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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.


The Mysterious



(才 sprout + 子 child.)

to exist



Line 1

The valley spirit never dies.

It is called

the mysterious female.

谷gǔ*  神shén 不bù 死én

valley    spirit      not       die      

是shì 胃wèi 玄xuán  牝pìn     

to be   call   mystery   female        

The valley spirit does not die,

   it is called the mysterious female.

     In Lesson 5, Lao Tzu referred to a bellows. Here it is a valley. What do they have in common?


     To repeat from the previous chapter, “emptiness” does not mean “nothing.” The term “empty” is simply analogizing the Way as having no form, or body, and yet from which all of physical existence is derived.

     His analogy here is obvious: There would be no valley at all except for the hollowed out  “empty” space. This “empty” space is itself formless, but at the same time it is what forms the valley.

     Lao Tzu uses many different analogies to make the same point, so perhaps it's worth repeating here: Things have a physical existence, including you and me, but only because of something which also exists, but which happens to have a non-physical presence. It has no physical properties at all. It is not-a-thing; it is “no-thing.”**

     Not only is this Lao Tzu’s assertion, it is logical as well. If something is derived, it must be derived from something. And that “from something” must exist, either physically or not. This is also the first law of thermodynamics.** Even the big bang theory does not theorize that something came from nothing. After all, something did “bang.” And by the way, what banged it?

     “The spirit of the valley…” Just as  valleys exist only because of empty space above it, Lao Tzu tells us that the entire organic world depends on what is unseen, or formless. What is formless can never be destroyed. It never dies.

     It should not be surprising to us that the “spirit of the valley” is known as the “mysterious female.” The womb, a symbol of fruitfulness, is nevertheless empty. Empty = no-thing, and yet somehow life comes from it. That’s pretty 玄xuán mysterious.****


* The Ma Wang Tui (MWT) text has 浴yù, "to bathe," instead of 谷gǔ, "valley."   浴yù has the original meaning of “valley stream,” and here appears to be a variant of 谷gǔ, valley. See the use of 浴yù also in chapters 15, 28, 32, and 39.

** Reference lines 3-6 of Lesson 1.

*** The very foundation of the physical sciences is that the amount of energy in the universe is constant. It cannot be created from nothing nor can it be eliminated. All the other laws are dependent on this one law.


****This begs the question, “Why would the Way, which is singular and One, give rise to multiple things?” It’s the age-old question, “Why is there something and not nothing?” Perhaps the answer is too simple: The Way is creative. Creating is its “thing,” its “business.” Maybe the Way likes relationships, which always require at least two. For that reason, it brings forth you and me (and of course everything else). What we call “nature” is simply a celebration of the Way’s diversity. When we ask, “Okay, but why does the Way do it?”, we might also ask, “Why not?” 

​​. . . . . . . . .  



Line 2

Line 2

The gateway of this

mysterious female is called

the root of heaven and earth.


​  玄xuán  牝pìn   之zhī   門mén

mystery    female  (poss.)   gate

是shí  胃wèi  天tiān  地dì  之zhī  根gēn 

uto be    call       heaven    earth   (poss.)    root

The gate of the mysterious female

is called heaven and earth’s root.


     When Lao Tzu refers to “female” in this and other chapters, our too-socially alert minds may mistakenly jump to the word “woman.” We might think, “Lao Tzu is telling us that the Way is actually female, like women!” 

     No, that’s not what he’s saying at all. The Way is not “female.” The Way is merely analogized here, and in some other places, as “female.”


     The Way is, of course, without gender. It has no dangling genitalia or recessed orifices. But the Way does have certain attributes, qualities, which we might associate in our human heads as being on the female side of what we think of as the male-female differences.

     Lao Tzu understands that there are two principles existing in the world which, symbolically and for convenience sake, he labels “masculine” and “feminine.” Yin and yang. Each of these two principles dwell in each one of us, whether we’re male or female. Each principle dwells in each and every tree, barn, and blade of grass.

     So what does this mean in plain words? As a start, consider “masculine” to be activity and power, and “feminine” to be vision and wisdom. We need both. [1] Action without wisdom is incompetent or, even worse, it is dangerous. Wisdom without activity is pointless. In short, activity without wisdom is reckless; wisdom without activity is fruitless because it is impotent.*

     Also, contemplate the Tai Chi symbol, and note, among other things, that each “part” contains within it the other “part.” Neither is divided from the other. It takes the unity of the two to make one whole world and a singular person.

     As for 門mén, gateway, again, no analogy is complete. Still, a gateway implies “two” and also “one.” There is one  gate, and yet it has two sides. Lao Tzu tells us that this 門mén gateway is 胃wèi called (or known as) the 根gēn  root of heaven and earth, meaning, all that we know of the physical world.

     Consider that roots are typically not visible to us. Consider that roots are not the source of their own nourishment or of the nourishment they convey to a plant.



 * “Does not wisdom call? Does she not raise her voice?

     On the heights beside the way

     And the crossroads she takes her stand:

     Beside the gates in front of the town

     At the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:

     ‘To you, O men, I call,

      And my cry is to the children of men,

     O’ simple ones, learn prudence.

     O’ fools, learn sense…’”  Proverbs 8:1.


. . . . . .

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Line 3

Line 3

It is everywhere!

Yet seemingly nowhere

Use it, it will never run out.


​緜mián  緜mián  呵hē  若ruò 存cún

 (spread continuously)  exclaim   like     exist

用yòng 之zhī  不bù  堇qǐn

use     (pron.)    not     scarce    

Spread out! Like it exists.

Use it, not scarce.


     The character  緜mián means cotton. When repeated—緜mián 緜mián, it refers to something being spread out like gossamer, a thin, filmy web sometimes found on grass and bushes.


     Lao Tzu is again reaching with language. Images like this in poetry and scripture do depict something, but Lao Tzu knows that such symbols can’t lead us far of themselves. He is asking us, as we would with a fine poem, to gaze in the direction in which his words point and see if perhaps the is something there to be discovered.

. . . . . . .

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Note on Masculine & Feminine


J.J. L Duyvendak

(quoting Walter Schubart)

     Masculine are the will to power, the subordination
of love to law, of vision to action, of sentiment to reason. Feminine are self-surrender, awe, humbleness, patience. Masculine are criticism, rationalism. Feminine are intuition, receptivity to inspiration, faith. Masculine are individuation, the principle of fission, the mechanical. Feminine is the principle of one-ness, the organic. For a man,
to be alive, means to fight, to kill, to destroy life; for a woman to generate, to bear, to renew life ...

     The Asiatic high-grade cultures in the Chinese,
Russian and Indian continents, have always had a strong feminine streak. That is the secret of their indestructibility The attitude of yielding has nothing to do with cowardice. Where it is primary, we find the masters of endurance, the bearers of long lasting cultures.

    Not to respond to external stimuli but to be silent, that has always been the wisdom of the feminine oriental. In him the specifically feminine meets the magical power of silence. It is from the yielding
attitude that Lao-tzu's doctrine is born: 'The softest conquers the hardest thing in the world, water conquers the rock, the feminine conquers the masculine, the weak conquers the strong.'

[1] J.J.L. Duyvendak, "The Philosophy of Wu Wei," Asiatische Studien, 1, 1947, p 81f  [quoting from Walter Schubart, Europa und die Seele des Ostens, Luzern : Vita Nova-Verlag (1938).]

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