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Lao Tzu for Everyone


Students, Scholars,

& Seekers


Chinese-English Interlinear

Peter Gilboy, Ph. D.



the Way

A Note

regarding the characters

used in this translation.

Lesson 28

Our Feminine

and Masculine




(phon. ci 此+ 隹 bird)

pliant, soft, female

​​​      Once again Lao Tzu turns to images and analogies to lead us toward what he has already said cannot be said. These are not definitions. Nor are they explanations, or puzzles for us to figure out.  They are more like seeds which Lao Tzu sprinkles throughout his lessons.

     A key "seed" in this lesson is the  溪xī "valley" or "valley stream."  Lao Tzu uses this image to depict the right relations between feminine and masculine energies.


    Recalling that Lao Tzu's words are intended to be therapeutic, he invites us to consider whether we, like the valley, are open and receptive. Are we, like the valley, reaching up and down at the same time--that is, being receptive to the Way while acting upon the wisdom that comes to us in the ordinary course of our busy day. 

      Consider too that the valley is formed from water above, and then provides direction for the water. If there were no water, the land would lack dimension and be unfruitful.  If there were no land, the water would be unfocused, aimless. It is only together that feminine and masculine energies find their purpose.



Note: The ordering of the lines in the Ma Wang Tui editions diffesr from the standard editions. In the  standard editions, lines 4, 5, and 6 come after lines 7, 8 and 9.

​​​  ​​​​​.  .  .  .  .  .


Line 1


Line 1

Know the masculine

while you hold

to the feminine,

and you will be

a valley to the world.

​​知zhī   其qí   雄xióng   守shǒu  其qí    雌cí

  know/protect   (pron.)   male  protect/hold   (pron.)  female

為wéi       天tiān     下xià      溪xī*

to be    heaven     under    valley/mountain stream

Know its male, hold its female,

be the mountain stream of heaven and  earth.


     Lao Tzu describes two coinciding movements here--"knowing" and "holding to." Befitting their proper operation, it is the feminine   which has as its particular task the "knowing" of the masculine.  And the masculine has as its special task the "holding to" the feminine.

     For the sage theses two energies occur upon the instant. There is no "first this, and then that."  Occurring upon the instant, a sages' action is spontaneous. From the outside these action appears to "just happen." This perfect consonance of masculine and feminine is also a description of 无wú 為wéi, or "not doing."

     "Knowing the masculine" and "holding to the feminine," is  original to us, just as it is with all of nature. But unlike ourselves, in nature the relations between masculine and feminine are largely involuntary. A hallmark of humans is that we are choosers. We may choose to follow our masculine and feminine energies, or not.





*溪xī.  Other editions have the  synonym and homonym, 谿xī

.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 2

Line 2

When you become

a valley to the world,

the constant power

of the Way

does not leave you.


​​ 為wéi    天tiān    下xià     溪xī

to be     heaven    under    valley stream

恆héng     德dé    不bù   離lí,

constant      power    not      leave/depart

Being heaven and earth’s valley stream,

constant power will not leave.

       In being receptive to the Way, we spy the need of the moment; and with the passionate energy of the Way we spontaneously fulfill that need.  The knowing and the doing are one.


     But is not our own knowing and doing which occur. It is the Way's operation as us. Again, this 无wú 為wéing.

     ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 3

Line 3

When the constant power

of the Way

does not leave you,

you return

to the condition of

an infant.


恆héng    德dé    不bù     离lí*

constant   power   not    leave/strange

復fù   歸guī   於yú    嬰yíng   兒ér

return   return home   (prep.)     infant     child.

 When constant power does not leave,

you’ll return to an infant.

      Analogies to an infant or child are commonplace in the wisdom traditions of the world. "Infant" or "child" refer to our original state prior to distinguishing ourselves as this body-form going through this day-to-day passage of life. When we identify ourselves as a body-form, we fail to discover ourselves as a customized expression of the Way. As a body-form, the world appears to be outside of us, a system of external objects for us to cope with, to contend with, and even to subjugate.*

​     The conviction that we are this particular body-form is not native to us.  Nor is it automatic. We learn it over time, just as we learn a personal history that accompanies it. 

     Soon after this conviction settles in, the opposites arrive: happy and sad, worry and contentment, being loved and being unloved, selfish and considerate, and so on. Caught in the opposites, we must fend for our self, pursuing the "good" half of the opposite for ourselves, not realizing that it is inextricably bound to the other half; and that seeking the one is out of anxiety over the other. 


     Absent  teachings such as Lao Tzu's and others in the wisdom traditions, it occurs to very few people that they can step outside of these opposites altogether.**

    These opposites are not the dualism of yin and yang. Yin and yang are natural principals operating everywhere around us. When in harmony with these, we discover our self, not as a body-self up against he world, but as a inseparable from the so-called outside world and with no need to subjugate it or defend against it. 

    Do we then have no more problems in our lives? Hardly. Even in the story of Adam and Eve, the couple in the garden were still given the job of tilling the soil and the burden of choosing rightly. Nowhere does the scripture imply that their habitat is some sort of  "paradise."

     To sum up, feminine and masculine energies are native to us. But we stray from them when we set out on our own without the wisdom of our feminine energies and without the courage of our masculine energies.


     This lesson and this line are a reminder to us of our native self, the child who is still present, and who is prior to all the divisions we feel. And of course this lesson is also an invitation to return to this child as we tend to our lives and to each other.***


​*For more about being caught in the opposites-trap, see Lesson 2.

**For more on our "body-forms," see Lesson 5 regarding our "stray dogs."*

**See also Lessons 10 and 20 regarding becoming a 嬰yíng  兒ér child once more.

​​​​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .




Line 4

Line 4

Know the bright

while holding to the lowly,

and be a valley

to the world.


​  知zhī   其qí  白bái*  守shǒu    其qí    辱rǔ**

​​know  (pron.)   white  protect/hold  (pron.)   lowly

  為wéi   天tiān   下xià   浴yù

be     heaven   under   valley

Know its white

hold to lowliness,

be the world’s valley.

     Lao Tzu changes analogies here while making the same point as above.  He chooses "bright" as analogous to the masculine, and "lowly" as analogous to the feminine.

     The sage is lowly, like the deep crevice of a valley. Being lowly, the sage knows that he or she is not the author of wisdom, but its recipient. It is because the sage holds to this inferior posture before the Way, doing nothing of himself or herself, that the sage may be guided toward his or her wise action.


    The traditions of the world are replete with statements regarding one's submission and receptivity to wisdom.

  • I am thy servant; give me understanding, that I may know thy testimonies. Psalm 119:125 KJV

  • So likewise, ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. Luke 17:10. KJV

  • So if they dispute with thee, say: "I have submitted My whole self to Allah and so have those who follow me." And say to the People of the Book and to those who are unlearned: "Do ye (also) submit yourselves?" If they do, they are in right guidance, Koran 3:20

  • And he who serves Me and only Me, with unfaltering devotion, shall overcome the Qualities, and become One with the Eternal Bhagavad Gita:14


     ​It is only because the sage holds to this inferior posture, doing nothing of himself or herself, that the sage may be guided toward his or her wise action.


*bái: white, bright, pure, plain, simple

**rǔ: lowly, humbled, disgraced.


​​   ​​​​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 5

Line 5

As a valley to the world,

the constant power

of the Way

is fulfilled.


​​為wéi  天tiān 下xià  浴yù

​​be     heaven    earth    valley

 恆héng   德dé  乃nái    足zú

constant   power  then  satisfy/enough

Being heaven and earth’s valley,

constant power is then enough.

    As feminine wisdom and masculine action obtain upon the instant, the power of the Way is complete. 

    It may seem convenient for us to say that the power of the Way is then  "within me," but it is not accurate.

In saying the "The Way is within me" we make "the Way" a subject which is acting upon "me," the object.


     Language is important. It helps shape and then  reinforce our thoughts. To consider that the Way operates "within me" is to mistakenly make my "me" a focus of the event; and at the same time suggest that either my "me" or the Way have crossed some sort of cosmic distance to bring ourselves together.

     But as Lao Tzu tells us in many places, the Way comes forth as the world. The subject comes forth as the object, without losing it's "subject-ness."  More succinctly, there is no "within us." If there were, then the power of the Way would be operating from the outside. Rather, we are an expression of the Way. In is in that sense that the great teachers of the world can rightly declare that they and the Divine are one.


. . . . .




Line 6

Line 6

When the constant

power of the Way

is fulfilled,

you return to the

condition of

uncarved wood.



​​恆héng    德dé   乃nái    B足zú

constant  power    then     satisfy/enough


復fù    歸guī    於yú    樸pú

                  ​return  revert    (prep.)   uncarved wood   

​​​Constant power is then enough,

return to uncarved wood.


​​        樸pú uncarved wood is an image parallel to the 兒ér “infant” in line 3.  Uncarved wood is whole.  It is undivided. And yet it it conceals a myriad of distinctions within it.




Note: Regarding 復fù​​, and 復fù歸 "return," see also Lessons 14, 16, 19, 52,  58, 64 and 80.

.​ ​​​​. . . . .



Line 7

Line 7

Know the white

while holding to the black,

and become a model

to the world.


  知zhī  其qí  白bái  守shǒu    其qí 黑

 know     pron.    white     hold      pron.  black

  為wéi     天tiān    下xià      式shì

be      heaven     earth    pattern/model/law

​​ Know white, hold to the black,

and be the heaven and earth’s pattern


     Here Lao Tzu replaces "become a valley to the world" with "become a 式shì model to the world."  式shì means "pattern," "model,"  "law," and also "principle."  Looking more closely at what is implied, patterns, models, laws, and principles are not their own sources. They are derived from what is original.  We might say, they are "cut from the same cloth" as the original. We'll see this point again in the final line.


​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 8
Line 9

​​​Line 8

Becoming a model

to the world, the

constant power of the Way

does not deviate.

​​​為wéi 天tiān 下xià    式shì

 be    heaven     under   pattern/model/law


恆héng  德dé 不bù 貣dài

constant power not deviate

Being the world’s model,

constant power will not deviate.

     Being derived from the original--the Way, that which appears to be a person's "doings" are the very "doings" of the Way.  Again, 无wú 為wéi.

​  ​.​ ​​​​. . . . .



Line 9

When the constant

power of the Way

does not deviate,

you return to that

which has no limit.



​​ 恆héng   德dé  不bù  貣dài

constant  power      not    deviate

復fù    歸guī     於yú   无wú     極jí 

return     revert     prep.     not have     utmost/furthest

Constant power does not deviate,

then return to the condition

without a furthest point.

     Clearly it is not we who are now "without limit.  We remain finite beings subject to the Way. But we are no longer straying from the limitless and timeless Way.


.​ ​​​​. . . . .



Line 10
Line 11

Line 10

When uncarved wood

is apportioned,

it become vessels.

樸pú      散sàn   則zé    為wéi   器qì

uncarved wood scatter  then     be  vessel/receptacle

​Uncarved wood is scattered,

​it becomes vessels.

​​​     In a manner of speaking, the Way 散sàn “apportions” itself out as each thing and as each of us, without any loss to the Way. With reference to the nature of "feminine" energy, the "10,000 things" are each a 器qì vessel, or receptacle, of the Way.


     The character 器qì, vessel, was also a term used in the bureaucracy to refer to a lower official, a government minion, one who receives orders rather than gives them.  We may see the significance of this in the next line.


Note:  器qì is the same character Lao Tzu we say in the important Lesson 11.

We fire clay to make a 器qì vessel.

But it is only because of what

is not there that a

器qì vessel becomes a 器qì vessel.



.​ ​​​​. . . . .



Line 11

When the sage is

employed, he or she

is head

of all officials.


聖shéng 人rén   用yòng

sage       person     use/make use of

則zé     為wéi  官guān  長cháng

then        be          official    long/chief


     This line is often considered to be a political statement by Lao Tzu, that he is recommending that sage be 官guān  長cháng the one in charge of the other officials. But to this reader, it would indeed be odd if, after drawing upon images and analogies throughout the lesson, Lao Tzu now resorts to direct speech to promote some sort of political campaign on behalf of the sage.


      It is  more likely that Lao Tzu is simply having some fun with us here by drawing upon yet another analogy, this one relating back to the 器qì, vessel, or government lackey in the previous lines. 


    He has already described the person who embodies the energies of masculine and feminine as "a valley," "a child," "uncarved wood," and "a model to the world."  Now Lao Tzu may be asserting, in a playful way, that one who "knows the masculine" while "holding to the feminine" is already the most valuable servant that the empire might have.


​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .







Line 12

Line 12


great cutting

is done

without severing.


​​是shì   胃wèi  眇miǎo  要yào 

this/to be    say  subtle/essence key point

This is called an

essential point

     Lao Tzu wraps of his lesson by again stating that despite the apparent divisions in the world, each thing and each person, while  an "apportionment" of the Way, is not in any sense estranged from the Way.

.​ ​​​​. . . . .



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