Every now and then students visit our Temple to learn more about Taoism. Last weekend proved to be one such occasion, as two undergraduates from Loyola Marymount University stopped by to observe our practice and to ask questions.
Such visits always turn out to be great learning opportunities. The students benefit from their first-hand observation and experience, which can impart insights beyond the knowledge from text books. At the same time, I also benefit from the students fresh perspectives and stimulating inquiries.
Casey, one of the visitors, had already developed an interest in Taoism, even though he came from a heavily Catholic background. In fact he had read English translations of Tao Te Ching several times on his own. This level of understanding provided him with a good foundation for asking probing questions.
For instance, Casey brought up the issue of Lao Tzus existence. Was the philosopher an actual historical figure, or was Tao Te Ching perhaps written by a multitude of authors?
From our studies we know that Lao Tzu was noted in authentic historical documents, and it's a fact that Confucius spoke of meeting Lao Tzu in no uncertain terms. From these corroborating sources we can be quite certain that Lao Tzu the sage did indeed walk the Earth once upon a time in ancient China.
But let us for a moment suppose the opposite. What if Lao Tzu did not exist and the truth expressed in Tao Te Ching was the work of more than one person? Would that not shake the very foundation of our beliefs?
The answer is an emphatic no, if we are true practitioners of Taoism. We call ourselves Tao cultivators precisely because we follow the Tao rather than any one particular individual. We all seek the universal principles, the patterns that exist in all things, and the basic truths in our daily life. These principles and patterns and truths are constant and eternal. They are part and parcel of our plane of existence no matter which philosophers or scholars contemplate them. The Tao is ever-present and unchanging whether expressed by one person or a hundred people.
Let us all keep this overriding principle in mind as we delve further into the teachings. Taoism is a philosophy for thinkers. It is not for those who prefer to follow a cult figure blindly. Whatever our individual paths to Tao may be, we must ultimately choose them out of our own independent wisdom and intuition. We must, in short, think for ourselves.
Seen in this light, the existence and identity of Lao Tzu is of relatively minor importance compared to the Tao itself. Lao Tzu never presented himself as a messiah or prophet. He, too, would prefer for us to concentrate on the message rather than the messenger!