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Lao Tzu for Everyone


Students, Scholars,

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph. D.



  the Way

Line 1


A Note

regarding the characters

used for this translation.


Lesson 2

How the Sage

Is different



(呈 to present + 耳 ear.)




Line 1

When everyone knows

what is beautiful,

it is only because of

their preference*

天tiān 下xià  皆jiē  知zhī  美měi 之zhī

heaven   under     all     know  beauty  (as to)

為wéi    美měi   惡è   已yǐ    

as/because beauty  bad/ugly already/that's all

As to all the world knowing beauty,

it is because already beauty-ugly

      Lao Tzu points out how easily we accept our personal preferences and individual judgments as if they were conclusive and finished.  We prefer something it because it "looks good to us ," or "feels good to us," or "it works for us."  As Wang Bi (226 A.D. – 249 A.D. ) commented on this line:


That which is beautiful, is what the

human heart continually enjoys;

and that which is ugly is what

the human heart finds repulsive.

美měi 者zhě 人rén 心xīn 之zhī 所suǒ 進jìn 樂lè 也yě 

惡è 者zhě 人rén 心xīn之zhī 所suǒ 惡è 疾jí 也yě


   Wang Bi's point is that when the “human heart” prefers "this" over "that," then we who are the ones who are influencing our own seeing and thinking, usually due to our acquired cultural conditioning. 

    Another point: When we prefer "this" over "that," we are only seeing the relationship between things. We are not seeing the things-in-themselves. Or the Oneness that begets each thing.


*Trans. note regarding ​​美měi beauty &  惡è ugly: When two adjectives are placed together like this, it often refers to a third meaning. Example:  When, “大小 large-small” are placed together it can be translated as “size.” Here “美 惡 beauty-ugly” when placed together emphasizes a third meaning—that of “preference,” or "bias."


. . . . . . .

Line 2

Line 2

When everyone knows

what is good,

this is not good.

皆jiē  知zhī  善shàn 斯sī  不bù 善shān 矣yǐ

all     know     good     this     not     good    (emphasis)

All know good, this not good!

     We view good and bad as antagonistic to each other, and thus the good-bad drama continues in our minds. But to what extent is this drama actual? To what extent are these merely our “likings” or “predilections” which are based upon personal feelings, sentiments, and affections?

     The ordinary person is entangled in his or her private passions and quests. That is not the way of the sage.


. . . . . .

Line 3

Line 3

Being and nonbeing

arise from each other.

  有yǒu  无wú    之zhī    相xiāng  生shēng  也yě

to be     not to be     (as to)    mutual      life/birth      (part.)

As to being and not being,

they are mutually birthing (or, giving life).


     “Being” here refers to things which have a physical existence. “Nonbeing” also exists, but not physically.


     Nonbeing includes the potential for being.  This may seem very odd at first, but consider that a child cannot come into the world unless there is first the potential for that child. That potential does not exist physically, and yet it certainly exists.


     Nor can we be courageous in our lives unless the potential for courage already exists. It is the same with love. The potential for love has no physicality until we bring it into being in our expressions of love.


     Rather than wrestling with what we think of as the two halves of opposites or polarities, the sage understands the mutuality of things as well as the Oneness which is their source.


* Note: Some translators read 有yǒu as "have," and 无wú  as "not have." The line then reads, "Having and not hot having arise from each other.” But given the thrust of Lao Tzu’s text in so many other places, “Being and nonbeing” is a better choice. While this may seem odd or esoteric, it will become clearer in other lesson. Also, “Being and nonbeing” correspond to the “named” Way and the “nameless” found in Chapter 1.   

. . . . . .

Line 4-8

Line 4

​Difficult and easy

contrast each other.

難nán  易yì  之zhī  相xiāng  成chéng  也yě

difficult     easy   (as to)   mutual     complete       part.

As to difficult and easy,

they are mutually completing.


Line 5

Long and short

compare each other

長cháng 短duǎn 之zhī  相xiāng 刑xíng  也yě

long       short     (as to)      mutual      rule/model   (part.)

As to long and short,

they are mutuality modeling.


Line 6

High and low

realize each other.

高gāo  下xià  之zhī  相xiāng   盈yíng  也yě

tall     under   (as to)    mutual            fill          (part)

As to tall and low,

they are mutually filling.


Line 7

Sound and voice

participate in each other

音yīn  聲shēng   之zhī 相xiāng   和hé   也yě   

sound     voice       (as to.)    mutual       harmony    (part.)

As to sound and voice,

they mutually harmonize

Line 8

Front and back

always follow each other

先xiān 後hòu 之zhī 相xiāng 隋suí 恆héng  也yě

first     behind   (as to)  mutual    follow  constant  (part.)

As to first and behind,

they are mutually following constantly.


Note:  Lines 3-7  are made up of six characters each, while line 8 has 7 characters.  恆héng constant, is the additional character. Perhaps "constant" is here for poetic cadence; or maybe it's intended to emphasize the “constant” back and forth interplay of each of the preceding pairings, implying that if it is not halted in our lives, it will go on forever.

. . . . . .

   The closing  4 lines may appear to be a completely different topic. But they are actually Lao Tzu’s main point—how the sage’s way is different from those who struggle within what we know as distinction and even oppositions.

    For example, think of our attempts to change our behavior. Maybe we eat or drink too much, or do not study enough. The cure, we think, is “doing” the opposite—making an effort to eat less or drink less, or to study more. Seems reasonable enough. But in “doing” the opposite, we are still entangled within the same polarity which governs our behavior.  The sage does not do this.

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Line 9

That’s why the sage acts

through 无wú not 為wéi doing,

and goes about his or her

teaching with no talking.


 是shì  以yǐ   聖shèng  人rén   居jū   

(for this reason)     sage    person  dwell   


无wú    為wéi 之zhī 事shì  

not have act/do     (poss.)   duty

  行xíng     不bù   言yán   之zhī   教jiào  

walk/perform    not    speak    (poss.)     teach.

For this reason, as to the sage,

his or her duty rests in not doing;

and his or her teaching

is performed by not speaking.

      无 為, wu wei, or  “not-doing,”  embodies the very core of Lao Tzu’s teaching. But “not doing” is not same as sitting around and doing nothing. Lao Tzu was not just sitting around when he wrote this to lesson us. Nor is “not doing” some sort of “going with the flow” as popular culture might tell us.

     “Not doing” is simply this—being so clear that one's own self is an expression of the Way, that he or she permits their self to fulfill what the Way calls for at any given.  That’s all. No brilliant schemes, no designs, no personal strategies to bring about what we deem to be the “best” or  “right” outcome for ourselves or for others. It is not about us at all. Instead, 无 為 wu wei is being in full accord with the Way, and thereby fulfilling what the Way calls for at any given moment.

​An Example

     Consider the elderly woman who falls on the sidewalk ahead of us. There is no intrusion of cluttering thoughts on our part as to what is needed right now. We simply act from out of our deepest being, not out of some personal desire, goal, or preference. Suddenly the need that is right there in front of us, is us. And, we spontaneously act.

     This is an easy example, of course. But it tells us that we already are already familiar with what is needed upon the instant, at least when our personal biases and goals are not involved. The difference is that the sage, having put aside personal bias's and aspirations, is able to spy what is needed in each and every moment. 

     To be sure, the sage is in the same world as the rest of us—going to the market, taking out the trash, using the bathroom, and cooking dinner for the family. But when the sage does something, he or she effortlessly acts according to the demand of that very moment and on that very occasion.

     Lao Tzu might quietly suggest that all our personal schemes and designs to fix things, including ourselves, once and for all may actually be the problem. The Way seems to do quite well without our interference.

     But our personal, social, and political realms are filled with our self-centered “doings”—the many grand plans, programs and laws we have in order to make ourselves and the world “better.” We need only look around to see how that is working out.

     Wu wei, or “not doing,” may seem odd to us at first. Think of it as two negatives—a person simply “not doing” that which interferes with what the Way requires. Then the Way’s own order continues on. Or, if we are already going against the Way, then Wu wei is simply our stepping back and “not doing” that which is not the Way, so the Way becomes reestablished.

     The sage is different from the ordinary person only in that the sage is awake to his or her personal "way" and the way of things. The sage then joins in partnership with these ways.


Note: 无wú 為wéi, literally, “not have” + “do, make, act.” It is also written as 無wú 為wéi in a number of later Lao Tzu editions and in modern Chinese.  See these central characters also in Chapters 38, 43, 57, 63, and 64.

. . . . . . . 

Line 9
Line 10


Line 10

The teeming things

of the world arise,

and it is not the sage who

has set them in motion.

萬wàn   物wù 昔xī    而ér  弗fú  始shǐ  也yě

10,000     thing      ancient  and yet   not it   begin     (part.) 

The 100,000  things  originate,

 and it is not (the sage) who begins them.

     The sage is keenly aware that he or she is not responsible for either the existence of the world or the design of each thing's "way.” This is a humbling realization. Along with this is the realization that because the world is all already happening according to the Way, anything a person does of himself or herself is just an interference.

     The world does not need us to correct it. Rather, the sage understands that what is needed is to stop doing (无 為 we wei) what  interferes with the Way. The correction then occurs all by itself.


   . . . . . . . .

Line 11

Line 11

The sage acts without a

 motive, and completes

his or her work without

taking credit for it.

 為wèi     而ér    弗fú   恃shì  也yě

do/act     and yet     not it     proud/rely on    part. 

成chéng 功gōng 而ér  弗fú   居jū  也yěz

complete    work      and     not it    dwell   (part.)

Act, and yet without being proud of it it.

Completes work, and not dwell on it.

    After completing his or her work, whether it is teaching a class, going shopping, or selling Iphones, the sage simply retreats. There is no need to point to his or her work or make a fuss about it. This is not because the sage is trying to be modest. The sage’s “not doing,” has preserved or restored the 道tào Way.  So what is there to take personal credit for?


     In this line Lao Tzu ties together each of the previous lines. This is also at the very heart of each and every one of Lao Tzu's lessons.


  Note: Instead of 恃shì, "proud" and "rely on" in this line, the Ma Wang Tui A text has 志zhì, meaning "motive," "purpose," "ambition."  恃shì is found in the B text, and also in the Wang Bi, Heshang Gong, Fu Yi, and Quodian editions. The idea seems to be the same, that the sage does not act for his or her own benefit.


    . . . . . . . .


Line 12

Line 12

Now, it is only

because the sage

does not

take credit for it,

that what is completed

last forever.

夫fū 唯wéi 弗fú  居jū    是shì  以yǐ    弗fú  去qú 

(intro)     only    not it   dwell  (for this reason)    not it    leave

Now, only not dwell on it,

for this reason, the sage does not leave.

     Because 无wu 為wei is action that does not interfere with the Way, the sage has done nothing at all of himself or herself. Again, what could he or she take credit for? And, in not taking credit, how could any harm or foul come to the sage?


Note: "Not doing of oneself,”  is not unique to Lao Tzu and Taoism. It is a teaching found in many traditions. As Lord Krishna counsels Arjuna on the battlefield, “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.  Bhagavad Gita: 2:47, Trans., A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.


And, as when Jesus says, " I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.​" John 5:30 (KJV); and also, "Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise." John 5:19 (KJV).


     This is not to suggest that the traditions themselves are the same in every respect, only to note a common foundational teaching within these traditions.

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