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Lao Tzu for Everyone


Students, Scholars,

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph. D.



the Way

Line 1

A Note

regarding the characters

chosen for this translation.

Lesson 4

What is





((氵water + 中 middle.)

empty, pour, infuse



Line 1

The Way is empty,

yet draw from it and

 you will never run out.


道tào 沖chōng

way     empty/pour  

而ér 用yòng  之zhī  

and   yet    use   (pron.) 


有yǒu 弗fú  盈yíng 也yě

have   not it   full/surplus   (part.)

The Way is empty, and yet use it,

there is no filling it.

      "The Way is 沖chōng 'empty'" is one of Lao Tzu's ways of saying that what exists physically, such as the natural world around us, derives from what does not exist physically.

    To appreciate this, consider an analogy to the 沖chōng empty space of a bowl. This empty space is what gives the bowl its very “bowl-ness.” The bowl does not exist without this empty space. “Empty space” and “bowl” need each other. They are inseparable.  

​     There is a Zen* story of a tourist visiting a monastery and asking the master to explain Zen to him. The master points toward the dinner bell, and says, "Show me the bell."  The tourist happily goes over and taps on the bell's metal. The master corrects him by pointing to the empty space within the bell's metal housing. "Without this empty space," he tells the tourist, "there is no bell."

      In the same way, we could say that all of our natural laws are 沖chōng “empty.” For example, Newton's first law of motion—“that a body in motion tends to remain in motion unless acted upon by another force”—has no physical existence at all. It is only through observation of the way things behave that we may infer the existence of this law. It is unavailable to our senses, and yet it is a foundational law of all moving things.


     Consider also the energy with which we go through our day. We cannot see this energy, and yet it is here. We know this by the evidence, the vitality we feel. Ironically, while we cannot see, hear, or taste our energy, it is through this  energy that we are able to see, hear, and taste the physical things of the world.




*Zen Buddhism of Japan is derived from Chan Buddhism of China. The special form of Buddhism known as "Chan", in turn, is said to have derived from the influence of Taoism.

Character Note:  沖chōng, “empty,” is a different character from 虛zū “empty” of the previous chapter. There it was used in the sense of “unfilled,” and referred to the uncluttering of the human 心xīn heart/mind.

Here, 沖chōng, "empty" may also be a play on word, because it also means “infuse” and “to surge up” or “to pour.” “Empty” is chosen as the translation here due to the context determined by the adjective 盈yíng, full, and which is the image of a bowl that is full.  This character is used only one other time in the MWT text, in Chapter 45: 大盈若沖. “Great fullness seems like emptiness.” But the idea of this “emptiness” is found throughout Lao Tzu's lessons. See, for example, what Lao Tzu says in the next lesson.


​​. . . . . .  


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Line 2

Line 2

A wellspring!

The Way seems to be

the predecessor

of everything.


​  淵yuān  呵hē  似shì  萬wàn  物wù 之zhī    宗zōng 


reservoir (exclaim)  resemble 10,000  thing   (poss.)  ancestor

Reservoir! Seems the

ancestor of the 10,000 things.


     The Way is the source of all that is physical and nonphysical. Is the Way a thing? No, it is a way that things are.


. . . . . . . 

Line 3

Line 3

The Way blunts what is sharp

and unties what is tangled.

​銼cuò   其qí    銳ruì     解jiě    其qí     紛fēn

to file   (pron.)    sharp     loosen    (pron.)   tangle/disorder

Files it’s sharpness;

loosens its tangles.

     Sharpness does not last, and tangles will ultimately be undone. All the things are temporary. Only the Way does not change. That is because the Way is not a thing.

. . . . . . .

Line 4
Line 5

Line 4

Its softens the glare 

and unites the dust.

和hé    其qí   光guāng  同tóng  亓qí  塵chén

harmony    (pron.)    bright light   same   (pron.)dust
Harmonizes its bright lights; “sames” its dust.


     There is nothing that the Way does not reconcile.

. . . . . . . . 

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Line 6

Line 5

Concealing itself!

The Way seems hardly to exist.


湛zhàn  呵hē   似shì    或huò    存cún 

deep   (exclaim)   seems   perhaps   to exist


Deep! It seems perhaps to exist.


     We notice the things around us which are changing: the seasons, our children inching upward, the passing fashions, the many advancing technologies.


     We don’t notice what doesn’t change, what endures. It is concealed from us until we ask this simple question: “What brings all these things into existence and then guides them through their many changes to their completion?”    


    . . . . . . .

Line 7

Line 6

I do not know

whose child it is.


​    吾wú 不bù 知zhī 亓qí 

I     not    know   (pron.) 

誰shuí 之zhī 子zǐ 也yě 

who   (poss.)  child  (part.)

I do not know whose child it is.

     The Source of all things has no forebearer.

How could it?  

 . . . . . .

Line 7

The Way seems to have

existed even before god.*


象xiǎng**  帝dì   之zhī   先xiān 

appear/image  god   (poss.)   previous

It appears (to be) before god.

     Note that there is no mention of a sage in this lesson; and yet  it is the sage who is aware of what endures—that formless author called “the Way” which accomplishes all things without the sage even having to lift a finger.



*帝dì, "god": In ancient China, 帝dì referred to the highest god, though also later used when referring to a ruler. This is the only use of this character in the text. Generally speaking, 帝dì, “god,” or 上shàng 帝dì, literally “highest god,” was understood as the god of nature and also of human affairs, including law, order, and justice.

**象xiǎng, "image": This is an interesting character, originally meaning “elephant.” Overtime, the character morphed from depicting the outline of an elephant to its present day image.  It has come to mean  "outline," “image,” “resemble,” “imitate.”

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