They didn’t walk into a bar together, but it’s sobering to think that these two monumental pillars of human thought lived at roughly the same time in the same part of world, allowing for the greatest meeting of dueling philosophies since civilization began.
I’m talking, of course, about…
Prior to this historic encounter, wherein Elvis drunk-dialed the White House and asked to be made a Federal Agent, the previous record-breaker for unlikely convocation belonged these two: Laozi and Confucius, circa the 6th century BC.
That’s if Laozi lived at all. Not everyone’s convinced he did. Lao means “old,” and “zi” is an honorific. The Old Master. Though copies of the Daodejing date all the way back to the 4th century BC, no hard mention’s made of Laozi’s life before Sima Qian’s Record of the Great Historian some three hundred years later. But that would be just like a Daoist founder, wouldn’t it? His last laugh on humanity, to have not existed at all?
Those who do subscribe to the founder of Daoism’s existence date his birth twenty to fifty years prior to that of the Great Sage.
There’s one legend that a rendezvous between Lao Zi and Kong Fu Zi took place in the city of Luoyang in the 6th century BC. This was a volatile time in the history of the state of Lu, Confucius’s homeland. Confucius sought to protect the precious books he had written, edited, and collected by taking them to the national library. He transported them by horse cart some two hundred miles to the capitol of Luoyang. There, the curator refused to take the books, as the library was not intended for private collections. Instead Confucius sought out Laozi, now retired, who had served as the library’s curator for many years, for his intercession. One thing led to another, and Confucius ended up spending some weeks studying with the Old Master and reading ancient texts. When they finally parted, Laozi left him with some puzzling advice:
“…What you are studying and teaching now is all from ancient men, who died a long time ago, and even their bones have rotted away. Those written words are in fact only their footprints, neither their shoes nor their feet, let alone what was in their minds…”
– Laozi, quoted in A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy, You-Sheng Li
After their parting, Confucius saw a hunter shoot down a duck with his bow, and Confucius contemplated his meeting with the Old Master:
“Birds can fly but will fall at the hunter’s arrow. Fish can swim but will be hooked by the fisherman. Beasts can run but will drop into people’s nets and traps. There is only one thing that is out of man’s reach. That’s the legendary dragon. A dragon can fly into the sky, ride on the clouds, dive into the ocean. A dragon is powerful yet so intangible to us. Laozi is the dragon, and I’ll never understand him.” – Confucius, ibid
As great a story as it is, there’s reason to believe the ancient Taoists propagated this tale to bolster their claim as the more ancient and profound philosophy of the two by placing Confucius as the pupil.
However, if the meeting did take place, Confucius had stellar timing. It couldn’t have been too much later that, the legend goes, Laozi packed his bags, hopped on a water buffalo, and headed out west. He had all but said good-bye to civilization and its trappings when a border guard at the last outpost of the known world stopped him. Recognizing the great philosopher for what he was, the border guard, a man named Yin, refused to let Laozi pass. The world needs you, begged Yin. Yin persuaded Laozi to at least write down his words of wisdom before bidding society farewell.
Laozi jotted down about 5,000 characters. We know them today as the Daodejing, the founding document of Daoism.
The first lines of the Dao are a caveat emptor. Or caveat lector. Reader beware, ’cause what you’re about to read, it ain’t the Dao.
The two lines are usually translated as:
The Dao that can be spoken is not the true Dao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
Dao is a tricky word, and ‘way’ is a poor substitute, because in Chinese dao is the verb of the sentence, too: The Way that can be Way’ed is not the true Way. Like ‘name’ in the second sentence. There’s no English equivalent for dao.
Which only serves Laozi’s point. He was the Heisenberg of his day. (No, not Walter White, the other one.)
With the disappearance of Laozi and the passing of Confucius, it was time to draw the curtain on the fading Spring and Autumn Period. The splintering of China would be followed by its brutal consolidation, a centuries-long historical drama known as the Warring States Period. So-called because—well…that one’s easy enough to figure out. One of the most lawless, cutthroat times in all Chinese history, life would never be the same. But then, as a wise man once said…
“Like a river flows
Slowly to the sea
Darling so it goes
Some things were meant to be.”
—Elvis (The King)