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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 37




​​​​​​​​​  化huà

(亻person standing right sit up,

and a 亻person upside down)

transform, revert, reform

     Transformation is not the same as change.  For that reason,  Lao Tzu's teachings are very different the many therapies and self-help programs that we have today.


    For Lao Tzu, such programs, meditations, spiritual exercises, or efforts to think positively may be worthy to an extent, but they overlook something important--that the same inadequate problem-self who wants to change, is the one who expects to be adequate at seeing the direction and choosing the means of his or her change. 

     The most that our inadequate problem-self can imagine, is a change into a more adequate self, a bigger and much improved “me” who feels good about himself or herself and fits better into society.

     ​For Lao Tzu such changes are a veneer, like painting over a rusty car. The  化huà transformation of which he speaks does not result in a better and better "me."   化huà transformation is actually a displacement of my "me."

     That's why self-change is so popular while transformation is not.  After all, I kind of like my "me," so I'd prefer to refine it rather than displace it.  But transformation of which Lao Tzu speaks is away from my self-concerned "me" and, as he says in many places, a 復fù  return to one’s authentic nature. 


     The good news is that there is nothing for us to "do" in order for this transformation to "happen" of itself.   復fù return is not a process.  What we 復fù return to is our authentic self, which is already here, and waiting for us.




Line 1

The Way is ever

without a name.


​​​​  道tào    恆héng   无wú   名mīng

​​  way    constant      not have      name. 

​The Way is constantly

without a name.


     Lao Tzu prefaces the lesson by reminding us yet again that the Way is not a "thing" in our world.  It is not at all like the things around us for which we have names. 


Note:  This line is found in both MWT editions, but it is very different from the standard editions and the Guodian edition:

The Way never does anything,

and yet there is nothing

that is left undone

​道 tào  常 cháng  無 wú   為 wéi 

way  constant   not have   do/act

而 ér  無 wú  不 bù  為 wéi

and    not have    not     do/act

The Way constantly has no action

and not have no action.

The remainder of this lesson is quite similar regardless of edition.  But why the stark difference in this first line? Recalling that these editions were handed down to us via different lineages--first orally, and then in written form, it would actual be unusual if there were no differences or errors. 


    But regardless of the lineage and the resulting edition, the thrust of Lao Tzu's teaching is the same. While some students and scholars place emphasis on the meaning of specific characters, and parsing them carefully to determine what Lao Tzu was "really saying," it is worth recalling his first words to us;.

The way that we can talk about,

is not the timeless Way. 

The meaning of Lao Tzu's words can not be found in or through the words themselves.  Like all words, they are mere designations, pointers, intended to lead us toward something  more authentic than words.  Lao Tzu knows this, and so leaves us with the task of following where the words may lead us, or not.

​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .



Line 1
Line 2

Line 2

If our rulers would only

hold to the Way,

then all things would

transform of themselves.


​​​​  侯hóu  王wáng  若ruò  守shǒu  之zhī

marquis    king     same as    hold to   (pron.)

萬wàn   物wù   將jiāng    自zì  化huà*

10,000    thing   (future action)       self    transform

​Marquis and kings hold to it,

​all things would transform themselves.


     Lao Tzu is not being overly optimistic here, expecting rulers to suddenly "hold to the Way."  The real topic of the sentence is not so much "our rulers," but the transformative power of "the Way" when it is acknowledged and "held to."


*Rather than 化 “transform,” the MWT A text has 𢡺, an archaic character of the same meaning.  This is found only in the MWT A Text, and not in the B text or the other editions.

Note: This line is quite similar to Line 3 of Lesson 32, where Lao Tzu tells us, "If our rulers could harness the Way, then all things would become themselves." 

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​. ​​​​. . . . .




Line 3

Line 3

Having transformed

of themselves,

if desires stirred

anew in them,

I will fill them with

the simplicity of the Nameless.


​​​化huà   而ér  欲yù     作zuò

 transform     and      desire    arise/begin

吾wú  將jiāng    闐tián  之zhī

I      (future action)   fill/flourish  (pron.)

以yǐ  无wú    名míng 之zhī    樸pú*

use      not have     name        (poss.)  plain wood

​Transform, and desire to begin,

I would fill up them using the unnamed plainness.

     It is curious that Lao Tzu uses the pronoun "I" here.  Perhaps he is referring to the sage, as some say, but consider too that he may be taking on, at least for the moment, the voice of the Way. 

     Note that the character 闐 tián, translated here as "to fill" and "to flourish," is found only in the MWT B Text. [It may have been in the A Test, but there is a lacuna, or space, there.]  The standard texts and the Guodian text have 鎮zhèn, meaning "to press down," and "to calm." 


     But the different characters should not affect our understanding of the line. Whether the Way "fills us" or "presses us down" due to our new desires arising, the Way is "saying" that it exactly as it always has been--our silent and innermost guide to our own personal 道tào way.  And when we go astray from our personal way, the effect our "filling up" our being "pressed down" is that same inner unrest that is so often with us, a reminder to us to return to our own authentic 道tào way.



*樸pú, “plain wood,” “simplicity,” “sincere,” “plain,” “unadorned.”  樸pú is used in the text in to express the meaning of Oneness, in contrast to 器qì, meaning the "vessels," or 10,000 things, which come forth from the Ways.  Watch for 器qì in other chapters. Recall in Lesson 28:  “When the 樸pú uncarved black is apportioned, it becomes vessels.” [樸散則為器], See this important character 樸pú  also in Lessons 15, 19, & 57.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 4

Line 4

Yes, fill them with the

simplicity of the Nameless,

and there will

be no shame.



​​​  闐tián  之zhī   以yǐ   无wú   名míng 之zhī  樸pú

  fill/flouish   (pron.)      use     not have    name       (poss.)     plain wood

夫fū      將jiāng     不bù     辱rǔ

  (intro)   (future action)  not    shame/disgrace

Fill them using the unnamed plain wood,

so they would have no disgrace.

      Lao Tzu uses the character 辱rǔ, meaning  “shame”” or “disgrace,” in four other lessons.*  For him, "shame"  seems not to be the feeling that arises when we are conscious of having done something wrong. He uses it more in the sense of our being “off track”—that is, that we are not following our own authentic 道tào path or way.  Not following our own way is to seek or "to desire" our own ends, rather than spy the needs of the Way and upon the instant fulfill them.


*Lao Tzu contrasts 辱rǔ disgrace with "honor" (Lesson 13), with "purity" (Lessons 28 & 41), and with a person who knows when he or she "has enough" (Lesson 44).


Note: The standard editions have 欲yù, "desire," in place of 辱rǔ disgrace.



Line 5

Line 5

When there is no shame

and they become tranquil,

the whole world becomes

rectified of itself.


​​​​​​    不bù  辱rǔ    以yǐ    情qíng

​​  not     shame  by means/thereby  still/calm

天tiān 地dì    將jiāng   自zì  正zhèng

   heaven      earth      (future action)    self   straight/correct

No disgrace, thereby still,

heaven and earth then

become straightened of themselves.

     Unlike our therapies and self-help programs in which the person seeking help is trying to be the agent of his or her own change, for Lao Tzu, the transformation is effected by the Way. Actually, the Way "does nothing."  The transformation occurs 自zì 正zhèng "of itself" as a natural result of our returning to our own custom-made way as bestowed upon us by the Way. 

     That means that, for Lao Tzu, there is nothing for us to "do" to become transformed.  But, as we've seen in other lessons there is much for us to "not do."  This is, of course, to 无wú 為wéi 

     In short: A key to understanding Lao Tzu's "therapy," if we wish to call it that, is that "self-transformation" is not a transformation by the self, but a transformation of the self when one returns to the Way.  This is very different from those who advocate self-empowerment, in which we are to take charge and make things happen. This is the world of "movers and shakers."  Lao Tzu might ask us to just look around and see how that is working out.

    Note:  In the important lesson that follows this one, Lao Tzu speaks further about how "way-empowerment" is so different  from our "self-empowerment."

​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .




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