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Lao Tzu for Everyone


Students, Scholars,

& Seekers


Chinese-English Interlinear

Peter Gilboy, Ph. D.


A Note

regarding the characters

used in this translation.

Lesson 18

When the Way

is Lost



​​​​ àn

(木 wood + 安 phonetic for “rest in”)

guide, law, conform, table


     This lesson is an opportunity to compare Lao Tzu's teachings with those of Confucius. Both were great teachers during the Warring States period (500 -221 B.C.), which was an extraordinarily violent time in China's history.   The teachings of each continue to offer correctives for today's societies as well as  for our individual lives.


     By way of general introduction to each, the core differences between Confucius' and Lao Tzu's teachings are this:



For Confucius:


& Self-cultivation.

    For Confucius our task is to learn the key virtues* and then practice them daily. This is what he calls  修xiū  身shēn self-cultivation

    It is through self-cultivation that we move from being a shallow person, a 小xiǎo 人rén, to becoming a superior person, or 君jūn 子zǐ, knowing what is good, proper, and true, and always acting accordingly.

​   As we cultivation the virtues in ourselves, right action become routine to us, a kind of second nature. The result is that the superior person has a curative affect on any discord in the family, the community, and even the nation. As Confucius tells us:

From the son of heaven (emperor)

down to everyone in the land,

self-cultivation is the root of everything.

​自zì  天tiēn  子zǐ  以yǐ  至zhì  於 yú 庶shù  人rén
壹yī  是shì  皆jiē  以yǐ  修xiū  身shēn  為wéi  本bén

( The Great Learning: 2)


*The Confucian virtues to be cultivated are:

  • 仁rén (benevolence toward others, humaneness),

  • 義Yì, (right action, justice), 

  • 禮lǐ, (propriety, or doing what is proper in each instance),

  • 智zhì, (wisdom),

  • and 信xìn (truthfulness, integrity.)

     Note that each virtue is sensitive to one's place in the society, with each station having practices that are appropriate to it.

. . . . . .


For Lao Tzu:


& Natural action


     For Lao Tzu, there is no behavior for us to learn and nothing for us to cultivate. In fact, we can't "learn" how to act according to the prescribed virtues, because each moment is new and unprecedented. How can we possibly know the right and fitting action until we discover the needs of that moment?

     ​The problem is that we have already "learned" what is right and wrong, what to do and not do, and thereby now "know" how to act.

     It is the sage who has "unlearned," or discarded such learning. In doing so he or she returns to their true and natural self, their 自zì 然rán, self-so-ness, and is able to respond spontaneously to the demands of each moment. As Lao Tzu tells us:


Give up learning and

put an end to your woes.

絕jué  學xué  无wú  憂yōu

(Line 1, Lesson 20)


The sage . . . learns to unlearn,

and returns to what all others

have passed by.

聖人 . . . 學不學復衆人之所過

(Line 20, lesson 64)

The person who learns

daily increases.

The person who hears the Way

daily decreases.

Decrease upon decrease

until they are not doing

anything at all,

and yet nothing

is left undone




(Lesson 48)

. . . . . .

Line 1


Line 1

Therefore,* when the

great Way is lost,

then that there are rules for

kindness and uprightness.

故gù   大dà  道tào   廢fèi

​​therefore great way abandon/abolish

案àn     有yǒu     仁rěn     義yì

guide/law/administer   have   humane   righteousness.)

Therefore great Way abandoned

the guide is humanness and righteousness


      For Lao Tzu, all of our personal and social problems are a result of not understanding who we actually are. We are not a walking food-body with a brain. We are a direct expression of the Way. That is his point in each and every lesson. The sage is a person who has realized this, and in doing so has returned to his or her natural way

     Civility and uprightness are natural to us. It is only when we have lost the Way that we then must impose our own rules, morals, and values to maintain order.

    So while the cultivation of Confucian virtues may be a positive prescription in a very troubled time, for Lao Tzu it is sign that a society and its citizens have already devolved, and have lost what is natural to them. That is the message of this first line.


*This first character,  故 "therefore," is a clear indication that this lesson is meant to follow on the heels of the previous lesson.



Line 2

Line 2

When wit and cleverness arise,

then many man-made

schemes are hatched.

​​​​​  知zhī    快kuài   出chū   

know clever/sharp come forth/produce

案àn     有yǒu    大dà     偽wéi*

guide/law/administer    have   great    man-made

Knowledge, cleverness come forth

the guide is great "man-madeness."

     When we lose the Way, we turn to our selves for answers.

    The final character 偽wéi is significant. It is composed of a  亻person + 爲 make/do. It refers to what is "man-made," "false," "bogus," and "hypocritical."  It is a way which is not natural to us, and we have, therefore, deviated from our inborn, and personal way.

​​​  ​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 3

​​Line 3

When the family is

no longer harmonious,

then mere formalities

are substituted.

 六liù   親qīn  不bù    和hé

​six    relationship   no    harmony

案àn      有yǒu    孝xiào     茲zī 

guide/law/administer    have    filial piety  add more/here

​​Six relations have not harmony

the guide is more filial piety

     For Confucius, training is necessary to bring about the right relationship between family members and others.* But for Lao Tzu, a harmonious relationship is already our natural condition, like breathing and sleeping.  We need only awaken to it. We will then have 復fù returned to it. 


*The 5 central Confucian relationships to be learned and cultivated are as follows:


The ruler is to be benevolent,

and the subject loyal


A father is to be loving,

and a son is to be reverent.


A husband is to be good to his wife,

and a wife is to be deferential to her husband



The older sibling is to be gentle toward the younger,

and the young is to be respectful of the older.


Friends are to always be be

nurturing and respectful toward each other.

. . . . . . 

Line 4

Line 4

When the country

is in confusion and disorder

it is then that

'loyal' ministers appear


 邦bāng  家jiā    昏hūn    亂luàn  

      country   home dark/confused  disorder


案àn    有yǒu     貞zhēn 臣chén

     guide/law/administer    have    virtuous    minister

​​Country is confused and disordered,

guided by loyal ministers.

     "貞zhēn 臣chén loyal ministers" is certainly an ironic statement. Loyalty to a leader is a sure sign that the society had devolved, and now the ministers have to choose side.


     The sage has no such biases. He or she treats all things and people equally, like "straw dogs," as he tells us in Lesson 5; meaning that the sage gives attention first of all to the inner person, not to the mere outer shell.


Note: See Lessons 2 and 20, where Lao Tzu responds more specifically to our partiality, our predispositions, and our experiences of duality.

  ​​​. . . . . .


Final Note


We are all familiar with the phrase, "Confucius says," usually followed by some fortune cookie witticism.  But here are a few things that this great teacher actually said. Note their timeless relevance:

Confucius said:

A superior person understands right action.

The shallow person understands gain.


Learning without taking the time

to ponder it, is wasteful.

Pondering over things

without learning is dangerous.

學而不思則罔 思而不學則殆

​​To see what is right and not act upon it,

is cowardice. 

見義不為 無勇也

It is only the virtuous person who can

truly love others and hate others.

唯仁者能好人 能惡人

If a person has no virtue,

how can he understand music? 

人而不仁 如樂何

Watch how a person behaves.

Observe his motives.

Note how he takes his leisure.

How can we hide who we are!

I say again, how can we hide who we are!




​​​. . . . . .

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