The primary religious figures in Taoism (dào jiào 道教) are Lao–Tzu (lǎo zǐ 老子) and Chuang-Tzu (zhuāng zǐ 庄子), two scholars who dedicated their lives two balancing their inner spirits. Classical Taoist philosophy (dào jiā zhé xué 道家哲学), formulated by Lao-Tzu (the Old Master, 5th century B.C.), the anonymous editor of the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and its Power dào dé jīng 道德经), and Chuang-Tzu (3rd century B.C.), was a reinterpretation and development of an ancient nameless tradition of nature worship and divination.
Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, living at a time of social disorder and great religious skepticism, developed the notion of the Dao (Tao – way, or path dào 道) as the origin of all creation and the force, unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestations, that lies behind the functioning’s and changes of the natural world. They saw in Dao and nature the basis of a spiritual approach to living. This, they believed, was the answer to the burning issue of the day: what is the basis of a stable, unified, and enduring social order?
The order and harmony of nature, they said, was far more stable and enduring than either the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human learning. Healthy human life could flourish only in accord with Dao which is a natural, simple, and free-and-easy approach to life. The early Taoists taught the art of living and surviving by conforming to the natural way of things; they called their approach to action wu wei (no-action wú wéi 无为), action modeled on nature.
Their sages were wise, but not in the way the Confucian teacher was wise, learned and a moral paragon. Chuang-Tzu’s sages were often artisans, butchers or woodcarvers. The lowly artisans understood the secret of art and the art of living. To be skillful and creative, they had to have inner spiritual concentration and put aside concern with externals, such as monetary rewards, fame, and praise. Art, like life, followed the creative path of nature, not the values of human society.
Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu had reinterpreted the ancient nature worship and esoteric arts, but they crept back into the tradition as ways of using knowledge of the Dao to enhance and prolong life.
Lao-Tzu was a philosopher of ancient China and is a central figure in Taoism (also spelled “Daoism”). Lao-Tzu literally means “Old Master” and is generally considered an honorific. Lao-Tzu is revered as a god in religious forms of Taoism. According to Chinese tradition, Lao-Tzu lived in the 6th century BC. Historians variously contend that Lao-Tzu is a synthesis of multiple historical figures, that he is a mythical figure, or that he actually lived in the 4th century BC, concurrent with the Hundred Schools of Thought (bǎi jiā zhēng míng 百家争鸣) and Warring States Period (zhàn guó shí qī 战国时期). A central figure in Chinese culture, both nobility and common people claim Lao-Tzu in their lineage. Throughout history, Lao-Tzu’s work was embraced by various anti-authoritarian movements.
Lao-Tzu’s magnum opus, the Daodejing, is one of the most significant treatises in Chinese cosmogony. As with most other ancient Chinese philosophers, Lao-Tzu often explains his ideas by way of paradox, analogy, appropriation of ancient sayings, repetition, symmetry, rhyme, and rhythm.
The Daodejing, often called simply the Lao-Tzu after its reputed author, describes the Dao (or Tao) as the mystical source and ideal of all existence: it is unseen, but not transcendent, immensely powerful yet supremely humble, being the root of all things. The Tao Te Ching, or Daodejing, is widely considered to be the most influential Taoist text. It is a foundational scripture of central importance in Taoism. It has been used as a ritual text throughout the history of religious Taoism.
The opening verse, with literal translation, is:
The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.
The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.
Tao literally means “path” or “way” and can figuratively mean “essential nature”, “destiny”, “principle”, or “true path”. The philosophical and religious “Tao” is infinite, without limitation. One view states that the paradoxical opening is intended to prepare the reader for teachings about the unteachable Tao. Tao is believed to be transcendent, indistinct and without form. Hence, it cannot be named or categorized. Even the word “Tao” can be considered a dangerous temptation to make Tao a limiting “name”.
According to the Daodejing, humans have no special place within the Dao, being just one of its many (“ten thousand”) manifestations. People have desires and free will (and thus are able to alter their own nature). Many act “unnaturally”, upsetting the natural balance of the Dao. The Daodejing intends to lead students to a “return” to their natural state, in harmony with Dao. Language and conventional wisdom are critically assessed. Taoism views them as inherently biased and artificial, widely using paradoxes to sharpen the point.
Here is a famous verse:
All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful,
and in doing this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is;
they all know the skill of the skilful,
and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the want of skill is.
Wu wei, literally “non-action” or “not acting”, is a central concept of the Daodejing. The concept of wu wei is very complex and reflected in the words’ multiple meanings, even in English translation; it can mean “not doing anything”, “not forcing”, “not acting” in the theatrical sense, “creating nothingness”, “acting spontaneously”, and “flowing with the moment.”