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Lao Tzu for Everyone

Students, Scholars

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph.D.



the Way

             第 四十 一章

Line 1  上士聞道(堇)僅 能行之


Line 2  中士聞道若存若亡

Line 3  下士聞道大笑之

Line 4  弗笑不足以爲道

Line 5  是以建言有之曰

Line 6  明道如(費) 昧進道如退


Line 7  夷道如(纇) 纇上德如谷






Line 8    大白如辱廣德如不足

Line 9  建德如偷質真如渝

Line 10  大方无隅



Line 11  天象无(形) 


Line 12  夫唯道善始且善成





'Hearing' the Way





     Wise words, whether they are Lao Tzu’s or from another tradition, are simple, clear, and succinct.  But then how is is possible that, as Lao Tzu tell us with respect to his words, "No one can understand them"?

     The problem is not with the words. Nor is it with a translation of his words. The problem is deeper than that--with our own adequacy to understand the words.

     Our adequacy has nothing to do with our schooling. In fact, in other lessons Lao Tzu goes for so far as to tell us to “Give up learning,”   to “Learn to unlearn,”   and he states that while a learned person daily accumulates learning, a person of the Way daily diminishes his or her learning.   But before we think Lao Tzu is telling us to throw out our text books, we might ask whether we are adequate to understand these words as well.


     The human mind likes familiarity. Things become familiar to us only because we have learned them, experienced them. Not just in schools, but we have learned our entire world view which is a weave of our cultural, educational, religious, and other life experiences.


     We are so comfortable with our familiar world that when we encounter something wholly new, rather than bare with the tension of the unknown, we quickly interpret the new encounter according to one of our old and familiar encounters as we try to understand it.  

      Here's a familiar example: Someone hands us an unfamiliar type of fruit, and after a bite we might announce, “Oh, that tastes like a ____.”  Or we might hear a quote from a great religious text, and we say, “Oh, that’s like what ________ says.” See.  We are forever judging what we hear, taste, feel, and know, according to what we already know; according to our grab bag of familiarities.

     But consider this: What if Lao Tzu (and others of the world’s wisdom traditions) are leading us toward an understanding that is of a wholly different category than we have previously known? What if this different understanding resides outside our little grab bag of familiarities. To make sense of it, then, we'll typically shove what is different into our old familiarity-bag to make sense of it. Otherwise, we will remain apprehensive, perhaps even distressed.


     That fact is that we want things to fit.  We need things to make sense. That's why when something simply will not fit in our bag of familiarities, if we can't  reduce it so something we already know, then we'll simply dismiss it as nonsense and move one.


     Here is our difficulty when it comes to understanding the wisdom writings:

A lesser understanding cannot

grasp a greater understanding.

That is why a child cannot yet understand his or her parents. It is why the apprentice cannot yet understand the master. It is why Crito cannot understand Socrates,   the disciples cannot understand Jesus,   and Arjuna cannot understand his Charioteer Krishna. 

    Again, this is the no so subtle lesson brought forward for us in each of these wisdom traditions: That a lesser understanding cannot grasp a greater understanding. 

     Wisdom cannot be learned. We can fund knowledge all day long and still not become wise. When Lao Tzu asks us to “Give up learning,” to “Learn to unlearn,” and to diminish our learning, he is not suggesting that we drop out of school. He is asking that as we engage the day and this pristine moment, we suspend our grab bag of familiarities and not let them intrude upon us. 

    At this point the post-modern mind will announce loudly that it is not possible to suspend what we know. The post-modern thinker will say that there is no escape at all from our knowledge and our experiences.  These make up who we are and there is no getting around it.  But consider whether this conclusion too has been quickly drawn from our old bag of familiarities.  Are we wholly victims of our place in time?  Are we dupes of our time with no vision beyond it?  Has no one broken free?

     The irony is obvious when we pause to think it through: If this well-accepted post-modern view were true, then according to its own tenets its adherents are now captives of this same post-modern understanding.  The logic is circular, if not comical:  "I know that we are trapped by the knowledge and experiences of our time, and I know this because of the knowledge and experiences of my time have told me so." 

     Lao Tzu, Socrates, Jesus, Krishna, and others encourage us to question this. They are are each speaking clear words that simply don't fit into our bag of familiarities.  That is why, in each of their instances, their hearers express dismay and disbelief over what they hear, while the masters shake their heads at their listeners' unwillingness to simply begin to clear their minds, step beyond their familiarities, and "hear" what they are saying.



     This lesson is all about "hearing."  It is about "hearing" above our grab bag of familiars. In that sense it's like our ability to hear past a noisy room and focus on one sound or one voice.  For us, the noisy room is none other than our ready grab bag of familiars. And our "hearing" is of that which strikes a deep cord within us.  I could be a poem, a line from a scripture, or a great writing.  In such instances we find ourselves momentarily struck with the truth of those words. It is as if we have just remembered something that is long lost and forgotten. 


     But then our training is likely to intercede along along with our burdensome bag of familiars. We are likely to then dismiss what has suddenly resonated within us rather than pause and wonder about it: Where did this come from?  Why is it resonating with me so?  Is it true?  And, how can I let it speak further?

     Plato tell us that philosophy--meaning the love of wisdom--begins with wonder; in wonder, we pause and listen in the face of what is new and unknown rather than fill it with our knowns. A lesser understanding cannot grasp a greater understanding.  It is through our pausing and wondering, when authentic, that we allow a new understanding to arrive. 


1.  See Lesson 70.  Note that Lao Tzu does not say that his words are "easy," to understand, but "very easy to understand."

2.  Lesson 20.

3.  Lesson 64.

4.  Lesson 48.

5.  See the Crito dialogue, where Crito arrives to free Socrates from prison and certain death. 

6. Matthew 8:27 & 15:16 among many other verses.

7. Bhagavad Gita 2:54. This is a rather comical passage where, after Arjuna hears his charioteer--wise Krishna—lay out the path to true understanding, Arjuna then inquires as to the habits of a person with such understanding.











Click on each line number

 for Chinese-English interlinear

& commentary


When a person

of high character

hears the Way,

with diligence he or she

will be able to practice it.














When an ordinary person

hears the Way,

one moment it is there for them

and in the next moment it is gone.









When a shallow person

hears the way

he or she will have

a good chuckle over it.









If they didn't laugh at it

it wouldn't be the Way.





That's why there are sayings

that go like this:




The illuminated way

looks dark.

The way forward

appears to be in retreat.




The smooth way

seems rough.

The highest Power

seems lowly.




What is chaste

seems defiled.

Abundant power

seems wanting.




The long-standing power

of the Way

seems to ba an affront.

Unchanging truths

appear to be in flux.




The greatest square

has no corners.

The greatest vessel

is remains unfinished.

The greatest sound

is soundless.


The greatest form

is without shape.

The greatness of the Way

is without a name.





Truly, only the Way

can carry things through

from beginning to end.


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