Heroes of Ancient China: The Great Spiritual Teacher Lao Zi

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Lao Zi is depicted riding his ox as he spreads the Dao across China. (Image:widodo via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

As the founder of Daoism and the author of Dao De Ching (道德經), Lao Zi helped shape traditional Chinese culture. The following conversations with his disciples offer some insight into his spiritual achievements.  

Confucius learns the virtue of water

Confucius was one of many disciples who received instruction from Lao Zi. After telling his own disciples, “Lao Zi , the historian of Zhou’s chamber, is a man of great knowledge of the past and the present, who knows the source of ritual and music and the essentials of morality. I will go to Zhou to seek instruction.”

After Confucius had completed his studies in Zhou, Lao Zi escorted him to the shore of the Yellow River, where they bade farewell.

Upon reaching the shore of the swiftly flowing river, Confucius sighed: “Time passes like the river. Day and night it does not stop! I know neither where the river is flowing nor where life is heading. I worry that the Way is not working. Benevolence and righteousness are not being practiced, war and chaos are endless, and the country is in turmoil. I sigh that life is short, and I cannot be useful to the world and to the people.” 

Lao Zi pointed at the river and suggested, “You should learn the great virtue of water.” Confucius asked, “What are the virtues of water?” 

Lao Zi replied, “Water has superior virtue; it benefits all things but does not compete. This is the virtue of modesty. Water can rule over all grains and crops because of it’s submissive nature. 

“Nothing under heaven is softer or weaker than water, yet it is the most invincible. Softness is better than rigidity; weakness is better than firmness. If there is no competition, then no one can compete with you. This is the virtue of water.

“Like the Dao, water is everywhere. It flows low, not pursuing heights. It resists nothing and adapts to everything.  The sage follows the Dao; the wise man adapts to events and changes, ruling without making rules, and the accomplished follow the will of heaven.

“After you leave here, you should remove pride from your speech and ambition from your appearance. Otherwise, people will hear you before you arrive, and sense you before you move. If you act like a tiger on the street, no one will dare to approach you.”

Confucius said, “I will never forget what you have said. I will follow your teaching without fail to thank you for your kindness.” 

When he returned home, his disciples asked Confucius, “What does Lao Zi  look like?” Confucius said, “I know that a bird can fly, and a fish can swim, but a dragon rises in the midst of the wind and clouds and I know not where it is nor how far it goes up or down. Lao Zi is like a dragon.”

Disciple learns the value of modesty and simplicity

When the royal family of Zhou was in civil unrest, Lao Zi left the palace ready to settle in seclusion. One day as he rode an ox to the outskirts of Liang (now Kaifeng, Henan Province) he came across one of his disciples. The disciple hurriedly rolled off from his tall horse and knelt in front of Lao Zi’s ox. Lao Zi  got down, helped him up, and walked with him.

Lao Zi asked, “What have you been busy with lately?” The disciple replied, “I am here to visit my ancestors’ house, buy property, repair the beams, recruit servants, and straighten out the family rules.” Lao Zi said, “It is enough to have a place to lie down and a place to eat. Why do you need to make such a show?” 

The disciple replied, “To cultivate one’s body, one must sit in silence, walk in relaxation, eat in simplicity, and sleep in peace. Unless one has a private house, how can one do so? Once one has a private house, how can one sustain it without recruiting servants and furnishing it? Once servants have been recruited and the house has been furnished, how can they be managed without making household rules?”

Lao Zi laughed and said, “The Way is natural, so there is no need to force oneself to be quiet. The way of living is relaxed when there is no pursuit; the way of eating is fresh without extravagance; the way of sleeping is peaceful without desire. Why do you need a mansion to cultivate your body? Eat when the stomach is hungry, rest when the body is tired, work at sunrise, sleep at sunset. What is the need for all the services at home? If one follows nature and does nothing, one’s mind will be at peace, and one’s body will be healthy; if one works against nature, one’s mind will be in chaos, and one’s body will suffer.” 

Abashed, the disciple said, “I am a humble disciple. Thank you for your guidance.” Lao Zi asked. “Where do you reside?” He replied, “Pei (now Pei County, Jiangsu Province).” Lao Zi said, ” I am happy to go with you.” The disciple was delighted and gladly went east with his teacher.

VancouverCanada_Lao_Zi-LaoTzu_mural_chinatown
A mural in Vancouver’s Chinatown shows Lao Zi, the sage of Daoist philosophy. (Image: Ted McGrath via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

On the journey, it was necessary to take a boat to cross the Nan River. Lao Zi  boarded first, leading his ox. The disciple boarded later with his horse. Lao Zi  was kind and smiling, laughing and chatting with his fellow passengers; the disciple stood tall with his head held high. Seeing his towering manner, the passengers offered the disciple a seat, and the boat owner offered him tea and a towel. 

After the boat trip, they rode their animals to continue their journey. Lao Zi sighed: “Just now, I saw your attitude, with your head held high and your chest puffed out, haughty and arrogant, you are not teachable.” The disciple was ashamed and said sincerely, ” I have become accustomed to that. I will change it!” Lao Zi said, “When a gentleman deals with others, he is like ice in water; when he works with others, he is as humble as a child and servant; he is virtuous and generous, but ordinary.” 

The disciple took these words to heart and changed his demeanor; he was no longer reserved nor condescending, his words were neither egotistical nor flattering. 

Lao Zi praised him, “You have made progress! A human being is a natural thing as he is born from his parents and lives between heaven and earth. When a person regards oneself as higher than others, it is against nature; when a person regards oneself lower than others, it is against one’ s own nature. When one regards all things equally and as one, moves and stops following the natural rhythm, speaks and acts naturally, he is in line with the Dao!”

Confucius grasps the vastness of the Dao

Confucius and Lao Zi  parted ways for 17 or 18 years. When Confucius was 51 years old and heard that Lao Zi  had returned to Pei of the Song state to live in seclusion, he brought his disciples to visit Lao Zi.

When Lao Zi saw Confucius, he asked, ” We have been separated for more than ten years. I have heard that you have become a great sage in the north. With what will you enlighten me on this visit?” Confucius said, “I am not brilliant. I have been thinking hard and studying hard and have been wandering in vain for more than ten years, but I have not yet entered the gate of the Dao. Therefore, I have come to seek advice.”

Lao Zi said, “The Dao is as deep as the sea, as tall as a mountain, all over the world and everywhere. It flows incessantly and reaches everything. When you seek it, it is unattainable; when you discuss it, it is inaccessible! The Dao gave birth to Heaven and Earth without waning, and bore all things without withering. Because of the Dao, the sky is high, the earth is thick, the sun and the moon are in motion, the four seasons are in order, and all things take shape.

When Confucius heard this, he felt as if soaring in the clouds, or diving under the sea, or entering the mountains and forests. He felt that he had become one with heaven; he was all things, and all things were himself. His mind was open and happy and he could not help but exclaim: “It is vast! Profound! Boundless! In my fifty-one years on earth, I have never known the world to be so vast and immense!”

Lao Zi said, “The sage, when dealing with the world, does not turn his back on things, does not hold on to things that have changed, follows the flow of things, and lets things happen naturally. He who harmonizes and adapts is a virtuous person; he who follows the rhythm is a person who has attained the Way. Knowing the Way, one can be at ease with the alternation of the sun and the moon, the shaking of the sky and the earth, the roaring of the wind and tsunami, and the thunder and lightning of the storm.”

Confucius could not help but be inspired. “At 15, I set my heart upon learning; at 30, I had planted my feet firmly on the ground; at 40, I was no longer perplexed. Now at 51, I have learned what creation is! If I am a magpie, I will evolve according to the nature of magpie; if I am a fish, I will evolve according to the nature of fish; if I am a bee, I will evolve according to the nature of bee; if I am a man, I will evolve according to the nature of man. Magpie, fish, bee, and man are different, but they all behave according to their own nature.” 

Yin Xi foresees Lao Zi’s arrival and joins him to study and spread the Dao

Yin Xi, a great official of the Zhou Dynasty, was fond of ancient books and excelled at astronomy. He was capable of seeing into the future and past.  One day, when he looked up and observed the celestial signs, he saw a violet zephyr approaching from the east, and knew that a sage was about to arrive at the western gateway. He requested to serve as commandant of the Huangu Pass, where he then instructed the guards: “A great sage will pass through here in a few days. Tell me right away when you see such a distinguished person.” In preparation, he sent people to sweep the road and burn incense to welcome the saint.

Indeed, Lao Zi had decided to take his ox to the western region to spread the Dao. As he was about to pass through the Huangu Pass, Yin Xi rushed to meet him and knelt down in front of the ox cart, saying, “Yin Xi, the Commander of the Pass, bows to the Sage!”

Lao Zi said, “I am a simple man of modest means. You perform this extraordinary ritual. To what do I owe this honor?” Yin Xi bowed again and said, “I have been waiting here for many days since I received a divine vision. Now I see the remarkable bearing of a great sage. What is the point of being an official at the border? I hope the sage will teach me.”

Lao Zi asked, “What did you see and know?” Yin Xi replied, “In October of last winter, the star of Heavenly Sage traveled westward, and at the beginning of this month, there was a purple breeze from the east, so I knew there was a sage traveling westward to pass the border. The purple air extended for thousands of miles so I knew it was not an ordinary being, but a sacred saint. I am grateful for your guidance.”

Lao Zi smiled and said, “Excellent! As you know me, I too have known you. Your vision of divine power should lead you to enlightenment. My name is Lao Zi .” When Yin Xi heard that it was Lao Zi, he burned incense and bowed down to offer his deepest respect to his new teacher.

Yin Xi resigned from his post to accompany Lao Zi, traveling along the west side of the Qinling Mountains to spread the Dao. One day they came to a magnificent place with auspicious clouds, flying dragons, dancing phoenixes, fragrant flowers, and flowing springs. It was really a paradise unlike anything on Earth. Lao Zi praised it as a blessed place in the world, and shared his insights on morality, the universe, life and society. His words were recorded by Yin Xi and became known as the Dao De Ching

Yin Xi followed Lao Zi’s teachings and devoted himself to the practice of Daoism. After he attained enlightenment he became known as the Supreme Master. Yin Xi’s vision of Lao Zi’s journey, the phrase “Purple Energy from the East (紫氣東來),” has become fixed in Chinese culture as a symbol of good luck and good fortune.

  • Born and raised in China, Lucy Crawford has been living in Canada for over 20 years. She has great sympathy for Chinese and human suffering in general. With a Master's degree in Education and having worked on various professions, she now translates and writes about stories in ancient and modern China. She lives in Calgary with her husband and four children.