The Zi Crew: Philosophers who blew everyone’s mind

The man we call “Laozi” (老子, Lǎozǐ), known in the Western world as Lao-Tzu or Lao-Tse, didn’t feel the urge to document himself. After all, no true Daoist would ever claim credit for his ideas, let alone pursue fame and fortune. Welcome to life in accordance with the Dao (道 Dào, also spelled Tao) meaning “The Way.”

In flow with the underlying natural order of the universe, we connect with our true nature in unselfconscious, effortless action. We also arrive at an understanding that life is essentially meaningless. Not in the sense we don’t care about it, rather in the realization that “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong” do not exist other than as personal judgments.

1. The Dao seems nonsensical, yet it makes perfect sense.

In an era of wicked rulers and shifting borders, Laozi sought refuge in the ineffable order of a vast interconnected universe in which man is but a tiny fragment. Daoist landscape ink paintings convey the feeling of our insignificance, along with a profound wonder at the natural world around us.

“When the beautiful strives to be beautiful, it is repulsive.
When the good strives to be good, it is no good.”
– Laozi

Laozi would be highly critical of our so-called modern world with its rabid overconsumption and growth-at-any-cost materialism. Laozi’s Daodejing (道德经, Dàodéjīng, lit. Way Virtue Classic) points to excessive desires as unnatural, and cautions readers that holding onto these desires will lead to a dissatisfying life, and eventually to destitution, want, alienation and self-destruction. Sorry Confucius…the worst kind of virtue never stops striving for virtue, and so never achieves it.

2. Non-doing doesn’t mean doing nothing.

Laozi takes this drama in stride: All force eventually defeats itself and those attempting to impose their will on others will realize the opposite of their intention. And so sages abide in non-doing (无为, wúwéi, lit. do nothing) or noninterference, a state of spontaneous harmony between individual urges and the Way of Heaven.

The nonviolent resistance of Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King is pure Dao, nonaction in action. Doing nothing and yet everything is done (无为而无不为, wúwéi ér wúbùwéi). Psychologist Jonathan Schooler cites wuwei as an antidote to overthinking and paralysis by analysis in our modern world. Once we’ve achieved a certain degree of proficiency, both at work and in life in general, it’s much better to go with the flow.

3. Laozi may have been a mythic figure.

That’s right, historians aren’t in agreement about whether or not he was a real person or a composite figure. Sages act with no anticipation of reward, and when their work is done, they do not linger. By putting themselves last, they come out first.

The Dao is pure abundance. Our following it, natural and instinctive. And if we are indeed interconnected through the Dao, then all our competitive one-upping amounts to nothing more than an illusory struggle with ourselves.

“Manifest plainness.
Embrace simplicity.
Do not think just of yourself.
Make few your desires.”

– Laozi

David Moser, the Academic Director of CET Beijing Chinese Studies and an avid musician, discovered that Miles Davis’ philosophy of jazz seemed to echo centuries of Chinese aesthetics. Miles famously told his sidemen staring with confusion at their music sheets, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there!” Moser reflects, “If that’s not Daoism, what is?”

Part One: Kongzi 孔子 (Confucius) Self-Help Guru.
Part Three: Sun Tzu 孙子 (Sunzi) the Master of Winning Smart.
Part Four: The Zi Crew Gets Bombed on Baijiu

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • You have an overly circular design to your “Get a Chapter Free” routine: every time I ry to find the free chapter all I get is another form asking for my e-mail.

    Where’s the actual chapter?


  • K
    Kathy Cheng says:

    Interesting isn’t it that I feel I am understanding such teachings better with your explanation than when I was reading them in Chinese when I was little! Age is probably part of it, but I like the connections you’ve made between those ancient philosophies and Mandela for example. Glad that “Laozi” was born before Twitter/Facebook got in the way/dao of harmony!

    • Z
      Zhumin Sun says:

      Not sure if Laozi would like or dislike Twitter/Facebook/Wechat. But quite sure that he wouldn’t do anything about it, such as clicking the reply button(!) Any other similar teachings on your mind which left you puzzled when you were little? We’ll be happy to consider them for our future posts : )

  • H
    Horst Loeblich says:

    Aristotelian (think: the golden mean) and a bit Hegelian (thesis, antithesis,
    synthesis). I’m not sure it simplifies anything for me, but it does speak
    to important values, or perhaps to put it more accurately, attitudes, that
    are easy to overlook in the modern Western world but which, in one form or
    another, must be embraced if one is to ever exit a perpetual state of
    anxiety and throw light into the realm of possibility, the first step
    toward growth of any kind.

    • s
      s2beck says:

      Thanks for your comment, Horst. Laozi’s writings continue to intrigue me. Whenever I breeze through the Daodeqing it triggers new realizations and fresh relevance to my current life phase.

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