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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 10

Lao Tzu

asks us

6 questions


​​  氣qì


((气 air + 米 rice, food)

vital energy, breath


      Our 氣qì is the balance yin and yang energies which result in the vitality which we feel right throughout our day. It may balanced or not, as is noted in Lessons 42 and 55. Our 氣qìt goes on mostly without a thought from us as long as it is harmonious. We like to think that this vitality is us. But we are not “doing” it.  We can only nourish the balance of yin and yang energies, or deprive them of their rightful balance.

​​. . . . . .


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Line 1

In watching over

your physical and mental self

and embracing the One,

can you keep them

from coming apart?


戴dài    營yíng      魄pò     抱bào  一yī  

    wear on top    manage    bodily-soul   embrace    one  

能néng  毋wú    離lí   乎jū 

able        not have       depart  (interrog.)

As to managing your bodily-soul embracing the one,

can you not have [them]depart?


     The character 魄pò refers to the mental and physical “self” or “soul” of a person from which we each sense, perceive, and experience the world.  


     The character 一yī , “one,” refers to the one Way which dwells in each and every person and thing.

     Conceptually, there are “two” here: 1) The individual person and 2) the Way. But only conceptually. When the sage senses the vitality of his or her body, the sage doesn’t take it personally, as if its his or her vitality. Rather, he or she comprehends it as just one of the myriad workings of the Way.

     In this line Lao Tzu is asking us: “Can you see that you and the Way are not separate?” And, “If you and the Way are not separate, then are you “you,” or are you actually and expression of the Way?”


Note:This is the only use of 魄pò, bodily soul, in the text. The other notion of soul held by the ancient Chinese is 魂hún, which some believed went through cycles of rebirth. Lao Tzu does not use this other character 魂hún  at all.

     Note also that rebirth and reincarnation are not mentioned by Lao Tzu. It is only centuries later, after Buddhism is introduced to China from India, that Taoism took up reincarnation. That in turn, became what is known today as “religious Taoism” with a cosmology and a number of rites and rituals.

    There is no evidence that  Lao Tzu had any interest in a cosmology, rites, or rituals. He might have simply smiled at such notions and asked, “Why do you need all that if you already have the Way?”


​​. . . . . .


Line 2


​​​​Line 2

In gathering together

your 氣 vital force

to attain suppleness,

are you able

to be like an infant.

專zhuān 氣qì  至zhì 柔róu    

monopolize   life-force  to reach  supple


能néng  嬰yīng  兒ér   乎hū

able        infant       child    (interrog.)

In monopolizing your lived force

to reach suppleness,

          are you able to be an infant child?


    As with other traditions, Lao Tzu speaks of being like, or returning to, the condition of an 兒ér infant or child. An infant has not yet  learned its “name,” and therefore has not yet been taught that it is separate from the many other things of the world. The infant is dependent. The infant has no social status.

     Of course, we all have names now, and we feel apart from other things and people, like islands in a sea of other beings. Lao Tzu is simply asking us if this separateness is actual. Or, are we overlooking that we each depend upon the same vital force of the Way which we share with all else?




​​Note regarding 兒ér infant or child: See also Lessons 20 and 28



Line 3

​​Line 3

In cleansing your inner most mirror,

can you leave no residue.


脩xiū   除chú    玄xuán 鑑jiàn

deal with   cleanse   profound    mirror    

能néng   毋wú  疵cī    乎hū

able      not have    blemish  (interrog.)

     Our conscious mind is like a mirror in that it reflect all that we encounter. And after encountering something, we may then drag that thought or experience into the next moment, and the next, and the next, and so on. For example, I may have the experience of being cut off by a driver on the road.  If I carry that experience with me for the rest of my journey, my mind will not purely reflect what is before me, but retain the past event, perhaps even angrily so.   

     We each have a personal history which travels with us mentally as we go through our day. We accept this personal history as that which has formed us, that which made us who we are. Some people even tell us that we are no more than the sum total of our experiences.


     But the pure present, rightly understood, has no past experience in it. It does not “mirror” anything--unless we fill it up with something from the past;our personal experiences, routines, habits, and of course, those incessant internal dialogues which loiter our heads.

     In this line Lao Tzu is asking his reader whether he or she can cleanse that inner mind of what is unnecessary, and see what is actually there instead of bringing the past to the moment. He is asking whether we can become aware of the weight of our past, and simply let it go so that it no longer interferes the ever-new present.

*  *  *  *  *  *

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Line 4

Line 4

In caring for the people

and establishing a nation,

can you do so without scheming?


愛ài   民mín  栝guā 國guó

love  the people    build     country     

能néng   毋wú   以yǐ*    知zhī    乎hū

able         not      using     knowledge (interrog.)

      Here Lao Tzu addresses leadership.  Though not mentioned by name, this line is about 无wu 為wei, "not doing."

      Of course most of us, as leaders in our families or towns, want to benefit others. So, it may seem natural to set out with a plan, a design, an overall scheme to make good things happen. We are already certain of what is right and good,  and we are going to work hard to bring that about.


     The sage doesn’t do this. In fact, the sage does nothing. Or rather, nothing of himself or herself. Because the sage can see clearly (reference the 'mirror' of  previous line), he or she understands that the remedy to what ails the nation, the community, or the family, is to simply stop doing what is counter-productive, and allow the Way to become restored of itself.



     In that sense, there is nothing for the sage to do, nothing to possess, nothing to control. The sage’s 愛ài “care” or “love” is expressed by letting the conditions reestablished themselves so that the people and the nation may thrive.

     In a manner of speaking,the sage simply steps back from all the purposeful doing so that the Way may return. These are the same conditions that have been available all along, and which can once again become actual when they are no longer obstructed by all our efforts.


*Gram. note: 以yǐ has the general meaning of “to use.” It is frequently translated "by" or “by means of,” indicating the means by which an action was accomplished. Ex: “Laura went home 以 car.” See its use also in line  and 6.

. . . . . .




Line 5

Line 5

In the opening and

closing of heaven's gate,

can you play the feminine part?


​     天tiān   門mén  啟qǐ 闔hé   

     heaven     doorway     open    close     


  能néng  為wéi   雌cí  乎hū


  able    do   soft/female  (interrog.)

        As to heaven’s doorway opening and closing,

are you able to act the female?


     Heaven has its Way. Our feminine part, our wise and timely part, understands this and takes no role in prying opening and shutting closed heaven’s gate.

     Put plainly, the feminine part has no tendency to “shoot first and ask questions later.” That’s the  masculine part when wrongly applied. The feminine part waits for heaven’s will. This wisdom “happens” only when a person has cleansed their innermost mirror and becomes receptive to the intelligence of the Way.

     Received wisdom is the hallmark of our feminine part. So, in this line Lao Tzu is asking whether we can, in our lives, play this feminine part. Can we wait for the right time before acting; and then, and only then, draw wisely upon the masculine part.

. . . . . .



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Line 6
Line 7

Line 6

With all your insight

into the world,

can you keep from

becoming clever?


     明míng 白bái  四sì  達dá 

       bright    pure    four   reaches   

 能néng 毋wú  以yí  知zhī  乎hū


 able          not        use      know    (interrog.)


In  your brilliant clarity of the four reaches,

can you not use knowledge?


     Again, Lao Tzu is addressing 无wu 為wei

     Our 知zhī knowledge is always of the past. Knowledge does not know the unique present. So, when the masculine part acts out of this past knowledge rather than out of the wisdom of the feminine part, it is just mere human contrivance and manipulation on our part.


  . . . . . .


Line 8

Line 7

Give birth to things,

and raise them,

but without owning them.


​     生shēng之zhí 畜chù之zhí

       achieve       carry out        self         back   


生shēng 而ér 弗fú 有yǒu 


heaven     (poss.)       way      part.


Birth them and raise them.

Birth and not have them.

     This and the next line reveal the right operation of feminine and masculine, yin and yang; which is to 无wu 為wei "not do."


  . . . . . .


Line 8

Be nurturing,

but without lording

over others.

This is called the

profound power of the Way


     長cháng  而ér 弗fú  宰zǎi  也yě

   long/increase   and  (not it)  to rule    (part.)     


是shì  胃wèi  玄xuán    德dé


is     say    profound  power/virtue

To nurture and yet not rule,

is called the most profound power.

    There is no pronoun here. Lao Tzu  does not say that it is our “profound power.”  德dé, power, always refers to the operation of the Way as us and as all other things.



Character note, 德dé, power: See also this central character, 德dé; see Lesson 18. The two characters, 玄xuán 德dé translated here as “the profound power of the Way,” are also found together in Chapters 51 and 65.



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