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Lao Tzu for Everyone
Students, Scholars,
& Seekers
Peter Gilboy, Ph.D.

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A Note

regarding the characters

used in this translation.

Lesson 42

No Boundaries


 (阜 earth piled up + 昜 open, bright.)

light, sun, white, male principle

Line 1
Line 2
Yin Yang920.png



Line 1

The Way births


One birth's


Two births



And, three

births the

10,000 things.

 道tào  生shēng  一yī   

way    birth/alive/beget  one

                                一yī   生shēng  二èr

one    birth/alive/beget  two 

   二èr   生shēng  三 sān

two    birth/alive/beget  three


三sān  生shēng  萬wàn  物wù

three birth/alive/beget 10,000     thing

The way births one.

One births two.

Two births three.

Three births 10,000 things.


"Tao births


     In other places Lao Tzu tells us that 道tào, the Way, is One. But here he says that the Way “births One.” While there is some question over what he could possibly mean, the answer may be quite simple—that this is Lao Tzu’s playful way of telling us that unlike our notion of One (which is after all a “name”) the Way itself cannot be conceptualized or “named” at all.  "One" is simply a helpful marker, a kind of label for us to hang onto for now so that Lao Tzu can communicated with us about the Way.  This is one of the points made in the important first four lines of his Lesson 1.

"One births


      "Two" is the duality of yin and yang--the masculine and feminine energies found throughout our world and, of course, within ourselves.  But note: "Masculine and feminine" energies do not refer to "men and women," and it would be a mistake to regard them as such.  (See more on this common misunderstanding in Lesson 28.)

    Yin and yang are principles of polarity, such as matter and space, structure and function, inner and other, motion and rest, top and bottom, good and bad, life and death, negative and positive terminals on batteries, and so on.  The computers we used every day are also premised upon these binary principles.

     So, life comes to us in opposites. Or, at least it seems to, because, as Lao Tzu says here, these opposites always trace back to One. 


     Yin and yang are not separate from each other. Each exists only in relationship to the other. Each is one single event.  No buying without selling.  No top without bottom. No good without bad. Our heads can make a mental distinction between them of course, draw a boundary between them, so to speak, but they are one relationship, a single event.


    This is also a key to understanding Lesson 2, which reads, in part:


Being and nonbeing

arise from each other.

Difficult and easy

contrast each other.


Long and short

compare each other.

High and low

complement each other.


And also Lesson 20, where Lao Tzu says:

Yes and no.

​How are they

so different?

Beauty and ugliness.

Don't they depend

on each other?

Someone whom

others fear will

always fear someone else.

Think about it!

When would this

ever stop?

     There are a number of other lessons in which Lao Tzu shows us the trap of believing that the distinctions of yin and yang are the final reality. And, in those same lessons he reveals that the sage is one who is not frustrated by these apparent opposites, and has no need to juggle or manipulate them.  

     The duality that we experience is not a duality at all, but a single relationship; it is a One not a two. That is why the well-known yin and yang symbol includes not just the dark and light halves but also the dark that is found within the light, and the light found within the dark. What we mistakenly take to be "two" is, in the end, One. Each is both.

"Two births



     The relationship between yin and yang energies brings about the emergence of a third quality--indispensable (and irresistible ) attraction between yin and yang.  It is this third quality which accounts for the dynamic interplay between yin and yang energies; an interplay which completes the circle and brings forth the whole world, what Lao Tzu calls 10,000 things." 


"And, three

births the

10,000 things."

         Lao Tzu sees no real boundary, no dividing line, between the  "everything" of our world and the Way. The Way is ever acting within and as the 10,000 things, providing eac with it's own nature. 

      A word of caution: Our minds tend to see things in terms of cause and effect--first "this" happened and that led to "that" happening.  But there is no sequence here; no "this-then-that" in the relationships among One, two, three, and the 10,000 things. These are co-occurrences. 

      That the one Way comes forth as the 10,000 things, with no boundary between them, is the mystery of which Lao Tzu speaks in Line 7 of the first lesson

These “two”

[the Nameless Way

and the "named" things]

are actually the Same.


They come forth to us

with different names,

but they are the same Way.

. . . . . .

Line 3

Line 2

The 10,000 things

carry yin on their backs

and embrace yang

in their arms.

​​​​萬wàn  物wù  負fù   陰yīn  而ér  抱bào  陽yáng

 10,000    thing  carry/burden     yin     and       hold/hug   yang

10,000 things carry yin

and embrace yang.

                          “Carry 陰 yin and embrace 陽 yang.” 


       In itself, Yin energy is inactive. Thus "carrying."  Yang energy is the active part. Thus "embracing."  

       The animating principle in our world--yang energy, cannot exist by itself; it requires yin energy in order to be active.  And yin energy requires an activating principle--yang.  Again, together they form a single relationship, a singular event. 

      It may seem odd that yin, while inactive, is nevertheless an energy. We normally think of energy in terms of thermal, chemical, nuclear, and so on. But "energy" is simply the ability to activate something. For example, the shape of a bell is yin. The space within the bell is yang. Each energy activates the other.    

      Yin and yang need each other as much as north needs south and warm needs cold.  Yin and yang are not in conflict any more than the two poles of electricity are in conflict. They fulfill each other. Each flow into the other. Together they provide the potential for life.

     This potential for life becomes manifest in the material of our world whether it be human, animal, plant, or mineral. Not just our outer bodies, but the inner as well, including our blood, tissue, and organs. Every physical part of us can be thought of as yin energy. As Lao Tzu says, we 負fù “carry” our yin (bodies) with us. We even associate ourselves with our bodies. We think that our yin-bodies are our real and only “me.”

     Yang is different. It is transparent. It has no body at all, in the same way that the underside of a bell has no body. And yet it fulfills the yin energy of the bell. It is only together that a bell may ring.


     Of themselves, blood and oxygen cannot sustain life. Blood may be necessary, yes, but a puddle of blood has no life. It is inert yin.  Oxygen is necessary too, but a bag of oxygen has no life. It is inert yin. Something else is required for life.

. . . . . .


Line 3

And, harmony results

from the proper centering

of yin's and yang's

[] life-energies.

 中zhōng     氣qì      以yǐ       爲wéi   和hé

middle/center  vital energy by means  become   harmony.

It is by their centering energy

that they become harmonious.

     The respective energies of yin and yang are called 氣qì. When yin and yang 氣qì energies are in their proper relationship to each other, that is, their attraction is balanced in accord with the time, place, and situation, then harmony within that situation is the result.  And indeed, the harmony of yin and yang is the principle goal of Chinese medicine and now much of Western medicine. 


     We saw a similar point regarding harmonizing 氣qì in Lesson 10:

As for watching over your

physical and mental self

and embracing the One,

can you keep them

from coming apart?

In the gathering together 

of your 氣qì vital energies

to attain suppleness, are you

able to be like an infant?


     Whether we know it or not, and whether we have even heard of yin and yang or not, our lives are concerned with harmonizing these two energies. We exercise, eat wholesome things, pray or meditate, have regular our physical checkups, and more.

      But in our harmonizing of yin and yang 氣qì energies, we may overlook the fact that while we depend upon our them, they are not truly who we are, for the simple reason that yin and yang energies are not their own source any more than the notes flowing from a flute are their own source. According to Lao Tzu, 氣qì energies are “birthed” from what we might think of as a fount or reservoir—One, or the Way.

     So Lao Tzu's message to us is not just about the duality of yin and yang.  He is also saying that if the duality of yin and yang has its source in One, then the 10,000 things—must also have their source in One. Again, there is no boundary at all.  

     Point: While duality seems to abound everywhere, we and the world around us do not have our home in this duality.  We have our home in One, not two.  And when we see boundaries where there may be none, we inevitably set up an opposition in desiring one half of the duality over the other. This results is our struggle for good over evil, happiness over sadness, wealth over poverty, and so on, which form our daily life. As Allan Anderson points out with respect to our struggles:


     The ordinary life lived in the ordinary way is totally dominated by a consciousness tyrannized by these opposites—not because yin and yang are tyrannical. As principles yin and yang are indifferent to our responses to them. The tyranny arises from the wrong view that sees these opposites as comprising and exhausting one’s very own self. In short, one identifies with them, and this illusion gives rise to another—that one is essentially defined by the painful career and play of contraries and contradictories.

--Anderson, p. 3


      Perhaps this is the sum of all of Lao Tzu’s teachings—that what I take to be my “me” is not first of all the interplaying of  yin and yang energies, for there is no boundary line between these energies and the fount from which they spring . So, is my real “me” the passing manifestation that results from yin and yang energies? Or is my "me" something more lasting, something that cannot wither and die?

     Lao Tzu knows that this cannot be understood through anyone’s teaching, including his own. That is why, in other places, he asks us “give up learning” and to “learn to unlearn.”  In each of his lessons he is asking us to gaze past the duality around us and within ourselves, and discover the source of duality itself.


*中zhōng, meaning "middle," "within," and "among," is found in the MWT and Guodian editions.  The standard editions have similar character, 沖 chōng, meaning "pour," and "infuse," normally translated in this passage as "mix" or "blend." 

. . . . . .

Note: The remaining five lines of this lesson appear to be a non sequitur. Mostly likely they are. Recalling that Lao Tzu’s writings were not originally divided into lessons or chapters, but done so hundreds of years later, it appears that what follows could well be its own distinct lesson for us or originally part of the following lesson.

Line 4

In the whole world,

what is detested by all

is being orphaned, widowed,

and worthless.

 天tiān  下xià   之zhī    所suǒ  惡è 唯wéi

heaven    under   (poss.)   that which    hate     only

  孤gū  寡guǎ   不bù  穀gǔ

solitary widow/few  not     grain

That which is hated of all under heaven,

is only the solitary, the few, and no grain.

 Line 5

And yet this is how

kings and dukes

refer to themselves.


而ér   王wáng  公gōng  以yǐ    自zì    名míng  也yě

and yet    king         duke        by means  oneself     name       (part.)

  And yet kings and dukes

by means of this name themselves.

     Our politicians too seek to appear modest before us, at times even referring to themselves as our “humble servants.” Some may actually be so. But whether they are sincere or not in claiming to be “humble servants,” they are nevertheless articulating a truth found in other great traditions as well—that the more we humbly recall that we are not the source of our own existence, the closer we will be to our first-selves. 

​​​​. . . . . .


Line 4
Line 5
Line 6

Line 6

Some things gain

by losing,

and others lose

by gaining.


勿wù (物wú)  或yù ?員女  (損sǔn) 

             not        (thing)        some             ?           diminish            


之zhī   而ér    益yì

    (pron.)     and     overflow/benefit

益yì      之zhī   而ér ?員女  (損sǔn)

overflow/benefit   (pron.)    and             ?          (diminish)

As to things, some diminish themselves and overflow.

Overflow themselves, and diminish

    Note Lao Tzu's similar use of the character 損sǔn, "diminish," in Lesson 48:

One who pursues learning,

accumulates daily.

But one who hears the Way,

decreases daily.

Decrease upon decrease,

until reaching the state

of [wu wei] not-doing.  

Yes, [wu wei] not-doing,

and yet nothing is left undone.

And also in Lesson 77.

Where there is an abundance,

it is diminished.

Where there is insufficiency

it is rectified.

This is heaven's way.



Note: See also Luke 14:11 and John 3:30.

​​​​. . . . . .


Line 7

Line 7

For that reason,

what others have taught,

 after consideration,

I teach to still others.

故gù  人rén   之zhī    所suǒ    教jiào

          therefore   person     (poss)     that which   teach        

夕xī  (亦yì)   議yì  而ér  教jiào 人rén  

evening*    also/likewise    consult    and    teach   person.

Therefore, that which people teach,

consult and teach people.

     Here Lao Tzu affirms the role of thought or reflection in our lives. As reflective beings we can step back assess and our learning. Though reason is limited and cannot reveal the Way, it can inform us when what is not the Way.


*Both the MWT A text and Guodian text read 夕xī, meaning "evening."  Perhaps it is a clerical error, or perhaps it is "evening" in the sense of "afterward," reading then:  "...after consideration..." The standard texts have 我wǒ, "I," "me," "myself," reading then: "...I consider..."

​​​​. . . . . .


Line 8

Line 8

Because the violent

and strong-willed

do not die of

natural causes,

I take this as

the very starting point

of my learning.

 故bù  強qiáng liáng (梁liáng) 很hěn  者zhě  

           therefore   strong    good      strong/beam    strong will    one who     

不bù  得dé    死sǐ  

not       get     natural death. 

我wǒ 將jiāng  以yǐ 爲wèi  學xué   父fù

  I        (future)           (take as)         learn     father 


Therefore, those who are strong and self-willed,

do not get to die naturally.

I will take as the father of my learning.

       Two points must be made here:  First, Lao Tzu is not suggesting that he, or we, should pursue the goal of a long natural life. Upon reflection, he is simply reporting what reason too affirms to us. As he tells us in Lesson 30

Going too far

only leads to decay


This is not in accord

​with the Way.

What does not follow

the Way

soon comes to an end.

     Secondly, the final character of this line is different from the character found in the Wang Pi and Heshang Gong editions.  There, this final line concludes,

I take this as the starting point

of my 教 jiāo teaching.

      But the MWT, Fu Yi and Guodian editions conclude:

I take this as the starting point

of my 學xué learning.

     Perhaps Lao Tzu is telling us that he too is ever a student of the Way. It is also possible that this first person voice is an addition by a later teacher or student.  Either way, the lines coincide with Lao Tzu's key lesson: That all our struggles and strivings will gain us little. Our place is not to charge forward in our day, but in all instances to be receptive to the callings of the Way.  It is this, we are encouraged, which must be the starting point of our learning.


*By 200 AD Taoism had developed into a formal religion, with temples, rites, and priests. Lao Tzu even came to be honored as a saint. None of this is presented in his writings. Passages such as this final one regarding death, were viewed as evidence that Lao Tzu’s real concern was to teach a path to longevity and even immortality.  Nowhere is this indicated the text. 

​​​​. . . . . .


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