Pick This Over That

“The five colors make our eyes blind
the five tones make our ears deaf
the five flavors make our mouths numb
riding and hunting make our minds wild
hard-to-get goods make us commit crimes
thus the rule of the sages
favors the stomach over the eyes
thus they pick this over that”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 12, translation by Red Pine)

RED PINE explains the significance of the number five in today’s verse: “The early Chinese liked to divide everything into five basic states of existence. They distinguished things as made up of varying amounts of water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. And each of these came with its corresponding color: blue, red, black, white, and yellow; its corresponding flavor: salty, bitter, sour, pungent, and sweet; and its corresponding tone: la, sol, mi, re, and do.”

YEN TSUN says, “Color is like an awl in the eye. Sound is like a stick in the ear. Flavor is like an ax through the tongue.”

TE CH’ING says, “When the eyes are given free rein in the realm of form, they no longer see what is real. When the ears are given free rein in the realm of sound, they no longer hear what is real. When the tongue is given free rein in the realm of flavor, it no longer tastes what is real. When the mind is given free rein in the realm of thought, it no longer knows what is real. When our actions are given free rein in the realm of possession and profit, we no longer do what is right. Like Chuang-tzu’s tapir [Chuangtzu: 1.4], sages drink from the river, but only enough to fill their stomachs.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Desiring external things harms our bodies. Sages nourish their breath by filling their stomach, not by chasing material objects to please their eyes. Hence, they choose internal reality over external illusion. But the eyes can’t help seeing, and the ears can’t help hearing, and the mouth can’t help tasting, and the mind can’t help thinking, and the body can’t help acting. They can’t stay still. But if we let them move without leaving stillness behind, nothing can harm us. Those who are buried by the dust of the senses or who crave sensory stimulation lose their way. And the main villain in this is the eyes. Thus, the first of Confucius’ four warnings concerned vision [Lunyu: 12.1: not to look except with propriety], and the first of the Buddha’s six sources of delusion was also the eyes.”

LI YUEH says, “The eyes are never satisfied. The stomach knows when it is full.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The main purpose of cultivation is to oppose the world of the senses. What the world loves, the Taoist hates. What the world wants, the Taoist rejects. Even though color, sound, material goods, wealth, and beauty might benefit a person’s body, in the end they harm a person’s mind. And once the mind wants, the body suffers. If we can ignore external temptations and be satisfied with the way we are, if we can cultivate our mind and not chase material things, this is the way of long life. All the treasures of the world are no match for this.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “‘Hard-to-get goods’ refer to things that we don’t possess by nature but that require effort to obtain. When we are not content with our lot and allow ourselves to be ruled by conceit, we turn our back on Heaven and lose the Way.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “‘That’ refers to the blindness and delusion of the eyes. ‘This’ refers to the fullness and wisdom of the stomach.”

And RED PINE adds, “‘This’ also refers to what is within easy reach, while ‘that’ refers to what can be obtained only with effort. Until as late as the early twentieth century, vast tracts of land in northern China were set aside for the exclusive use of the nobility and the military for conducting group hunts to practice their riding and archery.”

“Pick this over that.” This rule of the sages is not a rule they imposed upon others, but upon themselves. But, if others would follow their example, how happy we all would be.

It is time to take back ownership of your self. You can’t be content, until you choose to be content. The external forces arrayed against you are great. But you, and you alone, have the power within you to not allow your self to be swayed by the external illusion. Our stomachs tell us when they are full. We ignore that at our own peril.

A week ago, I got an anonymous message from someone who wanted to know more about the practice of Taoism, but having no Taoist temples to inquire within. I wish I had had this chapter handy to answer this person. For, this is the essence of the practice of Taoism. Practice this, and your own body will be your temple.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *