Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much

Not a Lao Tzu quotePoor Lao Tzu. He gets saddled with the most atrocious of the New Age codswallop. As if it wasn’t enough to be for founder of one of the most obscure  philosophies (not a religion, since it has no deity), he gets to be the poster boy for all sorts of twaddle from people who clearly have never read his actual writing.

This time it’s a mushy feel-good quote on Facebook (mercifully without kittens or angels) that reads,

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Well, it’s not by Lao Tzu. Or more properly, Laozi. That’s not his name, by the way: it’s an honorific, a title that roughly translates to “Old Master.” His real name was likely Li Er, Wikipedia tells us. But his name doesn’t matter: it’s the single book he left us that is relevant.

That book – the Tao Teh Ching – consists of 81 short “chapters” – although they’d be better described as poems. Or pithy epithets. It can be ready cover to cover in an hour.

For all its brevity, the Tao Teh Ching is a weighty work. It’s the underpinning of an entire school of  Chinese metaphysics and philosophy: Taoism, that dates back to the Axial Age, circa 500 BCE. That makes Lao Tzu contemporary with Confucius and in the same rough time frame as Siddhartha Gautama.

Lap Tzu was clearly a deep thinker, which makes it all the more ironic that he gets accused of spouting all sorts of saccharine New Age piffle.

One of the stories of how the book came about goes like this: Lao Tzu was the Keeper of the Royal Archives. Late in his life, he wearied of the intrigues, the corruption and the crassness of life at court. He decided to go live the remainder of his life as a hermit in the mountains. At the city gate, the sentry asked him to write down his wisdom. The result was the Tao Teh Ching.

Like with many religious, political or philosophical figures, take any story or claims with a grain of salt. Stories get embellished by both supporters and enemies over the centuries.*

Others say the work is really a collection of sayings by many people, collated into a single work. Since the earliest copy of the text is at least 100 years younger than Lao Tzu, and there are no verifiable records that identify him as the sole author, this theory strikes me as having some merit.

After all, every single religious work I can think of has been edited, added to, cut away from and interpreted by hundreds of human hands in the interim since it was first penned. Why not this one?

What matters is not the author: it is the wisdom therein. But it’s not easily parsed: much of it is obfuscatory and confusing. Taoism isn’t for the faint of philosophy. Take, for example, the opening verse:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders.

Scholars and philosophers have debated and expanded on this and every verse in the Tao Teh Ching ever since it was first penned. Not necessarily with any consensus. And as a mere lay person, I can only read their interpretations and wonder how such deep thought gets polluted with New Age folderol.

Mostly, I suppose, because people don’t think about it, don’t bother to check references, and rely on egregiously inaccurate, user-driven quotation sites rather than actually check the work in question or look at a credible quote site like Wikiquote.org. This site also has several other sayings mis-attributed to Lao Tzu.

So many of these mis-attributions are simply wishful thinking: people wish Lao Tzu said it and they make it so. Then they add a kitten or a baby or an angel or a rainbow to the quote and voila: an internet meme.

Yet this sort of generalization seems to resonate with some of the hard-of-thinking crowd. I found these comments on reddit:

Man, this is exactly what I needed to read. I’ve been focusing so much on the past lately, and it’s been making me depressed among other things. Then, when I think about the future, I get incredibly anxious and worried. Thanks for posting this, have an upvote.

If you’re nostalgic, you’re reminiscing about the past. If you’re optimistic, you look forward to the future. If you’re a flakey airhead or an addict, you might be tooooo much in the present.
Past and future don’t always = bad.
Present doesn’t always = good or enlightened.

The inability to focus on the present manifests itself in two ways. One focusing on the past, the other focusing on the future. They’re similarly co-morbid, because of the overall inability to focus on the emotions relevant to the present.

I’m so glad you’re making a positive change in your life, and that I was able to help! Have an excellent day! :)

This was absolutely invigorating and I thank you for it.

While I agree that there is a useful distinction between the way the terms “depression” and “anxiety” are bandied about in everyday parlance, versus their clinical meanings and the very severe conditions they describe, I still think this is a very insightful quote and not at all a load of nonsense. Keep in mind that Lao Tzu predates the DSM by over 2000 years.

Only one of the posts in a rather long thread after this quote actually questions who said it.

I started to dissect the quote ascribed erroneously to Lao Tzu, but found a good analysis at buddhism.about.com. The author writes,

I don’t think it’s true, or at least not true for everybody, all the time. I was particularly irritated by use of the word depressed. Depression is a common emotion, but it’s also the name of a crippling mood disorder that requires careful medical management. And I can say from my own hard experience that clinical depression is not merely the result of “living in the past.” It’s not like that at all, actually.

Glib little sayings like this are not helpful to people struggling with a real mood disorder. It’s saying that if you were just more disciplined and could think the right thoughts, you wouldn’t be so messed up. It’s an unskillful thing to say to someone who is actually depressed, and for whom the present is a cruel and terrifying place.

And then she adds, rather un-Buddhistically,

However, I do hope people keep posting pictures of their pets and babies on Facebook. Those never get old.

Yeah, there’s nothing like a kitten or baby to motivate a person towards disciplined self-awareness. Maybe if Facebook charged users $1 every time they posted an image, it would cut down on the amount of claptrap that gets circulated.

This idea of being in the present, not the past or future, is ancient, but face it: you’re a human being. You remember things, you imagine things, your brain – unlike that of most other mammals – has both self-awareness and an awareness of the temporal stream. You understand consequences, you understand how the dominoes fall. You cannot help but be aware of past and future.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden,

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

Yes, we need to be aware and awake in the moment, like the Buddha said, but being depressed isn’t living in the past. People get depressed over future issues, too. Like worrying about how the next paycheque will cover your bills, or whether the kids will amount to anything. Spouting pseudo-psychological generalizations and attributing them to long-dead sages won’t change that.

The highest goodness resembles water
Water greatly benefits myriad things without contention
It stays in places that people dislike
Therefore it is similar to the Tao

Dwelling with the right location
Feeling with great depth
Giving with great kindness
Speaking with great integrity
Governing with great administration
Handling with great capability
Moving with great timing

Because it does not contend
It is therefore beyond reproach

The Tao Teh Ching is replete with this sort of stuff. Very little of it fits into the bumper-sticker or cute-kitten format. It’s like the Dhammapada: a book you really need to read and ponder. Not strip some lines out of context and stick them on a poster as if they are meaningful guides to life in isolation of all other considerations – moral, ethical and philosophical.

But in this case, it wasn’t even taken out of context. It was simply attributed without accuracy. It’s s junk philosophy turned into a New Age poster. Go fiddle with some crystals or homeopathic “remedy” please – and stop cluttering social media with this nonsense.

Wisdom isn’t a series of quotable sound bites. Or a poster with kittens.

Stop sharing stuff if you haven’t verified the source.


* As they do even today. Just look at how the local opponents of council (and their candidates for the next election) have embellished stories about this council. We call them fairy tales, here.

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Author: Ian Chadwick

Writer, editor, reviewer, communications consultant, former municipal politician, researcher, ukulele musician, media relations consultant, fan of Shakespeare and Chaucer, tequila aficionado, lay historian, chess player, PC gamer, avid reader, skeptic, website tinkerer, companion to two dogs and four cats, loving husband, harmonica & bass player, passionate about my small town, and perennially curious about everything.

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