Laozi & the Daodejing

Confucius asks Laozi for Instruction in the Rites

The Evolution of Daoism
The interpretation of Laozi’s Daodejing (Tao-Te Ching) is notoriously difficult. To begin with, there may never have been a person named Laozi; secondly, the book was most likely not entitled Daodejing by its original author. Furthermore, it may not even have been a monograph written by one person. The historical placement of the book is also controversial. The traditional view held that it was written by someone named Lao Dan, who was senior to Confucius (in the sixth century BCE), and that it was written on his exit to the West in response to the request of the gatekeeper. Another popular traditional view placed the work in the fourth or third century BCE, as written by someone named Li Er, who used the name Laozi (meaning “Master Lao” or “the Old Master”) to hide his own identity. A more accepted view among contemporary commentators is that this book was a compilation of various sayings of different people, and the present version was completed around the first century AD. [An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, 131]
Issues in the Textual History of the Daodejing
The discovery of two Laozi silk manuscripts at Mawangdui, near Changsha, Hunan province in 1973 marks an important milestone in modern Laozi research. The manuscripts, identified simply as “A” (jia) and “B” (yi), were found in a tomb that was sealed in 168 B.C.E. The texts themselves can be dated earlier, the “A” manuscript being the older of the two, copied in all likelihood before 195 B.C.E. (see Lau 1982, Boltz 1984, and Henricks 1989). ...

The two manuscripts contain all the chapters that are found in the current Laozi, although the chapters follow a different order in a few places. For example, in both manuscripts, the sections that appear as chapters 80 and 81 in the current Laozi come immediately after a section that corresponds with chapter 66 of the present text.
       Both manuscripts are similarly divided into two parts, but in contrast with the current version, in reverse order; i.e., both manuscripts begin with the Dejing, corresponding to chapter 38 of the received text. “Part one” of the “B” manuscript ends with the editorial notation, “Virtue, 3,041 [characters],” while the last line of “Part two” reads: “Dao, 2,426.” Does this mean that the classic should be renamed? One scholar, in fact, has adopted the title Dedaojing (Te-Tao ching) for his translation of the Mawangdui Laozi 
(Henricks 1989). ... If the order is deliberate, does it imply that the “original” Laozi gives priority to sociopolitical issues? This raises important questions for interpretation. ...
Until recently, the Mawangdui manuscripts have held the pride of place as the oldest extant manuscripts of the Laozi. In late 1993, the excavation of a tomb (identified as M1) in Guodian, Jingmen city, Hubei province, has yielded among other things some 800 bamboo slips, of which 730 are inscribed, containing over 13,000 Chinese characters. Some of these, amounting to about 2,000 characters, match the Laozi (see Allan and Williams 2000, and Henricks 2000). The tomb is located near the old capital of the state of Chu and is dated around 300 B.C.E. Robbers entered the tomb before it was excavated, although the extent of the damage is uncertain.
       The bamboo texts, written in a Chu script, have been transcribed into standard Chinese and published under the title Guodian Chumu zhujian (Beijing: Wenwu, 1998), which on the basis of the size and shape of the slips, calligraphy, and other factors divides the Laozi material into three groups. Group A contains thirty-nine bamboo slips, which correspond in whole or in part to the following chapters of the present text: 19, 66, 46, 30, 15, 64, 37, 63, 2, 32, 25, 5, 16, 64, 56, 57, 55, 44, 40 and 9. Groups B and C are smaller, with eighteen (chs. 59, 48, 20, 13, 41, 52, 45, 54) and fourteen slips (chs. 17, 18, 35, 31, 64), respectively. ...
Two approaches to the making of the Laozi warrant consideration, for they bear directly on interpretation.
       A linear “evolutionary” model of textual formation would suggest that there was an original Laozi, by Lao Dan or of unknown authorship, and that the Guodian Laozi was close to or were abridged versions of this original text.
       Concerned with the decline of Zhou rule, according to this view, the original Laozi addressed above all issues of governance. During the third century B.C.E., the Laozi had undergone substantial change and grown into a longer and more complex work, becoming in this process more polemical against the Confucian and other schools of thought, and acquiring new material of stronger metaphysical or cosmological interest. The Mawangdui manuscripts were based on this mature version of the Laozi; the original emphasis on politics, however, can still be detected in the placement of the Dejing before the Daojing. Later versions reversed this order and in so doing subsumed politics under a broader philosophical vision of Dao as the beginning and end of all beings.
       The Guodian and Mawangdui manuscripts are certainly older than the received text of the Laozi, but this does not necessarily mean that they are therefore closer to the “original,” if there was an original. As opposed to a linear evolutionary model, it is conceivable that there were several overlapping collections of sayings attributed to Laozi from the start, each inhabiting a particular interpretive context, from which different versions of the Laozi were derived.
       Although some key chapters in the current Laozi that deal with the nature of Dao (e.g., chs. 1, 14) are not found in the Guodian corpus, the idea that the Dao is “born before heaven and earth,” for example, which is found in chapter 25 of the received text is already present. The critical claim that “being [you] is born of nonbeing [wu]” in chapter 40 also figures in the Guodian “A” text. This seems to argue against any suggestion that the Laozi, and for that matter ancient Chinese philosophical works in general were not interested or lacked the ability to engage in abstract philosophic thinking, an assumption that sometimes appears to underlie evolutionary approaches to the development of Chinese philosophy. ...
[I]t seems clear that different written collections of Laozi sayings circulated among the educated elite during the fourth century B.C.E. It is likely that they were based on earlier oral traditions, and perhaps certain choice sayings were inscribed on bamboo, in different collections according to different interpretive emphases, even before 400 B.C.E. However, until confirmed by new archaeological evidence, it would be more critically responsible to leave open the time, the location and the way in which these written collections of Laozi sayings were first formed.
The Guodian texts would be examples of these written collections that surfaced during the fourth century B.C.E., and there is no reason not to believe there were others, perhaps even longer collections. Overlapping in some cases and with varying emphases in others, they address both the nature of Dao and Daoist government. These were then developed in several ways — e.g., some collections were combined; new sayings were added; and explanatory comments, illustrations, and elaboration on individual sayings were integrated into the text. The demand for textual uniformity rose when the Laozi gained recognition, and consequently the different textual traditions eventually gave way to the received text of the Laozi. [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Laozi]
Assuming that the Daodejing was not in fact written by a “historical” person named Laozi in the sixth century BCE, we must look elsewhere for the origins of the Daoist tradition. One approach would be to focus on four primary concerns that we see expressed in the various texts and traditions that are referred to as “Daoist” and then consider how these texts and traditions might be related to each other:

1. Cosmology: Dao is not a system of thought (as it was for Confucius), but a cosmological principle: the ultimate source of the myriad things. [cf. An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, 132-42]

2. Inner Cultivation: Daoists developed various “inner cultivation” techniques in their attempts to transform themselves in accordance with the cosmological Dao. In the early Daoist tradition, for example, practitioners employed apophatic (self-emptying) meditation in order to attain a state of unity with the Dao; one would then return from this state of unity to the world of multiplicity, but maintain the unifying connection to the Dao through its concrete manifestation, de (Inner Power). [cf. An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, 142-6]

3. Socio-political Theory: application of 1 and 2 to the socio-political context. [cf. An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, 146-50]

4. Religious Organization: based on various “revelations” beginning in the late 2nd century CE. [cf. Sources of Chinese Tradition, 392-414]

Based on which of the above layers appear in a particular
tradition, we can distinguish between four types of Daoism
that evolved in roughly chronological order:


c. 4th century BCE
Exemplified by the Inner Chapters (1-7) of the Zhuangzi, portions of the Daodejing, and a short text called the Neiye (Inward Training), which provides detailed information about the meditation/breath control practices used to bring about the state of union with the Dao. In this context, “Individualist” does not mean that the practitioner is self-centered, but rather that the focus is on individual self-cultivation, as opposed to social transformation; indeed, it is precisely by eliminating all self-centered thoughts and feelings that the practitioner opens up to the “inner power” (de) of the Dao, which allows one to live in harmony with the world.
  • Combines the first and second elements of Daoist tradition.
mid-3rd century BCE
Exemplified by various passages in the Daodejing (e.g. 19, 57, 65, 80), as well as portions of the Zhuangzi (most notably Chapters 8-11. This approach includes the self-emptying practices of the Individualist, but combines it with an emphasis on a “primitive” socio-political order, which is characterized by a minimalist government that promotes a simple, agrarian lifestyle in order to minimalize the desires of the people.
  • Combines the first, second and third elements of Daoism.

late 3rd through 2nd centuries BCE
Exemplified by the “Syncretists” (a group credited with compiling the Zhuangzi and writing that text’s final chapter, which summarizes their position), as well as the Huangdi Sijing (Four Classics of the Yellow Emperor) and the Huainanzi. This approach is rooted in Daoist cosmology and meditation, but incorporates elements of Confucian morality and Legalist principles of government.
  • Combines the first, second and third elements of Daoism, though the political dimension differs significantly from the ideals established in the “Primitivist” sections of the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi.
2nd century CE to the present
Represents the refinement of a Daoist cosmology as well as the development of corresponding techniques of inner cultivation that lead to the “perfection” of the spirit with the ultimate goal of attaining “immortality.” It also develops a priesthood to serve the lay (i.e. non-ordained) community by performing rituals for health, social harmony, and well-being in the afterlife.
  • Combines the first through fourth elements of Daoism.

The Mystical Foundations of Daoism
ntrovertive, Extrovertive & Bimodal Mystical Experience
In a recent review essay I argued for the presence of a “bimodal” mystical experience in early Daoism, particularly evident in the “inner chapters of the Zhuangzi. The first mode is an introvertive unitive consciousness in which the adept achieves complete union with the Dao. This corresponds, in general, with Stace’s “introvertive mystical experience” and with Forman’s “Pure Consciousness Event.” The second is an extrovertive transformed consciousness in which the adept returns to the world and retains, amidst the flow of daily life, a profound sense of the unity previously experienced in the introvertive mode. This experience entails an ability to live in the world free from the limited and biased perspective of the individual ego. This second mode corresponds, in general, to Stace’s “extrovertive mystical experience,” although I would regard it as a quite profound subcategory of it. This bimodal character of mystical experience is, actually, quite prevalent in mystical experience across traditions, but it is often overlooked by scholars, who tend to focus on the introvertive mode exclusively. While evidence for its presence is not as strong in the Laozi as in the Zhuangzi, it is, as we shall see, most certainly there. [Harold D. Roth, “The Laozi in the Context of Early Daoist Mystical Praxis,” in Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi, 66]

The following passage is from a text that provides more specific details of Daoist “inner cultivation” than either the Zhuangzi or the Laozi (a.k.a. Daodejing):

There is a numinous [mind] (shen) naturally residing within;
One moment it goes, the next it comes,
And no one is able to conceive of it.
If you lose it you are inevitably disordered;
If you attain it you are inevitably well ordered.
Diligently clean out its lodging place
And its vital essence will naturally arrive.
Still your attempts to imagine and conceive of it.
Relax your efforts to reflect on and control it.
Be reverent and diligent
And its vital essence will naturally stabilize.
Grasp it and don’t let go
Then the eyes and ears won’t overflow
[i.e. exceed their proper functions]
And the mind will have nothing else to seek
[since it will be guided by the “numinous” vital essence].
When a properly aligned mind resides within you,
The myriad things will be seen in their proper perspective
[or “One will naturally respond to the myriad things according to their proper measure”].

[adapted from Harold D. Roth, Original Tao, 70]

Daodejing ~ Chapter 1
The Cosmological Foundation
A way that can be way’d is not the Constant Way;
          A name that can be named is not the Constant Name.          
The nameless is the beginning of Heaven and Earth;
The named is the mother of all things.
Thus be constantly without desire
in order to observe
its subtlety,
Yet constantly have desire
in order to observe its manifestation.
These two arise together,
But differ in name.
Their unity is therefore called a mystery.
A mystery on top of a mystery —
The gateway of all subtleties!
[Translated by Brian Hoffert; cf. SCT, 79-80]