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Lao Tzu for Everyone


Students, Scholars,

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph. D.

Line 1


A Note

regarding the characters

used for this translation.




Lesson 1 


"These two are

actually the same"



(two 肉 meat [cows] yoked together)

two, both, pair




​Line 1

The way that

I can talk about

is not the timeless Way.

道tào 可kě  道dào  也yě 

  way     can     speak     (part.)

非fēi   恆héng  道tào 也yě*  

not    constant    way     (part.)

The way that can be spoken about

is not the constant way.

      Lao Tzu's first words should surprise us. He is telling us that he can't tell us about the 道Tao Way, at least not the "timeless" Way. But he has written to us, so there must be something to learn here. Yet at the same time it isn't here, because he can't say it.


     What Lao Tzu wants say is not sayable because it is not data; it is not information. Try to describe "sweetness" to someone. We can't. Each of us must tasted sweetness for ourselves.  Wisdom is like that, too.  

      But we can begin to understand the 道Tao Way by examining the "way of things"  If you have any doubts that things have their own way, study a cat. Or a chestnut tree. Or a desk. Or a bluejay. You'll see that there is only one of each, and that each has it's own unique 道 way. It's the same for everything else in the teeming world around us—what Lao Tzu calls the "10,000 things."

     But the "way of things" is not the timeless 道Tao Way. In fact, it is an aspect of each thing's way that they change over time. Things cycle with the seasons, or grow up and then get older, and one day pass a-way. That is the "way" things are. That is the way  each and every thing "be's."

     The 恆héng timeless 道 Way doesn't change.* Nor is it detectable through our senses. Nevertheless, it exists, Lao Tzu tells us.

     Consider this: If we only believed in what the senses communicated to us, then we would not believe in love or courage, or, for that matter, any of a number of human qualities. No one has ever seen love or courage by themselves. We have only seen the outward expressions of each: For love—a caring look, a tender embrace, going off to work each day to support the ones we love. For courage—standing up for what is right, or a making the difficult decision in the face of controversy.


     Consider energy too. No one has ever seen energy. We have only seen what energy does

     The 道 Way is like that. We know it exists only because of its many outward expressions. Just look out the window. See the myriad things around us.  Each is living out its own 道 way as bestowed upon it by the timeless 道 Way.


​​Gram. Note: You will frequently see the character 也yě at the end of a sentence or clause.  It serves as a grammatical particle.  也yě often functions as the verb “to be” and is used to describe what something “is.”  Example: “Laura married 也yě” = “Laura is married.” 

     In later editions of the Tao Te Ching, this helpful character 也yě was often discarded by a copyist or editor. The presence of this character in the older Ma Wang Tui manuscripts serves to clarify the meaning of many sentences which previously were uncertain.

* Character Note: 恆héng, translated here as “timeless,” is most often translated as “eternal” or “constant.” But “eternal” immediately suggests a number of Western religious notions, and “constant” implies a duration of time, which isn’t quite right either. The point of the line is that the Way abides unchangingly. In that sense it is not time bound  My choice, then, in translating the character 恆héng is as “timeless.”

. . . . . .

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The name that

we can name

is not the

timeless Name.

名míng 可kě  名míng 也yě

 name  can  name  (part.)


非fēi  恆héng  名míng 也yě

not   constant  name  (part.)

The name that can name

about is not the constant name.


     Names are for"things:​ Tree. Squirrel. Bob. Grand Canyon.  And so on. But the Way is not a "thing," so it properly remains nameless.

     Yes, Lao Tzu does give it a name—道 Tao, or “The Way.” So why call it “the Way” if he cannot give it a name? Fair enough. Lao Tzu tells us in Lesson 25, "I do not know its name," and then says that he calls it the “Way” simply as a place-holder, a kind of nickname for convenience sake; something for us to hang onto for now.

     If the Way is not a thing, then what is it? Lao Tzu cannot explain that directly. Even if he could, it wouldn't help. It would be more data for us, and data is not the same as understanding. (You can see more about why explanations don't help us here.)

     Here is a key: Lao Tzu's words are only pointers. He is pointing us toward something which doesn't fit into words any more than the word "sweet" is itself sweet. He hopes this reader will turn and look in the direction in which he is pointing. 

     If Lao Tzu did give us a definition of the Way, it would be limited, just like any definition is limited. Our minds might then say, “Oh, now I got it!”


     But our minds themselves are limited, and therefore are unable to comprehend what is without limit. Think the word “beauty” or "triangle" and a hundred images leap into our minds. Think “unlimited” and the mind is at a standstill. There is nowhere for it to go. 

     But if our mind demands an answer, here is one (though it won’t help):

​The 道 Way is the unseen potential for life as well as

the life operating right now within us and each thing;

and as each person and thing.


​    See, it didn't help much. It's just a definition. Lao Tzu doesn’t give us definitions because he knows it is just more information. In fact, definitions hinder us because they lead us to believe that we now have grasped something.

     So the best Lao Tzu can do is point. He points persistently in each lesson. And he then expects us to turn and look in the direction of his pointing, so that we may find our very own personal understanding.

. . . . . . . . . 

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As Nameless, the Way

is the origin

of each thing

in our world.

    无wú*  名míng  萬wàn 物wǔ 

not have  name  10,000  thing 

之zhī  始shǐ  也yě

(poss.)  origin  (part.)

Without a name,

10,000 things' origin.


      We cannot see 始shǐ origins. They are mysterious. They are imperceptible. While we might think of a seed as the origin of a flower, a seed is not the origin of itself.

​     Origins are the mysterious source, or ground, from which things spring forth. In this case, "The Way" is the 始shǐ "origin" from which our physical world, and all the things in it, continually come forth as its many presentations around us. 

     That it is imperceptive should not seem so strange. Take wisdom and honesty. No one has ever seen them. We have only seen someone being wise and honest—people doing wise and honest things. Without these expressions, wisdom and honesty have no form, no body. And yet no one doubts that they exist.


        Here's a key point of this lesson: The Way, as "origin," becomes embodied when it comes forth as the teeming world around us, including as ourselves. As we'll see in the next line, this teeming world is what Lao Tzu calls the “10,000 things.“


​    But how can we know that Lao Tzu is right about all of this? In a later chapter he tells us how we can test it out for ourselves.


* Note: 无wú, "not have," is an older variant of the much more common character, 無wú.

. . . . . .

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But after we give it a name,

then we conceptualize

the Way as the

“mother” of all things.

有yǒu  名míng  萬wàn  物wǔ 

have   name   10,000   thing   

之zhī  母mǔ  也yě

(poss.)   mother   (part.)

Having a name,

[it] is the 10,000 thing’s mother


     We humans are namers. We name everything, and we have words for everything.* And, not just the things around us. We also have names for all kinds of concepts, theories, ideas, and beliefs we hold. We like to pin everything down with a name. We are always asking, "What is that?"


     Then after we have a name for a thing, we put it in our handy mental categories of things. We have now separated it our minds as this thing and not that thing.

     So naturally we want a name for what Lao Tzu is talking about. He graciously gives us one for now: 道Tào, or the Way.

     But something momentous occurs when we name something. In doing so, we have inadvertently specified it as "not me." We now see it as apart and different from "me." 

     In this line Lao Tzu tells us that after we give the 道Tào Way a name, we then think about its relationship to ourselves and the world that we see. And, of course we must also fit it into one of our handy mental categories. The most suitable category that we can come up with is 母mǔ mother.

      Mothers are the womb of life. Mothers nourish and care, support and sustain. Mothers are always there. 

     So, in the previous line we have the imperceptible and timeless Way, and now in this line Lao Tzu has made it a little understandable to our human heads: "Mother." But these are both the very same Way.

     Is the Way really female, like a mother? Of course not. The Way has no genitalia. “Mother” is just a handy analogy which helps us categorize the Way in our human terms. Things come forth from the Way, and so we think of the Way like a “mother.”

     Note that this and the previous line form a couplet. Lao Tzu has just described for us the Way as both the invisible "origin" of all there is, and as "mother" of all there is. Now, he will begin to share how we may behold this for ourselves.


* With respect to us humans being "namers," consider also Genesis 2:19.

. . . . . . . .

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ever without desire,

we behold the

mystery of the Way.

  故gú   恆héng   无wú   欲yú    

therefore  constant  not have  desire 


以yǐ   觀guān  其qí  眇miǎo  

by means  view/behold  (pron.)  mystery

   Therefore, constantly without desire,

by this you behold the mystery.

​     故gú “Therefore,” is an important marker for us  It announces that the previous lines were just a prelude to Lao Tzu’s main point. “Because of what I said above, 故gú, the following is true.”

​ "Therefore, ever without desire. . . "

     What is "desire?*  It is to seek something outside ourselves. Here, 无wú 欲yú" without desire” means to live without seeking, without presumption, or forecast. Then we may 觀guān* “behold” the world as it actually is, without interposing all our wants, beliefs, concepts, and expectations.**

     Then we may 觀guān behold the Way—as that nonphysical  眇miǎo*** “mystery” which is the "origin"  of the many things around us.


*With respect to "desire," consider: “Therefore, take no thought for tomorrow, for tomorrow shall take thought of the things for itself.” Matthew 6:34.

**觀guān, “to view,” “to behold”; this character is also found in Lessons 16 and 54. In each case it appears to have a special use, in the sense of “to look intently” and “to spy” so as to make something become visible.

***眇miǎo, “mysteries” or “subtleties”, literally meaning “tiny” or “minute,” also has the meaning of “to the utmost.”  Its variant, or substitute character, is  妙miào, meaning “marvelous” or “miraculous.” This may be another one of Lao Tzu’s many plays on words.

. . . . . . . .

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And ever with desire,

we behold the Way

coming forth as the

teeming world around us.

恆héng  有yǒu  欲yú 

constant  have  desire 

以yǐ  觀guān  其qí  所suǒ  徼jiào*

by   means  view  (pron.)  that  which  outline/border

Constantly having desire,

by this means see

that which has borders.

     Desires always have an object. We desire this “thing” here, or that “thing” over there.

     In this line, “ever with desire” refers to our beholding the things in the world around us, the collections of all that we have "named"–what Lao Tzu refers to as the "10,000 things." To be "ever with desire" is to behold the physical forms which are 徼jiào “outlined,” or made evident, to our senses.

   Note also that this and the previous line each say 恆héng“constantly,” or “always.”  There can only be one “constantly” or “always,” implying that “always without desire” and “always with desire” are to be held simultaneously. (We will see this point more clearly in the final two lines.)


*In place of 徼jiào, "outline," the Ma Wang Tui editions have 噭jiáo, shout. This appears to be a copyist error, a result of the two characters being near-homonyms and also having similarly  written forms. 徼jiào, outline, is present in each of the other editions, including the Wang Bi, Heshang Gong and Fu Yi editions of the Lao Tzu.


Note: I depart from those who see Lao Tzu as preferring “without desire” over "with desire," treating the latter as a negative condition. But Lao Tzu does not say this. His presentation of this lesson is in couplets, expressing the two qualities of the Way–as unknowable, and also as the "known" world around us.


. . . . . . . . .

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These "two" are

actually the Same.

Though they come forth

to us with different names,

they are the

same the Utterance.

兩liǎng  者zhě  同tóng  

pair  these  same/together

出chū  異yí  名míng  同tóng  胃wèi 

go out  different  name  same  speak

These two the same.

Go out with different names, same speech.

     Now Lao Tzu ties together each of the previous lines. This line is also at the very heart of each and every one of Lao Tzu's lessons.  But first, recall that in the first 6 lines, Lao Tzu describes the Way in "two's":

Nameless - named

Origin - mother

Mystery - teeming world around us.

​Now he concludes: “These two are actually the same.”

     Lao Tzu is telling us that the Way consists of both 1) the unnamed origin of life 2) and also life itself. The Way is at once the nonphysical source of all life and the millions of physical presentations of life—the 10,000 things..

     This understanding of reality is what philosophers and theologians call "nondual" or "not-two." Reality is not just the many "things" in our world.  Nor is reality some an amorphous "One" which obliterates the distinction between things.  Rather, the world around us—including our own selves— come forth from the Way and yet are never apart from it.

     That reality is "nondual" is at the heart of other traditions and their scriptures as well, though they rarely recognize it in their mainstream forms. Nonduality is the core of Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Sufi expression of Islam. In Christianity it is found in the fundamental understanding that there are many souls but One spirit.

    That the world is both One and many is an easy enough concept to grasp. As with many concept we can know about them without really understanding them. A child, for example can be told about sex as an idea, as information, but without really understanding. He or she will grasp it more fully only after they have matured.

     Similarly, that reality is both One and many may still be just a concept to us, though a very pleasant one. Throughout each of his other lessons Lao Tzu will invite us to a deeper and personal understanding it


Note: Nondualitythat the Way and the things of the world are "the same"--should not be confused with a pantheism. In a pantheism, the physical world is all that there is. But Lao Tzu emphasizes that there is both the world we know and also its nonphysical origin from which the world continually comes to be. This is neither Parmenides’ monism, or Oneness, nor Democratus’ dualism, or "twoness." Rather it can better be describe as "not-two."

Character Note: Regarding the final character of this line, 胃wèi, speak: 胃wèi is an early and variant character for the more familiar modern character, 謂wèi, to speak.


. . . . . . . .

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This is the most

profound truth of all,

and our gateway to

the many and the mystery.

玄xuán  之zhī  有yǒu玄xuán   

profound     (poss.)     again     profound    

眾zhóng  眇miǎo**  之zhī  門mén

many     mystery     (poss.)     gateway

Profound, and again profound,

the gateway of the many and mystery.

     The subject of this sentence is implied from the previous line. It is "these two's are the same." The world is "nondual, or "not-two.


​     Lao Tzu tells us here that his is not merely  玄xuán profound, but 玄xuán 之zhī  有yǒu 玄xuán; literally, “profound, and then again profound.” It is so profound that we cannot intellectualize it.


​     But if we were forced to explain it intellectually, we could say that:

1) each thing is completely itself, and yet

2) each thing is at the same instant the 

the ongoing expression of the way.

     We might think of this a kind of “unity.” But even calling it a “unity” is not quite right, because "unity" implies a "coming together." But there is no "coming together.” The two aspects of the Way have never been separated. So what is there to unite?

     Confused? Lao Tzu warned at the start that he could not “say” what he wanted to say. Now we see why. No words can contain it. We can't even reason it out, because our thinking always requires "two" — me and the thing I'm thinking about. And, if Lao Tzu is correct, than even "my" reasoning is an ongoing operation of the Way

     Lao Tzu concludes this lesson by drawing an analogy to a gate. This is an apt comparison when we consider that a gate is one but has ‘two’ sides, and is open to each side.


*Regarding 有yǒu, in Line 9: It usually has the of meaning “have.” Here it is translated as its common variant, 又yòu, meaning “again” or “once more.”

**Regarding 眾zhóng and 眇miǎo, in line 9. In ancient Chinese, double nouns such as 眾zhóng "the many + 眇miǎo, "mystery” often combine toward a third meaning. When put side by side  眾zhóng “the many” and 眇miǎo “mystery” express the two aspect of the Ways--that the Way comes forth as the many things of our world.


眾zhóng, “many” can also be an adjective, in this case it would be translated “all.”  The reading then would be, “The gateway to all mysteries.”

. . . . . . .  

     Perhaps we hoped that Lao Tzu would wind up the lesson with some clever or wise conclusion, like a professor at the end of the hour. But Lao Tzu warned us at the outset that he cannot tell us about the Way. He can only point. We are the ones who must discover what he is pointing us toward

     We may think that we haven't made much progress in our understanding, and feel alone still, and in the dark with respect to Lao Tzu's words. And yet in the last line he has left us with something important—that  門mén gate. Other lessons will help us see how this gateway may open for us.


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