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Lao Tzu for Everyone


Students, Scholars,

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph. D.

Line 1

A Note

regarding the characters

used for this translation.

Lesson 3

How the sage






(人 person + 吏 magistrate.)

to cause, enable



Line 1

By not extolling the "worthy,"

the people will not

contend with each other.


不bù 上shàng  賢xián

not  above/rise up  worth


使shǐ 民mín 不bù 爭zhēng

cause   the people    not    contend

Not rising up the worthy

causes the people to not contend

     The character 賢xián, “worth,” “value,” and as an adjective, “worthy,” refers to  an individual’s personal character. In the Han and Pre-Han era (pre-220 AD), the character of the “worthy” person was deemed second only to the character of the sage.  As Yang Xiong (53 BC–18 AD), a poet of the era said about the worthy:

The worthy are different from

the common person, and the

sage is different from the worthy.​

賢xián人rén 則zé 異yì 眾zhòng人rén矣yǐ,

聖shèng人rén 則zé 異yì 賢xián人rén


     By "not extolling the 'worthy'," the sage declines to compare higher and lower, better and worse. (See the previous lesson.) Instead, the sage meets each person as they are, and by example encourages them to discover their own way and to follow it, while also respecting the ways of all others.

     Here we see a key difference between Lao Tzu and Confucius. Confucius acknowledges a gradation of worth and humaneness of a person based on their level of self-cultivation and their service to family, friends, and ruler. Confucius prescribes these right relationships to his students, and encourages the cultivation of them.

     While Confucius certainly offers a healthy corrective for an ailing society, for Lao Tzu, such self-cultivation, along with the hierarchy of  higher and lower worth, is socially induced and therefore artificial.


     Rather than cultivating right behaviors, which Lao Tzu would call a kind of "doing," Lao Tzu councils the "not doing" of any action which does not follow the Way, so that the society may return of its own accord to its natural order. No personal "doings" or hierarchies of worth here.

​    As we see in this line, "not doing" includes “not extolling the ‘worthy.’” An artificial hierarchy of worth may breed rivalry and contention; and the sage, for one, is no one’s rival. He or she contends with no one.* This is the true and natural fabric of a society. 



*Less 66 for example: “The sage does not contend, and therefore no one contends with him or her.” See also Chapters 8, 22, 68, and 81 on 不bù 爭zhēng-noncontention.

Gram note: This is a typical sentence structure in ancient Chinese—subject-verb-object. Notice too how a character such as 上shàng, "above," typically a preposition or adjective in English, can easily become a different part of speech  such as a verb—"to elevate” or “to raise up,” and even “to advance.”  This flexibility may seem odd, but the same is true in English. Just consider the multiple use of the word “key,” for example, as a noun, verb, or adjective.


. . . . . .



the Way

Line 2

Line 2

By not valuing rare goods,

the people will not

become dishonest.

不bù  貴guì 難nán 得dé 之zhī 貨huòǐ

not     precious    hard     obtain   (as for)   goods

使shǐ    民mín  不bù 為wéi 盜dào

cause    the people  not     do/ act        rob 

As for not "preciousing" hard to get goods,

the people will not do robbing


     Here again, and in the next line, it is not what the sage does which has its effect on others, but what the sage does not do


. . . . . . .

Line 3

Line 3

By not showing off what

can be coveted, the people

will not become lawless.

​不bù   見jiàn 可kě  欲yù 

not  see/display  can  desire 

使shǐ 民mín  不bù  亂luàn

cause  people  not   chaos/disorder

Not displaying [what] can be desired

causes the people not to be in chaos.


. . . . . . 

Line 4-5

Line 4

That is why the sage’s

  way of governing . . .

是shì 以yǐ   聖shèng 人ràn  之zhī 治zhì 也yě

(for this reason)    sage      person    (as for)   govern    (part.)
For this reason, as to the sage's governing. . .


. . . . . . . .



Line 5

. . . is to empty their heart/minds, nourish

their stomachs, curb their ambition
and strengthen their bones.

虛zū   亓qí   心xīn   實shí  亓qí   腹fù

empty (pron.) heart/mind wealthy   pron. stomach

弱ruò 亓qí 志zhì  強giáng 其qí 骨qǔ

weak      pron. will/ambition strong     (pron.) skeleton

. . .is to empty heart/minds and "wealth" their stomachs,

weaken their ambition, strengthen their skeletons.


    The character 心xīn refers to both the mind and the heart. The ancient Chinese analogized the heart to be the center of the both the intellect and the emotions, the nonphysical part of a person. This character might also be translated as “intentions” or “individual soul.” It refers to the entire nonphysical person.


   Regarding “… empty their heart/minds”:  An “empty” heart or mind is not a mind devoid of thought or intelligence. In the context of the previous chapter and the overall text, an empty heart/mind is one that is not cluttered with incessant thoughts, internal dialogue, ambitions, and fearful expectations. An empty mind has no personal ambitions for the future and has let the past fall away. The person may thendeliberate in the present without bias, wonder without belief, and wait without expectation or judgment.*



*Lao Tzu often uses “knowledge” as synonymous to an ambitious or scheming knowledge.



From Wang Bi's (226-249 AD) Commentary : Te sage “empties what has knowledge (the heart) and nourishes what has no knowledge (the stomach).” 虛zū 有yǒu  智shì  實shí  無wú 知zhǐ. 


.  .  .  .  .  .


Line 6

Line 6

The result will always be

that the people will be

without schemes and without

a desire to carry them out


​恆héng   使shǐ    民mín    无wú     知zhī  

constant  cause   the people   not have  know

 无wú  欲yú   也yě

not have   desire   (part).

Always causing the people to no have

knowledge and have no desires.

    According to Wang Bi (226-249 AD) , being “without knowledge” and “without desire” means that one “Preserves one’s authenticity.”  守shǒu 其qí 眞zhēn也yě  This is the natural way, acting spontaneously without any ambitions or contrivance.


     Not having 知zhī “knowledge” simply means not being in a state of preference or conviction about how to act, but instead letting the Way be one’s guide. To “desire” is to long for what we already “know” to be “right” and “good,” usually according to what benefits ourselves or is in line with society’s prescription.

​     Knowledge is always old. There is no past experience or learning which can fully prepare us for the present moment.  The moment is unprecedented in all of history.  无wú  知zhī –"without knowledge," means to not use what has already been in our minds as a guide when we encounter the needs of the moment.

     So, the sage’s actions are not through this “knowledge.” Does the sage plan? Of course. The sage is not an idiot. But even his or her planning is as needed, and with no private motives involved.

. . . . . . .

Line 7

Line 7

The result will also be

that the influential ones

with their schemes

will not presume to act on them.


​使shǐ  夫fū     知zhī      不bù     敢gǎn  

cause  important person  know  not   dare     

Causes important knowing

persons not to dare .

. . . . . .

Line 8

Line 8

Indeed, by the

influential ones

simply not acting,

there will be

no disorder.

弗fú     為wéi  而ér  已yǐ

not it  act/do    and  already done

​則zé  无wú  不bù 治zhì* 矣yǐ 

  then   not have   not   order (emphasis)

By not acting on things and be done

then not have disorder!

     This is an important line. It reveals the core of each of Lao Tzu's lessons.


     The sage's "action" cannot bring about order any more than a farmer can cause a plant to grow by pulling on its stem.  But by not pulling on the plant, the plant will not be hindered and therefore grow according to its way.

    Note the double negative: By not doing what should not be done, the Way is restored.

   So consider the sage’s 无wú 為wéi “not doing” as a double negative. The sage simply 1) does not do 2) what is not in agreement with the Way. And, in negating his or her interference, the Way takes care of everything on its own.

     This is certainly good reason for this chapter to end with an emphasizing particle.


* 治zhì, means to govern, to set things in order, to make things right, to keep in line. It also has the sense of healing and curing

​Gram. Note regarding 而ér 已yǐ: literally ”and stop.” When used at the end of a sentence it has the sense of “and no more,” or “and that’s all that’s needed.” This line could also be translated, "Indeed, all that is needed is for the influential ones to do nothing, and there will be no disorder."


​​. . . . . .


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