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”

-Lao-tzu-
(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, sages 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.”

I think this is a good time to point out a distinction Lao-tzu will be making throughout the Taoteching. The difference between “the Way of Heaven” (the Tao, the Way of Nature) and the “Way of Humankind.” Humankind are different from all other beings in the Universe. Humankind, unlike all other beings in the Universe (as far as we know), have the capacity to act contrary to the Way of Nature. This makes us unique. But, it also causes us certain problems.

Lao-tzu identifies a two-fold problem with humankind; knowing and wanting.

What is the problem with knowing? Notice, first of all, the problem isn’t with knowledge, per se. It is with knowing, or more precisely, thinking we know, or presuming.

And what is the problem with wanting? The problem is we aren’t satisfied with what we already have. We aren’t content. We want more. But the more we get, the more we want.

This two-fold problem, knowing and wanting, is the big problem Lao-tzu addresses with the Taoteching. And, today’s verse is his introduction to the two-fold solution to the problem.

The problem is subjectivity. As he talked about in yesterday’s verse. But how do we avoid subjectivity?

If you don’t bestow any honors, people won’t fight for them. If you don’t prize treasures, people won’t steal. If you don’t display attractions, people won’t make trouble.

This is how sages rule, or govern.

They empty the mind, but fill the stomach. They weaken the will, but strengthen the bones. In other words, they don’t fill the minds of the people with things to know and want.

Filled stomachs know no want. We all know what this is like. That feeling of satisfaction you have after you have just eaten a good meal. You are full. And you don’t want another bite.

This is the way to govern. Not just others, but yourself. If you know you don’t know, and are content so you don’t want, you won’t dare to act.

Daring to act is the consequence of knowing and wanting. As Wei Yuan says in his commentary on today’s verse: “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.”

It is important to point out that this rule of sages is not something which is forced on people. Force may be the Way of Humankind, but it isn’t the Way of Nature. Thus, it isn’t the Way of sages. As Liu Ching says in his commentary on today’s verse: “This verse describes how sages cultivate themselves in order to transform others.”

Sages are content to be an example for people. They are an example; and, they never force people to follow their example. Yet, because it is the Way of Nature, and the Way of Nature always prevails, the people naturally follow.

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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