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Sand Dunes

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

A Note

regarding the characters

used in this translation.

Lesson 45



 (氵=水water + 青natural colors)

clear, pure, peaceful

Line 1
Line 2



Line 1

The greatest achievement

seems lacking, and yet,

it's usefulness will never end.

大dà   成chéng  若ruò  缺quē 

 great   complete        seem       lack    


丌jī      用yòng    不bù    幣bì      (敝bì)

 (pron.)   use       not    currency/present   wear out

   Greatest completions

seems lacking,

its use cannot be exhausted.

     Reason has a boundary beyond which it cannot go.  Nevertheless, reason is vain. It has solved so many of our problems and advanced so many lives and even whole civilizations that it may be shocked to learn that it is limited. It is certainly a shock to consider that no great work of art was ever brought into existence by reason; and that no great insight was a result of meticulous reasoning.


. . . . . .

Line 3

Line 2

Great fullness

seems empty,

and yet use it,

 and never run out.

​​​​ 大dà  盈yíng  若ruò  (𥁵) 沖chōng

 great     full             seem        empty     empty

丌jī    用yòng  不bù   ?𡩫    窮qióng

   (pron.)        use              not           ?      poor/destitute

Great fullness seems empty.

Its use, you will never be poor.

      In our frustration over a paradox, we might finally, and humbly, pause our reason, and leave a space for something else to arrive. What is this “something else”?


      . . . . . .


Line 3

Great straightness

seems to be bent.

  大dà     直zhí    如rú     詘qī

 eat       straight     like     bend/crouch

Great straightness

seems bent.


   In other lessons Lao Tzu uses the characters  自zì  然rán**, literally "self-thus, or “self-so-ness,” to describe a profound internal awareness, an understanding that is not born of reason. An insight is, quite literally, an “inner-sight.” Perhaps this is best expressed in the wisdom writing known as the Diamond Sutra: “Out of nowhere the mind comes forth.”**



*See also Lessons 17, 23, 25, 51, and 64, and the related uses of the character  自zì, “self” in Lessons 33, 38, and 57. 

** The Diamond Sutra is of East Indian origin, and dates from somewhere between the 2nd and 5th centuries. Originally in Sanskrit, and later translated into Chinese, it proports to be a dialogue between the Buddha and a seeker of wisdom. The insights of Buddhism and Taoism later came to be realized in what we know in the West as Zen Buddhism.


. . . . . 


Line 4
Line 5

Line 4

The greatest mastery

seems inept.

      大dà  巧qiǎo 如rú  拙zhuō 

   great   skill        seem/like   clumsy  

Great skill is

like clumsiness

     In frustration over a paradox we may quickly skip over it and move on to the next line or lesson.  We may dismiss Lao Tzu's words as simply absurd or, perhaps less kindly, we may announce to ourselves that he is off his rocker.   

​​​​. . . . . .


Line 6

Line 5

The greatest surplus

seems lacking.

大dà   贏yíng    如rú  絀chù

            great      overflow/exceed    seem/like  stitch/insufficient   

Great overflowing

seems wanting.

      To dismiss Lao Tzu's words as nonsensical would be to invert the student-teacher relationship, making us now the teacher of Lao Tzu rather than a student who has come to learn from him. It would be to presume that we are better positioned to evaluate his lesson than he is. It would be to invoke reason rather than wait for an insight. It would be to not heed the final line of this lesson.


Note: For this line, the Wang Bi edition reads: 

  大dà  辯 biàn   若 ruò  訥 né  

 great  discuss     like  stammer 

​​​​. . . . . .


Line 6

Just as activity

overcomes cold

and quiet

overcomes heat,

so too,

with purity and serenity

become an exemplar

to the world. 

趮zào  勝shèng 寒hán 靚liàng  勝shèng 炅jiǒng

move      victory            cold   quiet/ornament     victory     radiant


請qǐng  (清qīng)   靚liàng 

     ask       clear/pure  quiet/pretty    

 可kě  以yǐ   爲wéi   天tiān  下xià   正zhēng 

     able    use       become    heaven    under   upright/proper

Moving is victorious over cold.

     Quiet is victorious over radiance.

Clear and quiet, be able

    to be the world’s upstanding.

     ​​​​. . . . . .


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