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Lao Tzu for Everyone


Students, Scholars,

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph. D.

Line 1

A Note

regarding the characters

chosen for this translation.

Lesson 11

On Nonbeing

and Being





(又 right arm + 肉 flesh)

exist, have, there is


     When we look at fine Chinese calligraphy, we first note the script. But that exists only because of the white background. While we might not focus on the white background, it is there as much as the foreground. They need each other. They complete each other.  And here is a key question: Which existed first—the calligraphy or the background? After all, the background was not a background until there were characters in the foreground.

     Consider our own existence and the existence of all the things we see around us and which have come forth in the world. Where is the background from which they came forth? From where have our individual ways come? That is what this lesson is about.

​​. . . . . .




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Thirty spokes converge on a hub.

It is because of the empty

space in the hub that a

wheel has become a wheel.

卅sà  輻fú    同tóng 一yī  轂gǔ   

    thirty   spoke   same/unite    one       hub     

當dàng 其qí  无wú  有yǒu

suitable     (pron.) not have have/there is 

車chē  之zhī 用yóng 也yě

cart     (pron.)   use        (part.)

Thirty spokes unite to make one hub suitable..

Suitability is in its not having.

Therein is the use of the cart.

.​ ​​​​. . . . . .


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We fire clay to make a vessel.

But it is only because of what

is not there that

a vessel has become a vessel.

然rán  埴zhí 為wéi  器qì 

fire       clay    make     vessel    


當dàng 其qí   无wú   有yǒu 

suitable  (pron.)  not have   have    

埴zhí  器qì  之zhī  用yòng 也yě

soil-clay   vessel   (pron.)  use        part.

Fire and clay make a vessel.

As for suitability, it’s in not having,

which has the vessels use.






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​​Line 3

We make doors and windows.

It is because of what is not there

that the room has become a room.


鑿záo   戶hù   牖yǒu

chisel/pierce  door  window

當dàng    其qí    无wú       有yǒu  

suitable    (pron.)   not have    have

 室shì  之zhí 用yòng 也yě

room     use      use       part.

Cutting doors and windows.

The suitability is in not having,

that there is the use of the room.



*  *  *  *  *  *

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Therefore, while what exists

physically is needed,

it is what exists nonphysically

which has allowed each thing

to become what it is.


​  故gù   有yǒu    之zhī   以yǐ    為wéi     利lì*   

therefore   have    (pron.)   by means    make/do   sharp/benefit

无wú   之zhī    以yǐ     為wéi   用yòng

not have     (pron.)    by means   make/do      use.

Hence, having something  (being),

by means of it making a thing beneficial,

By not having (nonbeing)

it makes a thing’s use.

*Character note: 利lì literally “sharp.” As in English, its meaning here is to “have an edge,” and thus, by extension, what is “advantageous” or "beneficial."

​​. . . . . .




In this lesson, and others, Lao Tzu is asking us to consider our own existence as well as the existence of all the things which have come forth around is. Where is the background from which they came forth? From what source have our individual ways been bestowed?

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