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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 7

More on

Not Doing


(early image of a pregnant woman)

(my body-self: I, myself, personally)


      The theme of this chapter is "not living for oneself."  But this does not mean that the sage purposefully lives for others, sacrificing himself or herself. It means that there is no "why" to the sage's action; there is no personal motive for fulfilling an action beyond the need the action be completed.

   There's a Zen* story about three friends observing a man standing on a hill. They try to guess what he is doing. One says he's looking for his cow. Another says he's waiting for someone. The third says that he's enjoying the breeze. And so they approach the man and ask him what he is doing here. "Nothing," he replies. "I am just standing."

   "Not doing" is to act without a why. It is to act for the sake of the action itself. An action is needed in a particular situation, so the sage fulfills it, and moves on.  The sage takes nothing for himself or herself, and leaves behind nothing except the action fulfilled.

    Consider a tree falling on a neighbors home.  Our first thought is not, "What's in it for me?" but instead, a care for those who may be inside. And so we act, perhaps by rushing into the house to check and perhaps rescue someone; or maybe by just dialing 911. When the action is completed, we then move on with our day.


    This may appear to be an extreme example, an urgency that no one would overlook. It is. The point is that the sage encounters each aspect of his or her day with the same kind of clarity and care that the ordinary person may give only to a crisis. An urgency may not always be present in the sage's day, but that focus and care is.

    Note that the sage may indeed be rewarded for his or her actions, perhaps with a "thank you" or an award, or even with money. Then again, perhaps not. Those would just be byproducts of the action fulfilled. The sage knows that they had nothing to do with the action itself. The activity itself was pure, borne of sage's single-minded clarity and care. And in such instances, the action alone is its own reward.


*Zen is a Japanese form of Buddhism which borrows from both Taoism and Chan Buddhism of China.

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Line 2


Line 1

Heaven lasts long.

Earth endures.

天tiān   長cháng   地dì   久jiǔ

heaven   long duration     earth   time passing

​Heaven has a long duration;

​earth is enduring.


Character Note: Both 長cháng and 久jiǔ relate to time and are close in meaning, but some sort of contrast must be intended here. 長 is also used in the case of a king or emperor “reigning” for a “long time.”  久 has the sense of “persisting” or “enduring” for a “long time.”  

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​​​​Line 2

The reason they

last long and endure

is because they do not

live for themselves.


​​​天tiēn  地dì  之zhī  所suǒ  以yǐ  能néng  長cháng  

heaven    earth  (as to) that which  by means  able  long duration 


且quǐ  久jiǔ   者zhě

both  time passing  one who


以yǐ  其qí   不bù  自zhì  生shēng  也yě 

        by means    (pron.)   not   oneself   live    (part.



Gram. note: 者zhě, meaning “the one who,” comes after an adjective or verb to identify it as a quality of a person or thing. Ex: “Good 者 is not afraid.” = “The one who is good is not afraid.

Line 3

​​Line 3

Therefore, they live long.

​​故gù  能néng 長cháng 生shēng

therefore   able    long         live

Therefore they are able to live long.

Line 4

Line 4

In the same way,

the sage yields to others

and yet finds himself

or herself at the front.

​​​是shī  以yǐ  聖shèng 人rén  芮ruì  其qí  身shēn 

     (because of this)   sage  person   small    (pron.)  body-self

而ér  身shēn 先xiān

and    body-self   first     

Because of this, the sagely person

diminishes his or her body-self,

and yet is first.


Character note: 身shēn, body-self, should be seen in contrast to 心xīn heart-mind-self. Related 身shēn also to "straw dogs" in Lesson 5.

Line 5
Line 6

Line 5

When the sage puts

his or her self aside,

the sage is still there.


​​​外wài  其qí   身shēn 而ér 身shēn 存cún  

outside  (pron.) body-self  and  body-self    exist

“Outsides” his or her body-self,

and yet the body-self exists.

     The sage is not self-conscious. He or she is at ease with them selves and the world. The sage then is able to act spontaneously as the needs of the day arise.


Note other translations of of this difficult passage:

1. “[The sage] Puts self-concern out of [his mind] yet finds that his self-concern is preserved.” Robert  G Henricks, Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching) (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989) 200.

2. "Treats [his person] as extraneous to himself and it is preserved.” D.C. Lau, trans., Tao Te Ching (Chinese University Press, Hong Kong 1963) 275.

3. “Remains outside; but is always there.” Arthur Waley, The Way and It's Power (Grove Press, New York 1958) 150.

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Line 6

Isn't it because the sage

has no personal goals

that the sage

can accomplish these goals?



 不bù   以yǐ   其qí   无wú    私sī  與yǔ*

not    by means  (pron.)   not have    private   (interrog.)


故gù 能néng  成chéng 其qí  私sī

 therefore  able           complete    pron.  private

Is it not by means of not having personal,

that therefore, he or she

is able to complete their personal?

     Wang Bi’s (226-249 A.D. ) commentary on this line says: “One who is without private interest [means he or she is] 無wú 為wéi without acting for the self.” (無wú  私sī  者zhě 無wú 為wéi 身shēn 也yě)




​*與yǔ, is an interrogative implying that the answer is in the affirmative. “Is it not so that…”

     It is worth noting that we have a bit of a problem if we want to become a sage: If I want to be a sage, am I not still seeking something for myself?


     This is one of the puzzles of self-change. We may want to change, say, to be more generous or courageous or loving toward others. But how do I change without first making myself change? And, if I “act” differently, am I then really different, or am I just an actor?

     This is a key difference between Confucius and Lao Tzu. For Confucius, self-change consists of intentionally cultivating right action in myself and thereby habituate the change that  desire in me. In other words, I practice or 為wéi “do” right action until it becomes second-nature to me. Carried out with the right aims, this is certainly  positive for the family and society in that it instills a well-functioning order in both.

      But Lao Tzu answers the question of “self-change” very differently. For Lao Tzu, there is nothing I can "do" to change myself.  But there is something to realize.  We will see more of this in several of his remaining chapters.

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