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Lao Tzu for Everyone

Students, Scholars

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph.D.



the Way

            第 四 十 五 章

Line 1  大成 缺亓用不幣 (敝)

Line 2  大盈若𥁵沖亓用不竆

Line 3  大直如詘



Line 4  大巧如拙


Line 5  大贏   (絀)

Line 6  趮勝寒靚勝請(清)


likely scribal error, loan character or corrupted character





     We might entitle this lesson “Lao Tzu is Irrational,” meaning that reason alone cannot not help us entering into the meaning of his words.  It takes something more.

     That ability to reason is certainly one of our many blessing. With it, we figure out problems, build buildings, find our way to the store, and know when to buy gas. But reason can also be a trap in that we rarely consider the limitations of our reasoning. Recall that in the first line of Lao Tzu’s very first lesson he warned us that we cannot understand what he's going to say by figuring out the meaning of his words.


     So instead, in this lesson and in other places Lao Tzu challenges us with paradoxes, which is to say that he offers us an opportunity to go where words and reasoning cannot visit. That is why our many wisdom writings are replete with paradoxical statements and puzzling questions.

“If I see you have a staff, I will give it to you.

If I see you have no staff, I will take it away from you.” Zen Koan

“There is one who makes himself rich,

yet has nothing;
And one who makes himself poor,

yet has great riches.” Proverbs 13:7


“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Matt 20:16


“A young woman is crossing the street.

       Is she the older sister or the younger sister?” Zen Koan


“Although I am everywhere, I am not

part of this this cosmic manifestation.”  Bhagavad Gita 9:5


“Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it;

 and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.” Luke 17:33.


      In the face of such statements, reason whispers in our ear, There must be some hidden meaning here--perhaps some subtle play on words or some obscure historical or social component that I'm missing--and I'm darn well going to figure it out. 

      Our reasonings work well within reason's domain.  But statements such as the above halt our reasonings all together.  Paradoxes lead us into a kind of cul-de-sac in which reason does not apply.  We're stuck.  And that's the point.  We have to look elsewhere if we are to understand.


Click on each line number

 for Chinese-English interlinear

& commentary


The greatest achievement

seems lacking, and yet

its usefulness will never end.










Great fullness

seems empty,

and yet use it,

and never run out.






Getting or losing--

which do you think 

is worse?




The greatest mastery

seems inept.


The greatest surplus

seems wanting.




Just as activity

overcomes heat

and quiet

overcomes cold,

so too

with purity and serenity

become an exemplar

to the world.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​.  .  .  .  .  .




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