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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 41


the Way




​​​​​​​​​​​  笑xiào

(夭yāo  slender + 竹zhù bamboo)

smile, laugh, snicker*





Line 1

When a person

of high character

hears the Way,

with diligence he or she

 will be able to practice it.

   上shàng 士shì  聞wén 道tào

high          person**      hear         way


(堇jǐn)  勤qín   能néng     行xíng      之zhī

yellow clay*** (diligent/attentive)     able    walk   (pron.)

A high person hears the Way,

with diligence able to walk it.


     Note that the verb here is not “knowing” or “experiencing” the Way, but  聞wén hearing the Way. “Hearing” is a term familiar to many great spiritual writings. Perhaps we have all heard the phrase, "If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear."ǂ  Apparently not everyone can hear; or, not everyone is listening.


     Try as we might, we cannot close our ears as we can our eyes and mouths. Sound is always present and available to us, as is the Way. The person of high-quality listens for the Way, attuning his or her self to what resonates which is not just among his or her grab bag of familiars; and then acts accordingly.  That's all.  



ǂMark 4:9, Mark 7:16Luke 8:8, Matthew 11:15, et al. 

*Character Note: According to Howell, 笑xiào came to assume the meanings of an earlier character 咲ziào, composed of 夭 slender + 艸 grass +口 mouth, indicating a slender opening of the mouth—smile, laughter. (Howell, Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters. 2016 Lawrence J. Howell)

**Character Note:士shì, originally, “person”: then coming to refer to a gentleman, noble, scholar, or a principled person.  

***Character Note: The character in the MWT is 堇jǐn, meaning "yellow clay," and with a secondary meaning of "few."   勤qín is found in the standard texts.  It is believed that 堇jǐn may be a loan character for 勤qín, or possibly a scribal error.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​. ​​​​. . . . .



Line 1
Line 2

Line 2

When an ordinary person

hears the Way,

one moment it is there for them

and in the next moment it is gone.


​​​​​​​​​​  中zhōng  士shì 聞wén 道tào

middle         person       hear          way

若ròu  存cún  若ròu 亡wáng 

​​​  same as      exist       same as      death.

A middle person hears the Way,

same as existing and the same as death.  


     The ordinary person may at times "hear" the Way, but is inconsistent in practicing it.



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



Line 3

 When a shallow person

hears the Way,

he or she will have

a good chuckle over it.

​​​​​​​​​​  下xià   士shì  聞wén 道tào

​​​ under       person       hear          way

大dà  笑xiào 之zhī

​​​great        laugh       (pron.)

A low person hears about the way, 

great laugh about it.


     The very notion of the Way is an affront to the ordinary life lived in the ordinary way, that is, crowded with our grab bag of familiars.


With respect to these first 3 lines, note Krishna's statement to Arguna:

"One hears of the Spirit with surprise, another thinks It marvellous, the third listens without comprehending. Thus, though many are told about It, scarcely is there one who knows It." Bhagavad Gita 2:29 Shri Purohit Swami, Trans

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




Line 3
Line 4

Line 4

If they didn't laugh at it,

it wouldn't be the Way.


弗fú 笑ziào   不bù  足zǔ 以yǐ 爲wéi 道tào


​​​   (for this reason)  establish   speak   have   (pron.)    say

For this reason, established

speech has this to say:

​     Even if wise words were shouted, they would be scoffed at by the person who will not hear them. 


​​​​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .




Line 5

Line 5

That’s why there are

sayings that

go like this:


​​​​​​​​是shī  以yǐ  建jiàn  言yán 有yǒu 之zhī 曰yuē

​​​   (for this reason)  establish   speak   have   (pron.)    say

For this reason, established

speech has this to say:


​     The following proverbs challenge all that we have learned.


​​​​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .






Line 6

Line 6

The illuminated Way

looks dark.

The way forward

appears to be in retreat.

​​​​​​​​​​​     明míng 道tào 如rú  (費fèi)   昧mèi

​​​      bright          way       seem  wasteful*   (dark)   

進jìn   道tào   如rú   退tuì    

approach    way     seem     retreat.

The bright way seems (wasteful) dark;

the approaching way seems like retreat.

   The learned mind cannot find the Way despite all its learning.

     The Way is so close at hand that whenever we look around for it, it seems always out of reach.


*The MWT text has 費fèi, usually meaning meaning "wasteful," "squander," and "transgress."  In place of this the standard texts have 昧mèi "dark."   Henricks translates 費fèi as "dark," saying, "I follow Hsu K'ang-sheng in reading this (費fèi) which means 'poor eyesight," and in this way arrive a "things being in the dark." (Henricks p 102)

​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 7

Line 7

The smooth way

seems rough.

The highest Power

seems lowly.



​​​​​​​​​​​​ 夷yí   道tào 如rú ( 類lèi)  纇lè

  level       way       seem       (type*)        knotty

上shàng  德dé   如rú  (浴yú) 谷gǔ

top          power/virtue  seem          bathe         valley

The level ways seems knotty.

High power is like a valley

   Though it may seem arduous, practicing the Way is the most natural thing in the world. 


    The formless power of the Way seems modest compared to our imposing human accomplishments.


*The MWT text has 類lèi, "type," "category."  It appears to be s substitute character or loan character for 纇lè, "knotty."  Their similiar structure also suggests 類lèi may be a scribal error.

​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 8

Line 8

What is chaste

seems defiled.

What is abundant

seems wanting

​​​​​​​​​​​​     大dà   白bái   如rú   辱rǔ

​​​      great       white       seem   disgrace

廣guǎng 德dé   如rú 不bù 足zú   

 wide       power/virtue    seem     not   sufficient

The bright way seems (wasteful) dark;

the approaching way seems like retreat.Great whiteness seems disgraced; wide power seems not sufficient.

   We fail to see the world as it truly is.


​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 9

Line 9

The long-standing Power

of the way

seems an affront.

Unchanging truths

appear to be in flux.


​​建jiàn   德dé   如rú    偷tou

  establish     power       seem despise/steal


質zhī  真zhēn 如rú  渝yú     

basic     real/actual    seem    change

Established power seems despised.

Basic reality seems to change.

     The ordinary person is offended to hear that he or she is not in control of their life, or that their bag full of familiars is not all that there is. There is one stream flowing.


​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 10
Line 11

Line 10

The greatest square

has no boundaries

The greatest vessel is

remains unfinished.

The greatest sound

is soundless.


​​​​​​​​​​​​    大dà  方fāng  无wú  禺yǒu

      great  square   not have  section/piece/corner*

大dà  器qì  免miǎn   成chéng

 great       vessel     evade/escape**   complete


大dà  音yīn   希xī   聲shēng

 great       sound      rare/silent    voice

The great square is without a corner.  

      The great vessel is evades completion.

The great sound is inaudible.

   No need to fuss. The boundless Way is right here and doing everything.


*Here, the standard texts read 隅yú, "corner."

**Here the standard texts read 晚wǎn, "evening," "finish," "end.​"  



​​  ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


Line 12

Line 11

The greatest form

is without shape.

The greatness of the Way

is without a name.


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​    天dà  象ziàng 无wú  (刑xíng) 形xíng

great    form      not have       punish          ( appear)*


道tào 襃bāo  无wú  名míng

way     praise/great     not have  name

The great form is without shape;

 as to the Way, its praise is without a name

   The Way stays behind the scenes. Though veiled, it empowers the 10,000 things.

​     Only things can have a name.  The Way and its power is not a thing.


*Standard text reads 形xíng, "appear," a homonym and related structure of what appears to be a scribal error in the MWT--  刑xíng, "punish"

  ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .






Line 12

Truly, only the Way

can carry things through

from beginning to end.

 夫fū   唯wéi  道tào

(intro)    only       way

善shàn 始shǐ 且qiě  善shàn 成chéng

good       begin    (conj.)     good      complete

Truly, only the Way is good at beginning,

​ and moreover, good at completing.

​     ​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .


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