6th century BC – China
He lived in the capital city and served as the keeper of the archives at the royal court. A man of great wisdom, he attracted many people, who gathered around him and considered him their teacher. But as he observed the moral decay of the city and the kingdom, he felt out of place and resolved to leave.
He journeyed westward, planning to cross the country’s far western border and there, in the frontier, in solitude, live out the rest of his life.
But when he reached the kingdom’s western gate, the guard recognized him. He entreated the wise man to set down a record of his teaching before departing the country for good.
Thus, according to legend, was born the Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing). The wise man of China was Laozi.
Out of this great work emerged the great philosophical and religious tradition known as Taoism (or Daoism), which have been such a powerful force in Eastern Asia for more than two millennia, and which have exerted their influence in the West for that last two centuries.
We know very little about Laozi. Some scholars question whether a man of that name existed at all (Laozi means old master or old masters). Some believe the works attributed to him were written by a collection of people over time. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the wisdom, and whoever wrote the Tao Te Ching possessed great wisdom indeed.
It’s hard to imagine what life was like in China in the 6th century BC, 2,600 years ago, when Laozi and his disciples lived. But the teachings could not be more relevant today. Laozi offers practical guidance as well as counsel for political rulers.
What is Laozi’s central teaching?
The most important thing people can do in life, Laozi asserts in the Tao Te Ching and other works attributed to him, is to gain a state of silent awareness — to open the mind to its source:
Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything
unfolding from emptiness
See all things flourish and dance
in endless variation
And once again merge back into perfect emptiness—
Their true repose
Their true nature
Emerging, flourishing, dissolving back again
This is the eternal process of return
To know this process brings enlightenment
To miss this process brings disaster
Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity
Eternity embraces the all-possible
The all-possible leads to a vision of oneness
A vision of oneness brings about universal love
Universal love supports the great truth of Nature
The great truth of Nature is Tao
Whoever knows this truth lives forever
The body may perish, deeds may be forgotten
But he who has Tao has all eternity  — Chapter 16
Laozi calls on us to “become totally empty,” to “quiet the restlessness of the mind.” Then we experience the “emptiness” that forms source and goal of all things. This “brings enlightenment” and “reveals the secrets of eternity.” Grounded in this experience, one attains a “vision of oneness,” leads a life of “universal love,” and achieves immortality. In contrast, “to miss this process brings disaster.” To this transcendental field of life Laozi gives the name Tao, or Dao. Dao is usually translated as the Way, or the Path. The term is often understood to mean “nature.” Clearly it refers to a very deep level of nature, because, as Laozi says, when you gain the Tao, you gain “all eternity.”
Experiencing the Tao, Laozi observes in this next verse, involves allowing the mind to move beyond the superficialities of thought and perceptions:
A mind free of thought,
merged within itself,
Beholds the essence of the Tao
A mind filled with thought,
identified with its own perceptions,
beholds the mere forms of this world. 
To experience “the essence of the Tao,” Laozi indicates, is to apprehend the truth. And the key, again, is to let the mind settle inward, beyond thought, into itself.
Here are some passages from the Hua Hu Ching, another work attributed to Laozi:
The superior person settles his mind as the universe settles the stars in the sky.
By connecting the mind with the subtle origin, he calms it.
Once calmed it naturally expands, and ultimately his mind becomes as vast and immeasurable as the night sky. 
As the mind settles inward, Laozi tells us, it expands, culminating in unbounded awareness. This experience, he emphasizes in the same work, is the key to everything good — while missing this experience, he cautions, leaves you forever lost:
Remain quiet. Discover the harmony in your own being. Embrace it. If you can do this, you will gain everything, and the world will become healthy again. If you can’t, you will be lost in the shadows forever. 
Here is a final passage from Laozi, this one from a work called the Wen-Tzu, again speaking about allowing the mind to settle beyond thoughts to “utter simplicity.” This, he emphasizes, is “the great attainment”:
Clarifying their eyes, they do not look; quieting their ears, they do not listen. Closing their mouths, they do not speak; letting their minds be, they do not think. Abandoning intellectualism, they return to utter simplicity; resting their vital spirit, they detach from knowledge. Therefore they have no likes or dislikes. This is called the great attainment. 
If you practice the Transcendental Meditation technique, Laozi’s words shine with a new light. You’ll notice immediately that Laozi is talking about transcending. Many people who practice the Transcendental Meditation technique have had experiences just as he describes. Here is an example:
I distinctly recall the day of instruction [in the Transcendental Meditation technique], my first clear experience of transcending. Following the instruc¬tions of the teacher, without know¬ing what to expect, I began to drift down into deeper and deeper levels of relaxation, as if I were sinking into my chair. Then for some time, perhaps a minute or a few minutes, I experienced a silent, inner state of no thoughts, just pure awareness and nothing else; then again I became aware of my surroundings. It left me with a deep sense of ease, inner renewal and happiness.
As many meditators will realize, the Tao is not some abstract concept. It is the field of pure consciousness, the source of thought deep within. It is also the source of nature’s intelligence, the unified field of natural law described mathematically by quantum physics.
Every time we meditate, every time we transcend, we experience this unbounded field. We awaken it. We enliven it. Our consciousness expands. Our creativity and intelligence increases. Our thoughts and actions come into harmony with natural law. The force of natural law gathers behind our every thought and action, so that we can fulfill our desires without effort.
This same field is described everywhere in the world’s great philosophical and religious traditions. Plato refers to it as the Good and the Beautiful. Aristotle calls it Being. For Plotinus it is the Infinite, for St. Bernard of Clairvaux the Word, for Ralph Waldo Emerson the Oversoul. It is referred to in Christiantity as the kingdom of Heaven within, in Judaism as Ein Sof. The direct experience of this transcendental field is referred to in India as Yoga, in Buddhism as Nirvana, in Islam as fana, in Christiantity as spiritual marriage. It is a universal teaching based on a universal reality and a universal experience.
Every time I read a work like the Tao Te Ching or the Wenzi, I appreciate the greatness of those enlightened people of past who propounded this universal teaching so beautifully in their time and whose words continue to inspire and guide us today.
And I appreciate what we have from Maharishi — a simple, natural, effortless technique that anyone can learn and practice, and by which we can enjoy the priceless experience of transcending twice each day.
 Laozi, Tao Te Ching, trans. Jonathan Star (New York: Tarcher, 2003), 29.
 Tao Te Ching, 14.
 Hua Hu Ching: The Unknown Teachings of Lao Tzu, trans. Brian Walker (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1995), 7.
 Hua Hu Ching, 25.
 Lao-tzu, Wen-Tzu: Understanding the Mysteries, trans. Thomas Cleary (Boston and London: Shambhala, 1992), 35.
A NOTE ON TRANSLATIONS
There are hundreds of translations of the Tao Te Ching. It ranks only behind the Bible as the most translated book in the world. I like Jonathan Star’s translation for its simplicity and poetry and well as for its clear rendering of Laozi’s central message. Other good translations include those by Stephen Mitchell (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006) and Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (Vintage, 1997).
Dr. Craig Pearson is Executive Vice-President of Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. He has served the University in a variety of roles over the past 33 years, including Dean of Faculty, Dean of Students, Director of Maharishi University of Management Press, Director of Freshman Composition, and Professor of Professional Writing.
He holds a PhD in Maharishi Vedic Science from MUM and is the author of two books on the development of full human potential, The Complete Book of Yogic Flying and The Supreme Awakening: Developing the Infinite Potential Within (forthcoming). He is also a member of the Board of Directors of Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment.
Other posts by Craig Pearson:
- “Why don’t you try wandering with me to the Palace of Not-Even-Anything” – Zhuangzi
- “Maharishi, What is the Settled State of Mind—is it ‘Transcendence’?”
- Thousands of Buddhist Monks in Asia Learn Transcendental Meditation
- Why does music attract our mind?
- Children of the Night: giving girls a safe haven – within