The Tao Te Ching is said to have been written by Lao Tzu, the Custodian of the Imperial Archives during the reign of the Chou Dynasty, though some researchers believe that Lao Tzu, which translates as the honorific term Old Master is a composite of several people. The practice of attributing authorship to a composite writing team is not unheard of in the world of literary classics. The works attributed to William Shakespeare, for example, are thought by some scholars to be the combined work of several people, including his fellow actors in the troupe, and one Sir Henry Neville, a courtier and distant relative of Shakespeare.
A handbook for people of influence
Whether Lao Tzu was one man or several, the Tao Te Ching is clearly a response to a time of great political unrest. China at that time had been comprised of hundreds of warring states that came into frequent conflict in a ceaseless struggle for dominance. Aggression was met with escalating aggression until it seemed the Middle Kingdom would be annihilated. The Tao Te Ching was written to educate people of influence in the ways of peace and harmony.
The Tao Te Ching is the result Lao Tzu’s careful observations of the unfolding patterns of Nature. From these observations a set of underlying principles was deduced; principles that cause the world to behave in the way it does.
The principles deduced by Lao Tzu are abstract in the same way that a mathematical formula is an abstraction. Knowledge of these principles is tremendously helpful for a person seeking harmony and balance, just as the mathematical formula Pi r squared is helpful for calculating the area of a circle, any circle.
The interconnectedness of all things
Lao Tzu came to discern the dynamically interconnected relationship of all things. He then distilled his observations into his modest little book. He called this unifying field of forces the Tao (or the Way in English). The Tao Te Ching is therefore something of an ancient Chinese treatise about Physics.
The abstraction of the Tao is difficult to express in purely logical terms, so the author resorted to paradox in much the same way as Zen Koans do. This induces an intuitive understanding that complements logical awareness.
Polarity& the Big Bang
An important principle in this unifying field of forces is polarity. Lao Tzu’s understanding of how the Universe began matches closely what we today would recognise as the Big Bang theory. Before the bang, there was ‘The Supreme Absolute’ which had limitless undifferentiated potential but no physical existence. Then, in the instant of the bang the Supreme Absolute divided itself from non-existence in an event that created space and time and which is characterised by on-going cause and effect phenomena. This physical universe is founded upon two charged states, yin (negative) and yang (positive). Due to the complementary polarity of matter and energy, these constantly separate and regroup to create the changing, evolving physical reality that is the universe we know.
Everything in the phenomenal universe comes into existence through the dynamically interacting polarities of yin and yang. The way that yin and yang interact is governed by the laws of physics, which Lao Tzu called the Tao. Thus we can view the Tao as an indication of the larger purpose of the Supreme Absolute.
Our Purpose is to help the Absolute experience Itself
Lao Tzu reasoned that if the Absolute wanted to experience itself by creating a universe in which multitudes of conscious points-of-presence have experiences by interacting with each other, then our purpose (as points-of-presence) should be to help the Absolute get a good look at itself by investigating, observing, and emulating Nature.
Taoists therefore work to become aware of and understand the laws of Nature with a view to harmonising with them, particularly as they manifest in human society. The enlightened person cultivates their understanding of the Tao and lives in harmony with Nature. They create the right conditions within themselves and in their environment for enlightenment to spontaneously occur.
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