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the Way

Lao Tzu for Everyone

Students, Scholars

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph.D.


Line 1   不上賢使民不爭

Line 2   不貴難得之貨


Line 3   不見可欲使民不亂

Line 4   是以聖人之治也


How the Sage Leads

无wú 為wéi

(or 'not doing')


      For many, the sage’s 无wú 為wéi or “not-doing” is the most puzzling of Lao Tzu’s  teachings. It may seem overblown, as if “not-doing” has some sort of magical properties that affect others and society.

     But it's really quite simple. When we come into the world, things and people already have a way. 无wú 為wéi or “not-doingis to do nothing which interferes with these ways. That's all.

    Scientists know this well. When they put a satellite in orbit, for example, they first must understand the internal laws or ways of things. They must investigate the way of aerodynamics, the way of propulsion, the varying ways of gravity in the many atmospheres, and so on. They succeed in their endeavors by working within these already existing ways.


    These laws were there before the scientists were. There was nothing they could change. All they did was discover the natural rules, and then work with them. The laws or ways of things did all the rest for them.

     We each have our own ways too, which we are to uncover for ourselves and then follow.

      One of our blessings is to be conscious beings, but we can also become self-conscious. Our self-consciousness inhibits us from doing what is natural, as when someone says, "Okay, Melinda, just walk naturally across the stage."

     Athletes understand this. There is the way of a spiraling football and the way of an arc that will place the basketball through the hoop.  Athletes didn't invent these ways. They learned them, and now they work with these ways until they have a knack for them, as if it were second nature.

     The sage has a knack for living.

     So why wouldn't Lao Tzu say we must all "do" the right things rather than "not do" what goes against the ways of things?

     Lao Tzu is emphasizing that the ways of things are already in motion when we come into the world. The ways of things are already right, and do not need us to rectify them The sage respects this, and allows room for things to follow their way. This is what Lao Tzu calls "not doing."



​     A critic might think, "That's all fine and good for Lao Tzu, but a sage can't fix all the problems in my society."  In response, Lao Tzu might say that a sage can't fix anything at all. But by not interfering with the ways of things, society becomes restored of itself. Again, this is "not doing."


     Lao Tzu might also ask us to reflect on the effect that each of us already has on others, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse; the father, the mother, the friend, the employer, the coach. A simple review of history illustrates the effect that a single person may have on their families, communities, and nations.

     Character radiates. If those around us and our leaders affect us and others, then how much more so would the sage-ruler, the sage-mother, the sage-friend?


Click on each line number

for Chinese-English interlinear & commentary


By not extolling the worthy,

the people will not

contend with each other.





By not valuing rare goods,

the people will not

become dishonest.




By not showing off what

can be coveted, the people

will not become lawless.




That is why the

sage's way of governing. . .


. . . is to empty the people's heart/mind

and to nourish their stomachs;

to curb their ambitions and

to strengthen their bones.




The result will always

be that the people will be

without schemes and without

desire to carry them out.





The result will also be that

influential people with their

schemes will not dare

to carry them out.




Indeed, by the influential ones

simply not acting,

there will be no disorder.

. . . . . .

Line 5   虛亓心實亓腹


Line 6   恆使民无知无欲也

Line 7   使夫知不敢

Line 8   弗 為 而 已 則 无 不 治矣



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