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Marble Surface

Lao Tzu for Everyone


Students, Scholars,

& Seekers


Chinese-English Interlinear

Peter Gilboy, Ph. D.


A Note

regarding the characters

used in this translation.

Lesson 16





(彳step + 复double back)



     Each of us has settled notions, beliefs, and assortments of knowledge-bits about the world and about ourselves. These are all true. We need only ask ourselves to be assured that they are true.

       In each lesson, Lao Tzu has asked us to question these truths. Central to this questioning are the truths that we hold about ourselves. This is the "me", that self-portrait in our heads when we think about our selves. Our "me" may still need some work, and, yes, my opinion of it may fluctuate with my moods, but at least it is real.  It is not theoretical.  I know it is a real because I can see it in the mirror; and besides, I have known this "me" for a very long time.

    In this lesson Lao Tzu asks us to put down our self-portrait, at least for a while. He speaks of 復fù, "return," or 復fù 歸guī, "returning homeward," by which he means a return to our authentic and first-hand-self. In Lesson 13 he referred to that as our 自zì 然rán, or "self-so-ness." 

     Our first-hand-self has been with us all along. It is not a notion in our heads. It does not change. Though I may think that I'm unfamiliar with it, at some level I have known about it all along.

     Returning home to my first-hand-self which has never left me, is what this lesson is about.

Line 1


Line 1

Attaining to emptiness

is our utmost condition.

Holding to our still-point

is the most profound.

zhī     虛xū     極jí      也yě

reach to   empty  utmost/furthest (part.)


     守shǒu    靜jìng   篤dǔ   也yě     

hold/maintain     still  deep/true/genuine (part.)

​Reaching emptiness is utmost.

​Holding to stillness is deep.

​​​​​​     We were introduced to the character 虛xū “empty” in  Lessons 3 & 5. "Empty" does not mean having nothing in our heads. Rather, it is to go through our day empty of expectations, worries, or presumptions as to what will occur. No internal dialogue continually reinforcing what we already "know" to be true and firmly believe. The “empty” person is able to meet the world freshly instead of through the many concepts that he or she already holds about the world and about themself.

     The character 靜jìng, "still," is not new either. We saw it in Line 10 of the last lesson. "Stillness," is not sitting still. It means that at our center there is something that is quiet and unchanging. We cannot move our still-point, even if we tried. It is already there. It has always been there. It is our personal nature bestowed upon us by the Way.


Grammatical note:

The final particle 也yě is omitted in what we know as the Wang Bi, Fu Yi and Heshang Gong editions. The inclusion of it in the earlier Ma Wang Tui and Guodian editions gives the line a very different meaning from what we find in many translations. The 也yě changes the sentence from a simple declarative one to an to an equative sentence, as in A = B, or A is B.

   For example, in English, “Jane woman 也yě” would translate as, “Jane is a woman.” 

   With the 也yě omitted, this line may be translated:

Attain to utmost emptiness;

Hold firmly to center.

  But as an equative sentence, A = B, its more literal translation would be:

​Reaching  to emptiness is utmost.

 Holding to tranquility is deep.

 (Note the same equative structure of Line 5.)

. . . . . .

Line 2

Line 2

The myriad things are

bustling around me.

It is in stillness

that I behold them

ever returning to the Way

萬wàn  物wù  旁páng  作zuò

10,000     thing   close/near  act/perform

吾wú  以yǐ    觀guān 其qí  復fù  也yě

I by  means   see/spy    (pron.)  return   (part.)

10,000 things act nearby;

I by means spy their return.

​​     The things around us, and we ourselves too, seem to come onto stage at our birth and then at some point leave the stage. But each person has a still-point, a fulcrum at the center of all his or her doings. It is from our own still point that we may behold ourselves and all things as residing in the Way. This is to be "ever returning homeward."

​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 3

​​Line 3

You see, the myriad things arise

in all their varieties,

with  each of them

ever returning homeward to its root.

夫fú  物wù  雲yún  雲yún

​(intro)    thing    clouds    clouds

各gè   復fù   歸guī   於yú   其qí   根gēn

each    return  return home  (prep.)  (pron.)    root 

​Now 10,000 things (are like) clouds, clouds.

Each returns home to their root

     We have different natures, but the same root. This is our stable part, our common home.

​​  ​​

. . . . . . 

Line 4

Line 4

Call it our


​​​To discover

one's still-point is called


to one's own nature.


​​​曰yuē  靜jìng

say      still 

​​靜jìng   是shì 胃wèi 復fù  命mìng  

still       to be     call      return     mandate

Called still.

Still is called returning

to one's mandate.


​​ ​     Each thing has its nature which is 命mìng "mandated" or "bestowed" upon it.  This is what is original to us.  Returning to one's "mandate, is to live out the unique way bestowed upon us by the Way. It is to to abide in it, never divorced from it.


See, "Do things have their own 道tao Way?​"

​​. . . . . .


Line 5

Line 5

Returning to one's nature

is to abide in it.

To know the abiding

is to be enlightened

復fù   命mìng   常cháng 也yě

return   mandate  unchanging   (part)

   知zhī  常cháng  明míng 也yě

Know  unchanging   bright   (part.)

Returning to one's mandate is unchanging.

Knowing the unchanging is bright.


Note: the definition of enlightenment.



​​. . . . . .



Line 6

Line 6

Not realizing what abides

is to be blind to one's self.

To be blind to one's self

does not bode well.

不bù   知zhī  常cháng 妄wàng

not   know   timeless   false/absurd

妄wàng    作zuò   兇xiōng

false/absurd  happen ominous/inauspicous

Not knowing timelessness is false.

​False brings about calamity

     There is nothing more ominous than self-misunderstanding. 

​​​​​​. . . . . .


Line 7

Line 7

Knowing the abiding

is to be all-embracing.*

Being all-embracing

is to be** impartial.

Being impartial

     is to be kingly.***

  知zhī   常cháng    容róng 

                                        know        timeless     contain/appearance


                           容róng       乃nǎi*      公gōng 

                      vast/contain/appearance     then      equitable/balanced

公gōng   乃nǎi   王wáng** 

equitable/balanced   then   king

Knowing what is timeless is vast

Vast that equitable.

Equitable then kingly.

*The character 容róng has the meanings of "looks," "appearance," hold," and "contain."  Translated here as "all-embracing," following Wang Bi's explanation of this line: "There is nothing that it does not penetrate."   無wù 所suǒ 不bù  包bāo 通tōng


​**The character 乃nǎi, has the sense of "then," thereupon," "is none other than."   

​​***The three horizontal lines in the graph 王wáng, "king," depict the three realms: Heaven above, earth below, and man in the center. That is our gift, and predicament. The vertical line intersecting the three lines illustrates the fullness of a ruler, or anyone, who can unite the three realms.

​​​​​​​​. . . . . .


Line 8
Line 9

Line 8

Being kingly is heavenly.

Being heavenly

is to be

in step with the Way.

​​​​  王wáng     乃nǎi     天tiān     

king      then    heaven.

天tiān    乃nǎi     道tào 

heaven     then       way

Kingly, then heaven

Heaven, then way.



Note: The character 天tiān means "heaven," "sky," "great," and "vast." Originally it included three horizontal lines that were intersected by a vertical line,  兲, depicting the intersection of heaven above, earth below, and man in between. That is why the person who is 王 "kingly" is on that account 兲tiān "heavenly."

​​​​​​​​​. . . . . .



Line 9

When one is in

step with the Way,

evermore one's sense

of "me" sinks away

without any harm at all.

 道tào  乃nǎi   久   

way       then    long time


沒mò   身shēn 不bǔ  殆dài   

sink      self/body     not    danger/peril

​​The way, then continually the body

sinks away and is not in peril.

     In returning home to the Way and abiding there, one's misunderstanding about oneself simply falls away. If our true self is our still-point, how can that come to any harm?

​​​​​​​​​​. . . . . .




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