The current scholarly consensus on Lao Tzu, sadly, is that he probably did not, as such, exist. Analysis of the Tao Te Ching seems to imply that it was a concatenation of bits of many different works and Taoist parables rather than the unitary work of a single person. Chinese legend is chock-full of interesting stories about Lao Tzu, but most of them seem fairly apocryphal.

He was supposed to have baffled Confucius in a debate - and while the idea of Confucius and Lao Tzu debating philosophy is a compelling image, and a convenient metaphor for the competing roles the two ideas were to have for the next few hundred years of Chinese history, the Tao Te Ching was compiled a good century or two after Confucius was dead. Too bad.

Lao Tzu was supposed to have been, like Confucius, a wandering bureaucrat-for-hire who toiled away for many years as a functionary for one of the competing kingdoms during the Spring and Autumn Period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, gaining a reputation for his wisdom. Towards the end of his career (which some accounts give as being well into the second century of his life), he grew disgusted with the futility of nobody listening to him, and rode off to the western desert on a giant blue ox (no foolin'!) to go into philosophical retreat. When he got to the last border checkpoint, a customs official recognized him and begged him to give an accounting of his wisdom before he left the Middle Kingdom forever, and thus the Tao Te Ching came to be.

Those looking for a dead Taoist sage to subject to rockstar-like adulation should probably look to the life and works of Chuang Tzu instead, who in addition to being a pretty cool guy in his own right, has the (perhaps) inarguable virtue of almost certainly having actually existed.

In common with many other works of wisdom from the first millennium or so BCE, the Tao Te Ching goes by the name of a sage, and that name is Lao Tzu, which means (as has been mentioned) 'The Old Master' or 'The Elder Sage'. Whereas Confucius/Kung Fu Tzu is an historical personage, Lao Tzu seems to be a kind of folk memory of the early days of Taoism. The book bearing his name probably reached its current form some half-millennium after the death of Confucius. The reference in the WU above to Chuang Tzu is deserved. Popular wisdom (as it were) has it that he was the immediate successor to Lao Tzu as leader of the Taoists as a philosophical school, but in fact he never refers directly to Lao Tzu in his own work.

It is said that Lao Tzu dictated the work when challenged by the Keeper of the Pass, whose name is sometimes given as Kuan Yin. This, unfortunately, looks identical (in English) to the name of the bodhisattva Kuan Yin, otherwise known as Kwannon, the Japanese 'goddess' of mercy. It is, however, utterly different in Chinese.
Although there has been much debate over the existence of the Lao-Tzu, Sage and Daoist deity, followers believe him to be a living man in 5th century (BCE) China, and later an idol. According to legend, fearing barbarian invasion towards the end of the Zhou dynasty, he pretended to go crazy and fled China. While leaving, Lao-Tzu was recognized by a gatekeeper and asked to leave a record of his teachings. He wrote the Dao-De Ching. I do not intend to contemplate the existence or truth behind Lao-Tzu and this legend, but rather the intricate myths surrounding the early stages of Daoism, focusing mainly on his birth and touching briefly upon the later events of the creation of Heaven and Earth.

In legend, Lao-Tzu was more than an archivist in the Zhou dynasty; he was present before time, created time, and then served to bring Daoism to the people. The myths surrounding his feats are intricate and detailed.

“Lao Tzu transformed his body. His left eye became the sun; his right eye, the moon; his head became Mount K’un-lun; his beard, the planets and constellations; his bones, dragons; his flesh, four-footed creatures; his intestines, snakes; his stomach, the sea; his fingers, the Five Peaks; his hair, trees and grasses; his heart, the Flowery Dias; as his two kidneys, they were united and became one, the Real and True Father and Mother.”

This myth shows the all-encompassing nature of Lao-Tzu; each part of Lao-Tzu makes up something in the world. The myths connect him to the world, and thus make him one with the Dao. The Dao splits into the myriad of things, much in the same way Lao-Tzu does. The myth above is just one involving Lao-Tzu, but there are many. I have decided to look closest at the myths about the birth of Lao-Tzu, for they display the interesting dichotomies (of balance and chaos) of Daoism very well.

The Creation Lao Tzu

There are many incarnations of the mythical creation of Lao-Tzu; some texts decree that he was created out of a random convolution of essences and energies, while others say that he was born of a mother. Both theories co-exist, and somehow never clash. I believe the co-existence is possible because the mutable ability of Lao-Tzu to be both pure energy and human. Lao-Tzu’s creation can be described as both a coming together of energy, or a gestation in a womb. Just as he is both, so is his birth.

The Birth of Lao-Tzu
In the beginning there came to be “three energies.” The Jade Maiden, also known as Mother Li, swallowed these energies. The energies entered her womb where they developed into an embryonic Lao-Tzu. According to Daoist legend, “Divine heroes are carried for 12 months, great sages eighteen,” and Lao-Tzu was carried for 81 years. While in the womb Lao-Tzu studied “sacred texts.” When he was born, Lao-Tzu was fully matured, with white hair, and emerged from his mother’s side.

Other incarnations of the birth go further into detail. According to an oral legend, Lao-Tzu’s mother was a virgin who swallowed “sweet dew” and became pregnant. During her pregnancy, Lao-Tzu left at nights to study Daoism, and thus it was said she “was not pregnant at night.” It was Lao-Tzu himself, not wanting to leave the womb, who delayed his birth more than eighty years. When he was born, he was able to walk and speak. His birth was arranged by the Lords of the Underworld and Heaven, who declared that he would be born on a day on which “neither death nor birth” was allowed. After being birthed through his mother’s armpit, he walked briskly away until his mother beckoned him, “'You! My Old Child! Why are you leaving without letting me have a look at you?’” Upon seeing her white haired child, Lao-Tzu’s mother died. Un-phased, Lao-Tzu walked until he found a peach orchard, where he decided to take the name Li, as his family name and the name Lao-Tzu as his personal name.

The birth of Lao-Tzu from a mother brings the question of how could the Jade Maiden, or Lao-Tzu’s mother exist, when Lao-Tzu is the “true creator.” Through Daoism it is quite simple, “ it was he himself who transformed his body from nothingness into the shape of mother Li.” Another account of Lao-Tzu’s birth explains further,

“In the midst of emptiness and pervasion, great nonbeing was born. Great nonbeing transformed and changed into the three energies, the mysterious, primordial, and beginning. Intermingling in chaos, they followed each other and transformed to bring forth the Jade Maiden… After the Jade Maiden had been so created, the chaos energies congealed again to transform and bring forth Lao-Tzu.”

Although to some the birth may seem confusing and bring forth images of Jerry Springer (Sages who are their own mothers, and those who love them), drawing from the my knowledge of Daoism from the texts I have read, the birth can be explained. To me it is similar to the seeming contradiction of Wu-Wei, and an enfolding of the Dao upon itself; it is as if Lao-Tzu created a house for himself (out of his own energy) to live. Much as a barnacle forms its protective casing, or how a slug rides on a trail of its own mucus, Lao-Tzu “is born from a mother who is none other than the energies that make up himself.” Other explanations are more direct, “he took refuge in his own womb. There was never a real Mother Li.” Furthermore, this birth is a feminine process, much like the cultivation of the Dao inside the Sage to create the “ruddy infant.” The legends of the birth of Lao-Tzu are complex and bring up fundamental questions about Daoism, but all convey a purely Daoist method of energy cultivation.

The Energies of Lao-Tzu
Lao-Tzu’s birth can also be described in less definite terms, as a reorganization of energy, not as a birth. According to yet another legend, “Lao-Tzu is the body of the Dao. There is an inner as well as an outer body, the difference being the result of different circumstances to which the body is responding.” The body has nine names, nine energies, from which Lao-Tzu was created. But at the same time he was created of the body, he was the body. The second myth behind Lao-Tzu’s birth is quite similar to the first, just without the presence of a mother. I believe that the birth myth is just an attempt to put a more human spin on the process described in the energies myth.

Creation of Heaven and Earth

After his birth, Lao-Tzu had an empty world to define, the “myriad beings did not have shape.” It is at this point where Lao-Tzu enters a confusing state. He is at once the “Chaos Primordial” and at the same time outside of it, “contemplating chaos.” The only way I make sense of this is to realize that Lao-Tzu exists where there is only chaos, the Dao, so he can freely be the Dao and at the same time exist outside of the Dao. The world was then created through transformations of Qi (Chi) and other energies, but Lao-Tzu was among them and separate from them. After creating a world, Lao-Tzu populated both Heaven and Earth with deities and humans respectively, making sure not to leave out offices for the deities to employ. The myths behind the creation of Heaven and Earth connect back to the birth myth. Lao-Tzu is part of the chaos he shapes, yet able to be separate from it; just as he is Mother Li, yet at the same time in her womb.

The legends surrounding the creation of Lao-Tzu are an interesting subject to study, because when examining, I have thought that perhaps Lao-Tzu (if he indeed existed) was simply a philosopher or follower of the Way, and once he left a record of his teachings got mixed up in legend and myth. I have come to the conclusion that the origin of Lao-Tzu’s deity status is not significant, for they are legends and only meant as symbols and methods for understanding Daoism. The creation of Heaven and Earth follows similar methods, they are not necessarily true, but reaffirm Daoist beliefs. I have concluded that the myths surrounding Lao-Tzu aren’t necessarily truth, or to be taken as truth, but rather a method to teach Daoism and unite its followers, for a religion without a central idea could turn to disarray.

Li is Chinese for Peach. His personal name, Lao-Tzu, comes from what his mother called him “old child.”

81 is significant because it is 9x9. The nines represent the different Qis

Mother Li’s death is also described as “heavenly spirits come to meet her as she climbs into a chariot of colorful clouds and flies off to the sound of divine music.” Furthermore, while in the womb, Lao-Tzu was taught the “secrets of the art of immorality,” by his mother, himself.

Bibliography (all quotes from the following sources)
Bokenkamp, Stephen R. Early Daoist Scriptures. Berkeley: University of Califonia Press, 1997. 502 pp.

Henricks, Robert G. Lao-Tzu: Te-Tao Ching. New York: Ballantine Books,1989. 282 pp.

Kohn, Livia. God of the Dao: Lord Lao in History and Myth. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 1998. 390 pp

Kohn, Livia and Larfargue, Michael eds. Lao-Tzu and the Tao-te-ching. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. 330 pp.

Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. 296 pp.

Schipper, Kristofer. The Taoist Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. 273 pp.

For specific work/quote matchups, /msg me (Proper endnotes would be quite long!)

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