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The Wisdom of Lao Tzu the Taoist Sage


The Story-Telling, Game Theorist, Troubleshooter, and Common Sense Problem-Solver


Q. Concerning Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao te Ching, – Did he have specific views on ethics and Morality?

A. Lao Tzu was no fan of imposed moral or ethical codes. He understood that these did not come out of Taoist mystic practice but rather out of some cultural or community value.

The dedicated student of Tao needs to be ethically grounded in the knowledge of kindness, compassion, generosity, loyalty, and love because this is what reflects the true nature of human beings. For Lao Tzu this is quite different than imposed morality. My own Taoist mentors taught consistently that regular meditation and inner inquiry makes this self-evident, obvious, and easy to act upon. When we ignore Tao we may become entangled in lust, anger, greed, attachment, and ego. When these five passions rule a person’s life and there is no introspection or meditation, then it appears reasonable to enact strict laws, rules and regulations to save one from destruction. And yet it is these very rules, laws and regulations that a person will react and rebel against. The less we are in alignment with our Taoist nature, the greater the reaction will be. Sadly, imposed morality lacks the grace of self-evidence. So clearly, for Lao, there is a distinction between personal ethics and rigid morality.  On this Lao Tzu says:

“When we are no longer naturally kind to one another, morality blossoms.”

The core of what makes one a person of profound wisdom is the same throughout all time, though the form in which those of profound wisdom may be presented may vary. Rules, regulations, customs, and laws are also constantly changing as they are adapted to particular eras but the core elements of wisdom are fixed. No matter how the morality of a particular society may change, or how our individual experience of life may vary, the behavior that brings one closer to Tao never changes. For what may be a rule of moral behavior in one culture may be seen as immoral in another.

The failure of the laws of morality that are imposed by religious leaders on their followers is that they lead to competition and repression without actually increasing ethics or a sense of what is right or wrong. Whereas the person of profound wisdom acts “morally” and with integrity because this is the way of Tao, religious leaders often create new rules and schemes to force their followers to be moral. Lao Tzu addresses this when he points out that for the true Taoist, morals and artificially created rules of are the first signs of a deviation from Te.

For the true Taoist, traditional religious morality is a tool that the pompous use to show how deeply spiritual they are. It is used to show how superior they are to the common man. Such morality leads to the development of rites and rituals in religion. Though these moralists may seem intelligent and clever, they lack the wisdom of Tao. Religious moralists wear special robes or clothes that in essence announce to the world “here walks a person of great morality and spiritual knowledge,” or “here is a person who can tell, show, or explain what God thinks or what God wants you to do!” They may appear spiritual outside and yet they condemn others in their minds.

Lao Tzu was not against truly moral behavior, but only the type of artificial morality that is created by the rule of law. He placed the inner ethics that came from meditation and living a life in alignment with Tao on a higher plane than religious morality.


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Lewis Harrison is a practical philosopher, mentor, and peak performance coach.

He teaches workshops and seminars on Eastern Wisdom, Zen and Taoist Thought, Applied Game Theory, and Personal Growth. He was the director and editor of a forty-year project translating the Tao te Ching from Mandarin to English.


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