Here is a sample of Lao Tze’s penetrating distillation of what constitutes character―one small sample from a vast body of knowledge.

Lao Tze was one of the founders of Taoism as well as its greatest scholar. Many legends have sprung up to fill the void of personal information about him, so only facts that are true to his nature (as revealed in his writings) are recounted here. Named Li Er at birth he soon proved himself to be a natural genius. When he was just a toddler his extraordinary wisdom earned him the appellation Lao Tze, meaning “Old Man” (Lao Tse, Lao Tzu or Lao Tsu are other variations. The definitive PinYin pronounciation is Lǎo (ǎo is like the ow in how that also inflects down and then up) Zi (Z is the tz in blitz and i is a sound between e in end and u in up that is shortened; hence the confusion manifested in so many translation variations). Later on he served as Director General of the National Library and Treasury for the Chou Dynasty (1122?-249 B.C.) Emperors. His fame as a great scholar drew many who sought to become his disciple or student, one of whom was Confucius, the founder of Confucianism. By all accounts Confucius sought wealth and position in every corner of the empire. When he came to seek Lao Tze’s guidance their historical meeting recorded by Confucius’ students proved to be a telling one. After hearing the content of the man, Lao Tze criticized Confucius for having four shortcomings that “must be purged for [his] own good”: self-centeredness, hypocrisy, arrogance, and avaricious ambition. Observing that Confucius “looked like a sad dog who lost his home” after coming out of his meeting, the students asked what Lao Tze was like. Confucius described him as being so unfathomably deep that he was unable to grasp him and added an observation: “He is at once before and after me.” Confucius never achieved the kind of success he wanted in his lifetime, and for the remaining third of his life had to study intensively what Lao Tze had already mastered early on.

One day, at an extremely old age―one hundred and sixty by some accounts―Lao Tze decided to leave. Riding on a water buffalo he headed west. Upon reaching Han Gu Pass he met a customs official, Yin Shi, who already admired his teachings. The official insisted Lao Tze leave something behind as a remembrance. Lao Tze handed him his book Tao Te Ching (pronounced Dow―as in Dow Jones―De Jing) and continued on his journey, vanishing without a trace. (It was strongly suggested in later legends that he transformed himself into the Grand Buddha.)

Lao Tze’s penetrating understanding of universal, spiritual truths was written down in the famed Tao Te Ching for our betterment, word for word, by his own hand. Although the Tao Te Ching, which could be said to be the first classic, was written almost 3,000 years ago, its teachings about the Tao or the “Way” have magnified in importance and beneficence through time. It stands out in particular because no other work attributed to a scholar of that period in time was written by the author’s own hand, true to his thoughts. All other works were written by disciples, sometimes hundreds of years after their founder-teacher’s time, leaving contemporary readers without any means to prove whether the teachings were those of the founder or those of the disciples (who placed their understanding―whether limited or adequate―of their teachers’ words or their own words in their teachers’ mouths). Only with Lao Tze can one be sure that his words are true not only 3,000 years ago, but also today and in the days to come. His truth is not only the truth of heaven and the universe, but is also relevant as well as usable and beneficial to all of humanity in all walks of life. Perhaps that is why, without any kind of organized advocacy or publicity, the Tao Te Ching is snatched up by the hundreds of millions in the west, second only to the Bible.

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