Because the human brain is wired for story, both Eastern and Western cultures are rife with examples of legendary characters enlivening and embodying the core teachings of a given sect, philosophy, or faith. So long as we can put these myths and legends into proper perspective and appreciate the way they remind and inspire us, we are taking what is highest and best from such stories. The moment we enter into a debate over hagiography vs. historicity, either advancing or questioning evidence regarding whether figures like Lao Tzu, Mani, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and others actually existed or had supernatural qualities or experiences, it is possible for us to lose focus on the messages of our traditions, and in doing so we can lose our way.
The more mystical the tradition, the more such messages, no matter their specifics, are intended to provide a direct experience of the divine. Even those more interested in the material world can find guidelines for everyday living in such messages -- indeed that is exactly what most folks find in their disciplines or faith. As a Taoist, I am most keenly interested in the content and relevance of that most august work in the Taoist canon, Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. Although I love the character of that legendary author so much that I just finished a new novel in which he plays a prominent role, I am far more interested in the content of the work than in whether or not Lao Tzu was an historical personage. Despite enjoying the legend, it's all about the message for me, which is why I choose to live by the precepts that Lao Tzu's book contains, and I share them with others through various media.
One of the underlying reasons why we either invent or attribute our greatest teachings to specific characters seems to be that if we believe one man is responsible for a set of ideas -- either out of the cloth of his intellect or as a result of contact with a supernatural entity -- those ideas are somehow of greater moment and importance than if they were "designed by committee". Thus, while the wisdom of Jesus was spread by apostles, the sutras of the Buddha were put down by followers, and the insights of early Taoists are cohered into a very few short books, each of those sets of teachings is connected to an original source in a way that minimizes the contribution of the actual author.
Being an admirer of the work of those early Taoists, I find the context in which they worked to be important. At the time that Taoist philosophy entered the mainstream of Chinese history, during the Eastern Zhou dynasty (sometime around 500 BCE), the world was a nasty, brutal, violent place in which rival warlords competed for dominance, dragging the general populace into a series of seemingly never-ending conflicts. More, it was a time when Confucianism dominated the landscape.
Confucius, a wise teacher of approximately the same generation as the legendary Lao Tzu, was greatly concerned with the social order and much less with individual rights. He was far less interested in following any natural path than he was with greasing the wheels of society so that people got along, knew their place, respected their duties, their parents, their families, friends, and rulers in such a fashion that the affairs of men flowed smoothly.
Add Confucius' highly structured social policies (not especially kind to women) to a warlike environment and you can imagine how the seeds of rebellion might have found fertile ground. The proponents of that rebellion, those early Taoist thinkers, advanced a picture of natural quietude, offering up self-cultivation, self-possession, compassion, and a natural lifestyle as a utopian alternative to the realities of the day. They saw the rights of the individual, particularly the right to pursue a meaningful life, as trumping the needs of society in general. As a result, they were mercilessly persecuted, and, at least in those early days lived a secret, "underground" existence.
Taoist tradition has Lao Tzu (the name means Old Master) as the leader of those rebels. Think of him as Yoda leading the Jedi Masters. A close read of his famous text, however, suggests otherwise. A good friend of mine, author of one of my favorite versions of the Tao Te Ching and a scholar august enough to have done his own translation, says that even in the early, proto-Chinese characters of the original text he can see the voices of five or six different authors.
Imagine this Taoist coffee klatch meeting furtively to exchange ideas about how to expand and raise human consciousness. Imagine them conspiring to help people shake off an oppressive government and find depth, passion, and exhilaration in their lives. Imagine them conferring, refining, and polishing a manuscript that would serve as a guidebook for enlightened leadership and personal transformation. Imagine them releasing their text into the river of life after naming it either for the master who inspired them or for a shill, a product of pure imagination.
The philosophy in that text does not proselytize. It requires no belief in the supernatural -- indeed love of nature is at its core -- and issues no call to convert others to its way of thinking. Even so, by emphasizing harmony and balance, favoring the simple over the complex, the humble over the self-aggrandizing, and peace over conflict, it seems to have inspired everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson to George Lucas. Its subversive worldview demands a frank and powerful reassessment of values and priorities, offering a path toward a more engaged, sustainable, passionate existence. It functions as both a guide for daily living and as the underpinning for tai chi -- a sublime martial art and self-cultivation system. Walking the Taoist path leads to certain inner resolutions, which in turn manifest as an outward revolution in one's personal life.
Most people who find joy and insight in Taoist thinking enjoy Lao Tzu as a legend without worrying about whether he did or did not exist, nor about whether he was some kind of deity. Many hundreds of years after that coffee klatch met, probably as a response to a variety of political forces, their work was recast as a folk religion replete with its rituals and gods, among which Lao Tzu is to be counted. This process -- the evolution of revolutionary thinking to religious doctrine and the deification of particular men who may or may not have lived -- is a prototype for the spread of many other belief systems across many other nations and even continents. Indeed, Taoism has spread across Asia, though not nearly so successfully as Buddhism.
Looking at the throw of history and the consequences of this phenomenon, I can't help noticing that while it is natural to want to believe great stories and even more natural to want to ascribe miraculous qualities or powers to heroes that represent the best of us, those heroes matter far less than do their lessons. Our beliefs don't hurt anybody until and unless the fire of that belief eclipses both reason and tolerance. If it does, then an agenda arises that separates us from others. Evangelism is next, followed by judgment, prejudice, hate, and, inevitably, violence. Completely certain we are right and others are wrong, our spirit suffers and we inevitably betray precisely those enlightened ideals (and their advocates or founders) that drew us to our spiritual stories in the first place.
We all relish the stories and enjoy the legends, but perhaps we should be careful of blind adherence masquerading as special vision or unique mandate. Instead of worrying about the literal truth of legend, why not pursue the experience of direct connection to the sacred instead? In the end its how we live, how we treat others, and what we can actually sense and feel that really counts.