Tao Te Ching
Approx. 600 BCE
Lao Tzu – or Laozi – may or may not be a real dude. He’s often said to have been a court record keeper during the period of the Zhou dynasty, though a signficant number of historians believe he’s actually a philosophical character, a composite of real historical figures and mythological ones. Doesn’t really matter, either way, for our purposes – the Lao Tzu we know is the recognized founder of Taoism, and to many a near-deity.
The Tao Te Ching is the primary canonical text of Taoist thought, and like all foundational texts its authority and inspiration is claimed by scholars, religious groups and political actors across the spectrum. The Tao is the unseen source of all creation, not a transcendent power but one that imbues all existence and represents the ideal of all existence. The tao is a state of balance, of natural harmony in which humans individually and collectively have no special or privileged place in the creation but are, like all, of it. Human consciousness, language, knowledge, technology, progress – human action in the world and to the world generally – can easily upset the fundamental balance, the drive to desire, act, and achieve being at odds with the Dao’s harmonic state of calm, of acceptance, of being at peace with oneself and the world.
This is, of course, a profoundly impoverished description of the Tao Te Ching and the philosophical/ spiritual basis of Taoism generally. It gives some indication, though. Bottom line is that the text’s impact on the world cannot be overstated. One of the most widely translated and widely-read of all books, it has provided the philosophical basis for a massive tradition of Asian thought, has profoundly impacted and shaped western philosophy more recently, and has influenced art, literature, politics, aesthetics – and even gardening – across the globe.