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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 35

'Holding Fast'

​​​​​​​  淡dàn

(氵water + 炎 two fires)

Insipid, weak, diluted


Line 1

Hold to the

Great Form,

and the whole world

is furthered.


​​執zhí   大dà  象xiàng  天tiān 下xià  往wǎng

hold/carry out  great   form/image       heaven    earth   go/depart/towards 

Hold the great form in your hand,

heaven and earth will go forth.


​     The 大dà 象xiàng “great form” is no other than 道tào the Way.  But but when Lao Tzu uses the character 象xiàng [meaning "form,"  "image," or "symbol"] he is not referring to the physical shape of a thing. This is clear in Lesson 14, for example, when, in referring to the Oneness of the Way, he tells us:


We could say that it is

a shape with no shape,

or a form of no-thing

In other words,

the Way

is simply imponderable.

He makes a similar remark in Lesson 41, when he says:

The Great Form

has no shape.

    While it may seem that Lao Tzu is intentionally being cryptic, we need only recall that he is not trying to define or explain something to us, or to give us yet more information. His aim is to lead us toward an understanding of what he understands.

     With that in mind, we might consider the "Great Form," or "The a form without shape" to be the mysterious potential for a thing to be; that is, for it to come into existence.  Indeed, this imperceptible potential is a mystery. And yet it is wholly reasonable to say that before a tree, a goat, a dishwasher, or a singing voice can exist, the potential for each must first have existed. 


     Lao Tzu is simply asking us to consider where that potential came from. Where has it resided all this time?

     This brings us back to Lesson 25: "Why is there something, and not nothing?" This is also the 眇miǎo mystery of which Lao Tzu speaks in Lesson 1.  And while this kind of wondering may not get us anywhere in our world of school, work, and family, for us to simply contemplate this mystery deepens our perception of things as well as our appreciation for them all.  This is how "the whole world is furthered."*



*Note: Translations of this line typically read, "Hold to the Great Form, and the whole world will come to you." This translation follows the conventional view which holds that Lao Tzu's writings are principally political in nature; that his aim here is to advise leaders on methods of effective leading.


To my mind, viewing his lessons through a political lens unnecessarily restricts our understanding of Lao Tzu's teachings.  Of course his concern includes the political world.  But if that were his true focus, then he could simply tell leaders how to behave, and leave it at that. 


Rather, Lao Tzu's concern is metaphysical as well as practical.  Which is to say that in each lesson he asks us to look around and ask ourselves about the very source of all that we see.  Simply to ask this question--to genuinely wonder about the source, is the beginning of our wisdom. And, it is the only beginning that we have.

​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 1
Line 2

Line 2

Yes, furthered

and unharmed,

with peace

and great stability.


​​ 往wǎng     而ér   不bù  害hài  安ān    平pín   大dà

go/depart/towards   and      no    harm    peace  level/even   great

​Go forth and no harm,

peace and great evenness.


     The  sage is alert to the "Great Form," or the mysterious Way, behind the scenes of all that we see.  He or she then sees himself or herself not as a food-body which is going through the travails of life, but as a custom-make and thriving expression of the Way. What harm can come to the person then?

    ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​. ​​​​. . . . .




Line 3

Line 3

The senses overlook

this unchanging rule.*


​​​樂yuè 與yǔ   餌ěr    過guò    格gé     止zhǐ

​music    and   food/bait  pass by   pattern/layout stop/fixed

Music and food pass by

the fixed pattern.


     We can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel the living things in our world through the treasure of our five senses. But our senses 過guò "overlook" or, literally, "pass by" the "Great Form" which is source and vitalizing agent of all our senses. 



*In place of  格gé, “pattern,” “layout,” found in the MWT editions, the standard editions read 客kè, “guest,” or “visitor.”  The line is then  translated in the sense of, "Music and food cause a passing guest to stop."

But while a case can be made for 客kè  “guest” or "visitor,"  its inclusion seems abrupt and forced here. Further, the thrust of the lesson is about the 大dà 象ziàng Great Form, which, as we see in the remaining lines is unavailable to the senses.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .




Line 4

Line 4

Therefore, as to the words*

issuing from the Way,

we might look for them

and listen for them,

but they are

indiscernible to our senses.




  故gù  道tào 之zhī 出chū  言yán  也yě

​​   therefore  way    (poss.)  go out    word      (part,)

曰yuē   淡dàn  呵jē   其qí    无wú   味wèi 也yě  

  say         converse  bland    exclaim  (pron.)  not have  taste     (part.)

視shì 之zhī   不bù   足zú   見jiàn  也yě

   look    (pron.)     not    sufficient  see     (part.)

 聽tīng  之zhī  不bù  足zú   聞wén  也yě

  listen     (pron.)    not    sufficient  hear    (part.)

Therefore, as to the Way’s coming-out words, 

saying bland! It has no taste.

Looking is not sufficient to see..

Listening is not sufficient to  hear.


     故gù “therefore” (which is not found in the MWT editions but not the standard editions), is a key marker for us. It tells us that the lines that came before were just a prelude to what follows, which is the Lao Tzu's main point.


     As in so many other lesson, his point is that the senses cannot detect the Way itself, only the expressions of the Way, the 10,000 things of our world. But we may infer the presence of the Way by contemplating how each thing is steered inwardly by its own nature, its own individual way.

     This lesson, as with each of Lao Tzu’s lessons, is offered as a guide for his readers. He is inviting us to consider the unique way that already has been bestowed upon us each, including ourselves, and then to "hold fast" to what is revealed.


As he says in many places, in uncovering our own personal way we are led to an understanding of the Way itself.

See lesson 17, 24, 25, 51, and 64, for example, where Lao Tzu exclaims the 自zì 然rán self-so-ness or spontaneity of the Way operating within and as each thing.


*Note that that metaphors of “speak”, “word,” and “utterance” are quite common in religious texts. This is because it aptly expresses a particular metaphysical statement.  Consider that as soon as a word is uttered, it becomes independent of the speaker; and yet it is ever dependent upon the same speaker for having uttered it.

That this is a fitting metaphor is why many traditions refer to "holy utterances,” often translated simply as “The word of God.”

We see this, for example, in the great Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita (भगवद्गीता) which means “The Holy Song”. Also, in Judaism and Christianity, we  see the many such references, including Jeremiah 1:4, “Then the word of God came upon me saying…” (KJV) and John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (KJV). "With" means "accompanying," and yet at the same instant it also "is" God. There are "two" in a sense, and yet the two are One.

With respect to Lao Tzu, the Way issues forth as the very “word” or beings of the things in our world. While these entities have their own careers, they are nevertheless dependent upon the Way for their very life and being. There is no separation at all.

   ​​​​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 5

Line 5

But avail yourself

of the them,

and you cannot

exhaust them.

​​​​​  用yòng  之zhī   不bù    可kě     既jì      也yě

use       (pron.)    not      able   already/fully  (part.)

Use it, not able

to be fully completed


     While the senses cannot detect the Way itself, we can infer the presence of the Way as expressed through the 10,000 things of our world, including ourselves. We too are steered inwardly by the nature bestowed upon us.  As Lao Tzu tells us in many places, in uncovering our own personal way we are led to an understanding of the Way itself.*






* See lessons 17, 24, 25, 51, and 64, for example, where Lao Tzu exclaims the 自zì 然rán self-so-ness or spontaneity of the Way already operating within and as each thing. This is most specifically stated in final line of Lesson 21


Note: The character 用yòng is most typically translated in the sense of "use," "employ," and "operate."  In English, these meanings imply a utilitarian purpose, as if something is "used" for one's personal benefit.  Translating 用yòng as "to avail oneself" seems more in keeping with Lao Tzu’s teachings, in that a person allows himself or herself to be “available” to the Way which is, of course, always present.

​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


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