|Lao Tzu (wikipedia.com)
The Tao Te Ching is the primary text of the Taoist philosophy and religion. It is commonly accepted that a man named Lao Tzu, which means “Old Sage,” wrote it in the sixth century B.C. Even this seemingly basic fact is a subject of controversy, as the historical records of the time period are scanty at best. Legend has it that Lao Tzu, an older contemporary of Confucius, was a keeper of archives at the Imperial Library in the city of Luoyang in the Honan province of the court of Zhou. Eventually Lao Tzu quit his work and purportedly rode off into the desert on his ox. During his departure he was convinced by a guard at the westernmost gate of the Great Wall to record his teachings. What resulted was the Tao Te Ching, a collection of 81 poems that survives to this day. There is significant scholarly debate regarding the existence, true identity, and actual life events of Lao Tzu, but the fact remains that, real or not, Lao Tzu was responsible for creating the Taoist tradition.
When I was five, my family took me to church for the first time that I can remember, and when I was ten I decided I didn’t believe there was a god. It was something of an issue at the dinner table for several months, because, being raised in a devout Christian family where her father read the bible aloud every night, I think my mother felt guilty for having raised a godless heathen for a son. Heathen or not, my parents loved me and eventually adopted a more open mind with regards to my spiritual development. What followed my rejection of Christianity was a period of searching for something to accept as truth. Given that I was ten, I wasn’t really cognizant of the other available options, but I attended a few meditation groups and Buddhist meetings. They were, on the whole, unsatisfying. During this time period, my father gave me a copy of the Tao Te Ching, which he had been in possession of since his younger and more ridiculous years in the early seventies. Although I didn’t embrace it and become a Taoist scholar on the spot, it was the first abstract set of ideas about the nature of the universe that I didn’t reject immediately.
From that point until the end of high school I would read the book from time to time and appreciate a stanza here or a line there, but never spent too much time thinking about what it was actually saying. All my life I have appreciated nature as the proper order of things or as a model for the way things should be; nature is perfect. For this reason, scientific explanations of the universe and transcendentalist writings about the glory of nature became increasingly important for me. It wasn’t until I reached college and began more serious contemplations about the nature of existence that I began to value the Tao Te Ching and Taoist philosophy.
Beyond simply adding a new layer of understanding to my perpetually developing concept of reality, it also added a non-dogmatic set of suggestions on how a person might lead a more fulfilling life. Lao Tzu believed that by following “the Tao,” loosely translated as “the Way,” a person could lead a life of contentment, and that by sharing it, one could help others do the same. At that point in my life I was just glad to have finally decided that there was some semblance of order to the universe, even though it might be difficult to comprehend or keep in mind at all times.
The teachings of Lao Tzu emphasized simplicity, the elimination of desires, the value of peace, the importance of balance in life and in the universe, the benefits of living modestly, and the goodness of nature as a process. For me, ideas are always partially developed, a work in progress. In accordance with this, the Tao Te Ching and other Taoist texts that I have since read have not given me any complete ideas, but they have helped me to redefine some of the concepts most important to me and the way I live my life. Lao Tzu has given me food for thought about the heaviest of topics. It might be cliché, but his ideas changed my life, and they have done the same for countless people for over 2500 years.
So does this qualify him as a hero? Lao Tzu didn’t drag three injured comrades off the battlefield under heavy fire, and he didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize for curing cancer. Regardless, I feel that he fits my definition of hero. For most of my life I have hesitated to answer any inquiries about heroes and role models. I never felt like I should want to live my life like another person, and so a role model was out of the question. Having a hero was an even more remote possibility, because, as I saw it, hero added an element of perfection to its definition. People tend to idolize their heroes; be they a celebrity, an athlete, or police officers in general; forgetting all too easily that everyone is human.
Recently, my views have changed on the topic. I’ve decided that the concept of a Hero is an intensely personal one, and should go beyond simple idolatry. Anybody who I would call a hero would have to have significantly affected my life, but at the same time be almost without flaw. The only way for this to happen would be for me not to know much about them. Because Lao Tzu lived 2500 years ago I am oblivious to his human shortcomings. Maybe after further research I could find out that he was a heavy drinker who beat up Mrs. Tzu, but probably not. I suppose that there are portions of the Tao Te Ching that do not sit with me as well as others, and in this sense it is imperfect for me. However, due to the time that has elapsed between Lao Tzu’s life and my own, the only physically tangible thing that has survived, giving any hint as to who he was, is a book full poems with useful ideas for contemplating existence, my life, and the nature of the universe.
In a less tangible sense, Lao Tzu was the father of a philosophy that has enriched the lives of countless people. It was from his teachings and the writings of his disciples that Taoism came into existence. All we know about Lao Tzu is the good that he did and some unreliable basic facts about his life. My perception of Lao Tzu has never been jaded by his humanity, and thus, he is a hero to me.