Our Problem Is Knowing and Wanting

“Bestowing no honors
keeps people from fighting
prizing no treasures
keeps people from stealing
displaying no attractions
keeps people from making trouble
thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the stomach
weakens the will
but strengthens the bones
by keeping the people from knowing or wanting
and those who know from daring to act
the sage governs them all”

(Taoteching, verse 3, translation by Red Pine)

SU CH’E says, “Bestowing honors embarrasses those who don’t receive them to the point where they fight for them. Prizing treasures pains those who don’t possess them to the point where they steal them. Displaying attractions distresses those who don’t enjoy them to the point where they cause trouble. If people aren’t shown these things, they won’t know what to want and will cease wanting.”

WANG CHEN says, “Sages empty the mind of reasoning and delusion, they fill the stomach with loyalty and honesty, they weaken the will with humility and compliance, and they strengthen the bones with what people already have within themselves.”

WANG PI says, “Bones don’t know how to make trouble. It’s the will that creates disorder. When the mind is empty, the will is weak.”

WANG P’ANG says, “An empty mind means no distinctions. A full stomach means no desires. A weak will means no external plans. Strong bones mean standing on one’s own and remaining unmoved by outside forces. By bestowing no honors, sags keep people from knowing. Prizing no treasures, they keep people from wanting.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “The mind knows and chooses, while the stomach doesn’t know but simply contains. The will wants and moves, while bones don’t want but simply stand there. Sages empty what knows and fill what doesn’t know. They weaken what wants and strengthen what doesn’t want.”

YEN TSUN says, “They empty their mind and calm their breath. They concentrate their essence and strengthen their spirit.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Sages purify their ears and eyes, put an end to dissipation and selfishness, embrace the one, and empty their mind. An empty mind forms the basis for transmuting cinnabar by enabling us to use our yang breath to transform our yin essence. A full stomach represents our final form, in which our yang breath gradually and completely replaces our yin essence.”

WEI YUAN says, “The reason the world is in disorder is because of action. Action comes from desire. And desire comes from knowledge. Sages don’t talk about things that can be known or display things that can be desired. This is how they bring order to the world.”

LIU CHING says, “This verse describes how sages cultivate themselves in order to transform others.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu begins to explain how the sage (someone in harmony with the Tao) governs others. Lao-tzu’s teaching on the art of governing in harmony with the Tao is what attracted me to philosophical Taoism in the first place. So, this first mention, in the Taoteching, is of great importance in understanding it.

I want to be careful, here, though. I want to limit my commentary, as much as possible, to just what Lao-tzu says in this verse. Still, I do want to make clear from the start what makes a sage a sage, and what does it mean to govern in harmony with the Tao.

Since a sage is someone in harmony with the Tao, what exactly does that mean? What it has come to mean to me is a realization. It may be sudden, or something that occurs over a long time; but it is spontaneous and intuitive, regardless of what the time frame is. This realization is an understanding of the natural laws which govern our universe, and each of our roles as an individual human being in the grand scheme of things. You learn, first, that there is a flow to things, and then, you learn how to go with that flow. The sage realizes that everything external is subject to change, and doesn’t form any attachments to them. Instead, the sage cultivates their interior life. That which is intuitively and spontaneously in tune with the Tao.

The sage recognizes our problem, because the sage has the very same problem. It is knowing and wanting. The difference, for the sage, is that they overcome this problem by emptying their own mind of knowing, and weakening their own will of wanting. I don’t know what I think I know. Thinking I know gets me into all sorts of trouble. That, and wanting things that are external, and pretty much out of my reach, anyway.

How the sage overcomes this problem of knowing and wanting is important, because it informs how they govern others. Others with the very same problem. The sage does this, not by lording it over others. Not by intervening, interfering, or trying to control. Not by using force. The sage acts without acting. They lead by example.

Knowing people will fight for honors, sages bestow no honors. Knowing people will steal treasures that are prized, sages prize no treasures. Knowing people make trouble over the display of attractions they can’t themselves enjoy, sages display no attractions.

Wei Yuan says it so well. “The reason the world is in disorder is because of action. Action comes from desire. And desire comes from knowledge. Sages don’t talk about things that can be known or display things that can be desired. This is how they bring order to the world.” And, Liu Ching adds, “This verse describes how sages cultivate themselves in order to transform others.”

That has me wishing, “If only… if only our rulers went at things in this way, from the inside out, instead of the outside in.” Our rulers always resort to force, to trying to control; they intervene, they interfere. They try to bring order to the seeming chaos by “making it so.” But, what if… what if, instead, of focusing on others, they cultivated their own selves? What if they were a light, a shining example, instead of adding to the darkness?

Keeping the people from knowing or wanting, and those who know from daring to act, is how the sage governs. But the sage does it so subtly. Working with and through the Tao. It is a good first lesson in the art of governing in harmony with the Tao.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

WANG CHEN (FL. 809). T’ang dynasty general and student of the Taoteching. His commentary, which he personally presented to Emperor Hsiuan Tsung, remains unique for its display of pacifist sympathies by a military official. Tao-te-ching lun-ping yao-yi-shu.

WANG P’ANG (1044-1076). Brilliant scholar, writer, and son of Wang An-shih. His commentary, written in 1070, was “lost” until Yen Ling-feng reedited it from various sources. Lao-tzu-chu.

LU NUNG-SHIH ((1042-1102). High official and scholar known for knowledge of ritual. His commentary makes extensive use of quotes from the Liehtzu and Chuangtzu. Lao-tzu-chu.

YEN TSUN (FL. 53-24 B.C.). Urban recluse of Chengtu. He supported himself as a fortune-teller and spent his remaining time reading and pondering the Taoteching. The lengthy commentaries that he produced are sometimes quite profound but more often obscure, and those that survive are incomplete. He divides the text into seventy-two verse. Tao-te-ching chih-kuei.

HUANG YUAN-CHI (FL. 1820-1874). Taoist master famous for his sermons and oral expositions of Taoist texts. His commentary, which he dictated to a disciple, focuses on internal yoga as well as on points in common between the teachings of Lao-tzu and Confucius. Tao-te-ching ching-yi.

WEI YUAN (1794-1856). Classicist, historian, geographer, and admired administrator. While his own views are insightful, his commentary consists largely in selections from Chiao Hung’s earlier edition. Lao-tzu pen-yi.

LIU CHING (FL. 1074). Recognized for his literary talent by Wang An-shih, he was given several minor posts but failed to advance due to his fondness for argument. Lao-tzu-chu.

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