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Lao Tzu for Everyone

Students, Scholars

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph.D.



the Way

                  第 三十

Line 1  上德不德



Line 2  下德不失德  


Line 3  上德无爲而无以爲也

Line 4  上仁爲之而无以爲也 

Line 5  上義爲之而有以爲也

Line 6 上禮爲之而莫之應也

​     則攘臂而乃之

Line 7 故失道

Line 8   失道而后德





Line 9  失德而后仁

Line 10 失仁而后義

 Line 11 失義而后禮


Line 12 夫禮者忠信之泊也


Line 13 前識者道之華也


Line 14  是以大丈夫居亓厚


Line 15  居亓實不居亓華

Line 16  故去彼取此








      Lao Tzu opens this lesson with another head-scratcher. He tells us,

The highest 德 power

is not powerful.


Lao Tzu is not trying to be contradictory here. He is encouraging us to stop and really pay attention, because what he is about to say about the 上 德 highest power is at odds with our conventional notion of 德 power.

​   The 上 德 highest Power is the 德 Power of the Way.  This is not a personal power. Nor is it  "power" in the usual sense of the word, in which an external cause results in a certain effect. Our day is filled with such cause-effect relationships, as a wind topples trees, gasoline powers an engine, or even when we press a letter on our keyboard and a corresponding letter appears on our screen

     But the 德 Power of the Way is not external to ourselves and things. It is an inner power which operates as each person and as thing. Here there is no sequence--first "this" then "that."  Cause and effect are One.  This is what Lao Tzu told us in Lesson 1, where, after making the conceptual distinction between the Way as 始 originator of all, and the Way as 萬 物 our manifested world, he then says:

These “two” are

actually the Same.


They come forth to us

with different names,

but they are the same Way.

    Put differently, there are not tow here. The Power of the Way operates as each person and thing. This is the core message of each of Lao Tzu's lessons-- that the Way is the hidden producer of "all that is," and at the same instant it is "all that is."  They are nondual, or "not-two." That's what Lao Tzu means when he tells us, in Lesson 21,

​The vast power

of the Way

appears to us in its

many forms,

and each is in accord

with the Way alone.

     This "not-twoness" is one reason Lao Tzu so frequently compares the Way to a 谷 "valley.​" The space above the valley is empty, or not-a-thing. And yet it is this same not-a-thing which provides contour to the land. We must ask then, is the valley-shape formed by the land below? Or is the valley-shape formed by the emptiness above?  Or are they one?

Click on each line number

 for Chinese-English interlinear

& commentary


The highest Power

is not powerful.

That's because it

is powerful.



















Inferior power

never surrenders

its power.

That's because it

has no power at all.









The highest Power

does nothing at all,

in that it wants

nothing for itself.








The highest Kindness too

does nothing at all,

it that it

wants nothing for itself.













When our highest

sense of 'right' acts,

it is because we want

something for ourselves.














When our highest norms

tell us how to conform,

and some don't play along,

then sleeves are rolled up to

enforces these standards.






This is what happens

when we

surrender the Way.





When we surrender

the Way, we are left with

our own personal power.








When we surrender

even our personal power,

it is then we must

try to be kind.








When we surrender

our efforts to be kind,

we make up our own

sense of right.



When we surrender our own

sense of right,

we must trust in the

social norms of our time.






Now, as to

 our social norms,

they are rooted in our everyday

assumptions and beliefs;

and so begins

our confusions.




Our social norms tell us

beforehand how we must act; 

this is the mere flower

of the Way

and so begins

our foolishness.







And so, a great person

dwells on what is real,

and not on

what is unreal.













A great person

dwells on the fruit of the Way

and not its mere flower.






In doing so, he or she
lets go of "that"

and takes up "this."

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



     Note:  The standard editions of Lao Tzu’s writings begin with what we conventionally know as Lesson 1.  But when the Ma Wang Tui manuscripts were unearthed from the tomb at Ma Wang Tui, lessons 38 through to 81 had been placed first. Some scholars believe that this is the correct ordering of the manuscript--Lessons 38 to 81, and then 1 to 37.  Others consider the ordering of the Ma Wang Tui manuscripts as likely the result of a mix up on the part of the person placing the scrolls in the tomb.


     To my mind, the correct ordering of the lessons is certainly of historical interest.  But it does not help us understand Lao Tzu's teachings, and therefore it need not concern us here.  


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