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Lao Tzu for Everyone

Students, Scholars

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph.D.



the Way

            第 四 十

Line 1  不出於戶以知天下

Line 2  規(窺)於牖以知天道




Line 3  亓出也彌遠亓知彌少

Line 4  是以聖人不行而知




likely a scribal error, loan character or corrupted character




'Knowing' the

Whole World


       Lao Tzu opens this short lesson with another breathtaking announcement.

Without going out the door

you can 知zhī know the whole world.


This could be yet another of Lao Tzu's seemingly preposterous statements, such as when he told us to “give up learning,” to  “curl and be straight,” and that the sage acts by “not doing.” But at least for now, let's accept as a hypothesis that we can “知zhī know the whole world” and that Lao Tzu is inviting us to become acquainted with this special kind of knowledge. Then we can better ask how it might be so.

     Throughout his lessons, Lao Tzu has been making the distinction between action resulting from relative knowledge (according to the dualities of good-bad, win-lose, beauty-ugly, etc.) and knowledge that is nonrelative, and from which spontaneous action may spring.

     For example, in Lesson 2 he says:


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 in Lesson 2 he continues with our commonplace dualities: 

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?

     A key here is this last line which is actually his specific encouragement to us, and for that reason worth repeating:

Think about it!

When would this

ever stop! 

Of course it won't stop, at least not until we gaze behind the seeming dualities and consider that each actually comprises a whole, and that our acquired preferences for one side over the other are choices we have made--wise or not, but always what seems "right" or "best."

     The most daunting duality of all is the sensation we experience of what is "me" and what is "not-me." This distinction is borne of the gift of human consciousness which can only perceived in dualities: there is always a 1) me--the person who is right here thinking, sensing and perceiving, and 2) a not-me, which includes all the things "out there"--trees and boats and TVs and porcupines. To best of our knowledge, the rest of the natural world seems not to have this same acute sense of self.


     It is also because of the gift of consciousness that we are able to reflect upon our past and plan for the future. In short, we can, in a manner of speaking, stand outside ourselves and reflect upon our "me" as if it were an object to ourselves.  Though this certainly has its benefits, it comes with a potential problem. While we are readily aware that the reflection in the mirror is not the authentic "me," we forget that the reflection in our head is not a authentic "me" either.

      Like the "me" in the mirror," any conscious thoughts I have about my "me" can only provide me with a copy, a kind of second-hand self, and not a direct and spontaneous sense of self.  This direct and spontaneous sense of self, our profound self, is what Lao Tzu elsewhere calls 自zì 然rán, or my “self-so-ness.”  


     That our "me" does not exist outside our own minds does not prevent us from making it the central concern of our lives. It is our mental "me" that is caught in the dualities--worrying about how it is perceived by others, feeling vulnerable, bashful, and sometimes feeling insulted, embarrassed or afraid; or on the flip side, my "me" can a be confident, secure, proud of itself, even delighted, and courageous. Regardless, this is still not my actual living, breathing, sentient self, my 自zì 然rán or “self-so-ness,” which has none of these problems or successes.


     But it is my "me" seems to reign over my day, seeking all kinds of satisfaction and approval for itself while evading afflictions and sorrows.  That is why Lao Tzu tells us, in Lesson 13:


Why do I say,

"I regard honor and

great suffering

as my 'me?'"

 Because the reason I have

 great suffering in the first place

is because I have a "me."

  If I didn't have a "me,"

  then how could I suffer.

     Now to Lao Tzu's point, that we can "知zhī know the whole world."  While consciousness is an essential human quality, in consciousness there seems always to be a boundary between my "me" and that which I am perceiving. When I look up at the sky, for example, and see a rainbow, I see the spectrum of colors along with the blue-sky background. As I then reflect on my experience, these colors appear to be "out there" at some distance with my "me" down here as a lone experiencer of it all.

      But if I search my head for an actual "me" who is experiencing the rainbow, I will come up empty. The fact is that there is only "one"--the direct and spontaneous experiencing of the rainbow by our 自zì 然rán or self-so-ness. So, yes, there is a 自zì "self," a special and individual way, but it is not bounded by a string of dualities. There is no "me" at all who is experiencing the rainbow, at least not until a split-second afterward when I then reflect upon the experience of the rainbow. Once there is a "me," I may find myself considering how lovely the colors are, how I can't wait to tell others about it, how I wish I had brought my my camera, how I hope to see many more rainbows; or perhaps I find myself comparing this particular rainbow to other rainbows I've seen to determine how it measures up.  A direct and spontaneous experience of the rainbow is gone, replaced by the boundary of what is "me" and "not me," which appears to be an inescapable dualism.

Without going out the door

you can 知zhī know the whole world.

     This special kind of 知zhī  knowing to which Lao Tzu refers is not dualistic.  It is a the knowing of the world in unmediated 自zì 然rán or self-so-ness. There is still the world, of course, but now it is minus my worrying or confident "me."  Of course I still know that I exist.  My conventional knowledge doesn't disappear.  "Minus my me" means only that my "me" has stepped off center stage. That's all. In this unmediated 知zhī knowing there are indeed two, but these two are one; or better yet, they are not-two.

     To "知zhī know the whole world" is to experience the world directly, that parade of events that come upon us throughout our day. But now it is without a buffer. Now there is no intrusion by my "me" with its acquired preferences--all those ready-made notions, beliefs and sentiments that Lao Tzu encourages us to jettison with his words, "Give up learning, and put an end to your woes."*  Our own self-so-ness, is our own authentic way; and as such it is our touchstone with the timeless Way. And through it our direct encounter with all other things.  


*See Lesson 20

Click on each line number

 for Chinese-English interlinear

& commentary


Without going

out the door,

you can know

the whole world.


Without even looking

out the window

you can know

heaven's Way.






The farther you go

the less you know.




That's how the sage

knows without

travelling about;

names things

without seeing them;

and completes his or her

work without

doing anything at all.

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




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