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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 22

The Paradox

of Humility


(hand 攵pū  + 牛niú cow)

shepherd, to raise cattle



Note: What has come down to us as in later editions as Lesson 22, comes after Lesson 23 in the two Ma Wang Tui editions.  For convenience, the traditional numbering is retained here.

. . . . . .

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and be whole.


and be straight.




曲qū    則zé   全quán

bend     then    whole, complete

​枉wǎng   則zé   正zhèng

​​crooked, twist    then       straight, correct

​Bend, then whole.

Crooked then straight.

     Paradoxical statements are common to religious teachings. In Western traditions, for example, we find, “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be the last of all, and servant of all”*; and, “Whosever seeks to save his life shall lose it; and whoever shall lose his life, shall save it.”**


​     Paradoxes cannot be figured out. Logic has no place here, for it has nowhere to go. The ordinary person's response to the paradox is to simply declare it “illogical” (which is true) and then to dismiss it as nonsense or slide over it in his or her reading.

     But the paradox has a specific purpose. Each is a thought-stopper. Each is a dramatic reminder to us of the limits of our reasoning and of our off-the-rack opinions. .


    When faced with a paradox, our ingrained belief systems—the ones we count on each day to make sense of the world, suddenly find themselves in nameless and uncharted territory. Nothing that we know “works.”  We have to look elsewhere if we are to understand.


​​*Mark 9:35, KJV.

**Luke 17:33, KJV.

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Empty out—

and be full.

Wear out—

and be new.

洼wā   則zé  盈yíng

hollow    then    full

敝bì     則zé  新xīn

ruin/use up     then     new

Hollow, then full

​Use up, then new


       ​A paradox stops the mind. It challenges reason and linear thinking. And, in stopping the mind, the paradox is then able to deliver an intrinsic truth. 


​​​​  ​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


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Have little—

and be benefited

Have much—

and be confused.


少shǎo 則zé 得dé 

little    then   get

多duō  則zé  惑huò  

many    then    confuse

​Little, and then get.

Many, then confused.


          From Lesson 7.

The sage yields to others,

and yet finds himself or herself

at the front.

When the sage puts

his or her self aside,

the sage is still there.



​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


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That being the case,

the sage holds to the One,

and in doing so becomes

a shepherd to the world.


是shī  以yǐ  聖shèng 人rén   執zhí  一yī   

    (for this reason)    sage     person     grasp     one  

以yǐ    為wéi   天tiān 下xià   牧mù 

(by this)   become  heaven   under       shepherd



      The “One,” refers to the Way, which comes forth as the “10,000 things” of the world, but without losing its Oneness. This is the greatest of all paradoxes. It cannot be thought. It can only be awakened to.

      Note the character 牧mù, “shepherd.”  The shepherd does not give life to the flock or herd. Nor does the shepherd develop or multiply it.

     The shepherd keeps hands off. His or her task is a negative one, to guard by warding away, and to tend to each in the flock by letting each grow of itself.  This is what it means to 无wú 為wéi "do nothing."

​​​. . . . ..



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The sage does not

show off,

and thus shines.

The sage does

not flaunt himself or herself,

and thus stands out.*


                     不bù  自zì   視shì  故gù   明míng

​​not    self   look    therefore        bright.

不bù   自zì  見jiàn  故gù  章zhāng

not  self  see    therefore      chapter/separate

​ Does not watch himself, therefore bright.

Doesn't show himself, therefore separate..



      What distinguishes a sage from the ordinary person is not what he or she does, but what they do not do

      The sage is naturally humble. He or she is not trying to be so. It comes with the territory--the land of wisdom.

      Wisdom knows no culture. It has no borders. That's because  wisdom is different from knowledge. It is different from being smart, intelligent or well informed. These are concerned with information about the outer world around us.


     But wisdom is from the inside out. It is to realize one's own 自zì self as an unprecedented and custom-made expression of the Way. And also (of course) a limited expression of the Way. The life-form we are each provided, will come to an end. No doubt about it. It is humbling to fully realize this. And, to actually realize this, is different from only knowing it as one more piece of data about oneself. 


*This is a proverb common to many traditions. That is because truth is not cultural. What is true is so for each culture everywhere at every time. "And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted."  Mat 23:12 KJV

       ​​​. . . . . .


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The sage does not boast.

And so, while there are results,

the sage does not count them

as his or her own.


That's why these

accomplishments endure.




不bù    自zì    伐fá

not     self    criticize/boast

​故gù   有yǒu 功gōng 弗fú   矜jīn

therefore  have achieve   not it   esteem

故gù    能néng  長cháng

therefore  can/able  long

​Not boast the self.

Therefore, has achievements and not esteem them.

Therefore able to last long.


​      The gardener has no power to make things grow.  He or she has a negative task, to ward away that which would inhibit the natural growth. 


​​​. . . . . .

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You see,

it is only because the sage

does not contend with others,

that there is no one

to contend with him or her.


夫fū  唯wéi 不bu4 爭zhēng

(intro)     only       not     dispute/contend

故gù    莫mò  能néng  與yǔ  之zhī   爭zhēng

therefore    no one     able        with     (pron.)      dispute/contend

Now then, only by not compending

​the results will be that no one

can contend with him.

     The sage opposes no one. He or she just goes about their business. That is all.  No muss, no fuss.  As an embodiment of the Way, things just seem to happen on their own. Again, from Lesson 2.

. . . the sage acts

by not doing, and goes about

his or her teaching

with no talking. 


The teeming things arise

and it is not the sage

who has set them in motion.



The sage acts without a motive

and completes his or her work 

without taking credit for it.


Now, it is only because 

the sage does not

take credit for it that

what is completed

lasts forever. 


 Note: The Wang Bi, Fu Yi, and Heshang Gong editions add 天tiān下xià, "under heaven" after 故gù, "Therefore."  The reading then changes from  莫mò "no one" contends with the sage, to "nothing under heaven," or "nothing in the world" contends with the sage.

  ​​​. . . . . .





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When the ancients said,

'Bend and be whole,'

the just about said it all!


古gù  之zhī  所suǒ  胃wèi 曲gū 全quán 者zhě

old      (pron.)  that which    say        bend    whole     one who   

幾jǐ   語  哉zāi 

almost   tell    (exclaim)

As to the ancients, the ones

who said 'bend and whole,'

​they almost said!


     We make no effort in our breathing, seeing, hearing, and feeling. And yet they happens nevertheless. It is humbling to  realize that that we cannot take credit for even the least of the things about us. 

​​​. . . . . .




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Truly, it is this wholeness

which returns us home.


誠chéng 全quán   歸guǐ    之zhī

honest    whole    return home  (pron.)

​​Honestly, wholeness

returns him/her home.

      We all seek to be “at home” in the world and with ourselves. Paradoxically we think that we must work at it, strive for it every day, and then sometime in the future we may finally have it.



     Here and in other lessons,* Lao Tzu points out  a different way for us to be “at home.” It is to realize that the world is already  happening on its own, including ourselves--our own being.


     To "realize" that the world is already happening on its own is not the same as "knowing" it or "believing" it to be so. To "realize" it is to be filled full with the reality of it. And accompanying this, is our awareness that there is nothing for us to do. But there is much to "not do."


*Regarding 歸guǐ, “return home," see also Chapter 14, line 6; Chapter 16, line 6; Chapter 20, line 8; Chapter 28, lines 3, 6, & 9; Chapter 34, lines 3 & 5; Chapter 52, line 6 and Chapter 60, line 5. 

​​   ​​​. . . . . .



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