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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 34

More on

'Not doing.'


​​​​​​   汎fàn

(氵water + 凡 spread out, encompass)

float, wide, broad, excess

    "Not doing," or 无wú 為wéi, is not mentioned specifically in this lesson, and yet it is the subtext of the lesson, just as it is the subtext of each of Lao Tzu's lessons.


     Lao Tzu begins by again describing the 道tào Way, metaphorically of course. But it is in the service of depicting the wise person, the sage, who is ever "returning" to the way; and, in doing so, “does nothing” 无wú 爲wěi  of him or her self.


Line 1


Line 1

The Way is everywhere,

reaching both

left and right.


道tào   汎fàn   呵hē

way  float/wide   exclaim  

其qí   可kě   左zuǒ  右yòu  也yě

(pron.)      can       left         right         (part.)

The way overflows! It can go left right

     If the Way is everywhere, then there is nothing external to the Way. Nor can we see or touch what is “everywhere” because the Way would, of course, be encompassing even our seeing and touching.


​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 2

Line 2

It does everything,

and yet there is

no name for it.


成chéng 功gōng  遂suì  事shì

complete     merit     progress    duty

而ér    弗fú    名míng   有yǒu   也yě

and yet     not it     name        have      (part.)

It completes its work and furthers its duties,

and yet it has no name.


      To have a “name” in Lao Tzu’s time, as today, can mean "to make a name for oneself."  Having a “name” means to be important, noticed, even famous. It is to be "somebody."

     But the Way has no name. It is no-thing, meaning, it is not-a-thing. And yet it is quietly there, present even in the heartbeat and the breath, in the veins of a leaf and the wood-grain of a tree; but all the while the Way makes no show as it guides each and every thing in its own way.



Note: The standard editions have a line preceding this one which is not present in the MWT editions:

​The “10,000 things rely on it for life

and [the Way] not decline [them].”

​萬wán 物wù 恃shì之zhī 以yǐ 生shēng

而ér 不bù 辭cǐ

    ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​. ​​​​. . . . .



Line 3

Line 3

All things

are returning home

to the Way

and yet it does not

rule over them.


​​萬wàn    物wù     歸guī    焉yān

​​ 10,000      thing     return home     to it

而ér    弗fù   爲wèi   主zhǔ

and    not it  do/become   master

The 10,000 things return home to it,

and it doesn’t make itself the master.


    To rule over things implies that there are two–a ruler and the subject who is ruled. But the Way is not apart from what it has brought into the world. so how can there be two?


     To 歸guī “return home* is to return to one's original place. It is be abide in one’s original condition as a custom-made expression of the Way, and not deviate from it.  In that sense, for us to "return home" is be fully what we have always been.





*歸guī, meaning “return home,” “revert,” is another theme of Lao Tzu’s.  For a better understanding of it, see also Lessons 14, 16, 23, 28, 52, and 60. It is often found coupled with 復fù, “return,” “renew,” “restore.”

Note: the standard editions of this line begin with two characters not found in the MWT editions: 衣yī, "garment," and 養yǎng, "to rear."  The line then reads:

​​It clothes and nourishes everything,

and yet it does not rule over them

​衣yī  養yǎng  萬wàn  物wù 

​而ér  不bù  為wéi 主zhǔ


Gram. note: 焉yān “to it”, is a fusion of two characters: 於yú, a general proposition, “in,” “on,” “to,” etc. and 之zhī , the general pronoun “him,” “her,” “it.”


​​​​​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .



Line 4

Line 4

The Way seeks

nothing for itself,

and for that reason

it can be called "small."


則zé 恆héng  无wú   欲yù 也yě


then    constant    not have    desire       (part.)


可kě 名míng   於yú  小xiǎo

can      name         (prep.)       small

Then constantly not having desire,

it can be named 'small.'


   To 欲yù desire is to seek something outside oneself in order be fulfilled. As in line 5 of Lesson 1, to 无wú 欲yù "not have  desire" is Lao Tzu’s way of telling us that there is no object outside the Way. How could there be, if the way is 汎fàn "everywhere? Therefore, bBecause the Way is indwelling, it is can be called 小xiǎo “imperceptible” or “small.”

   It is worth noting that if the Way seeks nothing for itself, then why does it bring forth the world and guide each thing in it?  The answer can only be, "For no reason at all."

   ​​​​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 5
Line 6

Line 5

But because all things

are returning to the Way,

and yet it does

not control them,

it can be also called 'great.'


​​​​  萬wàn  物wù     歸guī    焉yān 

 10,000      thing    return home      to it

而ér  弗fù    爲wéi   主zhǔ 

and     not it   do/become   master


可kě  名mìng  於yù  大dà

 can     name     (prep.)   big/ great.

10,000 things return to it,

and it does not make itself  their master,

it can be named among great.


     In the previous line, the Way was called is 小xiǎo “small.” Here the Way is  大dà “big” or “great.” Compare these two lines to lines 5 and 6 of Lesson 1


    The Way as 小xiǎo "small" is indwelling, and as 大dà "great" it is apparent in the physical things of our world.  As a play on words in English, we could say that the Way is both 小xiǎo “in-herent” and 大dà “out-standing.”


​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 7

Line 6

This is how

the sage too

accomplishes great things


​​​​​  是shì  以yǐ   聲shēng  人rén    之zhī  

​​(for this reason)   sage       person   assoc. with

 能néng 成chéng  大dà  也yě

able    complete     great      (part.)

​​ For this reason, the sage-person

​is able to complete great.


     This is the point that Lao Tzu has been leading us toward all long. Having 歸guī “return hometo the Way, the sage’s actions are  in accord with his or her own custom-made 道tào way, as it was bestowed on the person by the 道tào   Way.

​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 7

It is precisely because

the sage does not

strive to be great,

the he or she can

accomplish great things.




​​​   以yǐ     其qí   不bù  爲wěi  大dà  也yě

 by means  pron.    not      do/to be      great     (part.)

故gù    能néng   成chéng  大dà

 therefore      able    complete        great

​​  By means of not doing great,

​therefore,  able to complete the great.


    The Way does not make a show of itself, and yet it is there, quietly accomplishing great things. It is the same with the sage.

.​ ​​​​. . . . .


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