To a mind that is still the whole universe surrenders.” ― Lao Tzu
One of the three main sources of ancient Chinese wisdom is Lao Tzu, from the 6th Century B.C.E. (The others are Confucius and Buddha.)
His work is foundational to the understanding and practice of Taoism (“The Way”) which today still has over 20 million followers.
The Legend of Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu’s origin and early years are unknown. He first comes to us as a record keeper in the Zhou Dynasty. In time he became repelled by the widespread moral corruption, and rode a water buffalo to China’s Western border. He was disguised as a farmer, but the border official recognized him and importuned him to write down his Wisdom.
Why he was recognized is unknown – had he been a teacher? How it was known he had wisdom to impart is unknown. Had he publicly expressed what we find in the Tao Te Ching, his short but infinitely powerful work?
At any rate, having written all he wanted to say, he disappeared into history.
Is It True?
Lao Tzu, also written as Laozi, means “Old Master”. It’s an honorific, a title – yet that is the only way he is known.
He may, in fact, be an apocryphal figure, like Homer in Western culture. The Tao Te Ching may be a collection of wisdom culled from many sources.
The legend has been passed down along with the teachings. There’s really no point in excavating his origins. The Truth of these sayings is clear and immediate.
What Are His Words?
Lao Tzu’s philosophy is based on the concept of Wu Wei.
Wikipedia describes it as:
Wu wei (無爲), literally "non-action" or "not acting", is a central concept of the Tao Te Ching. The concept of wu wei is multifaceted, and reflected in the words' multiple meanings, even in English translation; it can mean "not doing anything", "not forcing", "not acting" in the theatrical sense, "creating nothingness", "acting spontaneously", and "flowing with the moment."
We find this concept in modern philosophy and spiritual development, the suggestion that everything (except one’s character) is not out of our control, per se, rather it is flowing with what the Universe brings you. Contemporary thinker Matt Kahn presents it as Whatever Arises, Love That (his book title).
As with so many Biblical verses, or Zen koans, each of the statements of Lao Tzu can be explored, elaborated, parsed for its implicit meaning.
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” ---Lao Tzu
What Does It Mean?
For me, each of these is rich in application to myself.
This one stimulates thoughts of one of my discoveries, a practice I have increasingly pursued as I’ve gotten older: Offload. If you want to achieve, say, a Spiritually advanced state, you must clear out old baggage. I say I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to forget useless things in my mind.
The trouble with memory is this: you remember everything and associations are like files. For people like me, the problem with memory is where I’ve filed things. Naturally, when you have a thought it often falls in a category you already have (e.g. Sports, Cooking, Recreation, a Person) but especially if it’s a new thought for you, you don’t always know where to file it. It goes into the jumble, then, and retrieval becomes a task of retracing your mental steps. A lot of what’s in your mind is, frankly, junk. With me it’s like outer space, even those satellites that have died keep floating around above the atmosphere.
Stilling the mind, for me, has required offloading my emotions around past events, forgiving others and myself, and refiling with feeling good for the resolution.
That is letting go of who I am.
You can see the motivation for continual mental housekeeping in the first quote in this post. This one is a corollary.
And yes, Lao Tzu means it in the largest sense, although I don’t find it common: he is preaching detachment, total and complete, from deeper things like desires or self-concept. He has been called the first Libertarian, and has long been popular with anarchists.
Quotations and Applications
The “Goodreads” site lists 941 quotes from Lao Tzu.
I’ll just go with a few, with some interpretative suggestions. To a Taoist, the meaning is in the personal application.
Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.” ---Lao Tzu
In other iterations, this is described as the Mirror Technique. It says that when someone is directing evil toward you, dissing you, you will be fine if you can turn yourself into a mirror. Don’t fight them, just mentally reflect their projection back at them. Does the image – any image – affect the mirror’s glass?
The wise man is one who knows what he does not know.” ---Lao Tzu
Life itself teaches us this. We must never stop learning. I’ve learned, at some cost, that there is more out there than I could ever know. A classic example is the Internet. You do a search for something you’re a great expert at, and get something like the listing for Marilyn Monroe (as of this writing, 92 million results). Seriously, do you really know all there is to know?
You’ve heard the expression, “Physician, heal thyself.”
Some say space is our greatest frontier. Some say the oceans. In fact there is no greater frontier than our own selves. My version: “Are you who you want to be or who you happen to be?”
I’ll finish with one more. See what it brings up for you.
From caring comes courage." — Lao Tzu