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Lao Tzu for Everyone

Students, Scholars

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph.D.

Line 1  谷神不死是胃玄牝

Line 2  玄牝之門是胃天地之根

Line 3   緜 緜 呵 其 若 存

           用之不 堇


The Mysterious



​     Lao Tzu is not shy about mixing metaphors and similes. We should be used to it by now. In this chapter we find “female,” “gate,” “valley,” “root,” and then “spread continuously.”


     Why so many comparisons? Lao Tzu is trying to say what he’s already told us he can’t say: “The way that we can talk about, is not the timeless Way.” (Line 1, Lesson 1)

     Taking him at his word—that the Way cannot be talked about, puts a special burden on us, his readers. We are accustomed to discovering the meaning of a sentence by focusing on the meaning of the words in that sentence, and then associating them with our own experiences. “Billy fell down on the sidewalk and cried.” Who can’t relate to that? “She was joyous after buying a new car.” We’ve all been joyous over something, perhaps even something we’ve purchased. So, we can very likely relate.

     But in many of Lao Tzu’s chapters he is introducing us to something that we likely have not yet encountered: This is what he calls 自zì self 然rán thus, or “self-so-ness.” Sometimes it is translated “spontaneity.” This is a fresh encounter with ourselves: our own self-so-ness. In this encounter, according to Lao Tzu, we discover the non-separateness of ourselves from the things of the world by way of our common nonphysical source—what he refers to as the “timeless Way.”

     To many, this will seem like foolishness, sheer baloney. Others may consider that Lao Tzu may not be right in his head. Remember, Lao Tzu’s words are merely guides. They are signs for us along the side of the road. They are not our destination any more than the words “peach pie” will make a tasty desert. We must go beyond his words.

     This is a very short lesson, and Lao Tzu might ask us to have a look without turning his analogies into definitions, answers, or settled concepts. Instead, permit them to guide us. This, in time, may bring us to a personal and "inside" understanding of what cannot be said.

Click on each line number


for Chinese-English interlinear & commentary


The valley spirit never dies.

It is called

the mysterious female



The gateway of

this mysterious female

is called the root

of heaven and earth.




It's everywhere!

But seemingly nowhere.

Use it.

It will never run out.


​​​​​​​​​. . . . . .


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