Historians differ on exactly when Lao-Tzu lived and taught, but it’s largely held that some time between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, the “old master” founded philosophical Taoism. Viewed as a divine figure in traditional Chinese religions, his ideas and writings would form one of the major pillars (alongside Confucius and the Buddha) for Eastern thought. Lao-Tzu espoused an ideal life lived through the Dao or Tao (roughly translated as “the way”). As such, Taoism is equally rooted in religion and philosophy. In traditional telling, though Lao-Tzu never opened a formal school, he worked as an archivist for the royal court of Zhou Dynasty. This gave him access to an extensive body of writing and artifacts, which he synthesized into his own poetry and prose. As a result of his writing, his influence spread widely during his lifetime. In fact, one version of his biography implies he may well have been a direct mentor to the Buddha (or, in some versions, was the Buddha himself). There are lot of colorful narratives surrounding Lao-Tzu, some of which are almost certainly myth. In fact, there are some historians who even question whether or not Lao-Tzu was a real person. Historical accounts differ on who he was, exactly when he lived and which works he contributed to the canon of Taoism. However, in most traditional tellings, Lao-Tzu was the living embodiment of the philosophy known as Taoism and author of its primary text, the Tao Te Ching.

Lao-Tzu’s Key contributions

  • Espoused awareness of the self through meditation;
  • Disputed conventional wisdom as inherently biased, and urged followers of the Tao to find natural balance between the body, senses, and desires;
  • Urged individuals to achieve a state of wu wei, freedom from desire, an early staple tenet of Buddhist tradition thereafter.

Lao-Tzu’s Key Works