Chinese Philosophy: The Bamboo Laozi of Guodian

In 1993, 31 of the 81 chapters of Laozi’s Daodejing on bamboo were dug up in a tomb near Guodian village in China, the earliest verses of Daoism found yet.  We do not know which unit or bundle came in which order, but they seem grouped by theme. Bundle A seems to have units on the cosmos, state and self, while bundle B seems to be about the self and bundle C is about the state,with a cosmology at the end known as The Great One Gave Birth To Water.  The following is my version of many others’ English translations, with simplified language.

The Bamboo Laozi: An Early Daodejing

The Cosmos

Form was born from chaos before everything else.

Silent and still, it stands alone unchanging, it acts as mother to all.

We don’t know it’s name but call it the way, and if we must, we call it wide.

We can say wide goes beyond, beyond goes far, and far circles back.

Sky is wide, earth is wide, way is wide, and we are wide.

There are four wide things here, and we’re one of them.

We follow the earth, which follows the sky, which follows the way.

The way follows what simply is. (25)


The space between sky and earth seems like fuel for fire.

It’s empty but doesn’t collapse.

The more it moves the more it gets going. (5B)

Try to be almost empty and keep quiet care.

Ten thousand things stir and we watch them return.

They each flower but all return to the root. (16A)


Self Cultivation

True power is like a newborn baby.

Bugs don’t sting them, beasts don’t bite them, and birds don’t strike them.

Their bones are weak, their muscles are soft, but their grip is strong.

They don’t know about sex but are always excited, with more energy than anyone.

They scream all day and keep their voice, and are most in harmony with everyone.

We know harmony as stability, and stability as brilliant.

Trying for the good life tempts fate.

The mind can’t control without violence.

The strong get old, which is not the way, but an early end. (55)

Which is loved more, a famous name or a healthy self?

Which is worth more, yourself or your wealth?

Which is worse, win or lose?

Much sought means great cost and much saved means great loss.

Know what’s enough and know no shame.

Know when to stop, and know no harm.

That’s the way to last. (44)


Circling is the way ways move.

Bending is the way ways work.

All things are born from being.

Being is born from nothing. (40)


Trying to be full can’t ever be finished.

Trying to sharpen loses the edge.

You can’t guard a room full of gold and jade.

Take pride in wealth and rank and hand yourself your trial.

The way of all ways is do good work and then leave. (9)


The State

Forget knowledge, reject wisdom, and people gain a hundred times.

Forget care, reject profit, and robbers and thieves are taken away.

Forget dignity and reject justice, and people feel for others again.

These three are tangled, each itself not enough but share the same root.

See plainly and embrace simply.

Forget yourself and want little. (19)


Oceans and rivers rule small valley streams because they swim below them.

The wise lead in front by putting themselves last.

They’re above others but speak lowly of themselves.

They’re on top but others don’t feel weighed down.

They’re in front of others but no one feels threatened.

Everyone in the world is happy to support them without getting tired of it.

Because they don’t compete, no one can compete with them. (66)


There is no disaster worse than wanting too much.

There is no flaw that brings pain like seeking gain.

There is no mistake worse than not knowing when you have enough.

Only those who know they have enough can have enough. (46C)


Help rulers with the way by using weapons less.

Those good at doing things do things, then stop.

They do not try to force all they can out of things.

They finish things without pride, boasts or profit.

This is doing without overdoing.

This is what can be done that can’t be undone. (30)


The wise ancients were simple but strong.

They were deep but hard to see.

We can only say a bit about how they were:

Patient as if wading into a winter stream,

Careful as if threatened on all sides,

Calm as guests, giving as ice melting,

Plain as uncarved wood, and muddy as a puddle.

Who’s muddy enough to calm and clarify?

Who’s still enough to stir things up?

Live this way and don’t hunger to be full. (15)


Act on things and ruin them.

Hold on to things and lose them.

The wise don’t act and so aren’t ruined.

They don’t hold on, and so can’t lose.

If you’re as careful at the end as you are at the start,

You will be undefeatable.

The wise want to not want and don’t prize the rare.

They learn without learning and return to what most pass by.

The wise help everyone be what they are without doing anything. (64C)


The way of all things never changes or does anything.

If rulers can stay with it everything grows on its own.

If things grow and desire thrives,

I’ll cool them with unnamed simplicity.

No wants brings peace, and all things are calm. (37)


Do not-doing, try not trying, and taste the tasteless.

Treat the small like it’s big and the easy like it’s hard.

The wise see all as difficult, and have no difficulties. (63AC)


Everyone knows beauty exists because ugly does too.

Everyone knows love exists because hate does too.

Is and isn’t are born from each other.

Hard and easy finish each other.

Long and short shape each other.

Tall and short mark off each other.

Sound and music harmonize with each other.

Front and back follow each other.

The wise take care of things without caring,

Spread teachings without talking,

The wise let things happen without doing anything.

Raising but not claiming,

Working but saving nothing,

Finishing things without hanging on them.

Because the wise don’t cling to things,

No one can take anything away from them. (2)


The unnamed way goes on, simple and unsought.

Nothing exists that can control it.

If rulers could keep to it everything would obey.

Sky and earth get together and sweet dew falls.

No one calls for it, but it falls on everyone.

Order brings names, but know when to stop.

Knowing when to stop stops harm.

The way goes through things like streams to the sea. (32)


Things at rest are easy to hold.

No sign of things is easy to plan for.

The fragile is easily broken.

The small is easily scattered.

Take care of things before things happen.

Order things before chaos gets there.

A tree you can’t get your arms around began as a tiny sprout.

A tower nine stories high began as a pile of dirt.

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single footstep. (64A)


Those who know don’t speak.

Those who speak don’t know.

Close the holes, block the gates,

Soften the glare, settle the dust,

Cut the cords, and untie the knots.

This is called the deep unity.

There is no way to get with it.

There is no way to get away from it.

There is no way to help it.

There is no way to harm it.

There is no way to value it.

There is no way to debase it.

It is thus the most valuable thing there is. (56)


Use justice to order the state.

Use surprise when waging war.

Don’t get involved and rule the world.

How do I know things are this way?

More laws means more rebels.

More weapons means more disorder.

More knowledge means more unknowns.

More treasures means more thieves.

Thus the wise say:

I don’t act, and people are transformed.

I like peace, and people order themselves.

I don’t act, and people thrive on their own.

I don’t want, and people simplify themselves. (57)


B – Self Transformation

There is nothing like being cheap for ruling people and serving the cosmos.

Being cheap is called being prepared beforehand.

Being prepared is called always gaining power.

If you always gain power, you can do anything.

If you can do anything, you know no limits.

If you know no limits, you can rule the country.

If you rule the country like a mother, you can last long.

They say deep roots are solid roots.

This is the way of long life and solid seeing. (59)


Trying to study grows more each day.

Trying the way shrinks each day.

It shrinks and it shrinks until it doesn’t’ do anything. (wu wei)

It doesn’t do anything, but there isn’t anything it doesn’t do. (48A)


Forget knowing and have no problems.

How far apart do saying yes or saying no go?

How far apart do good and evil work?

The frightening must fear themselves. (20A)

Pride and shame seem scary.

See problems as part of life.

Why say pride and shame seem scary?

Pride doesn’t work well.

Getting it seems scary, and losing it seems scary.

This is why we say they seem scary.

Why say see problems as part of life?

We have problems because we have lives.

If we had no lives, what worries would we have?

Those who love life more than ruling the world

Can be trusted to rule the world. (13)


When smart students hear about the way, they start working on it.

When most students hear about the way, they seem to keep and seem to lose it.

When bad students hear about the way, they laugh at it.

If no one laughs, you’re not with the way.

They say the bright way seems dark.

The way forward seems to retreat.

Vast power seems like a low valley.

Perfect purity seems poisoned.

Great power seems to not be enough.

Steady good seems to be lazy.

The smooth way seems rough.

The perfect square has no corners.

The best cup is finished last.

The best note makes little noise.

The best image has no form.

The way is hidden and unnamed.

The way is good at feeding and gathering. (41)


Close the gates and block the gaps.

You won’t need to work for the rest of your life.

Open the gates and get involved,

And you will never see peace for the rest of your days. (52B)


Great gain doesn’t seem enough, but you can use it without harm.

Most full seems empty, but you can use it and it never runs dry.

Great skill seems clumsy.

Great gain seems like loss.

Very straight seems crooked.

Activity conquers cold.

Tranquility conquers heat.

Active and tranquil together,

You can rule the world right. (45)



The well-built can’t be lifted.

The fully embraced can’t be lost.

Your ancestors will continue to sacrifice.

Grow it in yourself and have true power.

Grow it in your family and overflow.

Grow it in your town and live long.

Grow it in your state and have plenty.

Grow it in your world and be worldwide.

Look at a family to see like a family.

Look at a village to see like a village.

Look at a state to see like a state.

Look at the world to see like the world.

How do I know how the world sees things?

Like this. (54)


C – The State

The best rulers are those nobody knows.

The next best are those we love and praise.

The next best are those we fear.

The next best are those we mock and fight.

If you don’t stand with your words,

Others don’t stand with you.

Carefully guard words like a rare treasure,

Work will work for everyone,

And everyone will say they did the work. (17)


When the way is lost, love and justice show their faces.

When the family isn’t together, loyalty and duty show their faces.

When the state is in chaos, good governors show their faces. (18)


Hold the large picture and the world will follow.

Go but don’t harm, and there’s calming peace.

Passing travelers stop for music and food.

When the way leaves the mouth it lacks flavor.

Look at it and there isn’t enough to see.

Listen to it and there isn’t enough to hear.

Use it and you can’t use it up. (35)


The wise dwell at home and depend on the left,

But when they use weapons they depend on the right,

So weapons are tools that build problems.

If you have no choice use them quietly and calmly.

Never see war as beautiful.

Those who do love taking life.

If you love taking life you can’t get what you want in the world.

In good times value the left, and in bad times value the right.

In war the second in command stands on the left.

The commander stands on the right.

They say it’s like they’re at a burial.

When many are killed go to them sadly.

When the war is won, treat it like a funeral. (31C)


Great One Gave Birth To Water (Taiyi Shangshui) Cosmology


I

The one gave birth to water.

Water returned and helped grow sky.

Sky returned and helped grow earth.

Sky and earth together grew the gods.

The gods together grew Yin and Yang.

Yin and Yang together grew the four seasons.

The four seasons grew cold and hot.

Cold and hot grew wet and dry.

Wet and dry grew the year, and things were complete.

Thus the Great One hides in water and moves with the seasons.

Completing a cycle, it starts over, the mother of all things.

First it is empty, and then it is full, the way of things.

Heaven and earth can’t kill it.

Yin and Yang can’t make it.

Below is soil we call earth.

Above is air we call sky.

We call it the way, but what is it’s name?

Those who use it use its name, and do things.

The wise do things, and use its name.
They do things and do not suffer.

With sky and earth, name and thing stand together.

Beyond this, no name will fit.


II

The Great Way values the soft.

To cut at what’s complete to add to life,

This is waging war with force.

The earth is high and firm.

The sky is low and soft.

When above is not enough,

There is much below.

When below is not enough,

There is much above.

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