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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 39

More on



​​​​​​​​​​​  一

​​one, whole, alone





Line 1

From the beginning,*

these have been One:

昔xī   之zhī     得dé    一yī     者zhě

ancient/beginning  (pron).    obtain     one    the one who 

Beginning, these obtained one:       


     We cannot know Oneness. That is because knowing always involves two: Us, and that which we know. But we cannot stand apart from Oneness in order to see it, know it, or experience it in any way. By definition Oneness encompasses even my seeing, knowing, and experiencing.


     Then how can a person become aware of Oneness? Lao Tzu cannot tell us directly because it would be just more of our "knowing."  He can only signal to us, in places, and then leave it to each of us to take it from there.**




*Character note: 昔xī means "ancient," "past," "begin." For that reason, this first line is most often translated in the sense of, "In former times..." But "In former times" suggests that the timeless Way, or One, is somehow time bound; that it had a starting point which later concluded.

     In ancient Chinese, the tense of a sentence is rarely expressed, and for that reason must be inferred. Because the timeless One of which Lao Tzu speaks is necessarily ongoing, I have elected to translate the line in the present perfect continuous tense:  "From the beginning these have been One." Note also that Wang Bi's (226-249 A.D.) understanding is that 昔xī means 始 shǐ, begin: 昔始也



**See the concluding lines of Lessons 17, 24, and 72  regarding this. See also Lesson 51 where Lao Tzu portrays the way of the sage.




​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​. ​​​​. . . . .



Line 1
Line 2
Line 3

Line 2

Heaven has

been One,

and as a result,



 ​Earth has

been One,

and as a result,


Spirits have

been One,

and as a result,


Valleys have

been One,

and as a result,


The standard editions include an

additional line here:

[ The 10,000 things

have been one,

and as a result

fruitful. ]

Nobles and kings

have been one,

and as a result,

upright and true.

天tiān    得dé  一yí    以yǐ    清qīng

 heaven    obtain    one    by means   clear

  地dì      得dé  一yī    以yǐ    寧níng

earth     obtain      one     by means  peace/settled

神shén   得dé  一yī    以yǐ   靈líng

 spirit/god     obtain    one     by means   spiritual/effective

浴yù  得dé  一yī   以yǐ    盈yíng

 valley  obtain    one   by means  full    

[萬 wàn  物 wù  得dé  一yī   以yǐ    生 shēng]

 10,000   things     obtain one       by means       birth

侯hóu  王wáng  得dé   一 yī 

 marquis    king       obtain    one  

而ér  以yǐ   爲wéi  正zhèng   

and  by means   act/do     straight.​​

Heaven obtained oneness and by this clarity.

Earth obtained oneness and by this peace.

The spirits obtained oneness and by this are effective.

Valleys obtained oneness and by this became full

[10,000 things obtained oneness and by with became generative

Marquis and kings obtained one,

and by this became straight.


     Note how in these lines, Oneness does not negate "the many."  There is still heaven, earth, spirits, valleys, and even rulers, and yet there is still Oneness.Both Oneness and multiplicity are somehow preserved.


     This is Lao Tzu's core message of Lesson 1 and of each of his other lessons.  This is the "nondual" understanding of Reality. It is not just Lao Tzu's understanding. It is also a core insight of many traditions.



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



Line 3

Based on this

we can conclude:


​​​​​​​​​​  亓qí   致zhì  之zhī  也yě

​​​  (pron.)     reach     (pron)     (part.)

​It reaches to it


     Always the teacher, Lao Tzu now appeals to our reason. He asserts that if what he said above is so, then "Based on this," or literally, "By extension,” what he is about to describe in the next four lines must also be true.


Two characters to note in the following lines

   1) 已yǐ means "already done," and "to the end," and refers to something that is finished or completed, and not longer wanting.

    2) 毋wù is a strong negative, meaning "no," "do not," and "not able to." It is replaced in the standard editions with less emphatic  無wú "not have," or "there is no..."

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



Line 4

Line 4

That if heaven

were not

wholly clear,

it would be in danger of 

falling to pieces.


 That if earth

were not

​wholly stable,

it would be in danger of

being dislodged

​That if the spirits

were not

wholly efficacious,

they would be in danger of

dying out.

That if the valleys

were not

wholly replenishable,

they would be in danger of

​running dry.


The standard editions include an

additional line here:

[ That if the 10,000 things

where not wholly fruitful

they would be in danger of

perishing. ]

And, if the

nobles and kings

were not

wholly virtuous

in their high offices,

they would be

in danger of

being overthrown.


​​​​​​胃wèi  天tiān  毋wú    已yǐ    清qīng

​​​     say/mean   heaven  do not   to the end  clear

將jiāng   恐kǒng  裂liě  

(future)      afraid       split/break

Meaning that if heaven were not

clear to the end,

it would be in fear of splitting.



胃wéi  地dì  毋wú  已yǐ   寧níng

​​​   say/mean    earth     to the end  peace/settle

將jiáng   恐kǒng  發fā

(future)       afraid  .  send/shoot

Meaning, that if the earth were not

settled to the end,

it would be in fear of shooting out.


胃wéi   神shén 毋guàn 已yǐ  靈líng

​​​say/mean  spirit/god do not    to the end effective

       將jiāng  恐kǒng 歇xiē

(future)     fear     die out

Meaning, spirits' effectiveness not to the end,

they would be in fear dying out.



胃wéi 浴yù   毋wú   已yǐ     盈yíng

​​​   say/mean  valley  do not  to the end   full    

將jiáng   恐kǒng  渴ké 

(future)       afraid  .  thirst

Meaning, valleys not full. to the end

they would be in fear of being thirsty.

[ 萬 wàn  物wù     毋wú   已yǐ   生 shēng

 10,000   things    do not to the end birth

將jiáng   恐kǒng  滅miè ]

future)       afraid  .  perish

The 10,000 things not birthing to the end,

the wold be in fear of being annihilated.

  胃wéi   侯hóu  王wáng  毋wú   已yǐ  貴guì       

 say/mean   marquis    king      do not  to the end value/virtue

以yǐ   高gāo  

​​​   by    means tall

將jiáng   恐kǒng  蹶jué

(future)       afraid  .  fall down

Say that marquis and kings were not

noble to the end in their tallness,

they would be in fear of falling down.

     We can easily object that royalty, or our present day politicians, are so rarely "virtuous" in their high offices. Lao Tzu acknowledges this in a number of other lessons. And of course, there are many examples of such leaders being overthrown, as Lao Tzu tells us. His point is only that rulers too are subject two the One. Their inferior leadership does not affect the One at all; and straying from it puts them "in danger of being overthrown."


​​​​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .






Line 5

Line 5

Therefore, it must be the

case that what is worthy

has humility as it's root,

just as what is high

has the low

as its foundation.

​​​​​​​​​​​     故gù     必bì    貴guì     

​​​     therefore    must/sure  value      

而ěr   以yǐ    賤jiàn   爲wéi 本bén

and    by means   humble   as/become    root

必bì    高gāo   矣yǐ

    must/sure  high     already

而ér   以yí     下xià    爲wéi 基jī

    and   by means under   as/become  base

Therefore, surely the valued

  by means of humility as their root;

Surely the already high

by means of the low as its base.

     By “humble” and “low,” Lao Tzu refers to the person who, having become aware of himself or herself as an expression of the Way, acts according the Way; and therefore understands that he or she cannot take credit their accomplishments. Implicit here, as in so many lessons, is 无wú  爲wéi, or “not doing.” 

​    ​​​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 6

Line 6

Now, this is why

nobles and kings

refer to themselves

as “orphans, lonely,

and the unfortunate.”

​​夫fū   是shì 以yǐ    侯hǒu 王wáng

 (intro)  (for this reason)   marquis  king     


自zì  胃wèi    孤gū   寡guǎ   不bù  穀gǔ

​​​​  self    say      orphan     widow      not    grain/favorable

Now, for this reason the noble call themselves

orphans,  widows, and the unfortunate.

     This was the humble manner in which nobles referred to themselves in Lao Tzu's times. It is no different today, as our politicians like to refer to themselves as "humble servants" and "servants of the people."  Then as now, though actual humility may be gravely lacking among leaders, there is at least a rhetorical acknowledgment of their proper role in governance.


  寡孤不穀: , “humble,” +  寡guǎ, “widow,” + 不 not  穀 fortune.”  

​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 7
Line 8

Line 7

This being so,

then humility is the root,

isn't it?


​​​​​​​​​​​​    此cí   亓qí   賤 jiàn  之zhī 本běn  

​​​​​ this      (pron.)  lowly     (pron.)     root   

與yú   非fēi    也yě

(interrog.)    not       (part.)

​ Thus, their root is 

in the low,

is it not?


​     Here Lao Tzu draws the relationship between the Way, or One, and ourselves. It is humility: becoming free of arrogance and pride. 


     Of course we can act humbly without actually being humble, which is a not so subtle an admission that one is not humble at all. But our true humility arrives with the insight of our radical dependence upon the Way--that the world around us just seems to happen on its own with no effort on the part our part. None of us birthed ourselves, or are the cause of of what happens in our lives.  As we go through our day, events just seem to unfold on their own. And, when we try to "make things happen," we inevitably meet resistance and encounter frustration, stress, and more.  

     We come again to 无wú 為wé, "not doing."  A subtext of each of Lao Tzu's lessons are these questions to us: If the world around me is already happening, with our without me, then why not investigate how this can be so?  What, exactly, is within my control, if anything?  And yet, how much do I take credit for?

​​  ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 8

Therefore, regard

your benevolence

as not yours at all.


​​​​​​​​​​​​​    故gù   致zhì   數shù  與wǔ   无wú    與wǔ 


​​​​​​ therefore  bring about    count     give     not have    give

​ Therefore, bring about

counting giving as not giving.



Note: 與yú, “give,” and thus “benevolence,” “generosity,” and the good actions that we so often take credit for.  The B Text of the Ma-wang-tui has a similar character, 輿yú, “cart”, and thus can be translated, “Therefore, he regards many carts (wealth?) as having no carts.”  The Wang Bi text has a related character, 譽yù, meaning “reputation,” and thus, “Therefore, he regards reputation as having no reputation.” The intended meanings appear to be similar.

  ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .






Line 9

Line 9


desire not

rewards such as jade,

which is no more

than rough stone.


​​​​​​​​​     是shī   故gù   不bù  欲yù 

this    (therefore)  not    desire 


  祿lù    祿lù    若ruò  玉yù

​​​   fortune  fortune  same as  jade,

硌gè   硌gè  若ruò  石shí

​​​   rough   rough    same as   stone

This is why not desire fortunes like jade,

hard and rough like stone.


     The key character here is not 祿 "rewards," or 玉 "jade." It is 欲 "desire."  When we desire something, obviously we lack that which we desire.  And so, when we say that a person has ""a lot of drive" we are actually, saying that the person has "a lot of lacking."

     The opposite of desire is not passivity or indifference. It is the posture of humility and gratitude in the ever-presence of the One. 


Note: The standard editions are quite different.  In place of 祿, "fortune," is the homonym, 琭, jade, which when repeated--琭 琭, refers to a kind of glittering. And in place of 硌, rough, is a somewhat similar character, 珞, possibly a necklace strung of pebbles. The translation is often in the sense of not desiring "to 琭 琭 glitter like jade, or 珞 珞 resound like stone."

​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .



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