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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 scribal error, loan character or corrupted character




The 3rd Way

of Knowing

       Lao Tzu opens this short lesson with another breathtaking statement.

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 us 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 are better able to ask how it might be so.

     Lao Tzu uses the character 知zhī “know,” “knowledge,” or "Understanding," over 60 times in his 81 lessons. In a few places he refers to the kind of handy 知zhī “knowledge” that we acquire through our daily experiences and reasonings.* In other places he uses 知zhī “knowing” in a derogatory sense, as synonymous with a person who is clever, cunning, and manipulative.**

      There is also a third type of 知zhī  knowing. This is to 知zhī know the 恆hèng “timeless,” or "abiding."

    The 知zhī knowing of what is timeless or abiding is not discoverable through our senses or our reason. Nor is it the knowing of some fact, whether spiritual, physical, or psychological.  Facts can be shared. But to expect someone to reveal timeless "knowing" to you would be like asking asking a musician to tell you how to play the violin. It can't be done.

     Timeless 知zhī knowing is a realization.  It is the realization that what we accept as a separate person who is "having" experiences, is no more (or less) than those experiences themselves. That is to say, what I take to be my "me" are the experiences that I undergo. : Hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling, and so on, as well as our consciousness through which we interpret these sensations. The biggest question of all is: Who are we minus these sensations?  

     Our consciousness interprets these sensation as belonging to the person in the mirror--my "me."  But try to find this person minus the flow of sensations. We can't.  Put differently, were I to look up at a rainbow, I would see the colors, the blue-sky background, and perhaps the landscape too out of my peripheral vision. To "know the whole world," as Lao Tzu puts it, is to recognize that 1) what my "me" calls the experience of the rainbow and 2) my experience of seeing the rainbow, is a single experience. What we take to be two is actually one. And, to take it a step further, who am I at that moment but the experiencer of the rainbow.  In fact, who am I other than the stream of sensations and thoughts that go with me throughout my day?  

     This is not to say that there is nothing unique about my existence; the Way, after all, has brought forth each existence as unprecedented, including my own.  It is only to say that I can either go about my day, every day, concerned for, and identifying with my "me" in the mirror, or I can go about my day, every day, identifying with the world that I am presently experiencing. 

      This 知zhī knowing, or realization, of which Lao Tzu refers, relates directly to what he elsewhere says is a 知zhī knowing of one’s own 自zì 然rán “self-so-ness.” Our 自zì 然rán is always here with us, or better yet, here as us—utterly present, closer to us than even our own breathing. That's why we can't see it, feel it, or taste it. In fact, it is this self-so-ness, rather than "me" that I see in the mirror, which is experiencing the world around me including the "me" in the mirror.  


     To "know the whole world" is to experience the world directly, that stream of events that I come upon them throughout my day. There is no buffer here. There is no intrusion by my "me" with all its read-made notions, beliefs and sentiments. Our own self-so-ness is our touchstone with the timeless Way. And through it, we discover the self-so-ness of all other things.


** In Lesson 2, for example, Lao Tzu refers to  知zhī knowing what is attractive to us, and unattractive; and what is good and not good.

** In Lesson 10 he asks us, “With all your insight into the world, can you keep from becoming 知zhī clever?” And, in Lesson 18 he warns us, “When  知zhī clever and quick-wittedness appear, then there is deceit.” In Lesson 65 he counsels the ruler that one who, “…uses 知zhī cunning to govern the state, is a thief to the state; but that by not using 知zhī cunning, the ruler is a benefactor of the state.”

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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