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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 8

Living the way

that water lives



(誩quarrel + 羊 sheep)

good, virtue, right


      In inviting us to observe water and learn from it, Lao Tzu is not advocating the now popularized "go with the flow" attitude that we sometimes hear. It is often pointed out that only dead fish go with the flow.

     The Way is like water. And, like water, the sage too acts according to whatever the time and the place require. Sometimes it is even timely to make what we call “big waves.”


     As we’ll see in other lessons, the sage is not a pacifist when it is  time to not be a pacifist. The sage is a warrior when it is time to be a warrior. But as Line 6 states, the sage does not contend. “Contention” is personal, that is, out of a personal need. The sage has none.

. . . . . .

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Line 1

The highest virtue

is like water.


上shàng  善shàn  如ruó*  水shuǐ    

top       good/virtue      compare         water

The highest virtue compares to water.


    Water is quiet and still when that is called for. And when it is time, water rushes down the steam. It goes only where there’s an opening, where there’s a need. Water is self-directed, meaning that it is directed by its own inner nature, its own individual way. Water never violates its way.


*Character note: The MWT A text has 治zhì, rule, instead of 如ruó, compare. 治zhì is a known variant of 如ruó, to compare, and of 似sì, to seem or to be like.



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Line 2


​​​​Line 2

Water benefits everything,

and does not

contend with them.


​​​水shuǐ 善shàn 利lì  萬wàn   物wù

water     good/virtue     benefit     10,000      thing       

而ér    不bù      爭zhēng 

and        have           not   contend 

​Water is good at benefiting the

ten thousand things, and not contends. 




Textual note: There are discrepancies among the various editions of Lao Tzu's words. MWT A text reads 有yǒu 靜jìng, "has tranquility." MWT B text has 有yǒu 爭zhēng, "has contention." But the Wang Bi text, as well as the Heshang Gong and Fu Yi texts, have 不bù 爭zhēng, does not contend.

     不bù 爭zhēng, "does not contend," is most consistent with  the final line of this chapter. We can never be sure, yet it would appear that a copyist along the way miswrote 靜jìng, tranquility, for its partial graph, 爭zhēng, contention.

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Line 3

​​Line 3

It dwells in places

that the masses reject.

In this sense, it is

close to the Way.

​​ 居jū  眾zhòng 人rén  之zhī   所suǒ    惡è

dwell   masses     people   (pron.)  that  which  bad/evil 

故gù    幾jī   於yú  道tào  矣yǐ   

therefore  nearly  (prep.)  way   exclaim.

As to dwelling, it’s which the masses they [think] is bad.

Therefore, it is near to the Way.

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Line 4

Line 4

In dwelling,

value the earth.

In thought,

value the profound

In giving,

value heaven.

In speech,

value truth.*


居jū   善shàn 地dì  

sit/dwell   good/virtue     earth 

心xīn**   善shàn 淵yuān    

heart/mind   good/value    deep

予yǔ  善shàn 天tiān  

    give    good/value      heaven

言yán  善shàn 信xìn

speak    good   true/sincere


As for sitting, earth is good;

as to the heart/mind, depth is good;

as for giving, heaven is good;

as for speaking, truth is good;


*“In speech, value truth.” This line is not present in the MWT A text. It is present in the B text and a number of other editions. Its omission in the A text appears to be a copyist’s error. 


**Regarding the character 心xīn, heart/mind.  See commentary on Line 5 Lesson 3.  


Line 5
Line 6

Line 5

In governing,

value order.

In duties,

value skill.

In action,

value the right moment. 


​​​正zhèng   善shàn 治zhī 

govern      good/value   regulate 


事shì    善shàn   能nèng

duty       good/value     able

動dòng  善shàn  時shí  

move      good/value     season

​​As for governing order is good;

as to one’s duty, ability is good;

as for moving, the [right] season is best.


Line 6

Now, it is only by not competing

that you will be free from error.



​​ 夫fū   唯wéi  不bù 爭zhēng 

(intro)    only       not     contend

故gù  无wú   尤yóu 

 therefore    not have  fault  

Now, only not contending,

therefore have no errors.   


Final Note

      Like water, the sage goes through life meeting each obstacle as it arises rather than projecting some fear or some need upon the future.

     The sage may simply wait and benefit others as ground water does. What is the sage waiting for? As line 5 tells us, “the right moment.” And then, with the clarity of still water, the sage may take action by making waves or act in the manner of flowing water which fills a whole reservoir. It may appear to be a large thing or a small thing that the sage does, or it may even appear to be nothing at all. This is because the sage, like water, seems to let things happen of themselves.

     To be sure, the sage isn’t some lonely man or woman living alone in the back hills. The sage may be fully engaged in society. Perhaps he or she is a welder, a mechanic, or someone raising a crop. Maybe someone raising a child. The sage may be a politician or a businessperson. The sage may be the cop down the street.


     The sage looks like the rest of us, an ordinary person; but as we see in lines 5, 6, and 7, he or she is not living their life in an ordinary way.

    We all know people who shout to get the results they want. They will set strict personal and social goals and then shove their way toward them. These are the movers and shakers of our world.


     The sage is different. He or she acts when the time is right, and then steps back. No need to take credit. That is precisely what Lao Tzu reminds us of in the next chapter: “After carrying out your tasks, step back; that is heaven’s way.”  

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