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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 25

Why is there



not nothing?




(大 outstretched hands

+ a line above indicating the horizon)

sky, heaven, celestial, source

     The question "Why is there something and not nothing?" is in the background of every other question we ask. It is unanswerable of course. That's why explanations always take the form of allegory, myth, and fable.

    The current trend is to say, "Oh, it was the big bang." But that only settles it if we can also can answer who or what is the "banger." 

     Plato tells us that "philosophy begins with wonder."* Wonder is natural to us, beginning with infants so wide-eyed, as if asking, "What's going on here?"  And then later as children with that perennial question, "Why?" Later, after absorbing the assumptions and beliefs of the othesr, we have it all figured out, and settle in to a groove. Wondering about such things goes to the background of our life. Wondering may even seem quite silly to us. 

     "Wondering" means that "I don't know." That is good starting point because, as long as I know that I don't know, I am still open to something new, a disclosure of something that I can't quite understand yet.

     Of all our wondering, "Why is there something?" remains the most important question. Scientists can't answer the question, not really. But it is answerable as we simply stop and begin to wonder about all the new beginnings happening around us right now.



* ". . . for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder." (Plato, Theaetetus 155c-d, tr. Jowett)


. . . . . .


Child at water.jpg
Line 1


Line 1

There is something

unformed and yet whole,

born before

heaven and earth.*



有yǒu  物wù   混hùn    成chēng 

have     thing     murky/chaos  complete    

先xiān   天tiān  地dì   生shēng

 first/prior     heaven    earth       birth

There is something  chaotic, complete,

before heaven and earth born.

     Again, the genesis stories found in our many traditions are not depicting a time in the past, but the genesis of the present moment. Regarding this line, we could ask: "What is the source of all the new beginnings in front of us right now?"




*Compare to line 3 of Lesson 1.


​​    .​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 2

Line 2

It is still!

It is self-contained!

Standing alone

and unchanging.


寂jì 呵hē   繆móu  呵hē   

​ still/silent  (exclaim)  bound   (exclaim) 

獨dú   立lì  而ér 不bù 改gǎi

alone    stand    and       not        change

​​Silent! Bound! 

​Standing alone and not changing.

Can be as heaven earth’s mother.

     "Standing alone" does not mean that the Way is off by itself in some corner. It is "alone" because there is nothing other than the Way. It is all that there is, and the potential for even more.


    We recognize that something is changing, only because of its backdrop that does not change.  We know that a bird has taken flight only because the terrain around it is constant. We know that we are changing--developing from young to older--only in contrast to that things around us that aren't changing like this. 




*Compare to line 4 of Lesson 1.

Note: The standard editions have an additional line after this one not found in the MWT or the Guodian editions.

周zhōu   行xíng   而ér   不bù   殆dài

make a circuit    walk    and    not     danger

Reaching everywhere without fail.

​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .




Line 3
Line 4

Line 3

Think of it as

the mother

of heaven and earth.*

可kě  以yǐ   為wéi   天tiān  地dì   母mù

able     use as/become  heaven   earth    mother

​Silent! Bound! 

Standing alone and not changing.

Able to be regarded as heaven and earth’s mother.

   Lao Tzu does not say that the Way is the "mother" of heaven and earth. Instead he says, "Think of it as . . .," or "Regard it as . . ."  He is simply analogizing the Way to something that we might better understand.


    "Heaven and earth" here, is not a religious reference. It means "the whole world around us."



*Compare to line 4 of Lesson 1.

​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .




Line 4

I do not know

its name,

so I just call it

"the Way."


吾wú  未wèi  知zhī  其qí   名míng

I       not yet     know     (pron.)   name  

字zì*   之zhī     曰yuē    道tào

courtesy name  (pron.)    say     way

I do not yet know its name.

I courtesy-name it , saying Way.

    The Way is "nameless," as Lao Tzu has said throughout. He gives it a name, though, so it can be thought about and considered.



*Compare this line to line 3 of Lesson 1.

*字zì, courtesy name. This is a polite but secondary or public name, a kind of nickname taken by a male family member when reaching marriageable age. 字zì, is often translated as “style,” and as such, the line is typically translated, “I style it the Way.” The English word “style” though, is seldom used now in contemporary American speech. 


​​​​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 5

Line 5

But if I had to

give it a name,

I would call it "great."

​​吾wú 強qiáng 為wéi  之zhī  名míng

I     strong    make/do   (pron.)  name        

  曰yuē  大dà

say      great

I forced to make its name,

say great


​​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 6
Line 7

Line 6

Great means

"spreading out."

​​Spreading out means

"reaching everywhere."

Reaching everywhere means

"returning to itself."

大dà   曰yuē  逝shì 

great       say        proceed/flow

  逝shì     曰yuē   遠yuǎn

proceed/flow  say     far off

遠yuǎn 曰yuē  反fǎn

far off       say       return/repeat

Great is called flowing,

flowing is called distant,

and distant is called returning




     As in so many places, Lao Tzu reaches for words to say what cannot be explained. 

     The word “ex-plain” literally means to flatten something out. (from ex "out" + planus "flat")  So, when someone “ex-plains” something to us, it removes all the dimensions and layers from it. Its depth is gone. It is now a flat thing lying there on the page and asking nothing of us.

      Explanations are traps.  Every good teacher knows this. Rather than ex-plaining, every good teacher patiently leads the student toward his or her personal understanding.

​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .




Line 8

Line 7

The Way is great.

Heaven is great

Earth is great.


The ruler

is also great.


​道tào    大dà

way     great

  天tiān  大dà  

heaven   great

地dì    大dà 

earth     great


王wáng  亦yì   大dà

king   also    great

Way is great

Heaven is great

King also great.



     This line should halt is in our tracks. Lao Tzu just described the Way as "self-contained," "standing alone," and "unchanging." For want of a better word he calls the Way "great."

    Why would he now include heaven, earth, and the even the rulers as also great?  The answer is that the Way, being "self-contained," "standing alone," and "unchanging" necessarily includes all in the realm, all in the world, all that we know.

     This is simply another way of saying the same thing that Lao Tzu has been saying in each lesson--that while there is Oneness, there is also multiplicity, the many things in the world around us.


     The human mind, only knows objects outside itself. It cannot grasp Oneness.  The most that Lao Tzu can do is reach for words that, however inadequate, might point us toward that same understanding.  See here for more on "nonduality."

 ​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .




Line 8

The realm

has four greats,

and the ruler

is among them.

​國guó  中zhōng 有yǒu 四xì  大dà 

country    middle     has        four     great

  而ér 王wáng 居jū 一yī 焉yān

and   king    dwell     one     place

In the country, there are four greats,

​and the king dwells in 1 place.


     In saying the ruler is on of the "greats," Lao Tzu is informing rulers and their subjects that the ruler is not exempt from the laws of the Way.


     ​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .




Line 9

Line 9

We abide in the

law of earth.


​​Earth abides in the

law of heaven.


Heaven abides in the

law of the Way.


And the Way, well,

the Way is simply itself.


     人rén     法fǎ    地dì   

   ​great     obey/law earth

        地dì      法fǎ     天tiān  

         earth   obey/law  heaven

    天tiān   法fǎ    道tào

heaven  obey/law    way


道tào     法fǎ  自zì 然rán

way    obey/law   self so-ness

Humanity obeys earth

Earth obeys heaven.

Heaven obeys the Way

The Way obeys itself.




     We have to ask here, "How many laws are there?"




 Note: the character 法fǎ has a number of senses which may not be easily captured in English with a single word.  It refers to a legal principle, a regulation, a pattern, or a model to be obeyed and followed.                                

​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .




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