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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 12








(止 foot + 比 abbrev. form of compare)

this, in this case


     Each of Lao Tzu's lessons, whether it is stated or not, is about what Lao Tzu calls 自zì 然rán, or self-so-ness. This is our natural and authentic self which is prior to all the experiences and concepts we hold about ourselves. This is who we are, each one of us individually, at our core.

     自zì 然, or self-so-ness is not the so-called "inner" self that psychologists encourage us to explore. It is much more profound than that. Our many psychologies may certainly be helpful to us. They encourage us to explore why we do the things we do, and how we perceive ourselves:  What are my traits? What are my beliefs? What are my real motives?  What is my image of my self? How do I improve my self esteem? And so on.

     We even have psychological tests to inform us of our intelligence, our aptitudes and our abilities. They even report what kind of job we are best suited for.

      Lao Tzu is not concerned with any of these. For Lao Tzu, these studies concern only our second-hand self. They do not reach to 自zì 然, our self-so-ness, which might also call our "first-hand self."

      In Lesson 5 Lao Tzu referred to our second-hand self as our "straw dog." This second-hand self is the one that we carry which us each day. This includes what we might call our historical self, which incorporates our personal history of having been raised in a certain kind of way, within a certain kind of society, with certain positive and negative traits, and all the experiences that we have accrued through our lives.


     This outer world that we experience is so much with us that we easily overlook the authentic inner world, our self-so-ness. As we'll see in the final lines, that is what this lesson is actually about.



​​. . . . . .


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Line 1

The five colors* can make

the eye go blind.**

​五wǔ    色sè   使shǐ   人rén   目mù  盲máng

    five         color       cause           person         eye    blind   

Five colors cause a

person’s eyes [to be] blind.

     In the first 5 lines of this lesson, Lao Tzu draws our attention to the outer world within which we are already immersed. There is no escaping this world. Nor should we want to. It is a wondrous and remarkable place.


     This is the world of our family, friends, work, society, and nature. It is an obvious in-your-face world which calls for our attention at every moment. This is the world we understand through our senses. They tell us what is "out there" all around us: Trees. Neighbors. Moon. Our car's GPS system. The words on this page.

    But this world only seems to be "out there." And because it seems apart from us, at times even opposed to us, it can also be a threatening and foreboding world in which we think we must make our own way.      


* The five colors correspond to the five ancient Chinese elements which determine the relationships between all things: Red—fire. Earth—yellow. Black—water. White—metal. Green-blue—wood. 

**Other editions, including the Wang Bi, Fu Yi and Heshang Gong, have the first 5 lines in a different order, which appears more appropriate: 1,5,4,2,3.

.​ ​​​​. . . . . .


Line 2


​​​​Line 2

A galloping hunt can
make the heart/mind go mad.

馳chí     騁chěng   田tián  獵liè

swiftly  galloping horse   field        hunt      


使shǐ 人rén 心xīn   發fā   狂kuáng

   cause    person   heart/mind  act/send    insane


Swift galloping  horses across a field to hunt.

cause a person’s mind to go insane


     With this line Lao Tzu turns from our senses to our 心xīn heart/mind, meaning not just our mental-mind, but the emotional life too, all else that comprises our nonphysical life.


     Like the senses of Line 1, our 心xīn heart/mind experiences the world as if from the outside. Again, this world is not to be shunned. Nowhere does Lao Tzu advocate withdrawing from it. His concern in this line is for those of us who are captivated by the outer world, distracted by it, and easily overlook our own first-hand-self, our self-so-ness.

     As  Wang Bi's (226-249 A.D.) commentary concludes regarding these first 5 lines:

Not obeying one's inner nature,

is contrary to one's self-so-ness.

​​ 不bù  以yǐ  順shùn  性xìn  命mìng 

反fǎn  以yǐ  傷shāng  自zì 然rán


.​ ​​​​. . . . . .


Line 3

​​Line 3

Coveting rare goods

can make

for inner unrest.


難nán   得dé  之zhī   貨huò

    difficult   obtain   (poss.)   goods

使shǐ   人rén  之zhī    行xíng   方fāng*

cause   person  (poss.)  go/travel  side by side  

Difficult to obtain goods cause a

person’s travel to be side by side.


       Obviously, human nature hasn't changed since Lao Tzu's time.




*Regarding: 行xíng "go/travel"  + 方fāng "side by side." We have a similar idiom in English when we say, “He was beside himself.” Note that  the Wang Bi and Heshang Gong texts have a related character and pronunciation, 妨fáng, "to hinder, impede."


*  *  *  *  *  *

Line 4

Line 4

Five flavors can

overwhelm one's taste.

​​  五wǔ  味wèi   

five      taste   


使shǐ  人rén  之zhī   口kǒu  爽shuǎng

cause   person     (poss.)     mouth    refresh/injure

Five tastes cause a person’s

mouth to become injured.

​​. . . . . .



Line 5

Line 5

Five tones can

deafen the ear.


五wǔ   音yīn 

five     tones

使shǐ  人rén  之zhī  耳ěr  聾lóng  

cause  person    (poss.)   ear      deaf

Five tones cause a person's

ear to become deaf.

​​. . . . . .



Line 6

Line 6

That is why the sage is

concerned with the belly,

not the eye.

​  是shí   以yǐ*  聖shèng  人rén 之zhī 治zhī   也yě

  (for this reason)    sage      person     (poss.)    rule/manage    (part.)

為wéi   腹fù   不bù  為wéi 目mù

do     stomach     not        do        eye

For this reason, as to the sage’s regulation

he or she does it by the stomach,not by the eye.

     By referencing the 腹fù “belly” here, Lao Tzu is analogizing to our being, our most “inner self” which cannot be known through the senses or mind.*

     In English we have the expressions, "gut-instinct," "premonition," "sixth sense," and "intuitiveness."  How many times have we heard, "I went against my instincts."


     What is the source of such mysterious knowledge? It is not the senses or the mind, but our very being, our first-hand-self.

     In analogizing the 腹fù “belly,” Lao Tzu is also reminding us of  the wise yin or feminine part of us. This is when a person has become receptive to the intelligence of the Way. The intelligence of the Way is the wisdom of our own being which is so close to us that we cannot discover it in the same way that we discover the things around us.


* See a similar use of 腹fù belly in line 5 of Lesson 3.

Regarding 是shí 以yǐ: In other chapters too the phrase 是shí 以yǐ (literally "this use") is an expression meaning “for this reason.” Note how it is commonly use to introduce the way of the sage in contrast to the way of the ordinary person.

​​​​. . . . . .



Line 7

Line 7

Accordingly, the sage

lets go of the one,

and hears the other.


​​  故gù   去qù   彼bǐ  耳ěr  此cǐ

therefore    depart    that/other    ear     this


     此cǐ, “this,” refers to what is at hand inwardly,* our very being. It is who we are from the ground up prior being distracted by outer world. This line could also be translated, “That’s why the sage releases what is outer to hear what is inner.”

     Note that Lao Tzu uses 耳ěr ear, or “hearing” in this line soon after pointing out in Line 5 that too many tones deafen one’s 耳ěr “hearing.” He must be referring to a different type of hearing, perhaps one that is similar to the “hearing” found in other philosophical and religious works. Socrates, for example, was guided by an “inner voice” telling him what not to do.* And of course in the New Testament, “If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.”**

     Normally we hear only what is loud, what is obvious, what grabs our attention. This is a passive hearing. The sage's hearing is active. He or she listens beyond all the distractions in order to hear what our very being is telling us.


*As we’ll see in other lessons, such as 21 and 38, 此cǐ,“this,” is a reference to what is self-evident. Therefore, the translation “this” refers to what is here and now at hand; that is, what is unmistakable if we will only have a look.

“*"The sign is a voice which comes to and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything…”  The Apology. Benjamin Jowett, Trans.

***See Mark 4:23. Matthew 11:15.  KJV. See also "hearing" in Genesis 3:8, Exodus 19:9, Deuteronomy 4:12, et al.


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