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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 38




​​​​​​​​​​  華huā

(垂chuì hang down +艸 cǎo, grass/plant)

flower, embellishment





Line 1

The highest Power

is not powerful.

That's because it

is powerful.

上shàng    德dé    不bù   德dé

highest/superior    power    not      power

是shì     以yǐ    有yǒu    德dé 

   (for that reason)     have /there is            power

​High power is not power.

For this reason it has power.


     The 上 德 highest power is the power of the Way. It has no muscle, no clout, no dominance. It seeks nothing for itself. This “highest power” is already operating in us and as us, just as it is in all other things of our world.


     Our strenuous efforts to “make things happen” or to “make things right,” are not 上 德  high power at all. Our personal efforts are no more than attempts to compel the outcome that we prefer. When my "me" seeks an outcome for itself—whether it appears to be good or bad to my "me, favorable or unfavorable, it goes against the Way.

   So, what should we "do"? Nothing. More "doing" in our part won't help.  We need only halt all the personal doings which go against the Way. In our very halting, the operation of the Way returns, restoringour lives and our societies. This is 无wú 為wéi, or "not doing."


Notes on two Characters:

: This character, translated here as "power," refers to the inborn potency of a thing. It is often translated as "virtue" in the sense of a power which is "good" or "beneficial."  It is also sometimes translated as "integrity," in the sense of "wholeness." While a case can be made for these, the English words "virtue" and "integrity" immediately evoke a sense of a human goodness and morality.  To my mind, to translate 德 as "virtue" or "integrity" too easily misleads the reader into viewing 德 as a humanistic quality rather than a potency carried through to fruition by the Way itself.

   Further, the whole point of this lesson is to contrast humanistic 'power,' even 'good' personal deeds, with the Power of the Way. The terms  "virtue" and "integrity" unnecessarily divert us from this important distinction. For that reason I prefer Waley's and others' translation of 德 as "Power."

​​有: The character does double duty here as both "to have" and "to exist." The line could as easily be translated "The highest Power is not powerful. That's why it has power."

Note comparisons of Line 1: This terseness of this line has invited a number of other interpretive translations. One of the reasons for the difficulty of this line is that (like much of ancient Chinese) there is no subject. For that reason, some translators infer the "man" or "person" as the unstated subject of the sentence.

"The man of highest 'power" does not

 reveal himself as a possessor of power.

 Therefore he keeps his 'power." 

Waley, p 189

"High virtue is not virtuous.

 Therefore it has virtue." 

Wu, p. 55

"The highest virtue is truly virtuous.

 That's why it has virtue. 

Henricks p.98

"The highest virtue does not act virtuously.

 Therefore virtue is always at hand."

Wilson p.66

"The person of superior integrity

does not insist upon his integrity.

  For this reason he has integrity." 

Mair p.3 

"To give without seeking reward

  To help without thinking it virtuous--

  therein lies virtue." 

Star p.49

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​. ​​​​. . . . .


Line 1
Line 2
Line 3

Line 2

Inferior power

never surrenders

it's power


​​Thats because it

is has no power at all.

下xià    德dé    不bù    失shī      德dé

under    power    not   lose/disappear  power

是shì   以yǐ   无wú  德dé

(for this reason)    not  have  power

​​Low power does not lose it's power.

​For that reason there is no power.

    Our personal power is 下 inferior, even puny. It may be the political power that we wield, our charismatic power, or the sheer force of our will. But this so-called "power" is not really a power at all.  We know this, because our attempts to wield our own power only wear us down. True power does not exhaust us because we are not the ones doing it. This is, once again, Lao Tzu central theme of  无wú 為wéi  "not-doing." 

     Our efforts to push, to compel, and to coerce things to happen according to our will, only exhaust us. As Lao Tzu tells us in Lesson 30:

What does not follow the Way

soon comes to an end.

不bù 道tào 蚤zǎo 已yǐ


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 3

The highest power

does nothing at all,

in that it

wants nothing for itself.


​​​​​​​​  上shàng 德dé   无wé  爲wéi

​​​  high        power    not have    do/act

而ér  无wú   以yǐ  爲wéi     也yě

   and    not have  (to consider/regard)  (part.)

High power does nothing,

and does not have consideration for acting.

     The person who abides within the 德 Power of the Way, does nothing of himself or herself. Again, 无 爲 wu wei, or “not doing” anything of ourselves, but instead allowing ourselves to be guided by the Way.


    The person who is guided by the 德 Power of the Way looks like everyone else as he or she drives the minivan to work, takes care of the baby, mows the grass, and so on. But it is different now. With no attachment to a self-serving outcome, the person is then free to spy the inner need of each person and thing in each situation—and then respond according to that need. There is no personal motive involved. There is nothing personal about it at all. 

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



Line 4

Note: The standard editions have an additional line placed here, which is not found in either of the MWT editions:

Inferior power acts

and has its private ends.

下xià    德dé    爲wéi

​​​  under        power      do/act

而ér  有 yǒu  以yǐ  爲wéi

and has (to consider/regard)

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


Line 5

Line 4

The highest Kindness too

does nothing at all,

in that it

wants nothing for itself.


​​​​​​​​​    上shàng 仁rén   无wé  爲wéi

​​​     high        power   not have    do/act  

而ér  无wú  以yǐ  爲wéi 也yě

   and  not have  (to consider/regard)     (part.)

High power does not have action

and does not have a regard for acting.

      The 仁 highest kindness is borne of the Power of the Way. As such it does not seek approval, awards, or even good Karma.*  There is nothing at all personal about the 仁 highest Kindness.  


     The character 仁rén that Lao Tzu uses here is familiar to Confucians: 仁 is commonly translated as “humaneness,”  "kindheartedness," and "benevolence."  仁 means being fair and kind in each of our human interactions.**

     Here, and in other lines of this lesson, we see key differences between Lao Tzu's teaching and those of Confucius (551 B.C.-479 B.C.). To be sure, both were good men. Both were fine teachers. Both had concerns for individuals and for their society, and both offered guidance to rulers.

   For Confucius, though, we learn how to be kind.  Kindheartedness is an acquired behavior.  We acquire it through practice--that is, by cultivating kindness in actions. That is how we become good people.


      But how do we know what is kindhearted?  For Confucius, it is through self-reference; that is, we know kindheartedness by first knowing how we want to be treated.  This is the Confucian version of the Christian Golden Rule--"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."***

     Confucius puts it a little differently. He says:

What you do not wish to be done unto you,

do not do unto others.

己jǐ 所suǒ 不bù 欲yù  勿wù 施shī 於yú 人rén 

Analects 15:24  

​     And again:

Zhong Gong asked Confucius about 仁 human kindness.

Confucius said, "When you go out,

it is to treat those you see as great guests.

It is to treat the people with great reverence.

It is to not do to others what you do not

desire them to do to you.”

仲zhōng弓gōng 問wèn 仁rèn ; 

子zǐ 曰yuē:出chū 門mén 如rú 見jiàn 大dà 賓bīn,

使shǐ 民mín 如rú 承chéng 大dà 祭jì 。

己jǐ 所suǒ 不bù 欲yù ,

勿wù 施shī 於yú人rén。

Analects 12:2


    Lao Tzu might agree that Confucius' "do not do unto others" rule is a fine rule to follow, and likely even beneficial. But it misses the point. For the 上 仁 highest Kindness, we do not need to first consider how my "me" wishes to be treated. That would be to needlessly bring myself into the equation.


     The 上 仁 highest Kindness is already natural to us. It does not reveal itself to us through self-reference. Nor does it require any practice. Any time I first consider my "me," I am closing myself off the 上 仁 highest Kindness, borne of Way, because I still acting out of a personal motive.



*The character 仁rén, humane,  is composed of a 亻standing person and the number two. Thus, being in relationship with others.

**It's worth noting that some self-help programs and even some teachers of certain interpretations of Eastern religions will encourage us to acquire "good Karma."  Ironically, any concern for my own "good karma" is still a self-serving concern. Whenever my "me" remains at the forefront of what I seek, I cut myself off from understanding right action upon the moment.

(This is not suggest that Lao Tzu addresses the notion of  "karma" [a Sanskrit word meaning "action"]).  Nowhere does Lao Tzu mention reincarnation. But he would very likely agree that acting with a concern for my "me" does have a kind of momentum which, until it is checked, will continue to have its sway. In that sense, our actions certainly do have a future effect. But the whole whole thrust of Buddhist and Hindu teachings of karma is not the accumulation of good karma for myself so I can have a great next life, but the sudden extinguishing [lit. "nirvana"] of all of one's karmic past through a present awakening to the true self.)

***See Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31.


​​​​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .





Line 6

Line 5

When our highest

sense of 'right' acts,

it is because we want

something for ourselves.

​​​​​​​​​     上shàng  義yì   爲wéi 之zhī

​​​     high       righteous   do     (pron.)

而ér  有yǒu    以yǐ  爲wéi     也yě

    and    has      (to consider/regard)      (part.)  

 High righteousness acts,

and has regard for the acting.

     It's common enough to hear, "Well, what's 義 right for you may not be 義 right for me." Such a sense of "right" is decided by the favorable outcomes we have in mind for ourselves. This is quite different from meeting the moment with a detached compassion which may then allow us to behold what is actually needed upon that moment.

     Of course we all each have a concern for ourselves. But what if the time and the circumstance require something different from what my "me" has planned for my "me." Can I engage that moment without letting my "me" intrude with all its own designs?

     What is 義 moral and right, even what is the 上 義 highest morality and righteousness, is no more than a human attempt to decide right from wrong.*  As such, it has a goal outside the particular action itself--namely, it is done with regard to what my "me" thinks is good, or with regard to established social standards.  

     For Lao Tzu, when we act according to established social standards, it is still just an act. Our works seek a particular result, either for my self or for society. But with 无 爲 wu wei, the act and the result are One. The goal of the action is . . . well . . . the action itself. There is nothing extrinsic to it.


     When we listen to music, for example, the activity and the result are the same. We don't then expect a paycheck or trophy. When a mother cares for her infant, that caring is also its own reward. They are one. When a fine runner runs, yes, there may be a trophy at the end. But a fine runner runs first of all for the running.  The fine craftsperson has concern first of all to the craft; the master and the mastery are the same. In instances such as these, it is to  无 爲 wu wei.

     Returning to Lao Tzu's understanding of 義 right conduct, it is not discoverable through any reference to my "me" or through the norms of my society. We discover right conduct through an unbiased regard for what is needed in each instance.





Regarding good and evil, see also Genesis 2:9 and Genesis 3:6


​​​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 6

When our highest social norms

tell us how to conform

and some don't play along,

​​then sleeves are rolled up to

enforce these standards.


​​上shàng 禮lǐ  爲wéi 之zhī

high        custom   do       (pron.)

而ér 莫mò 之zhī 應yìng 也yě

​​​   and      none     (pron.)   respond   (part.)

則zé  攘ràng  臂bì  而ér  乃nǎi   之zhī

     then    (roll up sleeves)    and    thereupon   (pron.)

High customs act, but no one responds,

   then it forces arms and thereupon does it.

     The character 禮, refers to "social customs," or doing what is socially expected in our interactions with others.  禮 has the meanings of social decency, etiquette, and manners. In that sense, always refers to outwardly correct actions.

    For Lao Tzu, beneficial social norms may indeed make for a well-ordered society. But what do we do when someone listens inwardly, and, as Thoreau tells us, "hears a different drummer?" It is likely that members of the society will find offense, and attempt to compel compliance according to the established norms. This is hardly in accord with the Way.



*"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1862).




​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .







Line 7
Line 8
Line 9

Line 7

This is what happens

when we

surrender the Way.


​​​​​​​​​​​     故gù   失shī   道tào

​​​     therefore    lose/disappear        way

​ Therefore the Way is lost.


​     For Lao Tzu, any action with regard to my "me" or to social norms, even the  上 highest social norms, is evidence that we have already strayed from the Way.

​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 8

When we surrender

the way, we are left with

our own personal power.


​​​​​​​​​​​     失shī 道tào 矣yǐ  而ér   后hòu  德de  


​​​​    lose    way   already  and   afterward    power   

​ Lose the Way already, and

afterward there is power.


​      When we ignore what the Way requires of us in the moment, we then turn to our own puny power to decide what is best to be done.

​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .






Line 10

Line 9

When we surrender even

our personal power,

it is then we must

try to be kind.

​​​​​​​​​     失shī   德dé    而ér   后hòu   仁rén

​​​   lose    power  and afterward kind/humaney

​Lose power,

and afterword is being kind.


​     When we lose even our puny power, kindness is no longer natural to us.  We then must make an effort to be kind.


​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .






Line 11

Line 10

When we surrender

our efforts to be kind,

we make up our

own sense of right.


​​​​​​​​​      失shī    仁rén    而ér  后hòu   義yì 

​​​     lose   kind/humane    and  afterward   righteous

​ Lose kindness,

and afterward righteousness.


​    Acting kindly is nice, but it is still just an act. When we lose sight of even that, we end up contriving for ourselves what is right.

​​​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .






Line 12

Line 11

When we surrender our own

sense of what is right

we must trust in the

social norms to our time.


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​  失shī     義yì     而ér  后hòu   禮lǐ

lose/disappear righteous and  afterward    custom

​ Lose righteousess

and afterward customs.


​​    It is the sage who has held fast to the Way. Without training or an eye to custom, he or she simply carries out what is needed. It is not his or her personal doing. The sage is simply attuned to the Way, and naturally follows it.  That's all.



​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .






Line 13

Line 12

Now, as for

our social norms

they are rooted in our everyday

assumptions and beliefs;

and so begins

our confusions.

​​​​​​​​​​​     夫fū   禮lǐ    者zhě 

intro     custom   one who

忠zhōng 信xìn   之zhī  泊bó    也yě

​​​  loyal    trust/believe   (poss) anchor   (part.)


而ér  亂luàn 之zhī 首shǒu 也yě

and      disorder      (poss.)      head       (part.)

Now,  custom is the anchor of loyalty and sincerity,

and the head of disorder.


​​    The ordinary person wants to fit in. He or she is satisfied leading an ordinary life according to ordinary social norms. But when we have allegianceto these norms, we have already turned from the Way.  Our reliance on mere assumptions and beliefs is the source of our confusion.  Perhaps the words of Emerson (1803-82) are appropriate here:

“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?

Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates,

and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus,

and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise

spirit that ever took flesh.

To be great is to be misunderstood.”*


Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance," in Essays: First Series, 1841.

​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .






Line 14

Line 13

Our social norms tell us

beforehand how we must act;

this is the mere

flower of the Way,

and so begins

our foolishness.

​​​​​​​​​   前qián  識shī 者zhé 

     in front   discern   one who

道tào  之zhī  華huā 也yě

​​​ way   (poss.)  flower    (part.)


而ér    愚yú    之zhī   首shǒu  也yě

​​​  and    stupid   (poss.)     head       (part.)

As for discerning in front,

it is the Way’s flower and the head of stupidity.


      The first three characters, 前qián 識shī 者zhé literally mean, "The one who knows beforehand [how to act]..."  When we know beforehand how to act, we are already lost.  These actions are no more than the mere 華huā flower of the Way, in that they are just outward displays of what-we-should -do, lacking the natural response of our innermost sense. . To rely on social norms to guide us is the beginning of our folly.


​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .






Line 15

Line 14

And so, a great person

dwells on what is real

and not on

what is unreal.


​​​​​​​​​​​   是shī  以yǐ   大dà  丈zhàng  夫fū  

  (for this reason) great   elder     person

  居jū     亓qí     厚hòu

​​​      sit/dwell (pron.) thick, heavy

  而ér  不bù     居jū    亓qí    薄báo

and   not   dwell     (pron.)    thin/weak

​For this reason, a great elder person dwells on the thick

and does not dwell on its thin


  ​​   What is substantial is not flowery displays, but activity which springs naturally from the inner person. Our inner person is that aspect of us which already knows the Way, but which we may have turned away from.


​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .






Line 16

Line 15

A great person dwells

on the fruit of the Way

and not its mere flower.

​​居jū     亓qí     實shī    不bù   居jū    亓qí  華huá

​​​ sit/dwell     (pron.)    fruit       not      sit/dwell    (pron.)   flower

​ Dwells on the fruit, not dwell on the flower,


​​    “Fruit” refers back to what is “substantial” in the previous line. “Flower” refers to what is a mere showing and appearance, and for that reason is “insubstantial.”


​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .






Line 16

In doing so, he or she

lets go of "that"

and takes up "this."


​​​​​​​​​​      故gù     去qù    彼bǐ  取qǔ  此cǐ     

​​    therefore    leave     that    take     this

​ Therefore, leave that  and take this.



    The character "that" refers to what is "over there" or in the future. "That" consists of all the knowledge and cleverness we have acquired. 此 “this,” refers to what is at hand, here, and is very real.


     "This" is not discoverable in the norms of our society or in all our learning "This" is discovered from one’s very own existence—not intellectually or historically, but one’s existence at “this” very moment. 



Note:  See the important use of this phrase repeated at the end of  Lesson 12 and Lesson 72.


 ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .







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