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Lao Tzu for Everyone

Students, Scholars,

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph.D.

What is 道Tao,

or "the Way"

​I. Lao Tzu’s Dilemma


     Lao Tzu’s little book is about 道 Tao, usually translated as "the Way." Yet in the very first line of his book he admits that he can’t tell us about the 道 Way. He says:

The 道 way that I can talk about

is not the timeless 道 Way.

Lao Tzu is not holding anything back from us, some sort of secret knowledge. According to him, it is simply not possible to talk about the timeless Way.

     Then how are we to understand what the Way is? What we can do is first listen to what Lao Tzu does  say, and then test it out for ourselves, just like scientists do. See for ourselves if it is so.

     To test things out like scientists do, we can begin by looking around us and observing whether the things in our world have their own 道 way. And then, through inference, we can investigate people as well—especially ourselves—to discover if we might also have our own way as well.

     What will we find? Well, Lao Tzu can’t tell us, just like no one can really describe the taste of a strawberry to someone who has never tried one. We each have to each taste the strawberry for ourselves. Then we’ll know.

     But here are some preliminary questions that may help us get started.

II. Do Things have

Their Own  道tao Way?


     We know the answer to this question if we’ve ever had a pet. We have observed, for example, that cats have their own way, and it is different from the way of dogs and horses and porcupines and people and every other type of creature in the world.

     This is so obvious that we don’t even stop to think about it. But there’s more. While cats have their own general-cat-way, each individual cat also has its very own individual-cat-way. Even when birthed by the same cat-mother with the same cat-father, and even when brought up by the same human family in the same environment, each cat is different from the others. Again, each cat has a cat-way, but they also have their own-way.  They are all cats.  But they are not the same cat.

     Not just cats, of course, or other domestic pets. Park rangers and ecologists tell us that even in the wild they track specific lions, bears, and elephants by their individual traits and personalities. They know that “the way” of each is somehow different from the other's, and often remarkably so. The same can be said for elephants and butterflies and each of the other myriad things in our world—what Lao Tzu calls “the 10,000 things.”

     In ancient times, each thing’s own individual way, was often referred to as “the spirit of the thing.”


     What about 樹 trees? They too have their general tree-way, of course, according to their species. Spruce. Elm. White pine. And so on. But from their very start as a seed, each particular tree also has an individual way already preformed in it. Its way may be to grow taller than other trees of its type, or more spread out, or it may have different branches in different shapes that reach out in different directions. No two trees are the same. Even if you have two trees of the same type with the same sunlight and rain, the same wind and snow, and so on, each will develop in its own special preformed way. We can find no two trees that are the same in size and shape, or which have the same grain pattern.

     That's because nature doesn’t repeat itself. In nature, each thing is different. In nature, each thing has its own individual 道tào "way."

III. What about nonliving things?

     Yes, of course. Nonliving things have their “way” too.  A 岩石 rock is different from 水 water. If you’re not sure, test it out. Kick a rock. Then kick water. A rock’s nature is to stay. Water’s nature is to move on whenever it can.


     Forces of nature also have their 道 way. Take 火 fire. We already know that it has its own way because we are very cautious when we light a stove or campfire. Water too. Lao Tzu frequently uses the example of water to describe the natural 道tào way of each thing. Try to block water and its way leads it to fill up or to go around. Release water, and it always seeks the lowest point. No exceptions.

     But scientists, engineers and government researcher don’t sit around and wonder about the way of water. They already 知 know about it. Nor do they try to change water's way, but instead figure out how they can collaborate with water, use it for helpful purposes.

     At some level we already know all of this, and we already function every day knowing that things have their 道tào way. The reason we don’t stick our fingers into electrical outlets is because we don’t care to experience the way-of-electricity. When we throw a ball, we don’t consciously consider the way-of-a-sphere-moving-through-the-air, and the way-of-gravity, but we know we are operating within these natural laws or ways.

     Consider all the ways-of-things that scientists, mathematicians and explorers had to discover in order to get to the moon. Note: They didn’t invent the ways to get there. They had to uncover the already-existing-ways of each thing and then work with those ways. They got to the moon by first discovering the way-of-energy, the way-of-gravity through varying atmospheres, the way-of-propulsion-in-a-vacuum, the way-of-the-earth’s-rotation and the movement of the moon, and so on, and so on, and so on.

     The ways-of-things are all around us.  If we observe closely, we’ll see that each individual-way is a kind of law that resides within that person or thing. Lao Tzu invites us to test it out for ourselves, to just stop and ponder this point. Just look around. See if it’s so.

. . . . .

Lao Tzu's Dilemma
Do things have their own 道tao way?
Is there a human 道tao way?
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IV. Is There Also a

Human 道tao way?


     Like other beings in the world, we 人rén humans have our own way. We have instincts too, just like the strictly animal world does. But we also have the ability to control our instincts when we want to. A heedful person can say no to his or her baser instincts.

     Our species-way includes our ability to walk upright, to make things, invent things, use complex language, to conceptualize, to contemplate the past and the future, to calculate, to plan and deliberate before taking action, and then to finally make a choice.

     The 道 way of humans is also to wonder about things. We wonder about morality. We wonder about the stars and about what’s going to happen tomorrow. We wonder what happens when we die. We are curious beings. We aren’t just surviving; we are also asking questions, seeking answers. Seeking answers is a big part of our human-way.

    But we are most unlike the rest of the natural world in a big way. While they automatically are what they are—the bee, the turtle, the tulip--our human-way includes having  to 學xué learn. We must develop ourselves, cultivate our human skills so they become actualize in us.

     And, because we must 學xué learn, good families and good societies are valuable to us. Without them we can become brutes, or cruel, selfish, and dishonest people. We need a good upbringing in a good society to teach us, in order that we may live respectfully and peaceably with one another.

     So, we 學xué learn the language of our group and also how to be get along with one another within our particular society’s “way” of getting along. We learn to greet someone with a handshake, a bow, or maybe something else. We learn how to eat “properly,” what to eat, when to belch and when not to. We learn all the ways to relate to others at home, in the neighborhood, at school and at work. Ideally, we learn to live with a care for others.

    Again, none of this is automatic. While other living things already are their general-way, we must develop much of ours, cultivate it, if we wish to realize our full human potential.

    But even when our general human 道tào way is fully realized, it’s still just part of who we are. In addition to our general human-way, each one of us has our own deep-down personal 道tào way.

​V. What Is our deep-down

personal 道tao way?

​     You’ve likely heard people said,  “Well, that’s just the way he (or she) is.” This means that at some level we already sense that each one of us is not just some generic human person, but that we are living out our individual way as well.

     This is so obvious if we have brothers and sisters. We were likely born into the same family, with the same environment, and the same just about everything; but still, we are each very different. Parents see the uniqueness of their child almost from the first day—that this child isn’t like the other ones. It is as if an individual 道 way has already been bestowed upon that child in addition to our species way.

VI. But Lao Tzu cautions us

     Our personal or individual 道tào way, is a prime focus of Lao Tzu’s lessons. But he cautions us. He says that something might happen to us as we grow up. We may forget our personal 道 way, or worse yet, never become acquainted with it at all.

     That’s because in our process of learning our culture and our society, we may be taught to be entirely different from our authentic and deep-down individual 道tào way. So when someone says, “Well, that’s just the way he (or she) is,” it may not be the person’s authentic individual-way at all.

     That’s the problem with living in a culture. Whether it is in Lao Tzu’s time or ours, cultures don’t care much about our personal way. A child may grow up to be an adult and eventually grow old and die, and never have been told that they have a personal way and that they need to uncover it. The group-way is more functional to the group. Learn all the ways of the society, find a mate, make a living, have sex and procreate to get more group-members, and all will be well—for the group. Stray from that and become yourself,  and people may look at you strangely; they may even see you as an outlier.


     Lao Tzu was an outlier. In Lesson 20, he playfully compares himself to the others.

​…Everyone else is so cheerful

and content, as if they are off

having a great time.

But I alone am serene,

with no effort at all,

like a child who

has not yet made a sound.

Alas! I’m the fool here,

with nowhere to lay my head.

Everyone else has more than enough,

while I alone seem to have lost all.

Stupid me! Is there’s no end

to my ignorance?

I’m the confused one,

like a child who is listless and dull.

I’m the only one who

feels utterly dejected.

As oblivious as the ocean!

And wandering about like

someone with nowhere to go.

Everybody pities me,

for I’m the only dullard here.

But I’m also the only one

who yearns to be different, in that

I value being nourished

by our mother.

     Lao Tzu’s teachings are, in part, about how to discover and live out our-very-own-deep-down-individual-道 way. Of course the possibility of becoming an outlier won’t be an attractive prospect for some people. Lao Tzu’s words may not be for everyone.

VII. Good news

     Still, there’s good news for the outliers. A person who has discovered their own personal 道tào way may still be outwardly indistinguishable from others. They may look the same, study for the same tests, fall in love like all the others, hunt for work, sit at a desk or in the cab of a truck, work with their hands or with their heads. It doesn’t matter. The real difference is not outward at all; the real difference is that while living the ordinary life, they are not living it in the ordinary way.

But with a warning

     If we want to test out what Lao Tzu says, and discover and maybe even live our own personal way, we shouldn't expect much encouragement from others. The group-way sustains most people well enough. They get by. In fact, we may not want to let on what we’re up to, so we won’t get strange looks and shakes of heads.

     A person who lives out his or her own personal-way is called a sage. And, by understanding his or her own personal-way, the sage also comes to understand the way of other things and knows to keep hands off, to not interfere with the way of things and others.

     Understanding one’s own way is what Lao Tzu calls 智zhì wisdom.

. . . . . .

What is our personal 道tao way?
Is there a 道tao way of societies

VIII. ​Is There a 道tao Way

of societies too?

     Go on line tomorrow and check the news. You know what you’ll find. The usual. It is always one kind of conflict or another. Not just war, but fighting between politicians, political parties, businesses, spouses, and neighbors. Sometimes during the day we sometimes  even find ourselves fighting with ourselves. We are a certainly strange lot.

    If there were newspapers in Lao Tzu’s time, the headlines would be pretty much the same. Just a variation on the same old themes. As someone wrote to us a long time ago, “There’s nothing new under the sun."[1]

     Lao Tzu’s writings are also about society. A good part of what he shares with us is actually about government. He offers his words to rulers and would-be rulers. As we’ll see in his lessons, Lao Tzu is not some naïve utopian. He knows it is a mess out there. He knows that our societies and cultures do a good job of perpetuating themselves, but that they don’t do such a good job bringing about contentment for their citizens.

     So, what is a leader to do? That’s what Lao Tzu addresses in many of his lessons.


[1] Ecclesiastes, 1:9.

. . . . . .

IX. Where does the 道 Way,

and each of our personal

道 ways, come from?

      We 人rén humans are wonderers. We wonder about everything. We want answers. Some of us absolutely need answers.

     But to find the answer to "Where does the 道 Way come from?" we have to consider 始shǐ origins.

     Origins are mysterious. We can't see them. Or taste, hear, or smell them. We might think that a seed is the origin of a plant, but a seed is not the origin of itself. Yes, we might be able to trace a seed all the way back to the very first seed, but then what? It is a mystery. That's all.

     Our 人rén human 心 minds don't like this. We want to know, and we probably want to know right now. No waiting. No beating around the bush. We want answers! We want to see, touch, and hear it. We want to make sure it's real.

     To us, "real" means provable and that something has physical being. But have you every seen, touched, or heard a mother's love? Or rather, have you only seen, touched, or heard a mother expressing this love?

     So love is a good analogy to the Way. Love is real. Very real. But love by itself has no body, no physical being. At least not until we embody our love, give it a form, an expression, through our loving words and actions.

     So, like many other things, love has no physicality until it is embodied. We might even say that, yes, it certainly exists; but it exists as a kind of non-physical-being. We are the ones who bring it into physical-being through ourselves.

     This hardly satisfies our thirst to 知zhī know where the Way comes from . We want to pin it down. To hold it tightly in our hands. But that would be just more data for our heads, more of our school-learning. We've probably had enough of that.

X. But Lao Tzu does have an answer.

     He tells us that we can discover the timeless 道 Way as we discover our own personal 道 way. That is what will lead us back to the 始shǐ origin.


     Lao Tzu is not referring to our personal likes and dislikes, or our personal psychological-make up—why we prefer this over that. There is something more at our core than these, something closer to us than even our own breathing. And by discovering our own-way, the Way itself opens out for us. Not as information, of course. We come to an actual understanding of the Way, not simply an informational one.

     Discovering our own 道tao way is what Lao Tzu's lessons are about. That's why he wrote to us. He asks us only to consider what he says. He can't put it neatly into words like a how-to book. So he asks only that we listen to his words, and then look in the direction in which his words are pointing. He encourages us to find out for ourselves if there is something there for us to discover.

. . . . . . 


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Where does the 道tao way come from?
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