The possibly legendary author of the Tao Te Ching, the most famous and influential of Taoist scriptures. Literally, Lao Tzu is a descriptive title meaning "Old Master." According to the traditional account, he lived in the sixth century B.C. His name was Li Erh and he served as Keeper of the Royal Archives until retiring from civil service. He is said to have traveled to a Western pass, where he was going to leave the country for good, but a frontier guardsman persuaded him to give his teachings before leaving. These teachings were written down and became the Tao Te Ching. Postumously he was given the name Li Tan (where Tan means long-eared, or wise). Sometimes he is also called Lao Tan, possibly through being confused with another royal librarian of that name who lived two centuries later.

In 142 A.D., a teacher named Chan Tao-Ling founded formal religious Taosim based on a vision he had of Lao Tzu. In religious Taoism, Lao Tzu was titled as T'ai Shang Lao-Chun (the Great Lord on High). He came to be regarded as the embodiment of the Tao. Kristofer Schipper writes: "the cosmic body of the Old Master is the image and the model of the entire universe." Schipper quotes a text from the second century A.D.:

Alone, without companion, he wanders in the times of yore, before there were Heaven and Earth. He comes out of his hidden state and returns there to dwell. Having vanished, he is the Primordial; becoming manifest, he becomes human. Elusive! Through the transformation of Heaven and Earth and of his spirit, he is made flesh in the bosom of Mother Li.


Kristofer Schipper, The Taoist Body. Berkley: University of California Press, 1993.

Eva Wong, Taoism: An Essential Guide. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997.

Red Pine (translator), Lao-tzu's Taoteching. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1996.

Image at left from Taoism: An Essential Guide. (Colors added.)

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Copyright 2003 by Joseph F. Morales