wife Anne, followed by other playwrights in town, would that diminish the greatness of the writing itself? Would it lessen the dimensions of the story, the depth of the characters created, or the many insights into human nature?


     If Moby Dick had been written by a group of Walmart executives, would it have been any less captivating? Or what if Nietzsche’s works or Einstein’s theorems had come to us anonymously? Would they be any less remarkable?

     Here's the point: The person who is credited with a work tells us nothing at all about the value of the work itself or whether it is worth our time. It is the content of the pages which will disclose this to us.


*While most scholars feel that the words attributed to Lao Tzu have been compiled from a number of sources, Alan Watts takes exception with this view. He writes:


  "To me, the Tao Te Ching, the ‘Book of the Way and Its Power,’ could very obviously be the work of  one hand, allowing for minor interpolations and for such inconsistencies, real or apparent, as may be found in the work of any philosopher. It’s laconic, aphoristic, and enigmatic style is consistent throughout the book, as is also the very rhythm of its argument."


  Alan Watts, Tao, the Watercourse Way 

  (New York: Pantheon Books. 1975) xxiv.

. . . . . .

Hiking Orange Pack.jpg

7. We also know this.

    There is something about these words which has resonated with countless millions of people over these many centuries even when we haven’t quite been able to put our finger on the reason for it. Perhaps that’s why, when high school and college students as well as the general public are introduced to Lao Tzu’s writing, and while other books and magazines may be tossed, lost, or go unremembered, Lao Tzu’s short work may well go with us, his lessons even nagging us a bit. We may even move to new apartments or houses and each time throw out the textbooks and novels, and yet this little work tends to stay. Why?



8.  A final thought.

     That we don’t know who the author really was, may actually lend authenticity to this writing. As we’ll see in Lao Tzu’s lessons, one of the attributes of a sage, a wise person, is that he or she is very active within the community and in the world, and yet takes no credit at all for what they do. As Lao Tzu tells us in Lesson 22:

The sage does not show off,

and thus shines.

The sage does not point

to himself or herself,

and thus stands out.

So, while the sage has accomplishments,

there’s no need to count them

as his or her own.

That’s why these

accomplishments endure.

     If what Lao Tzu tells us here is so, then that may be the reason his words have lasted for so long and are still with us today.


​Please note:

     Although the authorship of the Tao Te Ching itself may be uncertain, for convenience and in keeping with the tradition I will continue to refer the person or persons who have brought us this work, as “Lao Tzu.”



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