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Lao Tzu for Everyone


Students, Scholars,

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph. D.

Line 1

A Note

regarding the characters

chosen for this translation.

​​Lesson 5

What is our

"Straw Dog?"




(人 person +  二 two)




Line 1

The world is not humane.*

It treats everything

like straw dogs.


天tiān  地dì  不bù  仁rén

heaven   earth   not   humanity

以yǐ  萬wàn  物w ù 為wéi  芻chú  狗gǒu

use    10,000     thing    act     as     straw   dog

Heaven and earth [are] not humane.

Use the 10,000 things as grass dogs.

     That the “world is not humane” seems like a cruel statement. Add to that what Lao Tzu says in the next line, that “The sage is not humane,” and we might jump to the conclusion that the world and the sage don’t give a wit for anybody or anything. But that is not the case. In fact, in Lessonr 29, Lao Tzu tells us that the world is a “sacred vessel.” (夫fū天tiān下xià 神shēn 器qì 也yě.)





*Note regarding the character 仁rén, "humanity." 仁rén is the combined images of a person (亻) and the number two (二). Together, they suggest a person who is in a relationship with, or acting within, a community.   


​​. . . . . . . . .  



Line 2

Line 2

The sage is not humane.

He or she treats the people

like straw dogs.*




​  聖shèng 人rén  不bù  仁rén   

sage        person    not    humanity

以yǐ  百bǎi 姓zìng 為wéi 芻chú  狗gǒu    

use    100     families     act as     grass    dog

The sage is not humane

Uses the 100 families as straw dogs.

    We each have our "straw-dog" which we carry around with us all day. This is our outer self which includes not just our physical bodies, but of our historical self too, to include all our experiences and learning.  When the sage teaches, he or she does not address this personal "straw dog," but instead the true inner person, their very being which is prior to our straw dog.

    . . . . . . 

*These first two lines of this chapter are often thought to be a response to Confucius’ teachings about 仁rén  “humanity.” Perhaps that is so.  “Humanity” was certainly one of the Confucian virtues, along with 寬kuān generosity, 信xìn sincerity, 敏mǐn diligence, and 惠huì kindness (Analects 17:6).

     Note, though, that the difference between Confucius and Lao Tzu, is that Confucius speaks of practicing or 為wéi “doing ” 仁rén,  humanity. Confucius also speaks of of 修xiū cultivating the 道tào Way. But for Lao Tzu, there is no "doing," no"cultivation of the Way." That is because the Way is already present and immediately available to us.  So, what is there to cultivate?

Line 3

Line 3

Is not the space between

heaven and earth

like a bellows?



​天tiān   地dì  之zhī  間xián

  heaven    earth   (poss)    space    

  亓qí     猶yóu   橐tuó    籥yuè   輿yú

(pron.)  resemble   open sack/bellows  (interrog.) 

The space of heaven and earth,

it resembles an open bellows?  

     Reference the first line of the previous chapter, “The Way is empty.” Now in this third line, and again in the next line, Lao Tzu once more tells us that it is from the nonphysical Way that the physical world is appears.


     He analogizes "empty" it to a bellows, which is an instrument whose effects—what is physically created and made visible to us—rely on the “empty” or nonphysical part which remains unseen to us.

. . . . . . 

Line 4
Line 5

Line 4

This space is empty

and yet inexhaustible.

Draw from it and

ever more comes out.

虛xū   而ér   不bù   屈qū  

empty     and    not    exhaust


動dóng   而ér    愈yù    出chū

move         and    more and more  exit

Empty and yet not exhausted.

Move and more and more comes out.


     The Way has no physical presence, nor does it undergo change. It is always there as the background to things and to each person who undergoes change.


. . . . . .

Line 5

Hearing much leads

to many dead ends.

It is not as good as

heeding what

is already within.




多duō   聞wén 數shǔ    窮qióng   

  much   hear   number/fate   exhaust  


不bú 若ruò 守shǒu 於yú  中zhōng

not    same    hold      (prep.) middle

Much hearing, a lot of exhaustion;

is not the same as holding in the middle.


     To understand what  Lao Tzu's teaching, hearing about it simply won’t suffice. It can only be discovered by having a look within. That is where the operation of Way is disclosed to us. As we’ll see in other lessons (17, 23, 25, 51, and 64), this is what Lao Tzu calls 自zì self 然rán, our self-so-ness, or, "that-which-we-are."

     When Lao Tzu encourages us to "heed what is already within" he is not referring to the modern-day emphasis on feelings, empowerment, self-improvement, or "finding happiness." For Lao Tzu, these are still quests undertaken by our straw-dog self.  More on this in Lao Tzu's other lessons.

    . . . . . .


     It’s worth recalling that Lao Tzu intends his words to be therapeutic, a kind of treatment for the worries, anxieties, and confusions that people faced in ancient China and which is no different today. Lao Tzu’s answer to these problems is his statement in the final line. More study and learning simply won’t resolve them.

    While some see the last line of this lesson as an invitation to meditation, Lao Tzu does not specifically address meditation of any sort. The practice of Taoist meditation appears much later in the tradition and is known as “religious” Taoism.


     Mediation is purported to be a way to discover one’s most inner self which is prior to all the layers of one’s human experiences and prior to the all accumulated effects of society. This inner self is one’s touchstone with the nonphysical reality of the Way.

     But Lao Tzu seems to have no interest in the practice of “doing” meditation. What is there to practice if the Way is already operating as our true self, and is always and already here with us?


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