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Lao Tzu for Everyone

Students, Scholars,

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph.D.

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(口 mouth + 立 inverted stand, to establish)

words, speech, say

How to Read Lao Tzu’s Words

     In Lesson 70, Lao Tzu makes this remarkable statement.

My 言 words are very easy to understand …

and yet no one can understand them.”

吾言甚易知也 . . . 而人莫之能知也 

​     That “no one can understand” Lao Tzu’s words is certainly confirmed by the millions of words that have been written about Lao Tzu’s few words. There are hundreds of commentaries, both ancient and modern, and tens of thousands of academic papers intended to help us understand what Lao Tzu really meant. Yes, now these words sit among them. And for sure, many more words will be coming out tomorrow. But if Lao Tzu meant what he said—that his words are “very easy to understand,” then why is there so much discussion and disagreement over what his words mean?


Our World

and Lao Tzu’s

​     When we pick up a book or go to an online site, including this one, we are faced with a challenge. How can we be certain that our understanding of the writing is the same as what the author intended to communicate to us? Isn’t it likely that we will just import our own current notions and modern beliefs, and then project them onto the writing?

     This seems particularly important when we sit down with an ancient writing such as Lao Tzu’s. His time was so different. Back then (somewhere between 550 and 350 BC) people were getting around by cart or horseback and weren’t going much farther than the next hamlet or town. Many of the ancient Chinese weren’t even literate, and of course they had no laptops or GPS systems, CD’s or snowblowers, cell phones or satellites. Unlike us, they were a traditional people. We are modern, very modern in fact. So how can we possibly understand someone like Lao Tzu today?

     Perhaps just as important, why should any of us believe that Lao Tzu, or anyone else from way back then, could have anything important to say to us today?  Why should we listen to him at all?


The Two Horizons

​​     Today’s scholarship refers to this challenge as the “two horizons.”  There is: 1) the horizon of the author’s culture, language, era as well as his or her many unique personal experiences. And then there is also 2) our own very different horizon of present-day culture and language as well as our own unique personal experiences.

     How can we bridge these two horizons so that we might actually understand what the author is saying to us?

     Perhaps the oldest recognition of this problem was by Xenophanes, the Greek philosopher who lived around the same time as Lao Tzu. Xenophanes famously (and rather comically) pointed out that if horses and cattle could draw their gods, those gods would undoubtedly look like horses and cattle.

       So even way back then people recognized that there is a horizon, or a limit, to what we may think and know, and that our horizon is based on our own upbringing, experiences, and cultural points of view.

     Our dilemma is obvious: Lao Tzu’s little book is said to be an important work, and maybe even full of great wisdom. But given Lao Tzu’s horizon and our own, how can we possibly understand what he is saying?


Now for the good news

     ​It is important to remember that when Lao Tzu said that his words are “very easy to understand” but that “no one can understand them,” he was speaking to his own people in his own time. Apparently, even they couldn’t understand what he was saying either.

     That’s actually good news for us because it means that the problem of understanding Lao’s words is not first of all a cultural or a linguistic one. The problem must be something else altogether. Even if we understood the linguistic nuances and all the subtleties of the era and the culture, we may still be like the people in his time who couldn’t understand his words either.

       So, what are we to do?

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Have we really change?
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Have We Really

Changed That Much? 

     Let’s answer this question with an example. A long time ago someone came up with a stone wheel which revolutionized everything for them. Sometime later, another genius put together a wooden wheel which made life even easier. The people may have thought that now all their problems were solved because they could travel about and transport things more easily.


     Then, after more time passed, someone else figured out how to make rubber, and now they had great rubber wheels for their cars and other transportation. Technology was picking up speed.

     Today our wheel-technology has advanced to the point of having special-strength steel wires that anchor the huge tires of our 747s as they carry tons of steel and hundreds of passengers down the runway at the speed of a race car.

     But the question remains: Are the essential human challenges today any different from those of people who were living 2000 years ago?

     Here’s a simple test that will answer that question: Go down to the nearest big airport where those huge 747s are taking off and landing with these new special-strength steel wires anchoring the tires, and then interview the passengers about their lives.

     What are the chances that there is an unprincipled shopkeeper or businessman on board, or an arrogant neighbor or boss? What are the chances that those on board are fearful of something, perhaps death, perhaps the loss of prestige, or maybe the loss of their livelihood or a loved one? Have these modern passengers banished lust once and for all?  Has human selfishness and envy now been contained? Have they solved the problem of cheating husbands and wives? Might some of those on board, just as in Lao Tzu’s time, be petty people, or cowardly, while others are very noble and brave?

    Could some of them be anxious over what others are saying or thinking about them? Could some be struggling to “make ends meet,” or to  “get by,” perhaps even by stepping on others to do so?  Could some of them also be self-less and altruistic, helping others whenever possible?

     The point: The advancement of technology through the ages can do a lot, but as you can see, it hasn’t moved humankind past the challenges and fears, the hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, or the many temptations and shortcomings that people had 2000 years ago?

       Why not? Because we each carry the possibility of these shortcomings and virtues within us—within our very nature, regardless of what culture or era in which we may happen to live. Even with all our great medical advances there is still no gene for kindness, no chromosome for honesty and courage, and no inoculation from lust, greed or cowardice. We may have a cure for cancer soon, but what about a cure for a controlling spouse, an ill-tempered parent, or a conniving politician?

The Short Version

     The challenges of being human haven’t changed since Lao Tzu’s time, and they are not going to change any time soon. The reason these challenges are common to each of us—in every age and society regardless of our “horizons”—is because our human qualities and shortcomings, virtues and weaknesses, operate at a different level from our outward advancements.


     We can take pride in our advancements in knowledge and technology. We will surely continue to progress. But our human frailties and fears, as well as our potential for perseverance and even heroism in the face of life’s adversities—aren't going to change. They will always be with us.  And this is where the two horizons meet.


. . . . . .

Lao Tzu's Words are About Uus

Lao Tzu’s Words

Are About Us

    Lao Tzu’s writings are not just about his time. Like all works from the wisdom traditions, his writings are about all times—our human condition, the same human nature that existed thousands of years ago. And, because we as humans all suffer the same personal frailties as well as the same great hopes and aspirations for ourselves, for our families and communities, we actually have quite a lot in common with people from every era. Despite the enormous social and other external differences, our internal world, our very human horizons, are so much alike. In fact, this common human-horizon is what unites us.

      Ooops. Saying that our common human horizon “unites us” flies in the face of much contemporary thinking. It is widely asserted that culture, language, and time-period are what ultimately define us, make us so different, and that without a strenuous effort in research and study, we cannot even begin to bridge the divide between our own horizon and the horizon of those of a different time and place.

     But if these profound cultural and linguistic differences were the final word, it would mean that we are terminally closed off from those who came before us. It would also mean that people of other cultures who are on our planet right now will always be outsiders to us; that we are all doomed to be foreigners—each person to the next.

     Some call this the “cult of culture.” It is the belief that our differences are insurmountable; that the disparities between our distant cultures create a gulf so wide that we can only begin to understand another person after arduous research into the culture and language of the other.

     But to believe this, we would also have to believe that the  human commonalities we share are insignificant compared to our external cultural differences. If this were actually the case, then an Afghani woman’s grief over losing her child would bear no relation to a Malaysian woman’s grief. A Brazilian person’s broken heart would be unrecognizable to a Cambodian or an American. Is a greedy mind limited to just one place and time? Is cruelty? What about bravery? Or honesty and caring toward strangers as well as those who are close to us?

    Aren’t each of these human challenges and human virtues that transcend culture, and which, despite their different external cultural expressions are common to all persons of all times?

     Consider this: If external culture actually separated us in fundamental ways, then why would we bother to translate novels, biographies, philosophies, and even Lao Tzu’s words, into different languages and then publish them off to be read in distant lands? But we do. And then, for some reason others are able to celebrate how meaningful these words are to them despite being from such diverse cultures. Indeed, why would we do this if we were not already keenly aware of our inner commonalities?

   The answer is obvious: The essential human characteristics are not cultural or linguistic. That’s why people in every nation and culture can be in awe of Nelson Mandela’s heroism. It is why today’s Korean students are learning from Plato, why Japanese students love Thoreau and Kierkegaard, and why Californian students are benefiting from the study of Confucius. Mozart is appreciated in every nation where his works are heard, and Marx’s teachings are applauded by groups in every society. Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek are debated in a hundred languages. And the teachings of Jesus, Mohammed, Moses and Krishna find their followers on every continent.

     Maybe we’re not so different after all. Maybe we all spring from the same “native ground” and struggle with the same internal nature. Maybe this commonality is where our horizons meet, and therefore the teachings of Lao Tzu and others from the other great traditions can open the door to something more radical than technological advancements—wisdom.

. . . . . .


Another Key Point in

Understanding Lao Tzu:

The Explanation-Trap

    Today we have a lot of "knowledge" about what Lao Tzu’s words mean from all the essays, articles, and books. A person couldn’t possibly read it all in many lifetimes. And, while this knowledge is intended to help us understand what Lao Tzu means, it may also create a problem for us.

     The most obvious problem is that such writings are someone’s else’s words about Lao Tzu’s words. Instead of a student engaging Lao Tzu’s words though a good translation, the student’s focus becomes trying to understand what someone else says Lao Tzu says. Instead of allowing Lao Tzu’s words to be a kind of personal signpost for us, we now have two signposts to follow—Lao Tzu’s signpost, which purports to point us toward what he calls “the Way,” and now a second signpost explaining to us what the first signpost really means.

     When this happens, our inquiry is removed from the immediacy of a personal engagement with what the author is saying. Instead of bringing us closer to the author and the text, the second-hand explanation of what Lao Tzu means, seems most important, the key to it all. But we have actually distanced ourselves off from the author and the text. This is sort of like standing a mile from a baseball stadium and expecting to see the pitcher throw the ball. Or like buying a musical score and then thinking we can now play the piano.

    Even the words on this page here may be considered as just words about words. And without the warning of the “information trap,” they may be treated as such. This site is certainly intended to be informational, but it does double duty by cautioning us not to fall into the “trap.” Information is helpful. But in the end, it is never enough. Not just that, it is simply not the point.

     The second problem, and perhaps a more serious one, is that after reading someone’s words about Lao Tzu’s words—even the words on this site—we may actually think that we’ve advanced in our own understanding. But no one’s words can stand in for what Lao Tzu says to each of us, even if it is in translation. Wisdom is always personal—the gaining of it and the living of it. There is no wisdom until it is personally owned. No amount of explanation can stand in.

     This is important: The word “ex-planation” literally means to flatten something out. So, when someone “ex-plains” something to us, it removes all the dimensions and layers from it. Its depth is gone. It is now a flat thing lying there on the page and asking nothing of us. Explanations can be dangerous because we may feel that now all has been revealed so there is no need for us to continue our inquiry. Explanations do not give us access to a personal understanding. They block this access.

     Wisdom writings, regardless of what era and culture they come from, all have one thing in common—they cannot be understood through anyone else’s explanation of them. Second-hand doesn’t cut it because there’s something else going on in wisdom writings, something that simply can’t be transmitted by one person to another.

     That’s because wisdom writings are not offering us more information. They are speaking from a different ground than mere information. And, they are reaching toward a different ground, a common internal ground within each of us.


So what are we to do?

​​     First, we must remember that Lao Tzu’s words are about us—you and me. They are prescriptive. They are essentially therapeutic. They are not concerned with how we can become happier and more successful, or how to mellow out and go with the flow.  

     Lao Tzu invites us to investigate the operation of what he calls “the Way” in our outer world and also in our inner world—that is, within ourselves. Knowledge is about what is outside us. Wisdom is of the inner world. And yet, at each moment our wisdom may intersect at every moment with the outer world.

     That means that becoming wise is actually very practical, because this wisdom will inform all that we do each moment of our day.

     Second, we should keep in mind that the meaning of Lao Tzu’s words is not down there in those black marks on the white pages. Analyzing them won’t help us much. Whether the words are in the ancient Chinese characters or a good translation into Russian, Farsi or English, they are best understood as “pointers.” All words are mere pointers, designations which point beyond themselves to something else, something more real than just the words.

     But we already know that words are not the things they point to, which is why we don’t try to drive the word “car” or drink the word “water.” Nor do we take a vacation in the word “Bahamas” or try to climb the words “Mount Everest.”  Still, we sometimes forget that words are only standing in for something else which is what is actually real.

     For that reason, words must not be our destination. That is why Lao Tzu’s words can only point. It is up to us to then turn and look in the direction in which they are pointing.

     Third, we have to question whether our intellects alone are sufficient to understand what Lao Tzu is pointing us toward. The intellect is certainly a fine tool. It is our problem solver, with its great capacity to identify, analyze, categorize, and conceptualize. The intellect is beneficial because of its ability to separate things out and divide them up so we can have a closer look at them.

     But our intellects cannot grasp what is beyond the intellect’s domain. That is like a dog using its greatest ability—smelling, to sniff a book, and then concluding that there is no such thing as reading. The dog's most useful faculty, fine as it is, is completely oblivious to what is outside that faculty’s reach.

     Again, the intellect divides things up. That means that the whole—which is the intersection of inner and outer—is beyond the intellect’s domain. This is not the intellect’s fault. It does its job very well for us and we are grateful for it. But with all this dividing up that our intellects do, we may be so fascinated with the parts that we forget that before we did all that dividing up there was something whole which we divided up.

     Lao Tzu concern is with the whole, what he calls “the Way,” which is both the inner and outer at once. We will see this in a number of lessons, where he encourages us to engage his words, not intellectually, but internally, through our very own selves rather than just through the parts of the world known by our intellects.

     Of course, anything discovered through our own selves cannot be objectively verified any more than we can prove to others what we are thinking at this moment. The inside world is not like the outside world. Curiously, that there even is an inside world is hardly ever recognized by the outside world.

     Still, Lao Tzu invites us to test his words in the same manner that scientists carry out their own tests. The difference is that while scientists have the whole world as their laboratory, we only have our selves.

     This type of inquiry is an embarrassment to academia. But remember that Lao Tzu was not writing to us academics. He was not concerned with public verification of his words through some objective test or replication of results.

     Lao Tzu asks us for something different. He asks that we explore a different ground, one that is without social or personal precedent. His words invite us to a particular type of openness—perhaps by first of all acknowledging that when he says, “Those who speak do not know,” that he may actually be speaking about us. So, it will take humility on our part. It will also take sincerity—a singleness of purpose in our questioning. And perhaps most of all it will take our courage.

     Some will say that Lao Tzu’s writings are vague and subjective, and that any one of us can project our own thoughts and beliefs onto them. Actually, this is so. But a person who uses a great work without the disciplined effort that Lao Tzu encourages, merely confirms what is already in their heads. They will not find much benefit in what Lao Tzu has to say.

     That is not Lao Tzu’s fault. If wisdom writings are about our internal human circumstances and its intersection with the outer world, then when an honest inquirer runs into something that stumps him or her, or which contradicts a social or psychological conviction which he or she has long held, that inquirer will be certain to first question himself or herself, and not immediately demand a different answer from the text before them.

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Final Words

​     The problem of understanding Lao’s words is not first of all a cultural or a linguistic one. If it were, then people in his own time would have understood him. But they didn’t.

     The meaning of Lao Tzu’s words is not there on the page, whether in the ancient Chinese language or a good translation. If we only focus on the words, we miss out, just as if someone pointed to a splendid mountain scene in the distance and we then pulled out a magnifying glass and studied the fingernail on the pointing finger. That won’t take us far.

   Of course an analysis of the text is helpful! So is our understanding of the culture and the times. But being knowledgeable in the fields of linguistics and anthropology and having all the scientific methods in the world at hand can only lead us so far in understanding Lao Tzu.

     He is not trying to ex-plain anything to us. He knows that he can’t. Becoming wise is different from becoming well-informed. The world is in plenty supply of knowledge, but gravely lacking in  wisdom. We need only look around to see that.

    While some may think that “wisdom” is airy and abstract, it isn’t. Our wisdom becomes concrete and very practical as it intersects with the external world.

     Lao Tzu himself confesses that he can’t show us “the Way.” Nor can he lead us to the wisdom that is in accord with it. The most Lao Tzu can do for us is point, and then invite us to look in the direction in which he is pointing. Whether in his time or ours, it is then up to his readers to turn and look in the direction in which he is pointing.


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