The Rule of the Sages: They 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”

(Taoteching, verse 12, translation by Red Pine)

RED PINE begins by explaining, “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 requires effort to obtain. When we are not content with our lot and allow ourselves to be ruled by conceit, we turn our backs 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.”

I don’t think I can over-stress the importance of today’s verse in explaining how sages practice the Way. Instead of me going back over each of the sages’ commentaries, I would simply recommend that you go back and reread through them, again and again, until you get what they are saying.

I am not just living my life casually. I am serious about wanting to cultivate my mind and body, and deliberate in my practice of Taoism. I hope my readers will be serious and deliberate with this practice, too.

I do want to add the importance of self-regulation here. It is easy for those who want to control others to try to regulate others by imposing certain rules on how others may choose to live their own lives. History is replete with examples of these attempts at outward control.

But that, of course, is the antithesis of what Lao-tzu is teaching. I think that is one of the reasons Lao-tzu writes so much about the art of governing; and, it always boils down to “Don’t try to control, let others be.”

However, Lao-tzu also explains that when we don’t control ourselves internally, we invite external control from others.

Still, it isn’t just avoidance of external control which should be our motive. As Te-ching says, when we give our senses free rein, when we give our mind free rein, when our actions have free rein, we aren’t dwelling in reality, and suffer from delusions. How do sages overcome delusions and dwell in reality? By understanding, as Li Yueh points out, ‘The eyes are never satisfied. The stomach knows when it is full.” My mother always warned me, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” She was always telling me, “Don’t put too much food on your plate.”

My mother also insisted I eat everything I put on my plate, for there were starving people all over the world (she was particularly fixated on starving people in China for some reason); and somehow, by not leaving food on my plate which would invariably end up being trashed, I could somehow help them? Yeah, I never understood that one. But, the adage that my stomach could be trusted to know when to stop, if only I would let it, stuck with me. That, I am certain is Lao-tzu’s point, here. Don’t let your eyes mislead you.

Yet, as Wu Ch’eng tells us, our eyes can’t avoid seeing, nor our ears hearing, nor our mouth tasting, nor our mind thinking, nor our body acting. Sages understand this. But while we can’t stay still, we can move in such a way we never leave stillness behind. This requires practice to master. So, don’t beat yourself up because you aren’t perfect at it.

Just remember, in choosing “this” over “that” we are choosing what is best, what is real. That is what leads to true contentment. And, that is the whole point of the practice of the Way.

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